English Only? Embracing L1 while Teaching L2

English Only? Embracing L1 while Teaching L2

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 9,677 views |

I am currently teaching an ESL of almost all native Spanish speakers.

While this may seem nothing remarkable for an ESL instructor in California, it is a somewhat strange experience for me as I live in Sacramento, which has been called “the most diverse city in the United States,” at least in terms of integration or variety of cultural groups living and working together. A class of students from language backgrounds such as Spanish, Russian, Cantonese, and Arabic is more what I’m used to, and it is in such an environment that most of the major ESL methodology that I’ve learned, such as having students work in mixed language groups to complete communicative tasks, makes sense: students have no choice but to speak English with their classmates if that is their only common language, and the teachers reminder to “use English” becomes somewhat redundant. But the scenario shifts when all or most of the students speak the same language. If they are put in groups, often they will use their common language—that is, the home language, in this case. The teacher’s reminder to “Speak English” can sound ridiculous and perhaps even slightly racist under such circumstances. And after all, is it reasonable or even helpful to focus on complete use of English under such circumstances? Can’t the students’ first language be used productively in class? In fact, it can, and use of the learner’s L1 (first language) to learn L2 (second language) has long been accepted methodology. There are some useful ways to use L1 while teaching L2 while avoiding some common pitfalls.

Methods to Use Student First Language (L1) while Teaching English

  1. 1

    Logistics and Orientation

    When a student enters a class for the first time, or enters late, it can be very difficult to understand the teacher’s directions on finding the books, materials, signing in, attendance policy, and so forth. Having peers explain these policies in their first language can be less threatening and more helpful for students. Even a student who has been in the class for a while but who may have come in late, having been speaking his native language all day with family or coworkers, can find it helpful to be told the page number in his first language rather than second while he readjusts to using English. It is best, of course, for students to eventually learn to follow these directions in English, but some use of the first language in these areas, in the beginning days of the term, at least, can help both teacher and student.

  2. 2

    Extended Explanation

    Sometimes course logistics and directions go beyond a simple “We’re on page 48” and into more complex explanations. For example, this semester, a student stronger in English than most of her peers stood up and translated for the class how to go about obtaining the course text online, instead of the student bookstore, where for some reason it had seen a twenty percent inflation rate from the prior term. After the student was finished explaining the process in Spanish, I, out of long habit, checked in with “Do you understand?” and then added, “Oh, I guess you understood that,” bringing laughter from the class. But the point is that this would have taken me a long time to explain in English—time better spent on course content rather than more routine matters.

  3. 3

    Abstract Definitions

    How does one pantomime or draw “collectivism” or “indigenous people”? I have yet to figure it out. And if a student in class does know how to translate a term like this from the course language into the students’ first language, why not use the student’s efficient, quick translation rather than the often round-about, partially-successful explanations from English? Then the students, once the term is translated, can practice its use in English having fully comprehended its meaning.

  4. 4

    Academic Discussion

    There is even a role for translation in class discussion, a task where it perhaps most of all has been encouraged to use the second language as much as possible. And while it is true that while simpler, nonacademic discussions, such as on the topic of our favorite movies, should mostly take place in English, more academic discussions, on topics such as the relative benefits of the capitalist and socialist systems, often can be improved by some use of the student first language. Some of the lower-level students may be lost in the discussion, for example, and having a peer translate one or two key terms quickly and unobtrusively can be enormously helpful while not interfering with the progress of the discussion.

Pitfalls to Avoid

While there are definite benefits to using the first language in a second language class, there are also some pitfalls to avoid, discussed below.

  1. 1

    Class Content Discussion Should be Mostly English

    Perhaps the largest drawback to using students’ first language in an ESL class is drawing the line between using the first language as simply a vehicle to aid the logistics of the class and allowing it take over as course content itself. This pitfall can be avoided by establishing from the beginning when it is acceptable to use first language (explaining where things are, how we conduct the class) and when to use English (discussing the reading).

  2. 2

    Over-Reliance on Peers to Translate

    Another drawback to using the first language in the classroom is the tendency for students of becoming over-reliant on their peers’ translations. In fact, research has shown that the least effective bilingual classes are those in which the L1 and L2 are used simultaneously, rather than on alternate days, which has been proven more effective, as students just learn to listen for the first language explanation rather than trying to understand the second—the overall course objective, of course. Establishing limits of first language use at the beginning and gradually getting students less reliant on their peers and the first language should be therefore a goal of the class.

  3. 3

    Participation of Students in the Non-dominant Language Group

    Finally, even in a class that is comprised of ninety-five percent of speakers of one first language, there will of course be the five percent from another language background. This presents a problem with the use of the majority language in class, as the five percent will not benefit and will feel left out. Methods to address this are stepping up the encouragement to focus on the use of English in class as it is the common language. In addition, placing the minority language speakers in different discussion groups throughout the room, rather than in just one by themselves, will again result in English being used as the common language, with the added benefits of richer discussions as students will have different perspectives based on different backgrounds as well as the possibility of cross-cultural friendships developing. Finally, students will probably have the impulse to explain relevant terms from their first languages to each other, and again the explanation will have to take place in English, further developing English language and critical thinking skills.

There are definite pitfalls to avoid when using students’ first language in class, but if these pitfalls of overdependence and overuse of the first language are addressed, use of the students’ first language can create a more satisfying and richer class experience.

What Do You Think about Use of Student L1 in the ESL Class?

What are some methods for using student L1?

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