In Defense of L1 Use in the Classroom

On my other blog, I’ve already written about this. I think that a new blog is an excuse to revisit the topic again.


There’s a truism in English language instruction that using the students’ language in the classroom slows — or even prevents — learning. I’ve even heard school managers say that they prefer not to hire teachers who speak the students’ language for fear that it will be overused in the classroom.

I have some thoughts about this. The summary is that L1 (the students’ first language) is a tool like any other. It’s no less welcome in the classroom that PowerPoint.

Why L1 use is problematic

There’s a risk that, as soon as students realize the teacher speaks their language, they won’t try as hard to communicate in English. It’s a real risk. I can’t count the number of times that students have said to me — or to the other students — “das kann ich nicht auf Englisch sagen” before explaining something to the group.

Then, this concept that can’t be expressed in English becomes a topic. Sure, the teacher can provide the vocab quickly. But what if the grammar is beyond their reach?

It’s the teacher’s fault

There was a younger version of me who quickly became frustrated with the students. “It’s a language lesson. If they can’t say it in English, they should just sit on it until they can.”

Stupid students.

But, it’s not their fault. My realization was creeping. First, I realized that I don’t get to select for students. And, obviously, just talking to them doesn’t help. It’s human nature to want to share.

In fact, I realized, I worked hard to create an atmosphere where they felt comfortable sharing. I worked hard to start a conversation that they wanted to be a part of. After all that, why wouldn’t they switch to German?

The students aren’t stupid. It was the stupid teacher who either lost control of the conversation or chose a topic that wasn’t appropriate to the classroom’s language level.

In general, the solution is to keep the conversations shorter. To keep them a bit more superficial until students have the language skills they need. And, of course, to use the reduced time to include more speaking activities.

Why use L1 at all, then?

I had a funny experience applying at the language school where I do most of my teaching now. The school — located in Germany — is run by a French woman who teaches English and French. I showed up on time and was welcomed in.

We spoke for fifteen minutes or so in German about my teaching history and philosophy. Then, she laughed and asked, almost apologetically, if it would be okay if we switched to English. “I just want to hear how you speak,” she said. I was the first native speaker (still the only native speaker at a school staffed with Germans who teach English) who’d arrived and didn’t immediately say “I’m more comfortable in English.”

“That’s good,” she said. “It’s important you can speak German.” From explaining where the toilets are, or the parking rules, or summarizing a grammar lesson, she expected her teachers to be able to communicate with the students in German.

It was liberating to be allowed to use German (so many schools say it’s part of their philosophy not to use it at all) and I’ve realized a few things: 1) students respect your language learning expertise more if they know you’ve learned a language and 2) there are a ton of words that can be explained simply by writing it on the board. Germans might not know the word “laser” when they hear it, but when they read it, everything is clear.

Even more, it helps to understand what the students are trying to tell you when they use figurative language. “What little Hans doesn’t learn, big Hans will never learn” — “I think you mean, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.'” — “Is it different in English?” — “It is.”

Translating from L1

More than any of those reasons, there are two situations in which L1 use seems called for in the lesson to me. The first, is when students say “Hmm. How do I say redselig?” and I answer “you know the word for gesprächig, is it really different?” “Right! Talkative!”

Naturally, we hope that students learn to find synonyms on their own, but they come to me for help. With time, they learn the strategy of “hmm, I’ve stumbled across a word I know in German that I don’t know in English. What other, similar words could I use?”

And this is a specific example of a more general situation. Students want to relate something they’ve experienced, heard, said or read in German. It’s going through their head in German and they’re basically translating it as they go, rather than spontaneously combining vocab in English.

This happens all the time. On vacation, they’re making small talk to acquaintances and they want to tell a funny story that is a core part of their personality. Or, very frequently for some of my students, they’re communicating with customers in a conversation they can have on autopilot in German. And they hit phrases left and right which they can’t translate.

Translating from German to English, my students assure me, is much harder than translating from English to German. And no matter what the language school’s philosophy is, it’s an important part of how they use English.

Some guidelines

My use of L1 is informed by a few guidelines: does my use of L1 contribute to my students’ work towards their goals? (This can range from language-specific goals to the goals of creating an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable, or praising their progress when they’re still close to it to see it.) Are students ready to quickly switch back to English once L1 has been used? Do they understand that L1 is something we rely on to support the lessons, not supplant them? Do I feel as though I’m in control of L1 use, or do students use it to try and take control?

Conclusion

If you teach for a school where L1 use isn’t encouraged or even allowed, maybe you’re lucky that you don’t have to think about this. On the other hand, though, if you get to use L1 in your classroom, I suggest it can be done well.

How do you handle this? Do you even speak your students’ native language? When do you use it in the classroom?

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