Recent research on the use of L1 in the EFL classroom

Reading around this subject for my talk I came across a lot of interesting stuff, this article in particular- “Let’s Humanize Language Teaching by Using L1” by Ms. Deepti Jindal, M.A., B.Ed.

One section was especially interesting, she talked about why teachers feel guilty using their students’ native language in the classroom. The issues she brought up were familiar, and have been used for years to dissuade us from using L1 to teach L2, although with a little thought they are not as solid as we previously thought.

Here are some of the reasons evoked:

-Learners have to be exposed enough to English (L2)

Yes, they obviously need exposure, but comprehensible exposure, I’m not sure a long explanation on the use of the present perfect in English will help students improve more quickly.

-L2 should be taught in the same way as the children learn L1, that is naturally

Pretending that a businessman studying English an hour or so a week for his job learns in the same way as an infant learning their maternal language is ridiculous, and patronising. If they aren’t learning in the same way, surely L1 use can be justified, especially for checking comprehension or explaining abstract ideas.

-Learners should be encouraged to develop the habit of thinking in English

Having learnt a foreign language (French) at around the same time that I was learning to be a teacher I always found this argument particularly flimsy, you cannot tell someone what language to think in, it’s like telling someone not to think about white bears – try it!

-Encouragement of L1 in class would interfere and force errors

As students are secretly thinking in their own language these errors will occur anyway, and error correction is an important part of the learning process, it’s by trying out their own language rules that students work out what the rules for their L2 are.

-Translating at regular intervals makes the learners feel that both languages have exact equivalents

They might not always have exact equivalents but they often do, and pretending “tree” and “arbre” are different things seems to be a waste of learning time in my opinion.

-Teaching ‘communication’ doesn’t mean teaching ‘translation’

No obviously it isn’t the same thing, however speakers of several language often need to translate, for colleagues, family etc. I’m always being called on for various translation or interpretation tasks for friends and workmates, so this skill is a useful one for the language learner.

-Most of the teacher training courses recommend use of L2 only.

As do most resource books, in fact apart from Scrivener’s “Learning Teaching” (which includes some useful activities involving L1) most books make no reference to L1 at all.

Other publications on the same subject brought up some interesting ideas; Nation (2003) talks of the harmful psychological effects of denying learners’ L1 and Auerbach (1993) studied what he called “neo-colonial policies” of TESOL learners in the USA. Personally this is not the case, as my maternal language is the language of the empire, the colonialists, however it is easy to see how forbidding the use of someone’s language, particularly someone who has been forced to leave their country for example could be damaging, and lead to negative feelings for the L2, which in turn will hinder learning.

I completely agree with Auerbach (1993) when he mentions the need to create a comfortable, safe and friendly learning environment, and with beginners this will be created by sharing a few jokes and finding things in common with your students, if this means having to use L1 to communicate then so be it. The same can be said for teachers working with young learners and teens, some classroom discipline will have to be explained in L1 for the class to function correctly.

Cook (2001) makes the valid point that L1 is useful in improving learning skills, an important part in fixing learning involves thinking about what has been learnt, and this metacognitive reasoning must take place in L1 to be effective and valid.

Finally, Cook equally adds an advantage of using L1 which I often use in my class, that of evaluation, what quicker way to check understanding than by asking a student to resume in their own language?

Some useful references:

Auerbach, E. 1993 Reexamining English only in the ESOL classroom TESOL Quarterly, vol 27, number 1 accessed 10/05/2014 from http://www.ncela.us/files/rcd/BE019020/Reexamining_English_Only.pdf

Bruhlmann, A. Does the L1 have a role in the foreign language classroom? A review of the literature accessed from http://journals.tc-library.org/index.php/tesol/article/viewArticle/857 23/05/2014

Cook, V. 2001. Using the First Language in the classroom accessed 23/03/2014 from http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/Writings/Papers/L1inClass.htm

Jindal, D. 2013 Let’s humanize Language teaching by using L1 Language in India www.languageinindia.com accessed from http://www.languageinindia.com/may2013/deeptimothertongue1.pdf 17/03/2014

Kerr,P. 2014 Translation and Own-language Activities: Cambridge, CUP

Morahan, M. The Use of Student’s first language in the second language classroom accessed20/03/2014 from http://teflbootcamp.com/MorahanL2inL1class.pdf

Nation, P. 2003. The role of the first language in the foreign language classroom. Asian EFL Journal, 5 (2) accessed from http://asian-efl-journal.com/quarterly-journal/2003/06/30/the-role-of-the-first-language-in-foreign-language-learning/ 21/03/2014

Richards, J. & Lockhart, C. 1996 Reflective teaching in secondary classrooms. Cambridge; CUP

Scrivener,J. 2005 Learning Teaching. Oxford; Macmillan

Tang, J. 2002 Using L1 in the English classroom. English Teaching Forum, 40, 36-43. accessed from http://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/02-40-1-h.pdf 20/03/2014

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About fabenglishteacher

I've been teaching English for a few years now and this blog is part of my never-ending quest to make learning English more fun, and easier for my students.
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2 Responses to Recent research on the use of L1 in the EFL classroom

  1. Katie Harris says:

    I’ve been looking around for something on L1 use in the classroom for a while, I’m so glad I came across this – a concise summary of the main viewpoints and research on the topic. Great article.

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