L1 vs Proficiency Level

I admit that when I started teaching English I had more willingness to learn how to do it than actual knowledge of how to actually do it. Most of what I did in classes were things that I had to do in the classroom as a student, and I tried my best to remember what those teachers I thought to be outstanding did in class to help me learn. Furthermore, there were a couple of rues that were so deeply ingrained in my mind that it was hard for me to allow for some flexibility and to see any kind of benefits for learners. One of these rules was the rule of “Portuguese (my L1) is forbidden in class”. As I studied English in an EFL setting, which means all learners shared the same L1, this rule made me believe that L1 was the bogeyman that would come to you and steal all English you may have learned in a class.

Use of L1 goes way beyond mere translation | Photo on Flickr by africatrip2039

Based on this experience, it was only natural that I frowned upon any remark that was in favor of L1 in the classroom. I didn’t really care much about how it was being used – it was definitely the worst thing that could happen to a student in a language class. Soon enough, after I was sure that I wanted to be an English teacher, I (fortunately?) had the chance to study about teaching and learning, and my perception of use of L1 in a classroom where all learners speak the same L1 changed quite a bit. There are many things I’d like to share with you regarding use of L1 in the classroom, but  I’ll start with only one in today’s post. This means a part 2 is definitely on the way, and who knows even a part 3. I’d love to read your comments on whether you agree or disagree with what I have to say, if possible. The main thing to keep in mind is that use of L1 in a classroom goes way beyond translation, and I hope to get to that in subsequent posts. So, shall I begin?

Use of L1 and Proficiency Level

As I’ve learned English quite a while ago, I’ve always felt like remembering what it was like to start learning a foreign language from scratch. I was lucky enough to have the chance to take German classes – a language I have never really had the chance to be in contact with. One of the things I noticed, as a student/researcher in the classroom was the fact that the teacher only spoke German in the class. This was actually good for me, as I could clearly see what a true beginner felt like in my classes. I tried my best to do everything I always tell students to do – I was always a volunteer in class, I took part in debates, group and pair work, I did my homework, and I studied regularly at home, and I didn’t skip a single lesson. It turns out this actually worked and I could understand most of what the teacher said in class. After our third test, I felt confident enough (and had already got good enough grades to pass) to try and do what some students do: I spent a week without attending lessons, I didn’t touch my books and notebooks, and I deliberately avoided any contact with the German language that could come my way. For one week I have done that…

Upon returning to classes, I was flabbergasted by the fact that I couldn’t understand anything that was said in class. It was as though I had been thrown into the class on that very same day. To make matters worse, the teacher was constantly asking me questions as I usually jumped at them. She soon learned that I couldn’t make head or tail of what she was saying.

Thinking about this situation and comparing it with what I experience in English, I could clearly see lots of differences. I can easily spend a week, a month, and even more without speaking English and still feel comfortable using it after this period. This has helped shape the use of L1 in the classroom by my learners. It’s much harmful for beginners to speak L1 in the classroom than it is for, let’s say, FCE students. The less we know a language, the more important it is for us to be presented with it in terms of input and the more important it is that we are asked to speak it. This is not an easy task on the teacher, though.

It’s the teacher’s role to be able to properly create communicative activities that will foster conversation in class at an appropriate level for the learners so that there can be effective scaffolding. If we accept that language learning is conversation-driven because we tend to engage in conversations that are meaningful to us, and that we learn best things that are meaningful to us, this means the teacher is responsible for creating activities that will do exactly that – allow learners to engage in meaningful conversation using whatever limited command of the language they may have.

The problem is how often I hear from students, parents, and even teachers that it’s OK for beginners to use L1 in class because, well, they’re just beginners. Just the same, I find it just as worrisome that these people also say that advanced learners can’t speak L1 because, well, they’re advanced learners. To be hones, I feel it should be exactly the other way around. Obviously, it’s much easier for teachers and for students to speak only in L2 once learners have become independent users of the language. However, it’s much more important for them to speak English only when they are still not independent in the target language.

When it comes to use of L1 and proficiency level in the target language, I believe it’s much better for learners to even be allowed to use L1 once they’ve become able to express themselves in the L2. If they’re still taking the first steps towards learning the target language, use of L1 is not forbidden, but teachers should be much more careful about it. Just as anything we do in class, L1 can be used to help learners. It should never, though, be used just to make the teacher’s life easier. If so, this might come at the learners’ expense of long-term learning and independence in the target language. L1 one is yet another tool available for the teacher – learning when and how to use this tool can make or break a lesson.

Truth be told, we make many decisions in class on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, I do feel that having some guidelines can help us make better informed decisions and lead us to further reflection once the class is over. In a nutshell, I feel that I should try much harder to avoid L1 with beginners that I should with advanced learners. How about you?

19 thoughts on “L1 vs Proficiency Level

  1. Interesting post. I have the same views as you, and do my utmost best to avoid L1 with my Starter and Teen 1’s. It isn’t easy though; from their standpoint, they will always insist on getting away with L1, and reverting to translation at a rate much higher than I would approve of.

    Still, I always emphasize, at the very beginning of a term, the importance of understanding the message, rather than translating word-by-word (which only makes it harder for their brains to process and assimilate). It has always proved both useful and accurate.

    Thanks for sharing,

    1. Hi Lucia,

      The main issue I hope to address in this and future posts is not to advocate for or agains translation. As you said, translating word for word is something that, in my opinion, jeopardizes learning. However, use of L1 goes a lot further than mere translation. I guess the very first thing we should do is always keep the conversation going with our learners. Making sure they understand why we do certain things in class is half way there to have them help you help them learn.

      Obviously it’s a lot harder for beginners to grasp the message, as you said. However, who said learning is easy? It takes effort to learn, doesn’t it? 🙂

      Many thanks for your contribution!

  2. HI Henrik,

    Not sure I agree. In NZ all language schools have an English only policy. Though I take on board your experiences (and my own as a Portuguese student) I tend to agree with this practise. In my opinion it forces a language learner (beginner though advanced) to practise critical thinking. When one explains a concept in an L1 language we´re teaching the student to revert to L1 to process thoughts, right? I think the ground rules need to be set at the very beginning for students and teachers alike – English only. The ole Keep It Simple Stupid rule.


    1. Hi Robert,

      I guess that the use of L1 should only be permitted when the teacher knows how to use that to his or her advantage. Otherwise, it’s likely that the use of L1 will hinder instead of help learning. One thing I’m not so sure is how often we help students to think in L2 simply because they’re not allowed to speak L1 in class. I do believe that sound knowledge of one’s L1 is a good starting point in L2 learning. I guess the use of L1 may be beneficial to learners if used appropriately. I hope to address some of these points in my next post – and hopefully get even more feedback regarding this topic.

      One thing that I keep thinking about, though, is how often we tend to rely on L1 to feel comfortable about having understood a point, as Andrea illustrates in her comment below.

      I’m looking forward to your contribution in the next post as well. 🙂

  3. I agree up to a certain point. Once I spent half an hour to explain the difference between house and home and when I finished, only one of the students said “Ahhh casa y hogar” and the rest of them sighed with relief after being told what I meant. I think that simple explanation could have saved valuable class time, and I could have gone on with English the rest of the class.

    1. Hi Andrea,

      This is one of the situations in which using L1 could help. Even though we’re teaching students certain strategies when we expect them to understand something that’s been explained in English only, we’ve also got to bear in mind what our objectives are in each part of the lesson. If we want our students to speak and use the language on their own, a quick and painless translation might give them another 10 minutes of practice in the target language, right? I think that’s exactly the point you’re making, and I guess we see eye to eye on this matter. I hope to make this clearer in the next post.

      Thanks for your comment!! 🙂

  4. What a great and interesting topics. This is something I think about very often and sometimes discuss with my collegues. I know most of students will complain if they are begginers or pre-intermediate that they don’t understand, for instance the grammar explained in English. I teach in high school and speak English all the time, but my students have obviously learned English with a lot of L1 in their Primary school, which can be a big shock when they enroll secondary school. I must say I agree with Lucia that the “importance is understanding the message and not word by word”. I remeber being on University and my Methodology teacher was Australin. He told us always to use L2 in class, and as you say it it’s the teacher’s job to make it more easier to the students (need more materials I would say espc. if you teach beginners), but he did mention if we’ve used everything at all and still we see our students confused faces we can explain sth in L1 as well. BTW, I think I also heard this on one of the seminars few years ago.

    My older son who is 8 says his teacher never speaks Croatian in an English class, and I must say being exposed to the language makesu learn it and understanding it better. I say this as my other son who doesn’t go to school watches English cartoons with such and ease and even speaks to me in English without even thinking, he just communicates.

    Thank you for writing this post and for showing us the way how a good student can improve or how you can lost all your progress if you don’t follow your classes regular.

    Marijana, Croatia

    1. Hi Marijana,

      We usually speak of fossilized mistakes, but we sometimes fail to see what else has been fossilized in terms of learning and teaching. A teacher who resorts to one technique only to explain things to students is actually preventing learners to develop an array of strategies to cope with unknown language – vocabulary or grammar. It doesn’t matter if the teacher resorts to pictures, mimes, drawings, or L1. No one technique should be used all the time.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I feel that we learn a lot more from observing things first-hand than simply by reading about them on a book. Your comment has made me think about a couple of other areas as well… 🙂

  5. I totally agree with you, Henrick. The use of L1 should not be forbidden in L2 classes, but graded according to Ss levels. The way I see it, the higher the level, the easier it is to make use of contrastive teaching of languages, raising Ss awareness of rules and collocations, chuncks of languages in different contexts. But my main concern is the use of what students call “translation” (for me it is simple transference, an attempt to find equivalents in both languages) among themselves, providing their peers with immediate answers in L1, ignoring the teacher’s efforts to create opportunities to the use of L2. How can we cope with that?

    1. Hi Aline,

      One of the most complicated things for teachers is coping with students who simply fail to follow what the teacher believes to be helpful for them. However, I guess there comes a time when we can’t exactly feel responsible for what goes on in the classroom. What we need to do, in my view, is talk to the students, explain why we would like them to act in this and not that way, talk to students privately if necessary, and create the right environment in the classroom so as to foster the right mindset we expect to see in it. That’s what I think we should do as teachers – we should do all that we can in order to keep things under control, treat students fairly, prevent one student from disrupting another student’s learning, and never give up on them. However, if we still fail to get the right response from students in the classroom by doing all we can, that’s when we should think of involving other people in the conversation to solve the problem. Does that make sense? 🙂

  6. A related story, just, at a recent summer school I taught at, the teenage boys were pretty lethargic unless I got them going, and one way was to learn Arabic words (being the dominant language of the class), mostly direct word-for-word translations, and drop them in during the story I was telling. The act of me actively wanting to learn from them made the atmosphere much more light-hearted. Having learned a new word from one boy, I’d then teach it to another Arabic speaker, correcting his pronunciation and checking he understood it by asking for an English translation. I don’t think you can lay down hard and fast rules of what is or isn’t acceptable in the classroom. Horses for courses (or an equivalent expression in Portuguese, please Rick!)

    1. Hi David,

      A lot more goes into place when we think about learning, huh?! I guess the key point your story illustrates is how to motivate them. Isn’t motivation one of the best indicators of success? No fast rules, no straight jackets. To each his own, right? I really can’t think of a Portuguese expression right now… I’ll keep trying to think of one! 🙂

  7. Hi Henrick,

    I agree with your way of thinking here – with beginners (and young learners), there are great benefits to be reaped when the teacher communicates in the target language. At that level, exposure to L2 needs to be maximised and this is one of the most obvious ways to do so.

    I remember when I first started to teach kids, I just accepted that I would need to use a certain amount of Turkish (their L1) in class to support their learning and reduce stress levels. In a way, it was also a relief as my previous employer had a blanket ban on any use of Turkish in the school. However, I soon experienced frustration as some kids would just wait for L1 explanations before starting an activity or task. Others would come to me in breaktime and ask in Turkish about my family, hobbies etc – even though we had covered the relevant strucutres and vocab just the lesson before!! Getting them to use the language they were learning was a real challenge…

    So I started to ‘play dumb’ and act like I didn’t know Turkish. At first, it was tough and I would often get visits at the start of the school year from concerned parents as their child was stressing out. It wouldn’t take long for it to turn around though and usually by the end of October/early November, my classes would be asking me all sorts of things in English and improvising with the language they knew.

    I should also point out that I have no problem with students helping each other out with a quick translation here or there. In fact, as I can actually understand what they are saying, it means I am able to monitor how accurate that help is. 🙂

  8. Thought provoking post and comments, Henrik, which seems to turn what most teachers (that I know, at least) believe about L1 use on its head.

    It seems to me that regardless of whether teachers are pro or anti L1 use, they need to be aware of the potential and the dangers of translation.

    Also, it’s a great piece of classroom action research – categorizing and analyzing a teacher’s L1 use.

    1. Hi Mark,

      You pretty much said it all in your second sentence. Teachers do need to be aware of the potential and the dangers of use of L1. I just believe that the very first thing we should do is stopping equating L1 to translation. A lot of other processes take place when we think about a language than mere translation, right? 🙂

  9. Hi Henrick!
    I enjoy the L1 discussions because there are so many viewpoints here! Great post!

    L1 in the classroom? ABSOLUTELY!! Expected to speak English in the classroom? ABSOLUTELY! When a teacher builds a culture of expecting their students to use English in the classroom…and the students are ‘aware’ that they are expected to speak English…we as teachers must understand the “intentions” of what we want students to learn in the classroom.

    Do we want students to just speak English, or do we want students cognitively challenged and speak English. Beginners neeeed their L1 to do their thinking, and it is not until they have enough ‘labels’ in their additional language that they will be able to speak the target language. My intention for students is to make sure that they are thinking and making connections to their own lives with meaning. The ‘labels’ of the target language come after time and good scaffolding from their teachers. If a student needs to demonstrate their learning/understanding in their L1, I really do care: I want them to understand first, so that they can effectively add their additional language to that understanding. Give them the word “home or house” in their native language? ABSOLUTELY. It is just a label….and then move on.

    I share and celebrate all students L1 in the classroom (they are all learning English together), and make it safe for them to go into their home languages to assure that they are “thinking and understanding”. They are expected to try what they can in English, and that is where I help with the scaffolding. Eventually in my classroom, student peers take over my role of scaffolding and they work with each other/help each other develop the language. Students are intrinsically rewarded as trust is built In the classroom community and culture.

    It doesn’t matter if I can speak a students home language…but if I can use words in their home language to build understanding, why wouldn’t I use it? My intention for students learning in English is to learn concepts and content immersed in the target language over time.

    all the best for now,

    1. Hi Susi,

      I honestly have nothing else to add after such a comment! The point is whether or not we should neglect the fact that learning an L2 goes through a different process from learning one’s L1. I’m not saying we should go back to CAH, but this doesn’t mean dismissing things out of hand. If we observe any language learner, their use of L1 sticks out and slap you on the face! This also doesn’t mean that we should, then go back to L1 all the time. Much on the contrary, as you said very well, we should challenge and provide them with opportunities to use the newly acquired L2 in a meaningful way. Scaffolding is key, at least as far as today – who knows what will be discovered in the years to come, right?!

      Many thanks for such comprehensive input. It’s certainly added to the discussion! 🙂

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