How do I stop my monolingual groups speaking their first language?


Students will communicate in English during tasks/lessons


  1. Students will be able to stop speaking languages other than English
  2. Students will be able to replace the resulting void in communication with English
  3. Students will be able to encourage each other to speak in English

Anticipated Problems:

  1. Teacher will have to keep reminding students to speak in English
  2. Students will stop talking altogether instead of speaking in English
  3. Students will get used to the constant reminders and therefore not stop themselves speaking L1 (First language)


Step 1: Open a discussion

Introduce a system whereby students become self-aware about their L1 use. In a monolingual group, whether the students are in their home country or not, sometimes it’s hard for them to tell just how much L1 they are speaking.

Take simple steps to do this. My personal favourite is a tally:


Don’t tell students not to speak L1 in class one day. Simply start tallying on the board the number of times you heard L1. At the end of the class, elicit what the tally is for (they usually figure it out halfway through the class but don’t discuss it until the end or you’ll derail your lesson). Ask them what they think about this. Usually they’ll accept it’s wrong or actually discuss their concerns and you can take the appropriate steps.

Alternatives include having a class list somewhere visible and putting X marks next to names when L1 is used. When it reaches 10 X marks, that student needs to give a 1 minute presentation next lesson on why it is important to speak English in the classroom. Depending on your classroom, whether the students know each well, their age and so on you can choose your method. The X mark method was used by a colleague of mine and works wondrously. Nobody got to 10 X marks.

The aim is to get them to realise how much L1 they are using in a typical English lesson.

Step 2: Reinforce the Rule

Next class, the second you hear L1, say nothing and start the tally again. They’ll notice and they will stop. The trick here is to restrain yourself from telling them not to speak in English. They are now being trained to be more self-aware. And they are getting used to error correction and making mistakes when speaking.

Over time, you will have just a few students who simply struggle to follow the rule. This may be because they are naturally chatty people, maybe their level is low, maybe they don’t want to make fools of themselves, maybe they simply aren’t engaged. But because the tally is for the whole class and not just any one individual, the whole class is affected. So students usually tell each other to “speak in English” or “sshhhh, English!”

It’s honestly really great when that happens. Students become more responsible and the rule sticks because they want it to stick. And as they become used to error correcting and making mistakes, they become much more confident in their speaking. My students even play around with the rule!

Real life example:

There were only 2 tally marks on the board one day and the lesson was almost over. Student 1 is whispering something in Chinese to Student 2. I slowly start moving the chalk to the tally and everyone starts shushing them up. The class is silent. Then the following happens:

Student 1: “Yes, in Chinese we call that word *speaks Chinese*”

Student 2: “Thank you my brother”

Everyone: Laughing for a full minute

And then I put a tally on the board anyway. More laughter. I encouraged Student 1 to paraphrase the meaning using English and it was something useful rather than me just shushing them up.

This method allows for student agency far more than Teacher telling them not to speak. It provides stakes and a challenge, which people relish. And provides opportunity for classroom cohesion and bonding.

Step 3: Keep it up

This is the most important thing. Don’t get lazy with this as students start speaking more English. The truth is, no matter how good a time you’re all having, their L1 is still stronger and they will return to it. Always tally. Each class will have a normal tally for them, my class of 16 is about 4 or 5 times a lesson (usually one or two whispered words). If they’re being worse than usual, I clear my throat until I have their attention, then I put a tally on the board and look disappointed

Make sure you move around and monitor during all tasks. Don’t tell them to speak English, but if you hear L1, abandon monitoring for a minute to go do the tally. Make it obvious.

What if my students’ English level is too low to always speak in English?

Scaffold the system over time as their level improves.

It may be wiser for lower level groups to have designated “English Time” speaking tasks wherein they are banned from L1 for a short time rather than banning it outright throughout your lesson. This is to save your own sanity and have a balance with your students. Use more ICQs (Instruction Checking Questions) and CCQs (Concept Checking Questions). Provide them with controlled practice.

If their level is low (Elementary, basic, beginner) they will lapse into L1 to explain tasks to each other and so on. This is natural and instead of fighting it, create a safe time in class when they can speak in English and make the mistakes you need them to make to give feedback and error correction.

Over time wean your students off this as their level improves. Slowly increase “English Time” periods. As long as you structure it carefully, they will understand that the rules are changing and for any stragglers who haven’t yet gotten the message, your class will see to it that they follow the rules.

The goal is to make them do the work, not you. I personally believe that students relish agency over their learning and this method has always worked well for me.

Have you ever used a tally?

Would you ever try it?

Share your own tips and ideas in the comments below!


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