L1: to use or not to use?

Trying to come up with a right or wrong answer for this question is just like trying to get to the right place following this sign... | Photo on Flickr by Eric Kilby

On my previous post, I wrote about the use of L1 regarding the proficiency level of the learners, and I did say there would be another post on the matter. I’ve been thinking about the situations in which I believe L1 can be used effectively when it comes to learning, and so far this is what I got:

Using L1 in the classroom is a much more than mere translation of words and phrases per se

I guess one of the reasons why so many teachers still frown upon the thought of using translation in the classroom is the fact that they equate any use of L1 to the boring lessons based on Grammar Translation that they had in classes. If teachers use L1 as a way to simply translate words and phrases and instantly become a walking-talking bilingual dictionary in class, there’s something wrong with the use of L1 in the classroom.

In his How to teach vocabulary, Scott Thornbury says that the more informed decisions and the more we know about a word, the easier it is for us to retrieve it. I guess this applies to anything else that is being taught. If we make use of L1 to help students make a contrastive analysis of L1 and L2, if we use L1 to illustrate differences and similarities between L1 and L2, and if such use helps a learner make things more personal, then it might be a good idea to use L1 in the classroom.

One of the uses I have already found to be effective is when we use L1 to compare sayings and idioms. I do enjoy using humour in the classroom, so you’d more often than not hear me saying silly things in class. I’ve already noticed students, quite often, remembering something because of one of the silly jokes or anecdotes. There’s nothing new there, I suppose. For instance, one day during an exam prep class, students had difficulties in one of the items that asked them to change VIABLE into a noun. When we were correcting it, I just told them that you should be rooting for your abilities. In Portuguese, we’d say “Vai, someone” when we want to encourage or support them. On many other occasions when they were asked to write the word, they made no mistakes.

Literal translations of expressions can also be used if you ask them to find the correct equivalent in L2. The point is whether or not the idea is more important than the words themselves, that’d be good use of L1.

L1 should be seen as yet another resource in the teacher’s toolkit to generate understanding

Before we think about banning or using L1 in the classroom, I think we should look at it for what it is: yet another resource we have available to help learners understand what is being said in L2. Just like any other resource we have at hand such as images, mimes, drawings, songs, videos, limericks and what have you, L1 is yet another resource than, just like all others, can be used poorly or effectively. Just as we’re trying to keep up with all the new technological advances in order to teach people who are more and more dependent on technology, we should stop awhile and reflect on how to properly use L1 in the classroom.

Analyse your aims and allow yourself to use L1

One of the comments to the last post, Andrea’s, were exactly about this. If you have decided that your learners should talk for 10 minutes of the lessons, and you are asked a vocabulary question while they’re doing the activity, you have to decide on how to deal with this doubt. Well, if you expect THEM to do the talk and there’s an allotted time, and you know it’ll take you quite a while to explain the word(s), it makes a lot more sense for you to simply translate it outright. In 2 seconds, students are ready to continue with their talk, and you won’t have got in the way of their stream of thought. Needless to say, it’d be nice to find a way to go back to these vocabulary questions later on so as to recycle, revisit, retrieve… well, what we usually do to help them with vocabulary.

Your learners can’t get used to speaking L1 and getting an answer

In a monolingual class, and when the teacher shares the L1 with the learners, it’s quite easy to hear what students are saying in L1 and reply. I honestly think teachers should train themselves not to respond to what learners say in L1 on most occasions. More often than not, students use L1 to make remarks which are unrelated to the topic of the lesson, or it’s something that they have already learned how to say in L2. We can’t, obviously, simply become completely oblivious to any L1 utterance in class. The point is being able to correctly judge whether or not that’s something that really needs an answer or if it’s something that learners are saying just because they don’t want to participate in the class. Are they being lazy, or they really can’t say what they are trying to say in L2? I’ve already seen students who can clearly understand what their teachers say in L2, but can’t say the same things in L2. Comprehensible input is important, but comprehensible output is equally as important. If you don’t require them to use what they’ve learned in L2 from the very beginning, this is likely to become fossilized, and it’ll be harder and harder for them to use L2 as structures become more complex.

It’s somewhat complicated to prevent learners from sharing opinions in their L1 among themselves, but we can get there by showing them we’re paying attention to our surroundings and listening to instances of L1 in the classroom.

Is that all?

Absolutely not! This is not meant to be a comprehensive list – it’s just a couple of thoughts regarding the use of L1 in class that I wanted to share with you and perhaps hear what you’ve got to say. I always try to keep an open mind when it comes to receiving criticism, and if by any chance I have to come back here and contradict everything I’ve said thus far, no problems! Fortunately no one is the bearer of the ultimate truth! Just like with anything else, use your common sense when it comes to use of L1 in the classroom. This means that you ought to be actively listening to your students and teaching according to their reactions. Fortunately, there’s no definitive guide to the classroom, and I don’t there’ll ever be one! 🙂

20 thoughts on “L1: to use or not to use?

  1. Good ideas! No need to be a fundamentalist either for or against the use of L1 in class. I totally agree to the idea of handling L1 as another supporting resource rather than placing it at the methodological core of the teaching-learning process or to definitely reject it.

  2. Hey Henrick-

    I’m going to go against the grain (and appear to be a fundamentalist). I’ve read your wonderful post and it makes me think twice, as I’ve seen Ken Wilson talk very eloquently about using L1 in class.

    And yet, as a learner I know how important immersion is. Maybe it’s not something we can easily achieve in a classroom, but it’s still always been one of my pursuits. The challenge, of course depending on the level, is that students aren’t comfortable speaking in L2 naturally with their L1 classmates.

    I’ve used L1 in lower level classes because it’s necessary, but I challenge intermediate and higher level students to try to abandon it when they walk through that door. I’ve tried to be a fundamentalist who bans it (DOESN’T WORK) but I’ll mildly frown upon it and encourage the students to only speak in L2.

    Your post softens my angle, though I think I’ll always discourage L1 in class when possible. Is that too teacher-centered ?

    Thanks for the post ! Cheers, brad

    1. When you speak of immersion, are you talking from a point-of-view where the students aren’t living in an English-speaking culture? With my students, immersion is available to students outside the classroom, 24 hours a day, should they choose. Of course, they never do. Most live with students with the same L1 and spend free time with friends of the same L1. As young adults or adults, students have the ability to be immersed in less controlled environments, which ultimately are more natural language practice situations, no?

      I’ve always thought that the classroom should be the place to feel safe, comfortable and unstressed about language use. I’m not suggesting you don’t, but to require L2 only, there’s obviously other priorities you hold value in. The only time I restrict students’ use of L1 is when it gets completely out of control (rare) or during tests.

      The other situation that is a little rarer for me is that my classes are dominated by Mandarin speakers (17 Mandarin / 1 Russian / 1 Korean), so I try to instill an empathy in the Mandarin speakers about what it must feel like for the other two.

      1. First off, I think we’re all considering our own contexts and they’re each wonderfully different. It reminds me of the Indian tale of the blind men and the elephant (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant) where each is touching a different parts of the elephant and saying “Oh, and elephant is soft and blubbery (feeling the belly)” “No, no, an elephant is long and thin (holding its tail)… etc.

        @Tyson I was reflecting generally on immersing oneself in a language no matter the context, from a personal perspective. I can be in France and immerse my thoughts in Chinese. This has been among the greatest assets to my personal language-learning process and it’s an insight I’ve attempted to communicate with students, though that might not be their style (which is a whole nutha can of worms).

        In the end, I think the specific situation is what is most important in determining L1/L2 use in the classroom.

        Most of my recent experience has been with intermediate, upper intermediate students who understand but cannot comfortably express themselves in English. How do we get them to the next step where they can ? I think it’s largely through seeking their expression, and modeling what they’ve previously heard as common modes of communication.

        I think this brings me back to the question, “Is my point-of-view” teacher-centered and based on my learning experience which is that: at a certain level, if we continue to remain passive, or rely on L1, we won’t leap over those learner humps that keep us at lower plateaus in confidence, ability and growth. I’ve always been about activating my students in L2, trying to squeeze as much focus and exploration there as I can.

        I must say that reading all these comments has softened my perspective, and yet there’s a part of me that projects and hopes for something that might not feel realistic for many situations. In the end, I trust myself to react to the current environment and feedback students provide.

        Always a pleasure exploring our diverse approaches. Thanks Henrick, Paco, Tyson and Priscilla !

  3. I agree immersion is the right way to L2 natural acquisition but, according to my experience, the classroom is no natural setting at all – at least it is not so for secondary compulsory education – and there’s a series of constraints such as timing, grading, group size, motivation, etc that determine quality, quantity and nature of the students’ outcome. I always foster the use of L2 in class, and L2 is always used in teacher-student(s), student(s)-teacher, communication, and most students use it when they’re addressing the whole group; however, all the kids share L1, so it’s difficult and/or unnatural for them to use a foreing language for one-to-one small talk. Nevertheless, I’m sure students will feel more at ease when tackling a foreing language in different settings (highly motivated learners, multicultural or smaller groups, adults, …). Besides, as it’s been mentioned above, I agree that L1 comes handy when students face new idioms or to explain semantic nuances.

  4. Hey Paco-

    I’ll agree with what you say and will make the precision that my teaching context has been mostly with more advanced learners and also smaller groups. This is very different when compared to secondary compulsory courses as you’ve described them. In my context, it’s been plausible to encourage students to avoid L1 and I’m stubborn in my position that I think there is a lot of value in that, may it feel natural or not, when we let go of our native tongue and try to swim in a foreign language… that effort… that searching… it’s something I feel is missing in many classrooms and it’s been a constant search of my own to find a way to incorporate it.

    I agree, though, the classroom setting can feel unnatural at times and falling back into L1 can provide a bit of relief, or simply be what students need to do to not feel too awkward. It all depends, though I’ll always play the devil’s advocate when it comes to L1 use 😉

  5. Hey, guys!

    Well, I agree that the more exposure to L2 a student gets the better. However, I do believe L1 has its place in the classroom if we take the learner’s perspective.

    Let me put you in the picture: I teach teens and kids, who come to the course only twice a week, mostly not because of the learning itself, but because they will get to chat a little more with their friends – needless to say these are monolingual groups. As any other YLs classroom the energy levels are high, the excitement is there and the behavior issues are certainly part of it too. I just find it impossible that these kids will just shut up and not produce a single word unless it is in English. That just won’t happen.

    Some reasons why: 1- they are really excited to talk about something ‘extra’ that the language they have is simply not enough – plus the speed of their thoughts won’t allow them to get their message across in L2 yet (too much brain processing); 2- they might be just too young and not mature enough to understand they should try and use English whenever possible; 3- they are there because their parents told them so, and not using L2 is their way of rebelling against.

    How the teacher will react to those uses is the key to have them little by little abandoning L1 and choosing L2. I’m so pro the use of L1 as part of a teacher’s toolkit!

    I think students using L1 in class is not a big issue as long as they cope with the activities they are invited to do in L2. I try not to ‘understand’ what they’re saying in L1, though. If you do the right tricks, by the end of the course they will all be using L2 naturally. Also, if they relate to the teacher in English most of the times and those which are not in L2 are just because they didn’t find a way to express what they wanted to, I wouldn’t give them a killing look. Instead, I’d praise them for the attempt, help with the language (or provoke them to find it) and come up with a situation to make them need to use that language again, now in L2.

    As for the VYPs (very young people), the holophrastic stage in L2 would do fine! =)


  6. Hmm… I guess there’s one thing we all agree on: L1 is not something that should be encouraged in the classroom, it’s just another tool we have to help learners. And just like any other tool, it must be used only when the teacher knows why he or she is making use of it if it is to help instead of hinder.

    I guess the main point of disagreement is whether or not we should ban it entirely. As I said before, I’ve been there once and I used to firmly believe that L1 should be forbidden at all costs. As I became more experienced and started reflecting more on my experiences both as a teacher and as a learner, I sort of started changing my mind. It’s certainly a controversial topic, and I must say I feel most of us have not been taught how to effectively make use of L1 in class instead of simply using it to provide learners with a word-for-word translation.

    A couple of points raised are going to make me keep thinking about it even further:

    – “when we let go of our native tongue and try to swim in a foreign language… that effort… that searching… it’s something I feel is missing in many classrooms” – I do agree with this bit, Brad. It is something that’s missing and that’s why I think there are many students who can understand L2, but can’t produce anything. We, teachers, should definitely try to get them to use L2 as much as possible.

    – “the classroom is no natural setting at all” – This is also something to ponder on. No matter how hard we try to recreate an authentic environment in the classroom, it’ll never cease to be a classroom. Activities may be planned to simulate real life situations, but they’ll always be activities.

    – “If you do the right tricks, by the end of the course they will all be using L2 naturally” – That’s what I believe in, too. One example is when we promote activities outside the classroom with students and they tend to resort to L1 because of excitement and lack of language to say things in L2. It’s funny to see how they simply switch back to L2 just because the other people around are speaking L2 – no need to tell them to do so. This works for some activities, but might not always be effective. We’ve got to bear in mind the activities that are taking place to find the best solution to encourage L2 use.

    I guess that I’m still trying to find ways to better make use of L1 in the classroom even though I know I should always encourage learners to use L2 as much as possible. I try to plan my lessons and conduct the activities to allow for L2 use only, and I’m sure we can do that. Yet, I think L2 is not exactly a monster in the language classroom; even less so in an EFL context where all learners share the same L1, and most times that’s the same L1 of the teacher. It all comes down to learning how to go beyond translation, which is entirely different from using L2 in the classroom in my opinion.

    Many thanks for your comments, guys! That’s why I like blogs for PD so much. There’s always the chance to hear different opinions from people who teach in different countries, different contexts… Many thanks indeed! 🙂

  7. I have always hated the idea of an English-Only policy and the resulting punishments for delinquency that come with it. In every school except the university I’m at now, it’s been forced upon me. I say me, because to my chagrin, students continuously reported that they wanted this policy and were upset when action wasn’t taken to strictly enforce it.

    What it comes down to is a misguided belief of the value of L1 to learners, whether its use in the classroom, its weight depending on level or its hindrance to proficiency. Like your experience, it likely stems from some previous classroom experience, which has shaped how all these participants feel about L1.

    1. Hi Tyson,

      I believe that any extreme is likely to cause more harm than good. I think an English-only policy might even make the teacher focus more on language than communication. I’ve been thinking about interlanguage and where it comes into play. How much does L1 interfere with learning of L2? Most importantly, how much does it prevent learning from taking place, or how much does it help it? We’re in need of reassurance from time to time – we need to know whether what we believe we have understood is actually what we were supposed to have grasped. L1 is just another resource we have available to make sure we’ve got it.

      Expecting students not to translate nor to use L1 at all is pretty much like telling first-term students that they shouldn’t care about unknown words if they could understand the message. To be honest, even in L1, when you clearly understand the message, unknown words “leap out” – to borrow from a recent session by Jeff Stranks. Ignoring the benefits of guided and thoughtful use of L1 may be just as harmful as only making use of it in the classroom. However, the very first person to learn how to deal with it appropriately should be the teacher.

    1. Hi Aleksandra,

      Common sense seems to be extremely helpful in many areas of life…. it’s just too bad many people still lack it.

      Thanks for dropping by and for leaving a comment! 🙂

  8. This is great, but unfortunately, in places like Japan, L1 is completely forbidden in use by learners under the care of a native English speaker, and by the native English teacher themselves. Obviously, they’re are perfectly valid reasons to use l1 (the learners are showed to use l1 only with Japanese teachers mainly), but if a parent or adult learner encounters or hears that (Japanese, as they don’t care about other learners’ first language use if they are from different countries, usually, even if they are in the classroom) is used, the teacher will either be reprimanded and/or asked to speak only English. In some cases, I’ve been asked to IGNORE learners speaking Japanese.

    What’s frustrating is, even with a full, Trinity College Diploma in ELT, most Japanese bosses, parents or staff will ignore foreigners’ English teaching skills and experience, in order to placate the ignorance of parents just enough to make money.

    So, if you want to use L1 in teaching, don’t come to Japan!

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