Millions of students all over the world are learning English, and while it can be fun and rewarding, it can also be challenging and humbling. Language acquisition is a monumental task, and it takes courage to overcome the linguistic hurdles, especially in the early stages. One strategy students utilize to help with learning English is occasionally using their native language (L1). But as teachers, we are tasked with making sure students are learning English, not excelling in their L1s. So how do we manage their use of L1 without interfering with their acquisition of L2?
This is a golden question indeed, and the answer isn't so clear cut. Why do students use L1 in the first place? In order to discuss this issue competently, we need to establish why students might use L1 to begin with. In my experience, in both homogenous (all students same L1s) and hetergenous (all students, different L1s) settings and at all learning levels (from primary to tertiary), students typically tend to use L1 for one of the following reasons:
1. They're afraid to experiment with the L2.
2. They're lost, don't understand you, and are not able to follow along with the lesson.
3. They're using L1 to perform comprehension checks.
4. They're using L1 because they're not interested in the lesson.
You can see that these reasons stem from a number of different linguistic, behavioral, and even psychological factors, and while we are not certified psychologists, we do have to be in tune with what students might be experiencing in our classroom. I will now offer my insight for dealing with each situation.
1. Students might be afraid to use the language, which is natural. That's usually because they're afraid of failure and appearing as though they're not capable. In some cultures, "saving face" can have a tremendous effect on a student's willingness to make a mistake. To remedy this, on the very first day of any course, I go out of my way to ensure that the learning environment is safe and lighthearted. This is done by playing introduction games and telling light jokes, and it goes a long way in making students feel comfortable enough to make mistakes. I always preach that making mistakes is critical to learning, and I also dedicate the most optimum opportunities for success to those students I sense might be afraid to experiment. I ask them more manageable questions which builds their confidence in themselves and gives them courage to experiment with L2.
2. Based on a weak vocabulary and/or grammatical foundation, students may simply just be lost and not understand what's taking place. To function, students might turn to their peers and ask them to explain in L1 what the teacher is saying or how to do a particular activity. This is an instance where I believe, especially at lower levels, L1 can be used as a crutch to help build vital bridges linking what students already know in L1 to new information in L2. The trick is deciphering if that's what's actually taking place in their conversation! It can be difficult if you can't speak the L1 of the student, but by constantly monitoring the classroom during activities, you can get a feel for who's genuinely trying to learn and who's attention may be slipping. Be on the lookout for this particularly during group/pair work.
3. Similar to point number 2, there will be students who use L1 for further clarity, but only for the sake of performing comprehension checks with others: not because they don't understand the material. This is done by conversing in the L1 to ensure they've understood the material presented in L2. I believe it is also a valuable use of L1 for students to collectively solidify the knowledge being learned in the classroom (so long as they're not just talking about their weekend plans!). This may happen during group/pair work or immediately after you've presented something to the entire class that might have been a bit challenging.
4. Lastly, sometimes (hopefully rarely) students may resort to using the L1 because of a disinterest in the lesson. These cases can be cumbersome because if there are many students doing this, it may cause others to speak in their L1s leading to chaos and loss of classroom management. As teachers, our primary responsibility is to keep students engaged by making them active participants in activities and discussions, so first try to engage the student. Also, try to be gentle and diffuse any overuse of L1 in a way that signifies that you genuinely value the student's presence in the class. You might kindly remind him/her about the value of maximizing classroom time to practice the L2. However, if particular students are obstinate, then you'll have to follow your own institution's protocol for dealing with classroom behavior issues when they become particularly disruptive.
Is allowing the use of L1 beneficial or detrimental? You can tell from everything we've rehearsed so far that it isn't a cut and dry answer. In some cases, it's very beneficial and in others it can be disruptive. I like to think of allowing students the use of L1 like adding salt to cooking; if there is none, then it doesn't taste very good, and if there's too much, it ruins the dish. Likewise, proscribing the use of L1, particularly at lower levels, is not practical and removes critical opportunities for students to make important connections between the L1 and the L2. That said, we also don't want students to be excelling in their L1s! We want them to become proficient L2 users. One distinction is that the higher the level of proficiency of the learner, the less he/she should be using the L1. I'm much stricter with the use of L1 in my advanced classes and much more lenient (as per the institution's language policy) at lower levels. I think back to my own studies of Japanese. Had I not been able to use L1 in my introductory Japanese class, I would not have survived! Similarly, we want to help students enjoy learning English, and allowing them some flexibility with utilizing the L1 under relatively controlled circumstances will help them not only acquire the language more easily, but also cultivate a love for the language (and of course you, as a dear teacher!).