90% in the Target Language is Just Not Enough

By Angela Gardner, Spanish Teacher, Ross High School

I am not sure, exactly, where it originated, but this idea of
90% in the TL has saturated nearly every professional publication, many professional development activities, and
conversation amongst language professionals. I do know that ACTFL advocates for 90%+ use of the target language. Considering the impact, this goal is clearly regarded as a rigorous and attainable necessity of any classroom that adheres to best practices.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I comprehend the premise. The idea is the vast majority of the communication in the classroom would be in the target language, but to allow a little forgiveness, a little wiggle room as we mere mortals aim to get our language learners to acquire some language. Surely, a few exceptions to using the target language should be allowed. Right?

Meanwhile , language instructors use all manner of methods , to ensure the use of 90% target language. If their class lasts, say, 100 minutes, then the best way is to allow 10 minutes of non-use of the target language every day, right? That way, you use exactly 90% of the target language and you cover yourself from accusations of students that they may provide 100% reading input and expect 100% output from students, while they use some lower amount of the target language themselves to communicate. But, 90% took place, right?

What, exactly, is the right formula for this elusive yet highly regarded 90% anyway. Who precisely is responsible for the 90%? The teacher? The students? Both? How is it assessed? Does someone keep a timer or word count for the teacher and students? Undoubtedly, teachers are reporting
best practices by using 90% target language in their classrooms. That 10% margin of error leaves an awful lot of room for interpretation, ambiguity, and failure.

This allowance for 10% of non-target language use makes the other 90% harder. As with the old adage about give them an inch and they will a mile, so it is with students. If we let our students, parents, and administrators know there is an allowance of 10% non-target language use, students may see that as an opportunity to interpret the rules as they please. Which 10% are we allowed to use? The first 10% of everything we say? They will always push for more of an allowance.

Swapping between languages also sends the message to language learners that we are not committed fully to the target language use. The message is conveyed as well that we ourselves do not believe that they or we are capable of communicating 100% in the target language, that we think they and we will fail at least 10% of the time. In what other life-task goal do we aim for 90%? Do we aim to get 90% of a meal prepared? Do we aim to get 90% of the laundry done?
Are we really going to count out 90% of the grains of rice and measure out 90% of the water?

No, of course not. It would be illogical and a waste of time. So is 90% of use of the target language.

Colleagues, we need to aim higher and clearer. We need to aim for 100% target language use for both language instructors AND language learners. I do say we will have moments of failure, but, we should not leave so much room for error as professionals.

Teacher Challenges and Fixes

Of course, there are challenges in aiming for 100% use of target language in a World Language classroom. One of them is the instructor’s skills and knowledge. Our standards for language educators in Ohio are too low. Having an Intermediate-High proficiency in the language we teach is hardly adequate when we are expected to be a primary source of input for our students. Teachers need to be able to communicate confidently and with ease on a variety of topics and for a variety of purposes. When students see a teacher unable to communicate in the language they teach, they lose trust and respect for the teacher, and are less likely to engage.

Some language teachers would even venture so far as to suggest that if a teacher is not proficient enough to communicate confidently and with ease on a variety of topics and for a variety of purposes, they should leave the profession-or never consider joining. I disagree. Proficiency can be developed and must be maintained. Teachers with a high level of proficiency early in their career that do not take measures to maintain their proficiency allow it to diminish, making them less effective in the classroom. Teachers with a low level of proficiency can build it.

If a teacher is motivated, their language inadequacies can be fixed. Teachers can practice, practice, practice in their classrooms, online, and through opportunities like OFLA’s immersion opportunities, building their own proficiency until they do, indeed, communicate with confidence and ease on a variety of topics and for a variety of purposes, and are able to earn the trust and respect of their language learners-even if they have things to learn. Many learners
appreciate and respond well when their leadership will also demonstrate vulnerability but a willingness to pursue better communication.

Another challenge for teachers in this is their own motivation and commitment to use of the target language. Certainly, it becomes discouraging sometimes. Students fail to adhere, teachers and students become weary, it gets easier to mess up and slip into a different common language.

Finding the perfect balance of motivation is difficult. This is one of those intangible, immeasurable attributes that we cannot necessarily determine for one another.

That said, if an instructor is failing to use the target language, has lost that zest for teaching and learning, or is just not willing to aim for 100% in the target language, they may need to consider taking a sabbatical or pursuing a different profession. As with so many other aspects of our
profession, keeping a program aiming for use of 100% in the target language is not for the faint of heart.

Challenges with administrators, parents, and counselors

Another challenge to staying 100% in the target language is that, even if a teacher is motivated and really, really tries to go for it, they will meet student, and even parent resistance. Students will balk at the idea that they are not permitted to use their native tongue and are expected to use only the TL. They will whine and beg and complain to administrators and counselors. Without a supportive administration, teachers may be threatened in terms of their job security due to low
enrollment. Additionally, teachers have to find a way to motivate and evaluate students so that they stay on target. This can overwhelm and overtake even a highly motivated teacher-unless he/she plans and acts ahead.

To prepare, instructors can communicate with administrators and counselors at your school prior to implementing the full use of the target language. Teachers can use articles from other publications like The Language Educator to support their argument. Most administrators and counselors that are well should prepare administrators and counselors that students may be emotionally overwhelmed for the first couple of weeks and may call, they just need some reassurance that they are able to do it.

Then, teachers should communicate with parents. Teachers should inform parents that the class goal will be using the TL to communicate. Teachers can emphasize that they know the students are not suddenly going to turn into native speakers overnight and know everything. Instructors can explain to parents that they will provide students with supports and tools (like posters with high-frequency words and phrases).

Teachers should let parents know that mistakes are encouraged and allowed, and will not count off on student grades. This means that the teacher will need to have a grading system in place that relies on rubrics that allow some errors in communication, like the ACTFL rubrics for the skill areas, or Linguafolio checklists and “I Can” statements.

Instructors should communicate that they believe in these students and that they are capable. Again, teachers should emphasize that students may be emotional initially but that they are able to do it.

Challenges with students

As previously mentioned, students are masters at complaining, manipulating, and otherwise finding ways to weasel their way out of learning tasks. Even the most motivated language learner will have some trepidation at the idea of using only that language all the time. What if I mess up?

What if I say something wrong or embarrassing? What if I can’t express what I want to? Instructors should talk to their students. Teachers can rationalize with the argument that students didn’t their native language by speaking another language. Teachers should prepare students that it can feel
overwhelming. Instructors should emphasize that they believe in the students, and they need to believe in themselves. If students approach a teacher to complain, the teacher should listen patiently, and try to reassure them that they can do it. Many other people in their same age range have faced these same challenges and come out that much stronger for it.

Maintaining motivation in students to stay in the target language is something of an art form.

First, language instructors are the primary example, so it is essential that the instructors stay in character and do not swap languages. Second, it is also important to reassure students that mistakes are tolerated, expected, and desired in language learning.

Instructors should avoid scolding students publicly for errors, and instead try to be a patient listener and interpret as much meaning as possible from them.

Teachers need to monitor students by circulating the room. If the teacher hears someone speak outside of the target language, he/she needs to address it, not necessarily publicly, but privately so a student knows that he/she was caught. It is important to students that language instructors pay attention to them and guide them when they go away from the target language. It also helps to
celebrate successes-I go nuts (shouting, dancing, jumping) when students complete a challenging task and we stay in the TL. Many students have shared with me that they have appreciated how I expressed how excited I got when they were showing that they had learned.

Implications for the profession

If our profession is to aim for use of the Target Language as exclusively as possible from both teachers and students, this means some changes within the profession. It will be important to consider the language we use when we discuss this topic within best practices. Perhaps new nomenclature, such as “Exclusive TL Use” would be preferable. Such wording would guide new professionals towards a standard that encourages professionals to reach for maximum use of the TL.

Preparatory programs may also wish to emphasize that the responsibility is not only on the teachers, but also on the students to produce utterances in the Target Language. Additionally, licensure and preparatory programs may wish to aim for a higher skill level for professionals for initial or continuing licensure. Licensure programs that support future teachers with language immersion and practical experience are also of value. For seasoned teachers, opportunities to collaborate and share methods and practices are a huge support in the “Exclusive TL Use” classroom.

Ultimately, as professionals, we must consider best practices for our classrooms and programs.

We must continue to challenge ourselves and our students to put forth our best efforts in language learning. Hopefully, we will consider Exclusive TL Use as an invaluable component in these practices.

This entry was posted in Vol. 54, No. 1 - Fall 2015. Bookmark the permalink.

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