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Friend or Foe? L1 in the classroom

Friend or Foe? L1 in the classroom

When you refer to your native language – the one you were raised with – it’s commonly referred to as L1 or your first language. At the start of my English Language Teaching (ELT) career, I remember thinking that maintaining an immersive English environment was essential. My peers and I used to believe that if we used only the language of study, we would create a learning environment that would push our students to use English more, even if they were Beginner level students. 

We were expected to use gestures, facial expressions, emotions, and visual aids to convey meaning to students. In turn, students were expected to do the same. As a newly qualified teacher, I would tell them that they should imagine that they are abroad and have to use English to be understood. I would gesture, mime, and imitate all possible words and phrases in English before noticing that my students were not happy with this approach.  

From this experience, I realised that a fully immersive environment could be counterproductive as it can overwhelm students who often already have a lot to process. This creates a case for embracing L1, and even other languages that the students may speak, in the English language classroom as an aid that can support and enrich learning. Since starting my teaching career in 2011, I have noticed opportunities when using L1 is an effective tool. I’ve summarised my learning in the following teaching tips. 


Tip 1: Support instruction-giving 

It only sometimes follows that an English-only policy will lead to more English use in the classroom. Lower-level students often need support to understand instructions or explanations in English, which are usually above the students’ language level. In this case, rephrasing instructions by breaking the task into bite-sized steps, grading teacher talk, and modelling the task are great ways to support understanding. If you try all these strategies and students still struggle to understand the task, using L1 can be helpful and time efficient. 


Alternative suggestion 

In case you have a multilingual class, then you can lean on the support of a teaching assistant or a stronger student as possible alternative options. Involving students in this way also helps to build a collaborative and supportive environment whereby students work together. 


Tip 2: Support language explanations 

There may be different situations where you jump into L1. If grading the language doesn’t help and you think there is a necessity to refer to L1, try to repeat the same sentence, word chunks, or phrase in English. For instance, when you come to an item you anticipate will be challenging for your students, then you can say it first in English, then the equivalent in L1, and finally repeat it in English. In this case, students will better understand what you mean because it helps build parallels in their minds and they are more likely to remember it next time. 


Alternative suggestion 

If you are not comfortable using L1 in this scenario, then this can be a good time for students to use paper or online dictionaries, or even translating technology, to support their understanding of a language item.  


Tip 3: Take short breaks 

The lower the level of a student, the harder it is to concentrate for long periods. There might be moments when students start struggling to absorb the language. In this case, you can use L1 for a minute to switch their attention and distract them for a sh. You can use this opportunity to reflect on some tasks or ask students how they feel about the tempo of the class. This technique is about trust, building rapport and adjusting the lesson pace to the students’ needs. Students need this break sometimes, as well as the opportunity to feel heard and understood by the teacher. Consequently, a minute pause in L1 can help them be on the same page with the teacher and have a moment of relief.  


Alternative suggestion 

If you teach a multilingual class, then this may not be a viable option. In this case, you may play music during a short break or give students a minute to mingle and stretch.  


Tip 4: Praise students  

L1 works well if you want to specifically praise students on their progress (especially if they are beginner-level). It doesn’t require a lot of time, so you can still have your students talking and encouraging them by telling them how well they performed in a specific task. This helps foster positive emotions as well as builds students’ confidence levels. And we all know that fostering a positive learning atmosphere brings enthusiasm to the studying process. You can also use L1 to praise students followed by the target language to develop vocabulary and understanding. 


Alternative suggestion 

If you teach multilingual classes, then you can praise students using gestures, drawings or tools e.g. thumbs up, drawing a smiley face or using an emoji if teaching in an online setting. This can bring some fun and positive energy to the classroom. 


So, you ask me whether L1 is a friend or foe in the language classroom. In my opinion, nothing is set in stone as it depends on the teaching context and the students’ needs. Having L1 in your teaching kit allows you to experiment by trying out these tips to reflect and evaluate how well they work for your teaching context. Building your teaching toolkit this way will help you to tailor your approach to what works best in supporting your students’ learning and in creating a positive learning environment. 


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