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Dealing With L1 in the English Classroom

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Definition and Debate

L1 means the first or native language of the learner. There has been an ongoing debate about how much use of L1 is appropriate and/or useful in an English Language classroom. Many teachers worry about how much they use the student’s native language in the class. Even more, teachers will sometimes feel that the amount of L1 they hear their students speaking in class is too much. There is often a feeling that the use of L1 implies laziness and a lack of proper English teaching or learning. However, in this article we are going to start with the supposition that the use of L1 in an English Language classroom is not always inherently bad; rather, its appropriateness depends on the context and the specific goals of the language learning environment. We will attempt to summarise the pros and cons of using L1 in this context (both for teachers and their students) and then go on to suggest ways to manage the use of L1 effectively and productively.

Background and Research

According to Cambridge University Press in a paper entitled ‘The Use Of L1 in English Language Teaching,’ teachers exhibit a wide range of L1 usage in their classrooms, with some classes experiencing up to 90% L1 use, while others avoid it entirely. The absence of L1 is more common in multilingual settings without a shared language or when the teacher lacks proficiency in the student’s native tongue. In private language and specialist TEFOL/ESOL schools, the use of L1 is much less common.

Generally, teachers tend to rely more on L1 with lower-level learners, to boost the student’s motivation and alleviate their frustration. It is easier to get more done and explain challenging grammar concepts more clearly when using language which teachers can be sure their students understand. Larger class sizes also see increased L1 usage for reasons of classroom control; it is easier to maintain discipline using the student’s first language. Let’s look in more detail at the advantages of using L1.

Advantages of using L1

  • Clarification of Instructions: In the early stages of language learning, students may benefit from using their native language to clarify instructions and understand the tasks at hand. If they misunderstand what they are supposed to do on a given task they may miss the target language or grammar point altogether.
  • Cultural Context: Explaining cultural nuances or complex concepts related to the target language may be more effectively communicated in the student’s native language. For example, in English, the difference between formal and informal language relies much less on the grammar construct and much more on the words or phrases chosen than in many other languages.
  • Building Confidence: Allowing students to express themselves in their native language initially can help build confidence, especially for beginners. It can take quite a lot of courage to speak up in a foreign language and there is always a good chance of making a mistake. Shy or nervous students might just sit quietly, hoping nobody notices them in such an environment.
  • Solving Problems: L1 can help address specific issues or problems that may arise during the learning process. These problems could include unexpected questions for which the students don’t yet have the vocabulary in English but may also include issues of discipline or classroom control where the teacher needs to get somebody’s attention quickly and effectively.

The advantages of using L1 in the above situations may seem clear, obvious, and very real. In that case, what are the disadvantages of using the student’s first language?

Disadvantages of using L1

  • Over dependence: Excessive use of L1 can lead to over dependence, hindering students’ progress in acquiring the target language. Students who find English challenging may just sit back and wait to be told the answers in their language. While they may hear or see the target language, they avoid using it at all and therefore don’t learn or remember it.
  • Reduced Exposure: The more the teacher uses L1, the less the students are exposed to English. We have all probably heard stories of English lessons in which everything happens in L1 whether that is German or Japanese. The students may learn how to insert correct English phrases in a formulaic manner, but it is debatable whether they are learning the language at all.
  • Interference: Students are more likely to transfer the grammar and vocabulary rules of their native language to English if their native language is all they hear during the class.
  • Inconsistency: If the teacher uses L1 inconsistently, it may confuse students and make it harder for them to establish a consistent language learning routine. Moreover, they are likely to wait until the teacher reverts to L1 before concentrating. English becomes just background noise which they feel they can ignore.

Finding The Balance

Taking the advantages and disadvantages mentioned above into account it seems clear that the appropriateness of L1 use depends on factors such as the proficiency level of the students, the specific learning objectives, and the overall teaching approach.

While implementing an English-only policy is often thought to encourage English language use, it is important to recognise that L1 usage is not inherently detrimental, and it can serve a constructive purpose in classes at various levels.

Lower-level groups may initially struggle with conducting entire lessons exclusively in English. They might find the prospect intimidating and withdraw into themselves or become disruptive. However, with proper scaffolding for activities and the gradual cultivation of classroom social English, teachers can incrementally transition towards more extended periods of English-only instruction.

Even in higher-level groups, it is sometimes useful for students to be allowed to use their first language to prepare and organise the main task, for example planning a presentation. If the target language is in the task itself, not the preparation. However, if the focus is on the process (using English to exchange ideas, questions, make suggestions, etc) then the product might be incidental, and you might want them to stick to the target language during the preparation phase. Ultimately, the judicious use of L1, aligned with the needs and dynamics of the classroom, can be a valuable tool for language instructors.

Controlling L1

It is for the teacher to decide how much L1 is appropriate or needed in any given situation. Having established that, the next step is to make sure the students are aware of the teacher’s expectations and then monitor and control how much L1 is used. Below we have listed a few techniques that teachers often find useful. Many of these methods can also be applied to other aspects of classroom control. Most of the methods described below are designed to stop students from speaking L1 when you don’t want them to.

Tell Them

The first method is so obvious it can easily be overlooked. Tell the students precisely how much L1 is going to be allowed in a given lesson. It might be useful to do this using L1 for a minute or two at the start of the lesson. Explain clearly what your expectations are. For example; ‘Today I am going to explain the task in ‘French’ (or whatever the L1 is) and then I will give you two minutes to ask me questions in French. After that I expect you to speak English to each other all the time, even when chatting in your groups.’ You might add, ‘If I hear anyone speaking French during that time, they will lose a point for their group.’ (More about points and teams later).

Time For English

Initiating specific time slots designated as ‘English only’ periods establishes a framework that aids students in recognising when L1 is not allowed and encourages them to continue speaking English for an extended period. The time slots could be signalled by a message or symbol written on the board, or a bell, a verbal instruction or a combination of all three.

Time For L1

As an alternative to signifying specific time slots for using English, you could designate specific periods of the lesson in which students can speak their first language. This changes the emphasis. It is taken as read that English will be the main language the lesson is conducted in but reassures students that there will be limited periods in which they can converse and check things in their own language.

Team Points

Having some form of points system can be used to manage all sorts of behaviour including the use of L1.

At the beginning of each lesson, teams are chosen and the team names are on the board. The team members do not always have to sit together, it is only important that they know which team they belong to and who is in their team. Points are awarded for answering questions correctly or for positive contributions in any given task. However, points are strictly deducted for using L1 during any period the teacher states it is forbidden.

The advantage of this approach is that it depends on team spirit. The team members will tend to help each other to gain points but, perhaps more importantly, they will police each other to avoid losing points.

Whole Class Points Slider/Homework

This could be used as an alternative to team points because it is a points system which applies to the whole class.

Draw a simple sliding scale on the board. In the middle of the scale is zero. On either side of the zero write numbers from -1 to -5 on one side and +1 to +5 on the other side, like this;
-5 -4 -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3 +4 +5

The idea is for the class to remain in positive(+) territory. As the lesson progresses move a marker along the scale. When you hear people speaking English and using the target language confidently and effectively move along the positive side of the scale in steps. If you hear inappropriate use of L1, move back in steps towards the negative side of the scale. Warn them that the more they slide into negative territory the more homework they will get (or choose some other sanction). You could also issue a reward if they manage to finish the lesson at +5
Alternatively, instead of having a number scale simply start to write the word HOMEWORK on the board, one letter at a time every time you hear L1 being spoken. If you have written the whole word by the end of the lesson the whole class get some extra homework.

Red Card

Hand out a single Red Card to anyone you hear speaking L1 during a time when it is forbidden. If somebody else uses L1 the card is passed to them. The idea is that whoever is holding the red card at the end of the lesson will get extra homework or some other sanction. There could also be a sanction for whoever keeps the red card for the longest period during a lesson.

Positive Rewards

While the emphasis of some of the above methods is on discouraging the use of L1, it is also important to reward good use of the target language in English. This could be something as simple as giving praise, or something more substantial and elaborate.

Effective Learning

In the end, each teacher has to decide what works for them and, more importantly, what works for the students they are teaching. All teachers have different styles and techniques which will influence how much L1 they will use themselves, and how much L1 they allow their students to use. The debate about the use of L1 in an English learning context will no doubt go on. The only thing individual teachers need to be able to justify is whether their students are learning the target language effectively.

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