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.
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?