Monday, May 3, 2010

Peaceful Coexistence of L1 and L2 in a Language Classroom

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

“I’d like to talk to you after class,” I informed one of my 8th grade students, convinced that having missed another homework assignment, he needed to be reminded of our class expectations.  Since my teaching practicum supervisor, an unyielding believer in an exclusive use of L2 in a language classroom, was interested in observing our “after class” talk, English had to be the default language of that conversation.   I followed the English Only Rule, but sensed that the student perceived my words more as an intriguing oddity than a formal reprimand.

The use of L2 in EFL and ESL classrooms

Exclusive or predominant use of L2, a fundamental principle of the communicative approach, stresses the importance of frequent and natural exposure to the target language.  It makes sense, and there are many advantages to the approach.  Even if a school policy doesn’t impose the approach, linguistic realities may.  Like many of you, I have often had to use L2 exclusively if only because I wasn’t familiar with the L1 of each of my students.  Still, even if following the English Only Rule is generally feasible, it may not always be the best idea.  It seems to me that there is no pedagogical faux pas in brief “detours” into L1 under certain circumstances for certain good reasons.

Why and when can we use L1 in EFL and ESL classrooms?

According to Polio and Duff (1994), L1 is commonly used in foreign language classrooms to explain difficult grammar concepts, to solve problems caused by students’ lack of comprehension, to address administrative issues, and so on.  Of the eight typical causes of L1 use mentioned by these researchers, three, to my mind, stand apart clearly as good reasons.

To manage behavioral issues. Although there may always be some way to communicate pedagogical expectations without using L1, at times psychological purposes should be allowed, momentarily, to outweigh educational ones. I still believe that my 8th grader would have understood the importance of doing homework in my class much better had I spoken to him in Polish, our L1.

To communicate empathy or solidarity. Under certain circumstances it is appropriate to communicate understanding or unity to a student, and this can require appropriate, perhaps idiomatic, precision on the part of the teacher as well as full comprehension on the part of the student.  In her article “L1 Use in the L2 Classroom: One Teacher’s Self-Evaluation,” Anne Edstrom recalls a situation which prompted her to use L1.  She had mispronounced a student’s name a few times and was worried about the way he felt.  By switching into L1, she was able to express her concern and to stress her good intentions in a timely and unambiguous manner. At one point she writes, “there are moments when my sense of moral obligation to a student, in this case concern about communicating respect and creating a positive environment, overrides my belief in maximizing L2 use” (287).

To teach the vocabulary of abstract concepts. Resorting to L1 while teaching the vocabulary of abstract concepts is naturally attractive.  In fact, it may make real sense now and then, perhaps when introducing words which have exact or near exact equivalents in L1, or perhaps when the minutes for practicing begin to evaporate as we pile on additional explanations, crowd the board with stick-figure drawings, and exhaust our muscles by over-gesturing.  At some point we begin to waste our students’ time.  Chances are that while witnessing our desperate attempts at explaining the meaning of a new word, at least one student will look the word up in a bilingual dictionary and will be happy to share his or her findings with the classmates (perhaps only to save them from boredom or frustration).

A recipe for success?

While circumspect use of L1 may accelerate the learning process, switching to students’ mother tongue should clearly be limited.  David Atkinson (1987) suggests that L1 should be used no more than five percent of the time in the foreign language or second language classroom.  In my experience, and I suspect in the experience of many other teachers of EFL or ESL, an expedient pinch here and a timely dash there of L1 is just about pedagogically right.

Any thoughts?  Any alternative recipes?

Atkinson, D. (1987). The mother tongue in the classroom: a neglected resource? ELT Journal, 41/4, 241-248.

Edstrom, A. (2006).  L1 Use in the L2 Classroom: One Teacher’s Self-Evaluation. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63/2, 275-292.

Polio, C., and Duff, P. (1994). Teachers’ language use in university foreign language classrooms: A qualitative analysis of English and target language alternation. Modern Language Journal, 78, 313–326.


Comment from youssef
May 4, 2010 at 3:07 am

An interesting article about a delicate issue in teaching L2. I teach English as a sencond foreign language.So you can see how difficult sometimes it is to teach in such a condition. Also I teach a session of two hours per week. Most classes classes are overcrowded, more than forty students. No modern technology is available, not even a tape-recorder. More than that, at the end of the year English is not included in the final exam (the Regional Exam, we call it here in Morocco)let alone other harder conditions: socio-economic problems…..
In additions, most students because they had and are still having problems with learning their first foreign language(French) they still bear that view that learning an other foreign language is just another pinch of salt.
Anyway, making use of the mother tongue to explain or teach new lexicon or the usage of a structure is of great assistance on and off. Also, it saves time as you have touched upon in the article. And aa great number of students students might get interested.
Still, I am very hopeful about the sole use of the target language to teach it only if conditions are to some extent helpful.

Comment from Ela
May 4, 2010 at 3:35 pm

I agree. The topic is “delicate, ” as you mentioned. The concept of exclusive use of L2 was repeatedly stressed in my teaching practicum and beyond, and I’ve felt “guilty” every time I’ve resorted to L1, promising myself not to make a habit out of it. But there’ve been times when I truly wished that I knew my students’ mother tongue in order to use it just in crucial situations. Exclusive use of L2 is definitely the goal we should hope to reach, but I don’t think there’s much sense in feeling bad about turning to L1 once in a while if a situation really calls for it. It should be something that students don’t generally expect, though, and don’t learn to expect. Maybe that’s another way to measure an “acceptable” use of L1.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Comment from Joel S. Garza
May 21, 2010 at 12:17 pm

This is a very interesting article (and topic). The use of the mother tongue in any language classroom has been and undoubtedly will continue to be controversial. Still, as an administrator of an English language program and former ESL instructor, I relate very clearly to the need of using students’ L1. It does vary, however, when and where the use of L1 is practical. For example, English language programs that have speakers of the same L1 can benefit extremely from using their L1 for clarification and comparison of language structure, while still focusing on the target language.
Numerous researchers assert that the use of students’ L1 in the language classroom is beneficial and necessary to scaffold second language learning. Furthermore, the use of students’ L1 increases self-esteem, adds value to students’ language (and culture), and increases motivation to learn because they are no longer only receivers of knowledge but contributors to the learning process when they use their L1 as a learning tool.
I don’t think there is a right or wrong approach to second language learning. Demographics, student diversity, second language learning objectives, and students’ L1 educational level are only a few factors that also need to be accounted for when determining a particular second language teaching approach. Although the use of L1 can also be unproductive if overused, it is mostly up to the instructor to make the necessary evaluation and determine if the use of L1 is feasible, available, and necessary.

Comment from Ela Newman
May 28, 2010 at 2:54 am

Hello! Thank you for sharing your ideas with us. Your comment about students being able to compare a given structure in L2 to its L1 equivalent reminded me of how useful that technique was for me when I was an EFL student. It was especially helpful when we noticed major differences in grammar concepts between English and Polish. I must say that this method came in very handy for me while I was studying the “I wish” structure, for example.

And you are absolutely right. Overuse of L1 is definitely unproductive and even damaging.

Leave a comment on this post