L1 in the language classroom

Is there room in today’s language classroom for the use of L1? I distinctly remember that when I started studying L2 a long time ago, translation was unthinkable. Teachers had to use L1 and L1 alone. Perhaps that had something to do with Krashen and his Comprehensible Input hypothesis. But then again, perhaps most teachers were simply doing as they were told, no questions asked – something sort of “hey, this is what everybody is doing, so why should we do things differently?” Even though most teachers from bygone times I’ve had a chance to talk to have always shown a solid knowledge of methodology and the ability to think critically, I must admit I don’t believe all teachers were that conscientious of their practices. But I leave this to someone who’s had the chance to work directly with people from different schools, and the more people the better, to answer.

However, coming back to the past 15 years or so, I can say that, unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of “teachers” out there who have very little knowledge of what they’re doing and who are just fine with it. This is not exclusive to the world of ELT – but it’s the world of ELT the one I live in. Hence, the one I’m most comfortable to talk about. Just like I’ve seen many teachers saying they abide by the principles of CLT, but can’t actually say what CLT is nor can they think of any procedure carried out in the classroom that is communicative. Instead, these teachers just walk into a classroom and talk to their students. The thing is, they’re not paying attention to their students’ learning – they’re just talking. I wish these teachers had heard of Dogme so they could perhaps turn things around and realise how much learning can deride from a conversation – but Dogme is not the trend, so they won’t say they teach *ahem* “dogme-itically”.

These days, a lot has been said about Lexis and then all those teachers claim they abide by the principles of both CLT and the Lexical Approach. They don’t even care they haven’t read any of the books – as long as this is the way to go, that’s what they claim they do. And, to finally come back to L1 in the classroom, I still see many teachers who don’t give it any thought and simply reproduce what they’ve been told in training sessions. If they work for a school that says that L1 in the classroom is cool, that’s what they defend. If they start working for a school whose beliefs shun L1 in the classroom, God forbid they ever hear someone says using L1 is OK.

But then, at the risk of provoking some outspoken criticism, I’ll put in my two cents’ worth. I believe there is a time and a place for L1 in the L2 classroom. The problem doesn’t lie in this regard – it lies in the fact that some teachers haven’t been trained to learn how to judiciously use L1 in the classroom. They either overuse it, or punish students for making use of L1. Just like teachers can’t rely on pictures all the time their students ask for the meaning of a word, they can’t take the soft way out and resort to L1 all the time. This is particularly true when it comes to single-word lexical items. However, if a teacher asks his students to, for instance, discuss in groups about a certain topic for 10 minutes, it’s way more sensible to answer a quick vocabulary question that would otherwise have taken 1 minute to be explained by translating it and letting the students carry on the conversation. At this stage, they’re supposed to do the talking, not the listening. It’s not only comprehensible input, but comprehensible output as well.

To sum it up, even though I believe that there’s a time and place for L1 in the classroom, I believe that it should be used as little as possible, and mainly as a last resource during most of the lesson. Actually, I even encourage and expect teacher to use L1 only with students in and out of class. This is particularly important in an EFL setting, I suppose. Learners have to interact with one another and the teacher in the target language, but this doesn’t mean L1 is to be banned. But it takes a teacher who’s knowledgeable and resourceful to know when to use L1 (and all other resources we have at hand) effectively. Unfortunately, it seems teacher education is less and less valued.

13 thoughts on “L1 in the language classroom

  1. Henrich,

    Always a good topic for teachers to think over/through!

    Oh I definitely support you in both – a) the belief that there is a deficit of teachers that really know what they believe (and long timers included) b) the use of timely L1 in the classroom.

    You might also make a distinction between teacher/student. Teachers should have different criteria than students, for the use of the L1. Students should, might I say “must” be allowed to use the L1 at all times, as long as it is part of the “process of enacting meaning” in the classroom and not an aside. I love watching master teachers as they speak English and students reply in L1 but are still engaged with learning English and acquiring language.

    Here are my own humble “times” for L1 use by teachers. Would like to know if you agree/disagree?

    1. Instructions. But be careful. If it can be done in English effectively, do so. Also, have a signal for the use of L1. I use at all times, a basketball, time out signal. This allows the brain to delineate and compartment. It really works! Then signal again, time out over, play on……

    2. Beginners. But be careful. Only with beginners who are maybe older, more fearful of learning language. I don’t advocate this with children or those before puberty.

    3. Language comparison. Very useful to explain the grammatical and syntactical differences between languages. As said above, use a time out signal!

    4. Classroom management. Careful. Only for serious issues when dire communication needs to be done.

    5. Personal. When dealing with definitions or questions of an abstract nature that can’t be communicated simply or quickly in English. Done with one student or just a few and you quickly relate the L1 equivalent. Then move on….

    1. Hi David,

      It’s a delicate matter in my teaching context and we’ve got to constantly revisit it. When you mention the distinction between teachers and students in regard of L1 language, I (partially?) agree with you. I believe that when teachers respond to what students say in L1 using L2, this actually encourages learners to make use of L2. I’ve witnessed this quite often, even in extra-curricular activities. We do carry these out to foster meaningful use of L2, but we don’t tell students off for making use of L1. What naturally happens is that they shift from L1 to L2 because they’re being talked to in L2. However, as you said, sometimes their command of L2 is too limited to enact meaning. In this situation, I agree we should allow learners to use L1. Yet, how often should these situations come up in a lesson? If the lesson is engaging and carefully planned, we’ll end up making use “only” of language that’s within the grasp of learners. I also enjoy seeing leaners responding in L1 and being able to fully understand what they’re spoken to in L2, but it’s also important they understand the importance of production (in comparison to reception, in this case listening) in their learning experience.

      I liked the time out signal. I used to have an L1 area in the classroom where students (and the teacher) had to go if they wanted to use L1. But the time out signal may actually be more meaningful depending on the age and level of the students. Instructions have to be delivered clearly if we expect students to actually fulfill the aims of the tasks. What I sometimes do is, after explaining and modeling (if necessary), ask a student to explain what they’re supposed to do and allow them to use L1 if they can’t explain it in L2.

      Using L1 to compare certain grammar structures and even some vocabulary differences (idioms, sayings, and alike, for example) does seem to help students finally get the “OH!!! So I had understood it before” feeling. 🙂

      Thank you for all your comments and contribution to the conversation! 🙂

    1. Hi Teresa!

      Great to hear that! I’ll definitely pay a visit to your blog and try to write a comment to your post as soon as possible. 🙂

  2. Interesting post and I agree with your comments on poor methodology. I used to teach for schools where L1 in the classroom was considered a complete NO! This was in Poland, few of the native speakers spoke Polish anyway, though we learnt a bit.

    Now I’m in Spain, I’ve started here as a fairly experienced teacher, but a novice of Spanish, but where most teachers speak it. I’m following others however, who have used L1 injudiciously in the classroom. I can tell this from my students behaviour, I also spoke to the school directors, who were aware of an overuse of L1, but admit to letting the matter ‘slide’.

    As result, I’ve spent a frustrating year trying to get the students (particularly 9-10 yr olds), to listen to instructions and watch examples and models in English before attempting activities – they’ve clearly been used to L1 instructions. Also, in terms of behaviour, trying to cut down the L1 chat as well as trying to be as nice as possible when they want to tell me something, but can only use Spanish, so I can’t understand them even though I’d love to hear what they have to say.

    I think it’s extremely important for schools to have a policy regarding L1, as teachers come and go, but the school culture should stay the same. Furthermore, I’ve come across lots of teachers who want to learn the L1 and will use the classroom as a place to do this, which is completely wrong.

    1. Hi Richard,

      I must say that, unfortunately, your last remark (teachers who want to learn L1) is a reality I’ve already witnessed and it’s definitely not the way to go. However, I believe some schools overlook such matters because NESTs are still seen as the language experts and, as such, they tend to get some privileges. Kids and teens tend not to be bothered by such behaviour and even find it cool. Adults, on the other hand, seem to be more critical on the matter – after all, they’re spending their own money.

      I agree with your point of view of having a school policy that will refrain teachers from resorting to L1 as often as they feel like. As a matter of fact, this is what we’ve implemented in our school – in the beginning of the semester, all teachers and students are given a set of rules which are to be followed by everyone in the school, and speaking the target language is the very first one of them. There aren’t many rules, and teacher can actually set some ground rules with their groups on their own, but in order for certain things to work, I believe we need a unified policy. After it’s been decided, it’s up to the teachers and the Director of Studies to make sure this rule is being followed. Usually teachers understand the value of such rule, which makes our jobs way much easier. 🙂

      It’s definitely frustrating when you are the only one trying to do something in a school. I don’t know how long you kept your students, but here it’s for 6 months only – not enough time to change what they were used to doing. And then, the worst happens – teachers start competing for popularity. Too bad the directors couldn’t realise how serious such matter can be in the long run. But then again, it all depends on what they’re trying to accomplish, right?!

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. HI Henrick,
    Great Post!!
    I also work as an English language specialist, and i work with 5-6 year olds, who are still emerging with their mother tongue language. As they are in school developing their proficiency in an L2 (or L3), I constantly encourage the students to translate new words back into their home language–or even explain it to me in their home language. Why? It benefits the learner, supports comprehension and builds confidence. Learning is about making connections neuron-to-neuron. If students can build their content understanding through translating–I do not see that as a mistake–isn’t understanding and making connections the goal?

    In the classroom, there is in appropriate time and place for L1, that is scaffolded for them by me, which is my job as the teacher. Setting up your systems, routines, and procedures is the key strength of a good educator, while consistency and fairness build respectful boundaries for learning and taking risks. You want ENGLISH (or any target language) ONLY in the classroom? Set up your students to VALUE and respect that classroom time in English, praise and reward their efforts–no school policy can police L1–is the job of a good teacher to help build that culture.

    One last thought: In the world of multilingualism, we do KNOW that the best predictor of a strong L2, L3 is the strength of a learner’s L1.

    1. Hi Susi,

      Thanks for the compliment! Glad you enjoyed it! Your situation is rather different from mine, but it’s one that interests me a lot as it allows for some study of SLA theories. I share your view in regards to the idea of understanding and making connections, and I also agree with the fact that translating might build confidence. And, just as you said, it’s what really matters! 🙂

      As far as classroom behaviour goes, kudos! I couldn’t agree more. It’s up to the teacher to scaffold, provide comprehensible input, and make sure there are enough opportunities for learners to use the target language. It’s all about team work – teachers and students must understand the importance of using L2 only in the classroom. I really can’t say for sure how 5 – 6 year-olds react to this, but pre-teens, teens and adults seem to understand it when you have an honest talk with them and treat them fairly.

      And regarding the school policy, I think that’s the only point I have a slight different point of view. Just like it’s up to the good teachers to make sure their learners will use and understand the value of L1 in the classroom, it’s up to the director of studies to imbue teachers with the importance of using L2 in the school ground. Obviously, this is much more easily accomplished in small schools, but if we’re lucky to have a team instead of “occasional” teachers, it might work. Not only the DoS or the coordinators would be the L1 police, but also other teachers. If all work together, it can become part of the school culture. Wouldn’t you agree?

      I’m very much interested in reading and learning more about multilingualism and the effect of L1 in L2, L3, and L4 learning. Have you got any suggested reading for me?

      Thanks for your comments! 🙂

  4. Good points, Susi, but I wondered about “no school policy can police L1–is the job of a good teacher to help build that culture.”

    Maybe not, but surely it’s the job of the school to create a culture where the teachers actually do it?! Especially in language academies where there is a high staff turnover. Also, with inexperienced teachers, surely there needs to be a lot of support for the teachers before they have the ability to build there own classroom culture. Therefore, new teachers fitting in with a school culture or ‘policy’ would surely make more sense?

    I suppose above all else it depends on the situation.

    1. Hi Henrick and Richard,
      I love our conversation we are having!!

      School policies are tricky aren’t they? School policy sends the “main” message, but it is really the CoLLABORATIVE and culture of respect and VALUE to that school policy that brings home the pay at the end of the day. I agree with having school policy, but wonder how can a school “police” broken policy–that for me is the tricky part. (just realizing that “police” and “policy” are only one letter off….hmmm)

      If there is a “English only” policy in place at a school for example, and teachers/or Instructional Assistants allow for the students to speak in the host country language, (let’s just say Spanish), during classroom time, what message does that really send to the learner? There is already a school policy is in place, but….oops, breakdown of the system. Hence…call the language police? This is the tricky part, and this is the part that has always concerned me. So again, i bring it back to teachers. Teachers are amazing people with great responsibilities. But first, a teacher must VALUE a school policy, and that is through good administration and professional development.

      Second, I have found newbie teachers are some of the most enthusiastic people to try to do the right things…they are eager and ready to please! If there is a school policy in place, it has been my experience that new hires are ready to support the policy, but they will ‘do’ what they see other colleagues ‘model’ for them.

      Next, for Henrick: L1, L2, L3–Jim Cummins, Stephen Krashen are the go to guys.

      Great conversation! I am enjoying everyone view points…good for thinking.

      1. Hi Susi,

        Great conversation indeed. I guess we see eye to eye on the matter of creating a school culture. Trying to implement things by use of force has never, and will never, work in the long run. I’d say, then, that the most difficult part is hiring the right people to work together. If we can put together a group of people who share the same values, or even if they don’t, are willing to do what the group has decided to do, things run smoothly.

        If there isn’t good administration or if teachers feel that the school isn’t concerned with their growth, they do tend to lose heart and stop believing in the institution. On the other hand, if the administration is worried about teacher development and provide teachers with as many chances as possible to grow, this conveys the idea of caring about what the school does.

        And finally, teachers are the ones who run the show. If they decide they aren’t going to do A or B, or if they decide they are going to do X or Y, there’s very little that can be done. I couldn’t agree more with you – it’s paramount that teachers believe in the place they’re working in for things to work. It’s up to the administration to make sure all are working towards the same aim, and also to let go those who aren’t. Otherwise, teachers may start feeling there is a discrepancy between what’s preached and what’s actually done.

        I don’t think we should have people to enforce the use of L2, but all should encourage its use through word and deed. This seems to suffice in most cases. Do you agree with me? And this means that, in the classroom, teachers are responsible for making decisions.

        Thank you for the links – I’m very much in touch with what these two have to say. I was actually thinking of something related to bilingualism or 3rd and 4th language acquisition. I believe this happens differently from 2nd language acquisition. 🙂

  5. A topic I do like. I love your statement that many teachers subscribe to CLT, but don’t know what it means. I ask every potential teacher what CLT means to them. The majority can’t even answer the question. Most of the rest answer that it means they ask questions and the students respond. The very small number with a real answer get hired.

    As for L1 use, I agree with David. I wrote about it here a long time ago http://turklishtefl.com/2009/09/30/using-turkish-in-the-classroom/

    It’s a sad fact that most foreign teachers couldn’t use L1 even if they wanted to and native speakers of the L1 overuse it. It’s rare to find a teacher that can handle the balance and, as you said, there is rarely training done on the issue and teachers rarely think critically about the practice.

    1. Hi Nick,

      Isn’t it funny? Why don’t they simply say they don’t know much about it? I mean, it’s better for teacher trainers to know that beforehand and arrange for proper training than to waste valuable time in the wrong assumption that they will be understood when certain concepts are brought up. As you said, those few with a real answer have far more chances of getting the job.

      The problem is exactly that – finding the balance. However, this can only be achieved if the teacher is resourceful enough to function in many different ways in the classroom. Oh, it all goes back to sharing, learning, and growing – on the teachers’ side! But as long as teachers don’t understand it’s OK not to know everything and ask for help, it’ll be difficult for the situation to change.

      Thank you for sharing the post. It seems we’re on the same page. 🙂

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