Helping Students Speak More English and Less Japanese in Class

T. L. Tensai

Dear TLT,

I’m having a real hard time with one of my university English conversation classes. I’m doing my best to teach it in a communicative way, but every time I ask students to do a pair speaking activity, they end up using too much Japanese. Of course when I walk near them, they suddenly start speaking in English, but the moment I walk away, they start jabbering away in Japanese again. I feel more like a police officer than a teacher! It’s really really driving me crazy! What can I do to get my students to use more English when doing speaking activities?

Crazy in Karuizawa

Dear Crazy,

Thanks a lot for your message, and sorry for your stress in dealing with students who just can’t seem to stay in English during your class. This is something we can all relate to, as this eigo keisatsu frustration is part of our job, and something that all teachers need to deal with more fully. 

So, what to do about it? Well, you’ll be glad to know that there is actually a lot that can be done to help students speak more English in class, especially when you are not monitoring them closely. The first thing we suggest is to suss out the root of the problem. What is really causing your students to speak in Japanese (L1) during pair practice? Is it a lack of interest or motivation? Or could it be something about the way you’re teaching them that is the primary culprit? In addition, what sort of Japanese are they using? For example, are they over their heads? Then it could be they are using L1 to overcome the limits of their ability. Or, are they just not into the lesson and are chatting away about unrelated matters? Not all L1 is necessarily bad. For example, students could use it in service of learning L2, in a process Meryl Swain (2006) calls “languaging.” This is highly beneficial to learning, so you do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater by being overly harsh about eliminating any and all L1 utterances. In addition, there is the typical occurrence of code-switching that takes place when learning a new language, where there is a normal transition period when both native and new languages are mixed (Sert, 2005). Keeping the idea that not all L1 is bad in mind can help you depersonalize the situation, which can hopefully reduce some of the frustration you feel. 

There are several different ways to find out what is really going on in your lessons. First, you need the benefit of a third-person perspective. Do you have a trusted colleague who can observe your class? If this person knows Japanese, they can give you a sense of what your students are saying when using L1. In addition, they can notice something about your teaching approach that may not be working—something that you are not aware of. For example, are you giving your students enough time to prepare for conversation practice? Or are you just asking them to jump right in and discuss something they may not be ready for? Giving time for students to collect their thoughts before engaging in pair-practice just might do the trick. Also, have you prepared students enough? Do they have enough language at their disposal to complete your given tasks? If a trusted colleague is not available, then consider videotaping your class. Watching yourself teach and your students learn can help you identify what the problem really is. In most cases there will be things you can do better. 

To find out more about the Japanese that your students are using during pair-practice, consider having them record short conversations on their smartphones. Most students have them these days, and they can be utilized for learning. After recording, have them write or type up transcripts for homework. In the next class, go over them with your students by engaging in several noticing tasks. Have them search out instances of L1 and reflect on why they said what they did. This sort of awareness raising activity can show you what students really need to learn. Then, you can go about teaching them specific language that can help them stay more in L2. Most likely, you’ll find that students are using L1 primarily for unconscious back-channel feedback. In that case, teach them how to do this in English via sounds such as “um”, “ah”, “uh-huh” and the like. Also, pay particular notice to when conversations break down. Generally this occurs when students reach the limits of their ability. Teaching and assessing repair strategy use can help, including phrases such as:

  • I’m sorry, I don’t understand. 
  • What does ~ mean? 
  • Pardon? Excuse me? Once more please.
  • How do you say ~ in English?

Ideally, however, the best time to get students going on using a lot of L2 in your class is at the beginning of the course. Start by learning your students’ names quickly and taking a genuine interest in them. As newly-hired language center assistant Erik Davis notes in the Teaching Assistance column in this issue, his students became more comfortable when speaking English around him and their peers when he called them out by their names and showed a personal interest in their interests: “A person’s name may sound inadequate to be a main factor of a teacher-student relationship. But in actuality, it is one of the most important elements in establishing and maintaining a good relationship” (p. 30). Create a spreadsheet or a set of flashcards to help you learn names and key info more quickly.

Along these lines, establishing a feedback sheet system can also really help you get to know your students more deeply. Simply give everyone a few minutes at the end of each lesson to write a bit about their experience in class in a notebook, which you then collect. What did they learn? Which activities worked well for them? What did they find challenging or demotivating? At first, you should expect brief comments such as “It was fun” or “It was difficult.” But if you can manage to consistently respond to each and every student, you’ll gradually build a dialog with them that will pay great dividends in the long run. This process could also be conducted via email or text if you are technologically inclined to manage it that way. Then, when certain students start using too much L1 in class, you’ll be in a much stronger position to talk with them about it. This kind of practice can also help you stay sensitive to students who are having difficulties outside of class that may be interfering with their ability to perform well in it. 

In addition to getting to know your students better, make it crystal clear what you expect of them. Remind them that they are there to study English. By not using it, they’re actually defeating their purpose in taking the class. This is still true even if the class is required, and they are not there by choice. They did choose to enter this school, after all! In appropriate classes, making English use in class a part of the grade can also help. If you do that, you’ll need some system of tracking classroom English. One idea here is to create a 5-point Likert scale for recording English interactions, something like: “(NAME) uses English for all/most/a few/no interactions.” You could color code it and create a table with a line for each member of the class. During classes, watch your students and mark down their English interactions with both you and other class members. Compile your results and show the class around Week 4 with their names removed and order scrambled. Explain how these results will affect their grades and reiterate to your students that they need to use English for all interactions, so there will hopefully be a definite rise in effort.

Another idea that can help is to enable students to reward each other for using L2 in class. This can be accomplished via simple “Thank You” point cards. With these cards, students can reward each other for taking the time to use English with them by signing, stamping, or adding a sticker to classmates’ cards. When cards become full, show them off to everyone to reinforce the message that everyone is in it together, and that by using more L2 in class, each student is helping others learn. 

Getting students to use more L2 in class is a huge topic that we’ve only scratched the surface of here. However, we hope you can see that by setting clear expectations, getting to know your students, and employing useful strategies for tracking and supporting L2 classroom usage, it will not only be your students who benefit—you, as a teacher, will have grown as well. So, as you feel that frustration rising next time, keep in mind that that it is simply a call for you to improve your teaching practice. Stay positive, try different things out, and enjoy the satisfaction that comes when you successfully meet a difficult challenge. 


Sert, O. (2005). The functions of code-switching in ELT classrooms. The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI (8). Retrieved from

Swain, M. (2006). Languaging, agency and collaboration in advanced second language learning. In H. Byrnes (Ed.), Advanced language learning: The contributions of Halliday and Vygotsky. London, England: Continuum, pp. 95 –108.