Why, When and How to Use L1 in the Classroom
Your students' first language is a valuable teaching tool.
On my initial TEFL training course in 2003, we weren't allowed to use L1 (the students' first language) in the classroom.
If you did, the tutors would lower your mark for that lesson, and stern feedback would be given. It seemed that the rule was there so the tutors could check that you were capable of delivering a lesson without using the students' L1.
Strangely though, that's as far as the discussion on L1 went - there was no further information on how to best use L1. So when I started my first teaching position, I had an ingrained habit of only using L1 and prejudice against using L2. I'm sure this has been the same for thousands (tens of thousands?) of TEFL teachers worldwide.
In reality, L1 can be a powerful teaching aid.
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7 Reasons to use L1
1. To check understanding
After you've given students complex instructions, checking that they understand what they need to do is a good idea. Rather than ask students to repeat back to you (which can be unreliable) or ask them to tell you in their own words (which they might not be able to do), a quick translation can confirm they understand. Either you can translate the instructions or ask a student to tell you what they heard you say in their L1.
2. To teach meaning in some vocabulary
Translation is a quick and efficient way to convey the meaning of abstract concepts.
While concrete nouns can be conveyed easily, more abstract vocabulary can be difficult to explain in L2. When observing a class, I remember seeing a teacher start to sweat when their class had no idea what 'honour' meant, and they became hopelessly lost trying to get its meaning across.
Alternatively, a quick translation into L2 would have saved time and heartache.
3. To teach meaning in some grammar
What's true for conveying meaning in vocabulary is also true for some grammar. Using timelines on the board is a common technique to convey meaning, but I've seen it go wrong, with scribbled lines adding to students’ confusion.
It can also take some time to do well, whereas a quick translation into the students' L1 is fast and effective. Using translated examples is much easier if the students' L1 has the same grammar, but you can ask them to notice differences even if it doesn't.
3. To build rapport
Showing students that you've made the effort to learn their language never fails to build rapport. It shows that you care about their language and their culture. It shows that you're also a language learner and can empathize with their language learning journey, that you know the struggles they're going through.
Especially at the beginning of a course (but be careful not to overuse L1 or rely too much on it).
4. To support nervous or beginner learners
It can be reassuring for some learners to know that the teacher can understand them if they run into difficulties. This is especially useful for those learners that are young, nervous, just starting to learn a language, or at the beginning of a course.
5. To prepare for a complex task
During task-based learning, teachers often give preparation time ahead of a complex task. Groups work together to prepare for how best to tackle the upcoming language task. This planning time is critical, as it helps students prepare and organise.
Teachers usually default to enforcing L2 only during this preparation time, which is a shame. Allowing students to use their L1 to make decisions, organise, and prepare will lead them to give a much better performance during the task. Yes, it's good to practice their L2, but for some students, this type of functional language in L2 might be unknown to them.
Insisting that students use L2 might be a difficult (or impossible) task by itself, ahead of a task that will be made even more difficult - so help them out by letting them use their L1 and reduce their cognitive load.
Be aware of these nuances, and make the best choice for your students.
6. To rest after an intensive task
After completing a complex task, be aware that students might need some recovery time. To ask them to immediately jump from one difficult task to another will reduce their performance.
One tactic is to build in a quick review activity, and an option is to allow students to use their L1 to discuss performance, which groups were best, fastest, most creative, etc., and then tell you in L2.
7. To relieve student frustration
At any point during the lesson, students can become frustrated at not being able to understand or express themselves. When they do, one quick way to relieve their frustration is to allow them to convey their message in their L1.
3 Reasons to avoid L1
1. You teach a group of students with mixed L1s
Using a language in class that only a handful of students have as their L1 can come across as favouritism, the teacher trying to show off, or just be ineffective and confusing for other students.
2. Students can get over-excited when they use L1
Depending on your class, students can become over-enthusiastic when speaking in their own language. This depends on the types of students you have (younger students often go nuts when allowed to use L1 freely) and what you ask them to do with their L1.
3. Students can more easily go off-topic when using L1
Even well-meaning students can easily wander off-topic when they're using L1. Think of how often you change topics when speaking to a friend - it's easy to do. As a teacher, you'll need to be confident in using the students’ L1 to monitor their discussions and re-direct them to the topic if needed.
Quick tactics on how to use L1...
Set rules for using L1 in class - even if it's at a signal from you. For example, to prepare for a task, students have 2 minutes to discuss organisation and procedure in small groups.
Having rules and expectations are crucial. It could be rather disruptive if you suddenly announce in the middle of a lesson that it's OK to use L1, with no other information given.
When you introduce new vocabulary, ask students to teach you how to say and use the item in their L1. You could also ask them if there are any similar items, local alternatives, or interesting knowledge that's also local to their culture.
Ask students to notice and compare differences in target grammatical structures to their own grammar. What's different, and what's the same?
Use L1 activities
There are some great activities that involve translation, and here’s a link to my favourite.
If you think students won't understand a word or phrase, use their L1 to say it instead and immediately repeat it in English afterwards.
...and how to avoid L1
Reformulate a sentence into a simpler structure or with simpler vocabulary so students will be able to express this in L2 without having to use L1
Pre-teach functional language
At the beginning of a course, teach students relevant, functional classroom language so there's no need to revert to L1. Phrases and chunks of language such as 'open your book', get into pairs, and other classroom necessities.
Balancing L1 and L2 use
Each class will probably require a different balance of L1 use in lessons. A beginner class might need more, and an advanced class, less. Even then, there is variation within levels.
You also need to consider the classroom dynamics and student personalities. If you have a rowdy class where classroom management is already tricky, it might be that using L1 will make classroom management harder than it already is.
Look for signs that you're over- or under-using L1 - anything from students using L1 for language that they should know in English already to struggling to understand explanations.
What can you do if you want to use your students’ L1 but don't speak it? Well, then maybe it's time to become a language student.
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 (121 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
2. Develop calm students and a classroom full of learning with Essential Classroom Management (23 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
3. Improve your teaching in five minutes daily with the Reflective Teaching Practice Journal (10 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
Hi Dave. I remember trying to explain the word 'adventure' to students when I was an inexperienced teacher, and refused to use my L1 teaching assistant. I must have taken 10 minutes explaining, acting out, drawing... all to no avail. It wasn't even target vocabulary for the lesson! I think you're right, newly qualified TEFL teachers often get it drilled into their heads that they shouldn't use L1... EVER! I'm glad I when I see evidence to the contrary.