I’ve already written about the use of L1 in the language classroom before here and here. I do believe that L1, if used properly in the classroom, might actually help learners. The problem, then, lies in knowing when to use L1 in a class and, most importantly, how to use it to promote learning instead of using it to promote laziness.
I think that it’s a lot easier to use L1 in an ELF setting. The fact that learners usually share the same L1, and many times the teacher is a NNEST who also shares the same L1 with learners, makes it much simpler than using a learners L1 in an ESL environment with students from many different nationalities and languages. To each his own, right? If ESL learners have the benefit of speaking L2 much more frequently and having many more meaningful encounters with the target language outside the classroom than EFL students, the latter may at least have the advantage that it’s easier for them to use their L1 to better (and more confidently) understand abstract concepts.
Yet, knowing exactly how to use L1 in the classroom is not an easy task mainly because most teachers who abide by CLT have been taught that speaking L1 in the classroom is a cardinal sin. However, if you are able to make it meaningful and useful to your students, how could this be doing more harm than good? Anyway, this is an example of an activity in which I used L1 in the classroom and, having had a couple of classes since then, I could tell it’s been extremely successful. Not only that, but apparently learners could clearly see the purpose of speaking L1 in the classroom at that moment, so no one whined about having to switch back to L2, or using L2 for everything else other than the activity itself.
Instead of telling students that we would be working on reported speech and falling in the trap of teaching some grammar McNuggets, we simply had a class in which they would end up producing the language I was hoping to help them with without having to explicitly tell them so. I started by telling them they would now have the chance to ask me any question they could possibly want. I handed out a couple of slips of paper and students could ask for more if they wanted to ask further questions. I let them choose their coloured pens and write questions that came to their mind. Once the questions had been written, the slips of paper were handed in.
I sat in the middle of the class and showed them the questions. They then had to guess who had written the question and ask me the question. Fortunately, they were trying to use reported questions at that stage, so I could collect lots of samples of language to work on. We actually dealt with emergent language as it appeared, and pretty soon they started correcting themselves. There were about 20 questions of all kinds – wh- questions, yes/no questions, questions in the present, in the past, in the future, and even the ubiquitous “to be or not to be?”.
After that stage, I thought it would be nice if there was something slightly more practical and meaningful to them. I remember that there are many activities for learners to practice reported speech, such as pretending they have been the witness of murder and then they have to report what they’ve seen and heard at the scene, or working with comic strips by removing the speech bubble for student A and having student B reporting what they have in their comic strip, and chinese whispers. These are all nice activities that are likely to require the use of reported speech. However, what we did was playing the interpreter.
I started by asking for two volunteers. One of them was going to be interviewed by the rest of the class, and the other one was going to be the interpreter. This means the interviewed only spoke English, the interpreter spoke English and Portuguese, and the rest of the class spoke only Portuguese. The interpreters were naturally using the proper structure for “he asked you how…” and so on. At times I just had to say “try again” and off they went.
At the end of the class, students said they had a lot of fun playing the interpreters, and that they actually saw this as something they would possibly need to do in their lives. Perhaps this was the reason that they could remember it so well in the following classes and had no trouble at all coming up with the correct structure for reporting what they’ve heard or read. Isn’t this one of our main purposes? Shouldn’t we strive to make learning effective? If that’s the case, L1 should always be yet another tool you have available. It shouldn’t be used to make your job easier, and it shouldn’t be your only tool. We could have played the “game” in English as well, but that’s the point. When explaining a word, we can choose between paraphrasing, showing a picture, miming, drawing on the board, contextualising, providing synonyms and what have you. You have to choose one, though. This is how I feel that L1 can be used to help learning. This was definitely not the only activity we had in class nor was it the only thing I could think of. However, among all the activities I could have chosen from, I chose the one involving L1. This time, with this group, it was a fortunate choice. Oh, and no grammar rule had to be presented… :)