L1: to use or not to use?
On my previous post, I wrote about the use of L1 regarding the proficiency level of the learners, and I did say there would be another post on the matter. I’ve been thinking about the situations in which I believe L1 can be used effectively when it comes to learning, and so far this is what I got:
Using L1 in the classroom is a much more than mere translation of words and phrases per se
I guess one of the reasons why so many teachers still frown upon the thought of using translation in the classroom is the fact that they equate any use of L1 to the boring lessons based on Grammar Translation that they had in classes. If teachers use L1 as a way to simply translate words and phrases and instantly become a walking-talking bilingual dictionary in class, there’s something wrong with the use of L1 in the classroom.
In his How to teach vocabulary, Scott Thornbury says that the more informed decisions and the more we know about a word, the easier it is for us to retrieve it. I guess this applies to anything else that is being taught. If we make use of L1 to help students make a contrastive analysis of L1 and L2, if we use L1 to illustrate differences and similarities between L1 and L2, and if such use helps a learner make things more personal, then it might be a good idea to use L1 in the classroom.
One of the uses I have already found to be effective is when we use L1 to compare sayings and idioms. I do enjoy using humour in the classroom, so you’d more often than not hear me saying silly things in class. I’ve already noticed students, quite often, remembering something because of one of the silly jokes or anecdotes. There’s nothing new there, I suppose. For instance, one day during an exam prep class, students had difficulties in one of the items that asked them to change VIABLE into a noun. When we were correcting it, I just told them that you should be rooting for your abilities. In Portuguese, we’d say “Vai, someone” when we want to encourage or support them. On many other occasions when they were asked to write the word, they made no mistakes.
Literal translations of expressions can also be used if you ask them to find the correct equivalent in L2. The point is whether or not the idea is more important than the words themselves, that’d be good use of L1.
L1 should be seen as yet another resource in the teacher’s toolkit to generate understanding
Before we think about banning or using L1 in the classroom, I think we should look at it for what it is: yet another resource we have available to help learners understand what is being said in L2. Just like any other resource we have at hand such as images, mimes, drawings, songs, videos, limericks and what have you, L1 is yet another resource than, just like all others, can be used poorly or effectively. Just as we’re trying to keep up with all the new technological advances in order to teach people who are more and more dependent on technology, we should stop awhile and reflect on how to properly use L1 in the classroom.
Analyse your aims and allow yourself to use L1
One of the comments to the last post, Andrea’s, were exactly about this. If you have decided that your learners should talk for 10 minutes of the lessons, and you are asked a vocabulary question while they’re doing the activity, you have to decide on how to deal with this doubt. Well, if you expect THEM to do the talk and there’s an allotted time, and you know it’ll take you quite a while to explain the word(s), it makes a lot more sense for you to simply translate it outright. In 2 seconds, students are ready to continue with their talk, and you won’t have got in the way of their stream of thought. Needless to say, it’d be nice to find a way to go back to these vocabulary questions later on so as to recycle, revisit, retrieve… well, what we usually do to help them with vocabulary.
Your learners can’t get used to speaking L1 and getting an answer
In a monolingual class, and when the teacher shares the L1 with the learners, it’s quite easy to hear what students are saying in L1 and reply. I honestly think teachers should train themselves not to respond to what learners say in L1 on most occasions. More often than not, students use L1 to make remarks which are unrelated to the topic of the lesson, or it’s something that they have already learned how to say in L2. We can’t, obviously, simply become completely oblivious to any L1 utterance in class. The point is being able to correctly judge whether or not that’s something that really needs an answer or if it’s something that learners are saying just because they don’t want to participate in the class. Are they being lazy, or they really can’t say what they are trying to say in L2? I’ve already seen students who can clearly understand what their teachers say in L2, but can’t say the same things in L2. Comprehensible input is important, but comprehensible output is equally as important. If you don’t require them to use what they’ve learned in L2 from the very beginning, this is likely to become fossilized, and it’ll be harder and harder for them to use L2 as structures become more complex.
It’s somewhat complicated to prevent learners from sharing opinions in their L1 among themselves, but we can get there by showing them we’re paying attention to our surroundings and listening to instances of L1 in the classroom.
Is that all?
Absolutely not! This is not meant to be a comprehensive list – it’s just a couple of thoughts regarding the use of L1 in class that I wanted to share with you and perhaps hear what you’ve got to say. I always try to keep an open mind when it comes to receiving criticism, and if by any chance I have to come back here and contradict everything I’ve said thus far, no problems! Fortunately no one is the bearer of the ultimate truth! Just like with anything else, use your common sense when it comes to use of L1 in the classroom. This means that you ought to be actively listening to your students and teaching according to their reactions. Fortunately, there’s no definitive guide to the classroom, and I don’t there’ll ever be one! :)