Monolingual studying. When should you stop using the first language in your second language learning?

Many language learners start by using English or their first language as a medium in learning a second language. This model of learning is helpful, but there should be a point where a learner needs to start a monolingual learning strategy, by gradually replacing the first language with the target language.

The question is when should you do that?

I’ll give you the answer upfront, as soon as possible.

Let’s start with swimming

I learned how to swim when I was an adult. I enjoyed my many vacations on the seaside and I didn’t fear water much when I was a child, but I started to fear it when I became older, not sure why. Anyway, I wanted to enjoy that beautiful sport, so I took swimming lessons. At first, I wasn’t confident, and I stayed too long holding on to the pool wall. One day, one of my classmates said to me, “If you keep on doing what you’re doing holding on to the pool wall, you’ll never learn to swim.”

She made me let go of what I thought was my safety net. Yes, holding on to the pool wall was my safety net or at least that’s what I thought then. From that day on, my relationship with water and swimming have greatly improved. My floating got better because I relaxed my body and trusted that water could hold my body weight. I also improved my strokes and finally managed to learn three different strokes, although that was on the amateurish side, which is still so much fun.

What I learned from my own experience with swimming is that being in the water, deep water is the best way to learn, acquire skills, and improve what we do.

What I learned from my own experience in swimming is that being in the water, deep water is the best way to learn, acquire skills, and improve what we do. Share on X

Trust the process of language learning or acquisition

Following this analogy, when we learn a foreign language, our first language, be it English or any other language, becomes our safety net. We don’t exert too much effort to understand the foreign words and structures, knowing that the translation into English (our first language) will be coming at the end. We prefer the language books that explain everything in our first language because this means less effort for us.

But to learn how to speak in the foreign language, i.e. to swim (following the analogy), we need to let go of this safety net and trust the process of language learning and/or acquisition. There will be some struggles and frustrations. The coach would be standing in the middle of the pool waiting to lend a hand, if you need one, while you’re swimming to where he/she is. You would sometimes panic and strike the water flimsily, but time after time, you will improve, and eventually, you won’t need anyone to lend you a hand or pull you up from the water.

In my Spanish learning journey, I have been listening to many podcasts in Spanish. Some of them are for Spanish learners and others are for the general public. Listening to these two types of podcasts serves two different purposes. When it comes to learning Spanish, I find it more effective to explain Spanish words and grammar rules in Spanish, simplifying the definition, using synonyms, and giving examples than just throwing in the English translation.

In the first method, you actively try to understand the meaning, making use of other things you learned in Spanish, which fortifies your past knowledge and links it constantly with the new one. While in the other you’re a passive receiver, you only make a quick comparison in your mind between the meaning of the English word and the context of the Spanish word.

The same goes for grammar. Learning grammar using the target language makes a lot of sense. Besides, the grammar terms are practically similar between English and languages such as French, Spanish, Italian, etc. For example, an adjective is adjectif in French and adjetivo in Spanish So, you just need to pay attention to the terms in the target language, besides, grammar is always explained by giving examples and practice questions.

Cues and creativity


You can use cues to fill in the gaps when you’re learning a second language without any help from your native language.

You can use cues to fill in the gaps when you're learning a second language without any help from your native language. Share on X

A gap is usually created when you let go of the first language. Say you’re reading a Spanish text without any English translation. What happens is that you’ll focus on what you know and make the best of it to understand the main ideas of the text. You can always look words up in a bilingual or a monolingual dictionary. Try to understand as much of the definitions as you can, go through the examples given in the dictionary, these are usually helpful, since they put words in context.

Let’s see an example from #Spanish:

I looked up the verb ayudar in the Spanish dictionary of the Real Academia Española

And here is what I found:

When should you stop using the first language in your second language learning? Summer Languages

The explanation given in Spanish might look overwhelming at first, but the more you look up words in monolingual dictionaries, the more it gets easier to understand the definitions of these words in the target language. You can understand the definitions by paying attention to keywords, making comparisons with words and structures you are familiar with and making calculated guesses. In that example, the Spanish denitions of verb ayudar include “Prestar cooperación… Hacer un esfuerzo, poner los medios para el logro de algo”. You may not understand everything, but if you use a few of the keywords here, such as cooperación, hacer un esfuerzo (make an effort), and algo (something). With the help of these keywords and their use in that specific context, you will be able to know that auydar means “to help”.

Moreover, when you read in the target language, you don’t have to understand the text word by word. A comprehensive and general understanding of the text is more of what you’re looking for.


The other method to include as much of the target language as possible is creativity.

I taught the French language, using French as the language of teaching, so many times including beginners’ classes. Yes, I admit that some students show resistance to this method because it is prone to make the learner proactive and active more than passive, this is why it is more effective than delivering everything with a translation tag.

To be creative, which can be applied by both teachers and learners, use different art forms, like drawing, images, props, videos, etc. I used a poem by Jacques Prévert to explain le passé composé, one of the past tenses in French. I explained the words by bringing props to the classroom and, in other instances, whenever possible, I used images or videos performing the story in the poem. If you’re interested, you can read the poem here If you like to explore the whole collection of poems in French here it is:

One of my colleagues told me once about a Japanese teacher who taught a beginners’ class all in Japanese, listen for this, to English speakers. I haven’t been there myself, so I can’t talk to that. But I think we can learn any language using only that language, at least after gaining a certain initial foundation.

Can you mix this method with translation from time to time? Certainly. But make sure to expose yourself to the second language as much as possible while learning it. This is how you learn how to swim… I mean how to speak that second language.

Yes, it takes time, but it is not time wasted. As a matter of fact, it is the best time invested, if done properly. Because you compare the new words and structures to the knowledge you are accumulating from that language, which means that you’re actively using that knowledge, maximizing your gain.

It also requires an extra effort, a good assortment of sources, and some prep time. But it’s all worth it.

Patience is key, repetition is gold.

Do you like this monolingual method? Have you tried it yourself before?

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