The prevailing wisdom holds that students should be discouraged from using their mother tongue (L1) when learning a new foreign language (L2). The widespread belief being that an additional language can be best taught / learned through that language alone, without the support of the L1. In fact, Levine in 2011 goes even further describing learners’ L1 as the ‘elephant in the room’ of (English) language teaching.
SInce then a large and growing body of research has looked at the role of the L1 in language learning / teaching, coming to the increasing consensus that it can play an advantageous and positive role in language learning. The ever-increasing popularity of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) has also forced educators to reconsider their stance, given CLIL’s virtually bilingual delivery.
This blog post therefore looks at how educators can effectively use L1 in language classrooms. It’s worth emphasising that we’ll be focusing on the deliberate “code-switching” and use of L1 rather than that which occurs as a result of the learners’ lack of confidence or knowledge in their L2.
Evidence for the impact of L1 in language learning
As referenced above, there is now a significant body of research evidencing the positive role played by using L1 in language classrooms. In research published in 1996, Eldridge identified that learners’ L1 use was not counterproductive to the development of their L2 skills. In fact he went on to argue that an L2-only approach could negatively impact students’ confidence and motivation.
Furthermore as Hanif 2020 identifies, other researchers have also found clear benefits from using L1 in L2 teaching. Jenkins (2010), for example, builds on Eldridge’s work, arguing that her students grew frustrated and withdrew from participation when she insisted on an L2 only classroom approach. Similarly Goldstein et al (2003) found significant negative impacts in settings where students were not allowed to use their L1 even in private spaces – as a result:
“…students simply did not speak, used their L1 quietly, and felt a sense of shame whenever they were punished for using their own language.”
There is therefore clear evidence that switching to L1 in language lessons does not indicate a failing in students’ L2 competence or in the teacher’s skills. But rather, as outlined below, that L1 use can be carefully deployed to build L2 competence and fluency.
A strategy for using L1 in your language classroom
In a 2014 article for OUP, Philip Haines outlines a powerful set of broad guidelines (i.e a strategy) for the effective use of L1 in an ELT classroom. He identifies three levels at which L1 can be used – all of which can be applied to all language classrooms – and which we summarise below.
At the most basic level, teachers should be able to permit students to use L1 to help the class function effectively. After all, if the teacher is not in control of the lesson, it doesn’t really matter what language is being used! This appropriately restricts the use of L1 but enables students to ask questions to clarify understanding and instructions.
Building on level 1, the teacher now encourages their students to “draw on their knowledge of their L1 and L2 to develop language learning strategies.” In this way, educators ask students to make comparisons between the two languages. As Haines suggests, finding the patterns and similarities can be a good way of building students’ confidence and motivation.
At the top level and for advanced learners, educators can use students’ L1 to “develop language awareness, higher order thinking skills, and to explore and comprehend features of discourse.”
The rationale behind Haines’ strategy is clear – it is “designed to encourage teachers to make principled use of the L1 in their classroom without feeling guilty about doing so.” Some practical ways to consider activating L1 in your language classroom (using these strategies) now follow!
Practical ways to deploy L1 in language classrooms
A 2020 article by Hira Hanif in the Language Scholar identifies five compelling and highly practical ways educators can use L1 in their classrooms. Importantly Hanif’s work also provides a clear evidence base of research demonstrating where such approaches have been effectively deployed.
1. Teaching vocabulary
Evidence clearly suggests that the use of L1 can be an efficient and effective method of teaching vocabulary, although it is not a widely-deployed use case. Code-switching to L1, according to Cole (in Celik 2003), ensures that simple translations are time saving and prevent learners’ anguish. The same source also finds that this mechanic does “not require any additional materials which are normally required in other vocabulary teaching strategies.”
2. Function switch
This example refers to the use of L1 in language classrooms for specific activities that require detailed and clear understanding such as grammar, classroom management etc. Again, there’s significant research evidence that the use of L1 for these tasks provides “better clarity and speed of communication in classrooms.”
3. Affective functions
A key benefit of using L1 in language classroom is the help and support that it can give students. The teachers’ use of learners’ L1, numerous research studies suggest, helps to reduce student anxiety and establishes a positive and enjoyable learning environment. Educators who use the students’ L1 but not their own will also be rewarded with laughs and smiles as they showcase their own language skills!
4. Reducing cognitive load
Every language teacher knows that learning a new language can be hard, so it’s logical to look for ways to maximise students’ working memory resources. The occasional switch to L1 in lessons helps reduce “the processing load for learners during cognitively difficult tasks” and helps students to maintain focus on their studies. Evidence also suggests that the approach helps maintain students’ motivation for learning by providing elements that they can all engage with and understand.
5. Building on prior knowledge
By ignoring students’ L1, educators run the risk of missing a trick in speeding up the journey to L2 fluency. Cook and Hall (2012) are clear that the educators should always seek to build on students’ existing knowledge and skills, whilst Yavuz (2012) considers “the richness of a learners’ L1 knowledge and experience, a practical source for L2 learning.” As Hanif points out, he also argues that “a ban on L1 in a language classroom turns the learner into a newborn baby with an adult mind.”
Things to consider and watch out for!
Of course, as with all language teaching approaches there are difficulties and challenges which practitioners should be aware of and plan appropriate mitigations for.
As Eldridge (1996) argues, constantly switching to L1 does carry the ‘risk of hampering long-term acquisition’. But perhaps most importantly, it is vital for educators to ensure that the targeted use of L1 does not become a slippery slope that sees use of L1 taking over the target language in the classroom.
It’s also vital that educators remain focused on preparing students for L2 only environments without being able to rely on their L1. The option of using their L1 in class does not, some researchers believe, prepare students for real-life conversation challenges. Continuing to prioritise robust and relevant scenarios for all language learners, therefore remains the best way to build confidence and fluency.
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