What are the benefits and drawbacks of using L1 when teaching an L2?

As a teacher trainer I have often been asked about the use of L1 by students in their English lessons.

As a matter of fact, it was not so long ago that a great number of teachers admitted feeling guilty about using students’ L1 in the English classrooms.

Together with drilling, grammar and other ingredients of English teaching, translation has been too easily demonized for too many years. However, it is clear that the use of L1 has to be restricted or, in other words, allowed only when benefits clearly counteract drawbacks. Students should be exposed to as much English as possible at school, so I would like to provide those of you who are interested in this complex issue with some guidelines that I hope will be helpful on the use of L1 inside the English classroom.

  • Let’s start from the very basic: Allow for students’ natural way of asking about new words by using the equivalent in L1: “How do you say ………. in English?” or let them expand on an idea or clarify a specific point just by asking you: “May I say this in my language?”
  • Allow the use of L1 when explaining classroom methodology, checking comprehension and giving complex instructions to basic levels. However, make sure you teach basic "Classroom Language" from the start: provide your beginner students with a list of phrases to borrow something, check the meaning of a word, confirm classroom instructions or homework assignments. Practice these everyday English phrases with the students so that they have no excuse for lapsing back into L1, even for something as simple as, “Can I borrow your dictionary?”
  • Help students develop their language learning strategies by making comparisons between English and their L1: “Is this similar or different in your language?” (This can be applied to words, phrases, grammar patterns…)
  • Regarding register, my experience is that students become really engaged when you ask them to compare formal /informal uses of different languages.
  • If you are planning to develop a unit on a specific topic, for example, before a lesson on photosynthesis, ask students to write as much as they can in five minutes about how plants grow. Allow them to use L1 so that they can really tell you everything they know about the topic and you can build on their previous knowledge. This is a principle that CLIL practitioners follow and I would say it should be applied when presenting a new topic to students in their English classrooms (not only in content area classrooms)
  • The mother tongue can be used to provide a quick and accurate translation of an English word that might take several minutes for the teacher to explain and, even then, there would be no guarantee that the explanation had been understood correctly. It can also be used to clarify a difficult language pattern by providing with the equivalent in L1.
  • Using L1 with beginners when necessary (as mentioned above) gives them security and relieves their fear of using English. Anxiety is reduced and increasing students' self-confidence is clearly positive. However, teachers should use different types of scaffolding in the target language as much as possible in order to gradually reduce the amount of L1 as students go up the ladder and reach higher levels of English.
  • Related to the anxiety issue above, humour and fun always help so why not try some games to increase confidence and raise students’ awareness in such a way  that they might not need L1 to express themselves? Taboo is a very good choice.

I would conclude by saying that there will always be different levels of “tolerance” towards the use of L1 in the English classroom, but in order to avoid an excessive dependency on the students’ mother tongue, I would advocate for a principled L1 use, instead of randomized practices.

About the author:

Loli Iglesias comes from the Basque Country and has been teaching English at Secondary level for 17 years. She is currently working as a teacher trainer for the Department of Education of the Basque Government. She develops seminars on Professional Development and CLIL. Her main interests are CLIL and ESL methodology . She blogs at clilingetxo.blogspot.com

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