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…
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!
I admit that when I started teaching English I had more willingness to learn how to do it than actual knowledge of how to actually do it. Most of what I did in classes were things that I had to do in the classroom as a student, and I tried my best to remember what those teachers I thought to be outstanding did in class to help me learn. Furthermore, there were a couple of rues that were so deeply ingrained in my mind that it was hard for me to allow for some flexibility and to see any kind of benefits for learners. One of these rules was the rule of “Portuguese (my L1) is forbidden in class”. As I studied English in an EFL setting, which means all learners shared the same L1, this rule made me believe that L1 was the bogeyman that would come to you and steal all English you may have learned in a class.
Based on this experience, it was only natural that I frowned upon any remark that was in favor of L1 in the classroom. I didn’t really care much about how it was being used – it was definitely the worst thing that could happen to a student in a language class. Soon enough, after I was sure that I wanted to be an English teacher, I (fortunately?) had the chance to study about teaching and learning, and my perception of use of L1 in a classroom where all learners speak the same L1 changed quite a bit. There are many things I’d like to share with you regarding use of L1 in the classroom, but I’ll start with only one in today’s post. This means a part 2 is definitely on the way, and who knows even a part 3. I’d love to read your comments on whether you agree or disagree with what I have to say, if possible. The main thing to keep in mind is that use of L1 in a classroom goes way beyond translation, and I hope to get to that in subsequent posts. So, shall I begin?
Use of L1 and Proficiency Level
As I’ve learned English quite a while ago, I’ve always felt like remembering what it was like to start learning a foreign language from scratch. I was lucky enough to have the chance to take German classes – a language I have never really had the chance to be in contact with. One of the things I noticed, as a student/researcher in the classroom was the fact that the teacher only spoke German in the class. This was actually good for me, as I could clearly see what a true beginner felt like in my classes. I tried my best to do everything I always tell students to do – I was always a volunteer in class, I took part in debates, group and pair work, I did my homework, and I studied regularly at home, and I didn’t skip a single lesson. It turns out this actually worked and I could understand most of what the teacher said in class. After our third test, I felt confident enough (and had already got good enough grades to pass) to try and do what some students do: I spent a week without attending lessons, I didn’t touch my books and notebooks, and I deliberately avoided any contact with the German language that could come my way. For one week I have done that…
Upon returning to classes, I was flabbergasted by the fact that I couldn’t understand anything that was said in class. It was as though I had been thrown into the class on that very same day. To make matters worse, the teacher was constantly asking me questions as I usually jumped at them. She soon learned that I couldn’t make head or tail of what she was saying.
Thinking about this situation and comparing it with what I experience in English, I could clearly see lots of differences. I can easily spend a week, a month, and even more without speaking English and still feel comfortable using it after this period. This has helped shape the use of L1 in the classroom by my learners. It’s much harmful for beginners to speak L1 in the classroom than it is for, let’s say, FCE students. The less we know a language, the more important it is for us to be presented with it in terms of input and the more important it is that we are asked to speak it. This is not an easy task on the teacher, though.
It’s the teacher’s role to be able to properly create communicative activities that will foster conversation in class at an appropriate level for the learners so that there can be effective scaffolding. If we accept that language learning is conversation-driven because we tend to engage in conversations that are meaningful to us, and that we learn best things that are meaningful to us, this means the teacher is responsible for creating activities that will do exactly that – allow learners to engage in meaningful conversation using whatever limited command of the language they may have.
The problem is how often I hear from students, parents, and even teachers that it’s OK for beginners to use L1 in class because, well, they’re just beginners. Just the same, I find it just as worrisome that these people also say that advanced learners can’t speak L1 because, well, they’re advanced learners. To be hones, I feel it should be exactly the other way around. Obviously, it’s much easier for teachers and for students to speak only in L2 once learners have become independent users of the language. However, it’s much more important for them to speak English only when they are still not independent in the target language.
When it comes to use of L1 and proficiency level in the target language, I believe it’s much better for learners to even be allowed to use L1 once they’ve become able to express themselves in the L2. If they’re still taking the first steps towards learning the target language, use of L1 is not forbidden, but teachers should be much more careful about it. Just as anything we do in class, L1 can be used to help learners. It should never, though, be used just to make the teacher’s life easier. If so, this might come at the learners’ expense of long-term learning and independence in the target language. L1 one is yet another tool available for the teacher – learning when and how to use this tool can make or break a lesson.
Truth be told, we make many decisions in class on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, I do feel that having some guidelines can help us make better informed decisions and lead us to further reflection once the class is over. In a nutshell, I feel that I should try much harder to avoid L1 with beginners that I should with advanced learners. How about you?
Is there room in today’s language classroom for the use of L1? I distinctly remember that when I started studying L2 a long time ago, translation was unthinkable. Teachers had to use L1 and L1 alone. Perhaps that had something to do with Krashen and his Comprehensible Input hypothesis. But then again, perhaps most teachers were simply doing as they were told, no questions asked – something sort of “hey, this is what everybody is doing, so why should we do things differently?” Even though most teachers from bygone times I’ve had a chance to talk to have always shown a solid knowledge of methodology and the ability to think critically, I must admit I don’t believe all teachers were that conscientious of their practices. But I leave this to someone who’s had the chance to work directly with people from different schools, and the more people the better, to answer.
However, coming back to the past 15 years or so, I can say that, unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of “teachers” out there who have very little knowledge of what they’re doing and who are just fine with it. This is not exclusive to the world of ELT – but it’s the world of ELT the one I live in. Hence, the one I’m most comfortable to talk about. Just like I’ve seen many teachers saying they abide by the principles of CLT, but can’t actually say what CLT is nor can they think of any procedure carried out in the classroom that is communicative. Instead, these teachers just walk into a classroom and talk to their students. The thing is, they’re not paying attention to their students’ learning – they’re just talking. I wish these teachers had heard of Dogme so they could perhaps turn things around and realise how much learning can deride from a conversation – but Dogme is not the trend, so they won’t say they teach *ahem* “dogme-itically”.
These days, a lot has been said about Lexis and then all those teachers claim they abide by the principles of both CLT and the Lexical Approach. They don’t even care they haven’t read any of the books – as long as this is the way to go, that’s what they claim they do. And, to finally come back to L1 in the classroom, I still see many teachers who don’t give it any thought and simply reproduce what they’ve been told in training sessions. If they work for a school that says that L1 in the classroom is cool, that’s what they defend. If they start working for a school whose beliefs shun L1 in the classroom, God forbid they ever hear someone says using L1 is OK.
But then, at the risk of provoking some outspoken criticism, I’ll put in my two cents’ worth. I believe there is a time and a place for L1 in the L2 classroom. The problem doesn’t lie in this regard – it lies in the fact that some teachers haven’t been trained to learn how to judiciously use L1 in the classroom. They either overuse it, or punish students for making use of L1. Just like teachers can’t rely on pictures all the time their students ask for the meaning of a word, they can’t take the soft way out and resort to L1 all the time. This is particularly true when it comes to single-word lexical items. However, if a teacher asks his students to, for instance, discuss in groups about a certain topic for 10 minutes, it’s way more sensible to answer a quick vocabulary question that would otherwise have taken 1 minute to be explained by translating it and letting the students carry on the conversation. At this stage, they’re supposed to do the talking, not the listening. It’s not only comprehensible input, but comprehensible output as well.
To sum it up, even though I believe that there’s a time and place for L1 in the classroom, I believe that it should be used as little as possible, and mainly as a last resource during most of the lesson. Actually, I even encourage and expect teacher to use L1 only with students in and out of class. This is particularly important in an EFL setting, I suppose. Learners have to interact with one another and the teacher in the target language, but this doesn’t mean L1 is to be banned. But it takes a teacher who’s knowledgeable and resourceful to know when to use L1 (and all other resources we have at hand) effectively. Unfortunately, it seems teacher education is less and less valued.