I've lost count of how many language teachers I've met who say you should never use L1 in the classroom.
'You should never use L1 in the classroom' - countless teachers I've met agree.
‘L1’ is our students' first language, and there are (at least) eight myths about why using it in our lessons damages learning another language. I'm not blaming teachers for believing these myths, as many teacher training courses still preach that all L1 in the classroom is wrong. I was trained the same way, and so I used to believe them too!
Thankfully, as we learn more, we can update our beliefs.
But first, why was L1 kicked out of the classroom?
Why was L1 was expelled from the classroom?
Most likely, it was because of the grammar-translation method.
Grammar translation was a method that emphasized the memorisation of vocabulary lists and grammar rules. It was primarily written translation exercises, with no speaking or listening practice, which, as you can imagine, led to not many fluent speakers being produced. Teachers would use the students' first language to teach the class.
In the early and mid-20th century, there was a high demand for fluent speakers of other languages (partly due to the world wars!), so there was a need for faster, more effective teaching methods.
The reaction was to do the opposite of the grammar-translation method, i.e:
Increase the amount of exposure to the target language (L2).
Get students to think in the L2 to speed up learning.
More easily understand difficult-to-translate words.
Using L1 doesn't work where students have different L1s.
Mimic the process of learning the first language.
As part of that movement, L1 was unceremoniously ejected from the classroom. To this day, many schools have an ingrained belief that L1 is 'bad' either without knowing why or because they believe one of the eight myths about L1.
8 myths about L1 in the classroom
Myth 1: Using L1 slows down learning of L2
That is not necessarily true - the brain can use two languages simultaneously, both in processing and recall ability.
Myth 2: Higher-level learners don't need to use L1
Even higher-level learners can have trouble understanding abstract concepts and can be helped with support from their L1.
Myth 3: Using L1 is a sign of bad teaching
It might be the opposite - a teacher who can effectively use L1 to support, quickly help students understand, and keep learners engaged with a small amount of L1 is actually doing a fantastic job.
Myth 4: Students will start to over-rely on their L1
If lessons are scaffolded well, this won't be the case. By giving support and slowly withdrawing it as learners' abilities grow, there should be a seamless transition to L2. Of course, some students will want to be lazy, but this is a behaviour management issue (and is always the case, even in an L2-only classroom!).
Myth 5: Students need to learn to think in L2, so you shouldn't use L1
It's possible for the brain to process multiple languages at the same time. Plus, it's unlikely for even high-level students to think entirely in their target language.
Myth 6: Total immersion from Pre-K to Grade 3 is the best way to acquire L2.
Although this sounds ideal, research has shown that using students' L1 is better than not doing so. In fact, total immersion learning of L2 at a young age can slow the development of their L1.
Myth 7: Translating makes L1 interference worse
There might be some slight truth to this belief, but it overlooks one thing - there are also positive effects to using L1! Especially if there is some positive crossover between L1 and L2.
Myth 8: Using L1 takes up time you could be using L2
That's true, but it doesn't mean it's a negative. Using L1 also brings a lot of positives around support, positive motivation and easier understanding of instructions.
When to Use L1 in the Classroom
Sometimes, using the students' first language is more appropriate than others. There are three occasions when it's particularly effective:
1. Giving instructions - so students can fully focus on the task and not worry about understanding the instructions.
2. Enforcing behaviour management - making sure that students understand the rules of the classroom
3. Explaining complex concepts in grammar or vocabulary - rather than jumping through linguistic hoops to try and explain a concept, a quick translation can save time and energy.
There are more, but the best place to read about this is my article:
Good luck with using L1 in your lessons!
If you’d like to learn more, you might like to go into more depth with my books:
1. Plan better, faster and stress-free with Lesson Planning for Language Teachers (137 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
2. Develop calm students and a classroom full of learning with Essential Classroom Management (28 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
3. Improve your teaching in five minutes daily with the Reflective Teaching Practice Journal (12 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
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