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“Predomonolingual” Classes – the worst of both worlds?

February 24, 2013

When describing language classes, we tend to refer to a group as either monolingual (all from the same language background) or multilingual (from a range of L1 backgrounds). Whichever context you are teaching in, there are a range of issues that teachers need to deal with, or exploit.

Typically, monolingual classes are more common in non-English speaking countries, where you have groups of local residents with the same L1 who all want to learn English. In this context there’s the obvious disadvantage that if these students want to communicate authentically with each other they are more likely to use their L1. It’s both unnecessary and unnatural for them to speak to each other in English. The teacher therefore has to foster a kind of artificial environment in which it is normal to use English to speak to someone who shares the same L1 as you. The students also need to buy into this pretence to some extent, which is easier with some groups than with others.

However, having a monolingual group isn’t just about an uphill battle to get students to speak English and stop lapsing into L1; it has a number of advantages as well. A common L1 means students are likely to share similar problems in learning English, and a handy book by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith (2001) helps teachers to anticipate and focus overtly on L1 transfer issues. They also share a common culture, so teachers can be pretty sure which topic areas will be familiar, unfamiliar, appropriate, offensive etc. Furthermore, a common L1 can be exploited for translation, contrastive analysis, giving instructions and checking understanding. I’m not saying that use of L1 in a foreign language classroom is always a good idea, but recent discussions have highlighted potential benefits. Teachers can maximize these benefits in the monolingual classroom by giving students opportunities to use L1 as or when appropriate.

Multilingual groups are more common in English-speaking countries, where students have either travelled in order to learn English, or are already living there and need to function more effectively in an English-speaking environment. One big advantage of this type of group is that English is the only common language among the students, and they are therefore obliged to use it in order to communicate. Cultural differences can be exploited as naturally-occurring information gaps, allowing peer learning to take place on a sociocultural as well as a linguistic level. Having said that, multilingual groups can be problematic to teach. A range of L1s means there is a range of L1 transfer-related issues. Concentrated focus on the difference between /p/ and /b/ might be useful for your four Saudi students, for example, but it’s not a priority for the European and South American students in the same class. Teachers also need to think carefully about lesson content as they are dealing with a wider range of cultures and sensibilities. A lesson on pub culture may work really well with your Japanese and Spanish students but if the group contains students from Muslim backgrounds, you may think twice about using these materials.

When teaching a truly monolingual group, or a truly multilingual group, it is easy enough to understand the potential and the limitations that exist within each context. However, the two types of group are not completely polarised. What about those groups that are predominantly monolingual but also contain one or two speakers of other languages as well? The predomonolingual group, if you will. In my experience, this type of class is more common than you might expect, and can exist in both English-speaking and non-English speaking countries. In Romania I taught a class of 15 Romanians and an Iranian; in Hungary I had 11 Hungarians and a Libyan; in South Africa I frequently had classes dominated by Portuguese speakers with the occasional random other-language speaker; in Malaysia I frequently taught mostly Arabic speakers with the occasional Chinese or Korean student; in my current workplace we’ve had different dominant language groups over the years – it used to be Chinese, then Farsi, then Nepali, and at the moment it is Polish.

It seems to me that these predomonolingual classes bring with them the disadvantages of each class type but none of the advantages. The dominant language group in the classroom is likely to have more impact on lesson content and language selected by the teacher. So if you take the /p/ and /b/ example I gave earlier, if your class contains 15 Arabic-speaking students you may be very likely to do this, but what benefit does this have for the solitary Congolese student? Similarly, the dominant L1 group may influence the choice of topics covered. If a teacher tries to address this by focusing on language areas or topics that are more relevant to the minority language group, this only highlights the difference between the two and can end up strengthening the division. This tendency to teach to the majority obviously means that the minority language speakers are getting less out of the course than they could be in a more multilingual, or a completely monolingual, class.

The biggest problem with predominantly monolingual groups is the role of L1. The learners who share an L1 can use it with each other, but its benefits can’t be exploited by the teacher because this marginalises the students from a different L1 background. What tends to happen is that the majority group continue to use their L1 with each other, but they do it without the teacher’s blessing so they do it surreptitiously. This can lead to feelings that they are being denied a potentially useful learning tool and can cause resentment towards the teacher as well as the member(s) of the minority language group.

Of course, use of L1 by students is also a big issue for the students who don’t speak it. These students can find themselves missing out on peer learning that is taking place in L1 among the rest of the group, as well as whatever off-task discussions that may take place. Students from the minority language background have no idea what the rest of the group is saying. The dominant group could be explaining the task to each other, which is bad enough as it excludes the minority student, but they could equally be saying something derogatory about the minority student, and they have no way of knowing. Ultimately, whether it is deliberate or unconscious, there is a strong possibility that the student from the minority language background will experience feelings of exclusion.

Even if the teacher is able to create an environment where English is widely used, there can still be divisions between the majority and minority language groups. Learners with the same L1 can often understand each other more easily because they are all making the same errors. The minority group member, on the other hand, who makes different errors or has different strengths and weaknesses and, may be perceived by the other students as being weaker and, consequently, not worth talking to. The rich diversity and resulting cross-cultural interest and learning that happens in a truly multilingual class is far less likely to happen in a predomonolingual environment, or at least it requires some careful nurturing from the teacher. My Hungarian students used to complain that they couldn’t understand the Libyan student, even though his pronunciation was no worse than theirs, just different. My Arabic-speaking students in Malaysia couldn’t understand why a Chinese student was studying at the same level as them, until they saw her writing. And even then, they didn’t feel they could learn anything by talking to her.

In some of our classes at the moment there is a dominant language group and a core of students who are unwilling or perhaps unable to give up their use of L1. We have tried all sorts to highlight the benefits of using English – encouraging, cajoling, praising and rewarding the use of English; warning, banning, ridiculing and punishing the use of L1. But they continue to show remarkable resistance to the idea of “playing the game” and speaking to each other in English. They also seem very aware of the potential benefits of using translation. If this was a monolingual class then it would be much less of an issue as I would be able to exploit the advantages this brings. But when there are other people in the room who don’t understand your language, it’s rude, and possibly offensive, to use it. They might not be slagging off that other student’s national habits, but they might be. That student has no way of knowing, and neither do I. The predomonolingual class is therefore fraught with potentially serious issues. While it is very easy for most students to use L1 with each other, it is really important that they don’t for the sake of the one or two other students. This then puts further strain on the relationship between the dominant and dominated nationalities, and can cause tensions.

About 11 years ago I wrote a PhD proposal outlining a research project that would examine the interaction patterns and the use of L1 within predominantly monolingual groups, and explore ways of making the most of the dynamics within this learning environment. Things happened – jobs were accepted, children were born – and I never got round to doing the research. If anybody else has done some research in this area, or any ideas for how to address the problems I’m describing, I would really love to hear from them.


Swan, M. and Smith, B. 2001: Learner English (2nd edition), CUP

Wilden, S: 2011 Can translation (and translation tools) facilitate language learning and how can it be used to best effect – a summary of eltchat 12/01/11 Accessed from on 23/02/13

  1. I very much sympathise with this! I have had many classes which have been dominated by one language and they are definitely the most difficult to teach. I find their success or not very much depends on the personalities of the students, how accepting the dominant language students are as well as how confident the minority students are in trying to infiltrate a group of students with a closed group (I’m thinking of one group I had of mostly Arabic students with one South American who all got on great and possibly taught each other more of their languages than I taught them English!!). I’ve normally just tried to get the dominant language group to put themselves in the other students’ shoes, asked them how they would feel if everyone was talking in a language and they didn’t understand, and pressed on them how rude it can seem. It’s worked with varying degrees of success but has frequently been a struggle and I can, like you, sympathise with both sides. I would also be interested in any research in this area as I agree it is not something you often see discussed. Thanks for bringing it up in your very interesting post!

    • Thanks for this, Jo. I agree that it depends very much on the students. It’s fine if the dominant group are welcoming and interested in the minority students and if the minority students are able to assert themselves, but this isn’t always the case and the students in the minority can easily find themselves being ignored or marginalised. I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds this challenging!

      • Jen MacD permalink

        Hi Steve
        Would like the chance to talk about this with you as I’m currently writing a module on use of L1 in ESOL classrooms and this ‘predomonolingual’ is an issue I def should explore. I’m wondering whether in some way the worry that use of L1 has only negative repercussions then makes it even more difficult to access the potential benefits you highlight for mono and multilingual groups. So, if teachers only concentrate on these negatives, they may have unrealistic expectations of how much the group is able to use L2 (the you must talk in English at all times philosophy). Denying students the opportunity to use their L1 (and I very much take your points about how this might impact on the minority language speakers) might be taking away something that is as natural as breathing and that exists for most of the learners in the group. This is particularly worrying for learners at the lowest levels. I’m not sure how we justify this – are the students being penalised by dint of the provision they find themselves in? Just a thought.

      • Hi Jen,
        I suppose the teacher has to decide how to deal with L1. Putting a ban on it and insisting on English only may be seen as unrealistic or unfair by the dominant group, but if you allow it what message are you sending out to the students that don’t have that option? Maybe, as Jo says, it depends on the students. Some groups naturally include the minority members, but is it fair to allow use of L1 when some students don’t have this option? Equally, is it fair to deny the option to the majority so the minority member doesn’t feel excluded? That’s the teacher’s dilemma.

  2. Matt Halsdorff permalink

    Thanks for this post! I’m finding myself with more & more “predomonolingual groups” on a monthly basis… and it’s quite interesting to see how this changes the dynamics at times. As you noted, it mostly depends on the participants – and it can take a bit of “framing” by the trainer to exploit the advantages that are too be gained in such a situation. It can be complicated though depending on the acceptance of the group and the character of the one participant coming from a different language background.

    I had one situation a few years ago where I had a group of about 8 German speakers and 1 French speaker… everyone was very friendly… but there were moments where the dominant group of German speakers would say things like “I can’t understand his accent” (not to his face mind you) & would repeatedly ask for repetition, etc. They were convinced he was the one speaking with a difficult accent. Of course, they had an accent just as strong but were all used to each other, and therefore would avoid partnering up with him in group work.

    Personally I thought it was wonderful he was in our group as it was great exposure for the others in getting used to an accent that varied from their own… but there were moments I struggled about how much I should highlight the advantages (I didn’t want to put a large spotlight on him after all). As we were working in a business environment I did my best to always keep an eye on the idea of Globalized English & preparing for a wide variety of accents, etc.

    It’s particular challenging at the lower levels. I mean… if we focus on the L1 transfer problems of the majority group – shouldn’t we spend the same amount of time doing it for the minority/single person in the group? If we did so…would that help alleviate the situation or only reinforce it or add animosity (if there is some)?

    • Hi Matt,
      Thanks for sharing your experience. I think that when most people consider the issues surrounding this area they think more about the “is it ok to use L1?” question. However, perhaps a more pressing issue is one of classroom dynamics. The important thing is to make sure the person in the minority is not marginalised. Whether it’s appropriate to avoid L1 altogether, allow the dominant group to us L1, or even make jae of both L1s, should become apparent as the teacher develops a positive learning environment.
      I definitely agree though that having a single student from a different language background in an otherwise monolingual class can really enrich the learning experience for all. But it can only work well if te teacher and the students are able to make it work.

  3. Lankymax permalink

    Hi Steve. I felt a similar disjunct when I started teaching “conversation lessons” to small groups of Japanese learners after my CELTA course. The students expected sensei to take the lead throughout the lesson, and the “mingly” type activity structures I’d been taught (that at heart, I suspect, aspired to empower students to express themselves in some kind of wonderful, free, humanistic self-realisation of a sort not as universally appreciated as its proponents perhaps imagined) fell flat on their faces. By some cruel stroke of fate I’d read up on The Silent Way, and no methodology could have been worse-adapted to that particular teaching situation. Eliciting was taken as perversely random testing rather than the opportunity for discussion, and the students hated being asked to talk to each other: they were paying a lot of money for a small group so that I could moderate and correct every word uttered in the room. Yes, some of my colleagues who hadn’t a fig of training had an easier time performing the role expected of them. Nevertheless, for a couple of years I found I occasionally recalled things from the month of CELTA input sessions and TP feedback with an “Ah!” of recognition — the penny finally dropped on various things months or years afterwards. So perhaps I was preloaded with more development potential than those who hadn’t done the CELTA.

    If I could redesign the CELTA, I’d suggest some kind of gradual drip-feed development of reading, reflection, and mentoring by distance mode, that would help the trainee adapt what they had learned to their own teaching situation, and bridge the recommended two years before the DELTA, underlining to CELTA trainees that they’re only at the beginning.

    • Hi Max,
      Nice to hear from you again. I think you’re right that things we learn in the CELTA start to feed into our everyday teaching gradually, over time. It would be impossible for us to suddenly be able to put everything into practice all at once. Some focused time or additional support/input post-CELTA would certainly be helpful in allowing this to happen. It’s the need to develop in the areas that are most relevant to your specific context that interest me, though. Here in Scotland we have some post-CELTA/pre-DELTA level qualifications that focus on some areas that are regarded as particularly useful to people teaching in this country – . I think these are a really useful idea. Of course, they wouldn’t have helped you much in Japan, but maybe an equivalent set of qualifications would have..?

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  1. “Predomonolingual” Classes – the worst of both worlds? | stevebrown70's Blog
  2. Universality and Mediocrity Part 3: Training for what, exactly? | stevebrown70's Blog
  3. So what do you expect? | The Steve Brown Blog

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