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.