L1 in the classroom?

I generally tend to read ELT blogs rather than ELT magazines: I like the authenticity on the page, the immediacy of opinions, the lack of pretension and love all the dialogues which naturally emerge from readers - however sometimes someone writes something that gives me pause and makes me do a rethink.

This month's Voices, the IATEFL magazine, contains an article written by Ali Bastanfar, a Ph.d student and lecturer of the Islaamic Azad University of Iran, and in it he presents a case for L1 in the language learning classroom.

For 14-15 years now, this is me:

"No Chinese, please."

"Talk around the word if you don't know it, but don't use Spanlish."

"Using German translations is like using a crutch to walk, try to create images - make bridges in your mind instead."

But as a language learner, what did I do?

Except for French, (full immersion in Belgium, as a child), every language I've learned, even if it was just survival level (Malay), I used my native English to understand the new one.

Is this a case of do as I say not as I do?

Is this a case of following what the those-in-the-know decreed as the way languages are learned, training us in teaching certificates, workshops, through methodology books and articles rather than the way we actually learn languages once we've reached adulthood?

I'm not sure but I think Ali makes a highly important point that we teachers are not dealing with robots but intelligent human beings and we should be finding new ways of exploiting the benefits of comparison between the L1 (a learners first language) and L2 - it's something I want to explore more deeply in practice.

What do you think?

Useful links related to this posting:
Alex Case on L1 in the classroom


21 Responses to “L1 in the classroom?”

  • Paul Maglione says:
    January 05, 2010

    This is a highly provocative and interesting subject Karenne, and one that is under-discussed, in my view, in the ELT community. It's a hard one on which to reach conclusions, as many of us have had experience with both forms of learning - full immersion, as you had with French and myself with Italian -- and a more L1-to-L2 approach, as I had with Spanish and French.

    I guess part of the answer lies with the specific context of where the learning is happening. If the learner is fortunate enough to actually live in the L2 environment and is surrounded by - ideally exclusively by -- L2 speakers, then it stands to reason that referring back to the L1 constantly will only serve to slow down and potentially confuse the immersion process. However, we know that this is not the situation of most learners. In my own classes I have tried to stay in English for 98% of the lesson, but there have been occasions when a vocabulary item, a turn of phrase, or a usage principle is in fact so nuanced, so particular, that I really had to switch to the learners' language to get that nuance across. When I did this, the learners seemed to appreciate it, possibly because it was the welcomed exception to the general rule (of speaking only English) and that this exception switched on a light which made an otherwise very fuzzy notion much clearer to them.

    As ever, with language it's always horses for courses; the more we try to find and adhere to rigid rules, the more we find that occasionally breaking those rules gets us a lot further than using them as a substitute for thinking and observation.

  • Nick Jaworski says:
    January 05, 2010

    Well my views are pretty clear from the my blog links that Alex posted. Basically, is judicious use beneficial? Yes. Should we start using lots of L1 in the class? No.

    You're right, most learners love to translate and learn through their L1. You have to ask though, what level of proficiency do they obtain that way and how long did it take?

    Minimal use of L1 is the way to go hands down. In 8-hour a week courses I've seen students move from almost nothing to very high levels of English in under a year at English only schools compared to students who can barely grasp the language after 10 years of study in L2 schools.

    When I decide to pick up languages I pick them up very fast. Even if it's just bits and pieces to get my food at a restaurant and a hotel. This is because I practice what I preach and it works incredibly well for me.

    And I am not one of those people gifted with languages. I'm the kid with high grades in math and science (not that I buy all that left-brain right-brain stuff anyway). I'm a very visual learner, but I taught myself to be an auditory one.

    I've had private students starting from 0 with me and progress really fast and suddenly, they go to a L2 course to supplement and their progress comes to a crashing halt. There's confusion, interference, translation.

    Adults are analytical and most like L2 illustrations, comparisons, and analyses. It helps them feel comfortable in class, which is a boon. However, I have found that getting them away from these crutches is much more beneficial.

    There are a million other factors like motivation, amount of exposure, outside class study, etc. but staying in L1 the majority of the time should be the rule.

  • David says:
    January 05, 2010

    L1 is uzed by different students for different reasons.

    Blanket banning it in the classroom will lead to a great deal of frustration and resentment. More often than not, it does more harm than good to stick to a 'no L1 policy'.

  • little_miss_bossy says:
    January 05, 2010

    In my view the problem does not lie in whether we should or not use L1 in the classroom.
    Every stick has two ends - there are good and bad points stemming from using L2 only.

    The key thing is that teachers should be able to get into an adult beginner class and conduct it only in L2. That is art. It involves experience, miming, grading the language and lots of other factors.

    Even if the students use L1 to talk to each other from time to time, so what? A classroom is an artificially created world - a teacher can support and encourage using L2 but banning L1 is not a solution.

    Maybe that's why I never mastered French and hated my classes - a) Polish and English were forbidden b) the teacher spoke advanced French all the time c) speaking was the only thing he did.

    Of course YL classes are a totally different ball game...

  • Rose Bard says:
    January 05, 2010

    When students and the teacher have the same L1 is a challenge to keep L1 to a minimun in beginner level. I remind myself constantly about that, and after each class I stop for few minutes to reflect on this and take notes for my next class.

    Some students believe that comparing L2 with L1 is helpful. It doesn't work for me. I prefer just to accept the language as it is and follow it. When they try to compare, they end up asking questions like why native speakers use this that way, etc. It doesn't help to know why, but "what", "how" and "when" in my opinion. I usually ask them the same question, why do you use "this" this way in Portuguese? No answer. I do it as many time is necessary, until they start accepting things the way they are and concentrating on things that really matters. Some students at first get really upset with me, but after while they get the point. The same thing happens with translation when we are modeling with gestures. Everyone understands what it means, but Student X wants to know the word in L1. I usually tell them to write an hypothesis and check in a dictionary. That way I believe they learn to be more independent too. Inference is something I like to practice with them even in lower levels.

    So, I only use L1 in giving instructions, to make sure they can understand what they are suppose to do by blending with L2 until they understand basic instructions. Then, I say the same instructions in L2. I would also use L1 in situations that gesturing and visual resources wouldn't work, but still I would try for them to discover it instead of giving it straight way.

  • Glennie says:
    January 06, 2010

    I use L1 for a couple of reasons:

    1. To communicate instructions to lower-level students (average class size: 30)so that they can get on with an activity. (This may seem like treasonable behaviour to some, but I am normally in a situation in which 5% of my students are only pretending to listen to me, another 5% want to listen but just have too much else on their minds and another 5% are never going to understand the instructions however many times I rephrase or model.) I don't use L1 this every time I set up an activity, far from it. But there are times when the instructions are just too complicated, time is just too short (and I can see that L2 is not working), or I am just too tired. And that's the reality.
    2. With lower groups, conversation about their lives in L2 (and any such conversation is normally jammed in at the beginning or end of my textbook-led, very unDogme classes) is condemned to a desperate superficiality as I simplify to the point of meaninglessness and students avoid trying to get in deep or just aren't able to go there. Changing over into Spanish, and thus opening up the channels, enables me to quickly step down from the textbook and get closer to my students. They can really tell me how they feel, with all the nuances they can't express in L2 AND WANT TO, and I can convey my understanding of their world.

  • Adam says:
    January 06, 2010

    I've touched on this issue recently:


    I'm particularly interested to read the comments to this. I've always felt the myth of 'no L1' is a cruel trick perpetrated by the TEFL publishing mafia who want to churn out 'one size fits all' course books, rather than catering for the needs of specific markets.

  • Sue Lyon-Jones says:
    January 07, 2010

    I speak a smattering of several languages and when I first started teaching esl I would often use L1 with low-level beginners who were struggling to follow instructions, etc.

    After a while I stopped doing it because it didn't seem to be working. I found most of the learners I used L1 with became very passive and began to expect me to translate everything for them. They seemed less inclined to "have a go" and join in with the lessons if anything, than they were beforehand.

    Having said this, I do think there are some situations where allowing students to use L1 in lessons can be helpful and I would never lay down the law and impose a blanket ban on it.

  • Glennie says:
    January 07, 2010

    For L1 for instructions, size of the class can make a difference, and the resulting seating plan. That can affect possibility of students being able to see activity modeled. (It's all so easy in that cosy little semi-circle!)
    Level of student and teacher tiredness also play a role. And time. There's always time.

  • Simon says:
    January 08, 2010

    I speak to my students in L2 as the default language for small talk/social conversation, giving instructions, modelling - 95% of my communication with the class, in fact.

    In monolingual classes I use L1 primarily for oral translation activities, quick translations of new vocabulary when I don't want to interrupt the flow with an English definition that might be difficult, and as a last resort, for example: at the end of a class if learners are tired or losing focus, to give quick instructions for a fun closing activity.

    I don't ban students using L1 between themselves. This is a lost cause, it leads to frustration on both sides. L1 between learners helps with group dynamics, and in learning a language we inevitably make comparisons between L2 and L1.

    I do insist, however, on no L1 during speaking activities - I think we can afford to be absolutely firm about this.

  • Jeremy Day says:
    January 11, 2010

    Great post and great comments. All I can add is my own bad experience of learning Spanish in Spain and then German in Germany. In both situations, the teachers enforced the no-L1 rule very tightly, and in both situations I hated them for it. Bilingual dictionaries were banned, which strikes me as the most ridiculous and evil teaching idea ever.

    You can explain a word to me in L2 as many times as you like, but until I have a mental hook to hang it on (usually a translation), there's no way I'll be able to internalise / learn it.

    Of course not all words are one-to-one translateable, but that knowledge actually makes learning easier for me, rather than the frustration of not knowing.

    Of course L1 has got to be the dominant language in the classroom, but L2 certainly has its place too.

    January 11, 2010

    Hi ya, thought I'd wait a bit before chipping in to have a good range of opinions on this issue -

    Thanks Paul, I agree with you, it is under discussed - I think because it has been such an accepted 'norm' to kick out the learners' L1 - however like Jeremy and David, in my own personal learning experiences, I've actually gone through the feelings of anger, resentment and frustration when the teacher would take a long and winding path to explain what she wanted - or what a word meant, rather than let me use a bilingual dictionary or explain in simple terms in my own language.

    I think we all know those emotions do little to aid motivation in the classroom and as motivation is so firmly linked to learning... we may be stopping progress!

    As mentioned by Glennie and Sue, the size of the classroom and the level of the learners makes a huge difference to the issue.

    Re location as a factor, have been thinking about this one... impossible to implement, however in truth, it's been when I've been in the L2 that I've wanted the L1 help! I just don't know enough about ESOL and how learners learn in English speaking countries and how a classroom consisting of many languages manages with this issue!

    But going back to level, today, I wouldn't want L1 in a Spanish lesson because my level is sufficient enough (so called fluency) that I would be able to grasp meaning from context but, while still at a sort of PreInt level of German, if I were to take a class now, I would still want to be able to clarify a difficult instruction in English or be able to quick-check for something with a colleague.

    Anyway, I think by looking at the way we ourselves learn rather than only looking at what our books so is an important step in helping students achieve their language goals.

    Anita's advice that a classroom is an artificially created world is very important. Sometimes I have found myself saying things like "but what would you do in the Real World if you didn't know this word" - this, while an attempt to be helpful, may backfire if it makes the students feel frustrated and afraid of the possible scenario!

    So, in summary, I reckon that Nick summarized it well: minimal use of the L1 is the way to go!

  • John Brezinsky says:
    January 11, 2010

    Hi all,

    This is a good discussion to have. I've often wondered whether 'no L1' rules are sometimes simply in reaction to previous ways of teaching that involved discussing the L2 in L1.

    I haven't read any research that indicates L2-only has better results, nor have I seen very many classrooms in which no student uses L1 ever. Most of the immersion research I've seen revolves around whether explicit grammar instruction is useful or not.

    I like Paul's comment about definitions. One thing I remember from my classroom days was illustrating new vocabulary throught carefully crafted contexts only to have students note down single-word translations in their notebooks. If the words were concrete nouns, no problem. But the minute we get into vocabulary that is more complicated, I didn't mind a discussion of the connotations in L1 (especially if this saves time, see Simon's comment about the flow of the lesson). Now, once the word has been introduced, it seems to me that students should be expected to use and understand it in L2. If you learn what you practice, then students should most definitely be practicing L2 skills in L2.

    Anita's comment about teaching in L2 being a complicated matter (involving miming, grading langauge etc.) is spot on. An experienced teacher who knows her/his students can generally introduce language in a way that facilitates comprehension. There's more to it than just encouraging people to guess a multiple choice item after encountering the words in context.


  • daphne says:
    January 12, 2010

    Thanks so much for prompting this interesting discussion Karenne.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your initial comment that we need to remember we are dealing with intelligent human beings. Teaching-and-learning is a social process and the responsibility for that process is shared. If we view our teacher/trainer role as the "guide on the side" rather than a "sage on the stage" (Max van Manen, cited by van Lier) and our learners as active participants , perhaps we could ask them what they think and what works best for them?

  • CEJ says:
    February 04, 2010

    This is an issue that is controversial in TEFL here in Japan. However, far too many students here have got through 8-12 years of EFL classes where mostly Japanese was used. Teachers in EFL situations can not and should not ban L1. However, they should limit their own use of it and know why they are using it when they do. It's a slippery slope otherwise. Teachers here in Japan will say it's because they need the students to understand, but often it is because they don't know how to use the L2 to explain even simple instructions.

  • Ann says:
    February 18, 2012

    Hi Kerenne,

    This is a discussion that I thought people on the TeachingEnglish facebook page would be interested in joining in with, so I've just added a link to it there, if you'd like to check it out for comments.



  • Tyson Seburn says:
    February 18, 2012

    I have worked in schools with an English Only policy my entire career before moving to my current position and that and the punishment that came from 'catching' people speaking another language gave me such a distaste for such policies that I've since never worried about the language spoken in class.

    The only time I care is if it interferes with the purpose of the task or if it excludes the one or two other students in my class who don't share the majority's L1.

    To make more productive use of L1, I've been meaning to exploit Delta's Mother Tongue in the Classroom, but haven't yet.

  • CEJ says:
    February 19, 2012

    In Japan--where Japanese is used extensively in 'English class'--I have never felt the main problem to be the students using Japanese. The problem is the teachers using so much Japanese and losing opportunities to create an English environment in the classroom.

  • Zdenek Rotrekl says:
    February 19, 2012

    I used to be absolutely sure that L1 should not be used in the Classroom. However, I was wrong.
    First, the research shows that students will learn much quicker if L1 is used.
    Second, the L2 only policy was created by big publishing houses and allowed them to publish globally.
    So do not be afraid to use L1. You will help your students especially at the lower levels.

  • CEJ says:
    February 19, 2012

    I'm sure there is 'research' to show us completely opposite results. Including with the use of L1. The FACT that if you teach in Japan and will see students who have taken 6-12 years of English classes and have learned almost no measurable English will tell you that there is something wrong, something wrong if you were expecting them to learn some English along the way. It might however be simplistic to say that since these students are in classes where so much Japanese is used that the overuse of Japanese is the cause. It might just be one of many factors. But if a teacher has no clear understanding of why they are using L1, this can be quite problematic.

  • Jackie Goulbourne says:
    March 07, 2012

    I used Chinese with adults when I was teaching in Taiwan. It added speed and clarity in a lot of situations, especially with tenses and vocabulary. Try defining 'coriander' without a bunch in your hand or any kind of translation!

    However, I moved back to the UK about three years ago, and I had to get back to my roots and think more about what I was doing when I had classes of completely mixed nationalities. No L1 possible!


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