L1 in the Classroom


April 22, 2011 by k. liz

I have seen several tweets and blog posts about this recently, and so I thought I would write my thoughts on this matter in a post. Now, these are just my sitting here, rambling thoughts, not anything I’ve studied or written an academic article about. But, even still, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the issue.

So . . . to L1 or not to L1? In my personal opinion, I try to eliminate as much L1 as possible. However, I often feel I have bigger battles to fight in class, such as actually getting my students to do the tasks I assign them, getting my students to not light things on fire, getting my students to put away the nail polish remover, get off facebook, stop texting their friends, etc. So, I do not have consequences for using the L1 in class. However, that being said, I am often rebuking my students with “No Turkish!” “Only English!”

I am thankful that I do not speak Turkish so that my students cannot demand translations from me, or ask me for words in Turkish. I usually prefer to get them to use circumlocution and talk about a word so that I can find out what they want, but they also often use google translate or the dictionary to talk to me. And, sometimes the circumlocution method doesn’t work. Today for example, they wanted the English equivalent of a Turkish idiom. The way they explained it to me was something about cutting and feet and ground and driving and picking your feet up off of the ground. I was so confused. Finally, a student looked it up and they were looking for “Walking on air.” Ahaha . . . I just laughed.

Okay, so I do have a few thoughts about the subject, both my students using L1 and me using their L1:

1) I often try to think of myself in their position. You’d better believe I’d be translating into English so that I knew I understood what the vocabulary word meant. I know that it is ideal for students to change their thinking into English, but in reality I’d rather them understand than be solely English.

2) Sometimes L1 translation can save time and energy for an unrelated purpose. For example, often I will explain a game, concept or activity only to find the majority of my students completely clueless. Now, please don’t criticize me yet – I do model, I do give handouts with written instructions, I do explain it two or three times, and I do go around to individual students and help them. However, sometimes they are stubborn and don’t want to understand, or sometimes I will have spent quite a bit of time explaining something in a previous lesson, and a student who was absent is now behind. In those instances, I will sometimes allow a student to explain what is going on in the L1 so that we can get on to actually completing the language task. (I often try to have the student explain in English first, unless it is a complex idea that has already taken time.)

3) My use of the L1 can often grab attention and rekindle a working attitude with the students. I always hear how it’s so good if you are learning a language at the same time as your students so you can have an empathy . . . followed up with don’t ever use the student’s L1 in the classroom! However, I will occasionally use a word I have learned, that I know the students are studying in order to show them that I am working too. This also can easily regain attention and give the students a respect for me. They know that I cannot speak Turkish, and so they cannot depend on that. But a word here and there is often fun and good for the atmosphere of my class.

4) I believe that it is extremely important for the teacher to learn a few phrases in the students L1 for serious times. For example, an important word for me is “disrespectful” or sagısızlık. When I am having trouble with a class, this helps give the idea that I am not happy with them and something needs to change. It gives a sense of weight to my words that the students cannot yet understand in English. I have also often looked up the word for “integrity” when students are asking me to change absences or something. This communicates more clearly than anything they can understand in English at the time being, and I believe it is extremely useful in the classroom.

So, there are my quick thoughts on the subject. I am in no way promoting a L1 dominated classroom, but I don’t think that we should be as “anti-L1” as I was led to believe all EFL teachers should be. I have experienced learning in a language class where the teacher spoke hardly any English, and if I had not been able to bounce ideas off of my classmates I would have been more clueless a lot of the time. “Do you think that this word means this?” “Yeah, and it goes here, and it does this . . .” That was the most beneficial way for me to learn a language, and I would have been helpless if we had been forbidden to speak English in class.

What are your thoughts? Do you use the students’ L1 in class? Do you speak the students’ L1? Do you think all classes should be purely monolingual? Please comment!


2 thoughts on “L1 in the Classroom

  1. Annie says:

    hello there, I’m an EFL teacher in Taiwan. My situation is somewhat different from yours since I’m a NNEST but I’ve had several thoughts about this heated topic as well.
    1. I think instead of focusing on whether or not we use L1, it’s a matter of when we use it in a language class. I’d switch to English mode when the language material can be easily understood through body languages/visual props. I wouldn’t, however, use English to give instruction of how a game/activity should proceed.
    2. That being said, I found age could be a decisive factor of how much L2 can be applied in a classroom. My 2nd graders seem to be more ‘okay’ with learning English with English than my 4th graders.
    3. I think for NEST, things can be a bit tricky as I worked with a NEST for a year and you are right that it helps to learn a few key phrases to ‘impress’ learners and spice up the learning atmosphere.

    • kylieliz says:

      Thanks for your comment! Those are really good thoughts, and I agree with you. I’m teaching University age students, and I am very thankful that I can’t give explanations in their L1 or I’d be doing that all day! I think that there is some benefit to being able to function completely in English because that will make your English progress much more quickly. But I know for myself, I would want to understand the formulas and the reasons and the grammar explanations in my L1!
      It is very interesting to hear from a NNEST! Thanks!!

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