A golden question: how much L1 should our learners use in class?

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!).

Average: 4.8 (8 votes)

Submitted by moyston7 on Sun, 07/16/2023 - 05:10

As an individual who aspires to teaching I approach the question varying perspectives. For example, where possible, use small groups to target, philosophy-of-the-day vs word-of-the-day (older children vs young children). I have found both work for adults. VJ

Submitted by Mary Carmen Do… on Wed, 06/05/2019 - 03:41

I consider that little kids acquiring a new language need to be confident, and a good way to help them feel this way is using L1. I allow my students to use L1 the first two months, meanwhile I encourage them to express themselves as much as possible in English. After those months students must use L2 more than L1. Like you, I ask children to model or to explain in L1 what I say to kids that are not ready to use English yet. These strategies help me a lot at the beginning of each school year

Submitted by Monica Chaparr… on Thu, 09/27/2018 - 03:20

When teaching a foreign language the use of L1 becomes an unavoidable situation. I do agre with the fact that L1 is used due to lack of self confidence, but I do not agree with the fact that students use their L1 due to boredom. In my personal opinion, students use L1 because they find it difficul to express themselves, make a point or understand something, which I consider valid. I believe that students create the need to use L1 so as to feel more selfconfident when using L2.

Submitted by Monica Chaparr… on Thu, 09/27/2018 - 03:02

I sometimes do not know how much is enough. I try not to use L1 in class ,but sometimes I consider that students need to use it to feel more confident and to make their points clear. I do agree with the fact that little children can learn more that one language with no difficulties of any kind.

Submitted by Sulaiman Jenkins on Thu, 07/05/2018 - 15:50

Yes, your points are all well taken and very valid. And as I mentioned, the L1 serves an important role in serving as a crutch between the L1 and L2, especially in areas where students might find difficulty comprehending abstract concepts in the L2. You're absolutely right, it is unavoidable, yet it becomes complicated when some institutions issue language policies that proscribe the use of any L1.

Submitted by bridge2English on Wed, 07/04/2018 - 00:26

The title of the article is ambiguous because it is based on the conventional pedagogy. Let’s elaborate on the impact of native language in adults on their ability to learn a foreign language, for example, English as a foreign language. Mother tongue in children has no influence on learning a second language. Children up to the age of 12 who have in their environment different languages will learn them all as native languages and speak without an accent. Adults at the age of about 18 lose this ability and the native language comes to dominate their linguistic map space: all incoming information must be translated into it to become understandable. This phenomenon is known as “The Tyranny of the Mother Tongue.” Most adults, when learning a second language, subconsciously revert to cross-translation to and from their mother tongue. The learners should not use L1 in the class; however, the support in L1 is mandatory for Active Learning of English skills. Cross-translation is the main barrier most teachers ignore. When you cross-translate, you think in your native language while trying to speak in a foreign language. Bear in mind that even if the teaching is performed in the target language exclusively, most adults (about 95%) still revert to subconscious cross-translation. The learners are constantly reverting to their native language when trying to express their thoughts in a foreign language, although they are not aware of this process. That is why the use of L1 in the class is unavoidable! You can avoid it only if you implement the patented approach that is designed in such a way that cross-translation is automatically turned off when learners simultaneously read the text, listen to the recording and speak aloud using a mobile device with earphones. Advice teachers give to learners – don’t translate into the mother tongue – is wishful thinking; it is the innate habit and you can’t avoid it. However, we can achieve this objective of turning off the cross-translation habit by using the patented solution of simultaneous repetition. To learn English effectively, it is not enough to read or listen or write or speak. All these skills should be practiced simultaneously while a learner is emotionally involved and understands the context due to the built-in support in the native language. However, L1 is provided when needed to comprehend and visualize the text but it is never pronounced.

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight