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Target Language Use in the Second Language Classroom

Dr. B. Says

There is no doubt that learners cannot learn the four skills in a new language without hearing it and having opportunities to speak it.  In a classroom context the main provider of the Target Language (TL) is the teacher.  The teacher must consciously be aware of when he or she is using the TL and when not AND why. If we look at Jin for example, we see that he has noticed his mentor teacher's use of the target language. In his pedagogy courses Jin has learned about the benefits of using the target language but like many beginning SL teachers, he may have some anxieties about using it himself. Jin may be wondering how easy it is to use the target language in the classroom and what obstacles he may face in using it consistently. In this section we will examine these questions and more in order to better understand the benefits and challenges of using the TL in the classroom.

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Jin's case study
Marguerite's case study

Some questions

Why is it important to use the Target Language (TL) in the language classroom?

Many language teachers, especially those who are just beginning their career, express anxieties about using the target language in the classroom.   Often, teachers find it difficult to strike a balance between using local language (or language used at home) and the TL in the classroom.   Although using the TL can cause some stress, it is very important to do so for the process of language learning.  

Firstly, the use of the TL in the classroom greatly increases the students' exposure to the target language. This is very important, especially in foreign language classrooms where the TL is not heard outside of the classroom context.  The goal is to make the context as close to a second language context (where the TL would be heard outside of the classroom) as possible in order to give students maximum exposure to the language.

Secondly, by using the TL in the classroom, students are receiving more comprehensible input (Krashen) thus leading to more complex language structures.  By using the TL, students are not only learning ‘about’ the language but also learning ‘through’ the language.   Certain classroom commands or common expressions can be acquired through routine use.

Lastly, using the TL in the classroom can provide a source of modeling for the students both in regards to the production of the language and the attitude toward the language.   If the teacher is able to show proper use of the language daily, students can use that teacher as an example or model for production.  In addition, if the teacher treats the language as more than just a subject for study but shows the value of the language by using it, students will be more likely to gain a better appreciation for the language.

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What does the research say?

There has been little dispute in the research about the importance of using the TL in the language classroom.  In his article Using the target language: A view from the classroom Peter Dickson states that using the  "target language promotes natural acquisition and that use of the mother tongue (L1) undermines this process by diverting attention from the object of pupils’ learning” (Dickson, p.1).  This relates directly to the work of Stephen Krashen who proposes the importance of both acquisition and comprehensible input in language learning. 

To take a closer look at Dickson's research, click here.

What do teachers say?

Target Language use will vary depending on the stage of the teacher's evolution. Every teacher will use a different amount of the target language for different reasons. What is important however, is recognizing WHY one is or is not using the target language and deciding if that reason is appropriate given where you are at in your own evolution, and in terms of the students needs.

Let's take a look at what teachers in different stages of their careers say about using the target language. How can we relate the experiences of these teachers to Perturbation?

Teacher Program Graduate



First Year Teacher



Experienced Teacher



What are the benefits and challenges of using the TL?



A foreign atmosphere in the classroom can be sustained. Students can be resistant to using the TL. Using the target language can cause Perturbation.
Learners may – albeit subconsciously – develop strategic and discourse competence by hearing how communication is sustained in real contexts. Some aspects of classroom life (i.e. management) need to be explicit and can therefore be difficult to express in the TL.
The TL improves students confidence with comprehension. Using the TL takes more time and energy.
The TL helps to demonstrate a positive attitude towards the language being learned. Using the TL consistently requires advanced knowledge of the language.
Using the TL lowers the risk factor for student use (affective filter) in new contexts. Using the TL may pose difficulties in developing student relationships.
The subject matter is placed squarely and regularly at the centre of the learners’ attention. Using the TL can be alienating- may make it harder to use humour.
Opportunities are made to create genuine communication with a proficient speaker of the language It is often difficult to explain abstract concepts (i.e. grammar) in the TL.
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What are some strategies for using the TL successfully in my classroom?

Watch the video to see two language teachers in action. What strategies are these teachers using to increase exposure to the TL and avoid using the L1? click image to begin playback


What strategies can be used to increase TL use?

  1. Develop a routine.  From the very beginning of the year develop student and teacher expectations in regards to basic classroom commands and expressions.  Teach basic phrases and classroom instructions in order to provide your students with some basic tools for communication.
  2. Provide supports.  Use effective supports for communication, such as language ladders or picture prompts, in order to give your students the support they need to use the language daily.
  3. Incorporate the TL in daily routines.  Use activities such as taking attendance or collecting homework as an opportunity to use the language.  For instance, when taking attendance, get students to respond to a question in order to show their presence.  
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Don’t be hesitant to ask the same questions or give the same commands daily in order to provide routine and develop confidence in your learners.  This can be especially effective for less-vocal learners who lack the confidence to respond to spontaneous questioning.
  5. Use compensation strategies readily.  By using gestures, body language, circumlocution and paraphrasing not only will you be facilitating student learning but also modeling how to use strategies for communication.


Further reading

Dickson, P. Using the Target Language: A view from the classroom.

McColl, H. Using the Target Language.

Levine, G.S. Student and Instructor Beliefs and Attitudes about Target Language Use, First Language Use, and Anxiety: Report of a Questionnaire Study

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Copyright © Olenka Bilash May 2009 ~ Last Modified January 2011