When I was a school child and began studying English at the age of eight, I was fortunate to have a great teacher who spoke English to us since day one. There was our mother tongue used at home and at school during all the lessons, and then there was this exciting new subject where we learned how to speak a different language. Nobody used abbreviations like L1 and L2, nor were we aware of the modern classification into levels A, B, C. It was a reflection of real life: everybody around us spoke the same language, and then at school we learned a foreign one.
My young children went to primary school in New York. In our class of sixteen, there were ten languages spoken at home; some parents did not speak any English. Yet we had to turn this group of kids each of whom brought their own customs and traditions to school with them into a real class. Those children who spoke good English routinely translated for the teachers and for us parents what their Japanese, Serbian or Spanish classmate said. I tried asking my own daughter how she managed to do that and she just stared: “Yuki tells me!” In Japanese?! Well, it is well known that children can communicate non-verbally; they also understand each other without actually knowing the language. Later in life they lose this amazing ability.
Today we see many mixed race and mixed everything families, and the trend is only growing. When a child comes to school at the age of five-seven, they may already speak at least two languages. I have seen toddlers who answered their mother in French, their father in English and their grandparents in Spanish, and they never got mixed up. What is to be considered L1 today then? And how do we teachers cope if our subject is EL and if we have our own L1 which may not necessarily coincide with that of our students?
• Let us begin by familiarizing ourselves with our new class. How many nationalities do we have in it? If we are lucky to have a class of our own compatriots, well and good. Then we are dealing with only two languages, L1 and EL. We just take our curriculum, follow the lesson plans and everything is easy :) Do we use L1 at our lessons in such a situation? I would say yes, with a few stipulations. For beginner level, working with young children, we can occasionally supply a translation instead of launching into long explanations. At intermediate levels we should pay attention to a different aspect: we can teach teenagers how to switch from one language to another literally in the middle of the sentence. By doing this we show them that this subject is a very effective communication tool. We not only give them the four traditional skills but also show them how flexible they may be, and how they can activate their newly acquired vocabulary when suddenly faced with a real life need to speak a foreign language.
• What do we do if children in our class speak different languages at home? Which one is to be considered as L1, what do we use as the basis, how do we overcome the hurdles? This is what helps: try to see EL as L1 in such situations. There is no way we teachers can quickly learn a dozen new languages to use as L1, so we have to stick to the one common tongue which in this case is English. Use lots of visual aids and be sure to demonstrate the correct pronunciation. When you show the alphabet poster with the traditional pictures, Aa - APPLE, and so on, repeat the word clearly several times and have your class repeat it after you. Use gestures in the immortal “Me Jane - You Tarzan” fashion until they get it. It helps if you have a child or a young relative; remember how they were taught to speak, and use the same techniques in your class.
• L1 in any situation is an aid, an auxiliary tool but definitely not the main means of communication in the classroom. We teach EL, this is our subject; ideally we hope that by the end of the course our students may become as fluent in English as we are. The best gift from my own EL teacher was just this, that she always spoke English to us. We automatically greeted her in English even during the breaks and in the street. Thanks to her I taught all my students to do the same, so that I may hear “Hello Teacher!” from people of various ages in the street, in a food store and even on the beach. This is how I recognized her former pupils when I became a university teacher: they were the ones who would greet me in English from day one. Naturally there are occasions when we may talk to students in their L1, but those talks are usually of a private nature. • If we manage to teach our students how to switch from one language to another and how to activate their L1, L2, L3, we’ll give them a better understanding of the subject and its uses in their future life, in any profession.
Nina MK, Ph.D