Activities using Language 1 at English lessons

Language 1 in the classroom

Language 1 in the classroom


  • Teaching qualifications
  • Activities
  • Tips & Strategies
  • Methodology

The attitude to L1 in the English language classroom has changed. That is a fact. When I started teaching English, L1 was really frowned upon. But then more and more voices were heard defending the use of the mother tongue in teaching English. And after many discussions, conference presentations and seminars, it has become acceptable. 

Transform your teacher talk, transform your classroom

Pros and cons

There are some pros and cons, obviously. In my view, the drawbacks often outweigh the benefits if the mother tongue is used regularly though. So my first priority has always been the English language environment in which students feel safe and comfortable. How to achieve that?

First of all, we should set up the rules and explain how using mostly English can make learning more efficient and progress faster. Teachers should create a friendly, non- judgmental, error-tolerant atmosphere in class.

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Some of the ways to do it are:

  • providing ‘anonymous’ delayed error correction whenever it is possible;
  • providing enough scaffolding, enough help so that students can see that they are able to cope with the task in English;
  • providing learners with enough controlled practice and drilling before asking them to produce something builds up students’ confidence.

When learners don’t have enough language to express their ideas in English, teachers can pre-teach some useful language before giving students a speaking task. Giving students some thinking time, time for planning and making notes makes a big difference.

However, I must admit that in some cases using L1 might be useful. What are those cases? 

Some of them are below:

  • Helping students understand instructions in low-level classes
  • Conveying the meaning of particularly difficult words when other ways didn’t work, e.g. greed, frustration, devastation
  • Teaching chunks like functional phrases, idioms, collocations: it will be useful to compare their versions in L1
  • Making students aware of “true” friends and “false” friends
  • Comparing similarities in grammar, e.g I’m flying to Paris tomorrow...

Activities with L1

I would like to share some activities with you which make the mother tongue an effective tool.

Activity 1

When you are speaking to the students in English, insert a translation into the students’ own language of a word or phrase that you think is important, but that you think may be difficult for learners to understand. Immediately after this, repeat the word or phrase in English. You can signal this sandwiching by using a short pause and a lower pitch.

Activity 2

Give instructions in English. If you see that students don’t understand, before saying the instruction in L1, tell the class that you will repeat the instruction in L1, but that you will change one important detail. Students’ task is to listen and identify this detail. It will keep Ss ‘on their toes’.

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Activity 3

Learners translate an English text into their own language. They translate it back into English in a subsequent lesson, and then compare their version with the original. The text might be from a course book or it could also be something more authentic.

Activity 4

Students pass a written sentence or short text around the class translating it each time it is passed on. You need to select at least two sentences to be passed around the class. With more than 10 students more sentences will be needed.

Activity 5

Students translate the sentence into English. They fold the top of the page with the English sentence over and pass it to the next student, whose task is to translate the sentence back into English.

Activity 6

Prepare two sets of short sentences. One set has got sentences with international words such as ‘bank’, ‘café’, etc. The other set has got sentences with some false friends such as ‘magazine’, ‘sympathetic’, etc.

Students work in pairs. They discuss/guess the meaning of the international words first.

Students draw the conclusion that there are many words that sound similar and mean the same. They move to the second set and … What conclusion will they draw?

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Activity 7

Students explore common collocations in English and try to translate them word by word into L1.

Select common English collocations such as ‘heavy rain’, ‘a great deal of money’, etc. and prepare short sentences with those collocations illustrating their meaning. Ask students to translate the sentences word-by-word and check if the meaning of the sentence in English and L1 is the same (the sentence in L1 might not have sense).

Using tasks in language teaching

These activities and many more can be found in Using the Mother Tongue by Sheelagh Deller and Mario Rinvolucri, DELTA Publishing and Translation And Own-Language Activities by Philip Kerr, CUP.

Article authors & editors
  • Helen Taranenko

    Helen Taranenko


    CELTA, CELT-P/S Course trainer, International speaking examiner



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