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Using L1 (first language) in ELT has been one of the most controversial topics in recent years. Some approaches to language teaching (such as the grammatical method) imply that learners heavily rely on translation from their mother tongue, but the majority of modern teaching styles prefer to avoid L1 at all costs. It is also very common that language teachers’ and learners’ expectations regarding L1 differ.
Is it possible to find the right balance and benefit from using L1?
First, let’s look at the obvious arguments against L1. When using the learners’ first language instead of English, we deprive them of valuable practice. Learners, especially those who aren’t exposed to English outside the classroom, lose a valuable opportunity to put their knowledge into practice and use L2 as a communication tool.
Another significant point could be the lack of equivalent English words or grammatical structures in L1. In such cases, direct translation could slow down the learning process or even demotivate students if they rely too much on their mother tongue. Moreover, even similarities between L1 and L2 can sometimes mislead the learners if they don’t match completely.
For instance, the word ‘accurate’ sounds similar to the Ukrainian word ‘akkuratny’ (tidy), which is why Ukrainian speakers are often confused with its meaning. Another interesting example is the German word ‘das Gift’, which means ‘poison’ — very different from its English meaning!
And don’t forget about idiomatic expressions which differ from the L1 equivalents — their word-by-word translation simply wouldn’t make much sense in some cases. Therefore, definitions, context and synonyms would be more helpful in learning this kind of vocabulary.
Naturally, L1 also limits teachers who work with multinational groups. Unless we are exceptionally talented polyglots, we can’t translate everything to the learners from various backgrounds. For this reason, we resort to more universal teaching techniques such as eliciting, contextualising, etc.
Finally, literal translation to and from L1 doesn’t always convey cultural nuances. What can sound good in one language may sound rude in English, and the other way round.
But does it mean we should excise L1 from teaching completely? Well, there are situations when it can come in handy. One of them is saving lesson time, especially with low-level learners, who usually deal more with concrete notions rather than abstract. A colleague of mine has told me that his Beginner ESOL students struggled with the words ‘left / right’. Images, gestures and context simply didn’t work.
Would it be such a crime to use L1 in this situation, or would you rather come up with another way to deal with the problem?
Interestingly, it has been noticed that L1 brings more psychological comfort to learners:
Patterns have emerged which could help to determine the most effective use of L1 in the L2 classroom. There appears to be a need for L1 support at the beginner levels. Factors that decline with increasing proficiency include emotional support, perceived desire for L1 support, and testing.
If using L1 helps to reduce learners’ anxiety, isn’t it a positive influence?
I decided to do my own online survey among second/foreign language learners.
To the question ‘What is your attitude to using your native language while learning a foreign one?’, the majority (50%) responded ‘it depends on the difficulty of the material’, 27% of the respondents chose the option ‘very positive - I can’t learn without it’, and 23% were in favour of using L2 only.
Apart from the psychological comfort, L1 can be used to establish rapport with the learners. Here is what C. Schweers says in his article ‘Using L1 in the L2 classroom’:
I think students can identify better with a teacher who speaks to them in their own language, thereby letting them know that you respect and value their native language.
If you’re teaching learners from a different background than yours, it’s a great opportunity to connect English to the context of cultural exchange and globalisation.
So we can see that more often than not, language learners feel more at ease when L1 is used in class. This fact alone, in my humble opinion, makes it worth at least giving the first language a chance, but of course, without overusing it. We, as teachers, know more about teaching methods and benefits of L2 usage. What we can do is to talk to our students, listen to their preferences, analyse their needs, tell them more about the importance of using English, and follow the golden mean.
After all, learning a second language doesn’t have to take place at the expense of the mother tongue - they can go hand in hand.
Essentials of Effective English Language Teaching
What every teacher needs to know to teach vocabulary effectively