The 100% Target Language Challenge

I start every term with the best of intentions. My aim is to use only Japanese in my middle school foreign language classes. Generally I use about 75% on a good day and I’m too embarrassed to tell you how low it might get on a bad day. I have no problems when it comes to getting the class ready for their lesson, or asking students to complete small tasks, but when it comes to introducing a new grammatical concept, or explaining the rules of a new activity, or even managing students’ behaviour, I generally find myself reverting back to English.

Of course, after these lessons I am annoyed with myself for taking the easy route. A basic philosophy that I hold as a language teacher is to immerse the students in as much language as possible, even (maybe especially) young learners and beginning learners. As one of the few interlocutors my students have in a regional Australian town, and as one of the few models of a language learner many of them have, it’s important for me to use the Target Language (TL) as much as possible. Providing students with comprehensible input has a range of benefits, including:

  • developing problem solving skills and language learning strategies, to help bridge the gap between what students know and what they don’t know (and let’s face it, for must of us, what we don’t know far outweighs what we do for the longest time)
  • building communication skills
  • allowing students to hear learnt vocabulary and grammatical patterns being used in context
  • encouraging students to speak more – after all, how can I expect my students to use the language if I don’t set a good example
  • getting students out of their comfort zone, and perhaps build some empathy for people who are living in situations where they need to use a language that is not their mother tongue
  • giving students a feel for the rhythms of the language

So, with all these benefits I thought that during my last term of teaching Japanese as a foreign language, I would challenge myself to speak only in Japanese, in my two false-beginner year 8 classes. Having set this goal before but often failing, I set up a range of strategies to facilitate success.

The strategy

As usual, the first lesson of the students’ Japanese study was delivered 100% in the target language. Some students had studied Japanese for a semester in primary school, but there is generally a gap of 6 months since their last exposure to Japanese. Their lessons in primary school are limited and as such they are generally considered false-beginners.  The first lesson involves getting students’ books organized with colour-coded charts,  revising or introducing some greetings and key classroom phrases, and doing some art-based activities that allow students to follow instructions.

The last 5-minutes of the lesson is set aside as a time to reflect in English. I ask the students how much they understood, praise their understanding and ability to complete all the activities, and elicit some conversations about strategies they used (How did you know I was telling you to open the window?).

During this first reflection session I explained my aims, and introduced the award system. As you can see in the photo below, the time represents the time that I spoke in English, and the yellow highlights shows the class which had the least time. At the end of the term, the winning class was awarded with a sushi party. Although this extrinsic reward was a point of playful rivalry in the playground, the real motivation was during each lesson, when students worked together to understand my intended meaning, sometimes quite complex language, but seeing the determination to not ‘give up’ and ask me to speak English.


One of the important parts of my strategy was to let the students dictate when they wanted me to speak English. At times I would ask them (in Japanese, of course!) if they wanted me to speak in English, and would wave the stopwatch around asking them. That action was often met with calls to not use the timer.

I used an Australian flag and a Japanese flag at the front of the room as a visual cue when asking students the meaning of something in either English or Japanese, so instead of the teacher-as-expert model, it was student-as-expert.

The 5-minute reflection at the end of each lesson also proved very important. It allowed the students to ask any questions about anything they didn’t understand (although they could still do that throughout the class). It was also an opportunity to reflect on strategies and emotions, and importantly for me to lay on large amounts of praise that I think they truly deserved.

The Outcome

The outcome was generally positive. Students expressed a sense of satisfaction, and parents at teacher-interview time were generally impressed with what the students were doing in the classroom. The use of English in the 70-minute lessons ranged from nothing to a couple of minutes at most. By the end of the term I don’t even think the students thought anything of it, but accepted it and improved their ability to deal with it. There was great enthusiasm when the Deputy Principal walked in and asked me something and they wouldn’t allow me to answer him in English, this also applied when the phone rang, and they were often in hysterics, although I gave the office staff due warning and taught them a few of the basics.

The approach levelled the playing field a little, as students who are generally ‘high flyers’ academically were not necessarily taking leadership of the class. In fact interestingly it was a few of those students who struggled in the beginning with not being able to understand everything. In one case a student with low achievement in English had a particular knack for translating my meaning to his classmates. So, a student who had the potential of becoming a behavior concern, was given a vital role in the class.

In my observations these students were much more willing to use the target language in class than previous classes. Although the aim was not for these beginner and false-beginner students to be exclusively using the target language, the modeling definitely had an impact on their willingness and ability to speak in Japanese, more so than I have observed in other classes with less Target Language input.

This was a fun exercise for me as a teacher and I invite you to think of ways to increase your level of TL input in your beginner and young students’ classes.


*What percentage of your lesson is delivered in the target language?
*What strategies do you put in place to help students comprehend TL input?

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Image courtesy of aechan at

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