Teachers' Use of English in Communicative German Language Classrooms: A Qualitative Analysis

Article excerpt


The use of English by foreign language teachers is a matter of much controversy. Whereas language switching by English-speaking foreign language teachers has been the focus of previous research, relatively little is known about the amount of teachers' language use in the classroom when comparing native speakers of the foreign language with nonnative speakers. This qualitative study examined the amount and the purpose of English used by five teaching assistants (TAs) (three native speakers of English, one native speaker of German, and one whose first language was neither English nor German) in beginning German language classrooms. Results of the study indicate eight common functions for the use of English and also show that previous language teaching experience as well as a background in relevant teacher training coursework reduced the amount of English used.

Key words: CLT (communicative language teaching), GFL (German as a foreign language), language switching, teacher talk, teaching assistants

Languages: English, German


There are many different reasons why foreign language teachers switch between the target language and English in beginning-level foreign language classrooms at American universities. The exclusive use of the target language in foreign language classrooms has been advocated ever since the 19th century (Richards & Rodgers, 2001). Today it is widely accepted that students should be exposed to as much authentic language input as possible (Ellis, 1984; Omaggio Hadley, 2001; Polio, 1996; Zephir & Chirol, 1993). However, in order for second language acquisition (SLA) to occur, this input has to be what Krashen defined as comprehensible (Krashen, 1985). "Comprehensible input refers to utterances that the learner understands based on the context in which they are used as well as the language in which they are phrased." (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 182). Thus, one way in which input can be made comprehensible is by modifying and enhancing the language by means of repetition, paraphrasing, or highlighting certain features (Duff & Polio, 1990; Richards & Rodgers, 2001). Another way to ensure students' comprehension of foreign language input is by using the students' first language (L1) even though it is contrary to accepted theory.

Previous studies on foreign language teacher talk have distinguished several factors that influence teachers to switch from the foreign language to the students' L1. Among others, they identified certain functions such as grammar explanation and classroom management (Duff & Polio, 1990; Morris, 1999, 2001), teaching culture (Morris, 1999), using isolated words related to the academic context, reacting to students' use of English (Polio & Duff, 1994), time constraints, and lack of pre-professional preparation (Morris, 1999, 2001). All of these studies focused on universitylevel foreign language classes in the United States. However, none of them specifically compared teachers with different L1s. Gutherie's study (1987) on French showed that teachers' use of the target language ranged between 59 to 98% with a median of 87%.1 The range of the 1990 Duff and Polio study was even more widespread with a use of the target language ranging from 10% up to 100% with a median of 79%.2 This study compared 13 university teachers of various languages; all teachers were native speakers of the foreign language. An interesting finding of this study was that there was no relationship between the years of foreign language teaching experience and first or second language usage. Apart from the aforementioned reasons for switching to English in the classroom, Duff and Polio found the high percentage of target language to be due to strict departmental policies, and the low percentage to be due to teachers being focused on grammar and concerned about their students' progress. In general, the teachers' perceived goal was to prepare the students to pass exams in a very limited time. …


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