Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Place for the L1?

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

If there is anyone out there who reads this blog regularly, you might know that after several years of living in Belgium, I returned last fall to the USA. When I was in Belgium, I taught EAL (English as an Additional Language) in the Secondary School Immersion program at the British School of Brussels (BSB). Now, I am an ESL program coordinator and instructor at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. As I have readjusted to life in North America, I’ve noticed so many differences between my life in Europe and my life here. Some things here are great, like being able buy groceries on a Sunday and free soda refills at restaurants. On the other hand, I miss some things from Belgium, including long, slow meals out and being able to drive to a completely different country in a few hours.

Mother Tongue …

One of the things I’ve noticed as being a little different in my professional life is how teachers seem to feel about the role of the L1 in their classrooms. I first heard the term “mother tongue” while I was teaching at the BSB. Basically, as you might easily guess, the phrase refers to a person’s first language. My mother tongue is English; however, my mother was born in Canada but in a Russian-speaking community, so her mother tongue, the first language she spoke, is Russian, even though her English is much stronger than her Russian.

At the BSB, our focus in the EAL program was the preservation of the students’ L1s. As a former colleague, Joris Van Den Bosch, puts it, “working with many different nationalities in the classroom, it is clear that in order to acquire all the necessary academic language items and structures, my EAL learners need to link newly presented or encountered knowledge with pre-existing knowledge.” (Van Den Bosch, 2015) In other words, as an EAL instructor, he needs to help his secondary students access the academic content in their mainstream classes. Students can understand and remember the content more easily in English if they already know it in their L1. For instance, if students are learning about desertification, it’s much easier for them to complete their Geography homework and understand the lectures in their classes if they already have the language to talk about desertification in their L1.

Also, some of the students at the BSB are only in Belgium for a short period of time. After a few years, they often have to return to their home countries and rejoin school there. That means they need to be able to communicate about, say, the causes of World War II in English to succeed in Year 9 History at the BSB, as well as in their native language to prepare for their return to the school system in their home countries. Consequently, we made a big deal about supporting students’ mother tongues at the BSB. In his article, Van Den Bosch describes some of the creative, fun activities he does with his learners to encourage them to make use of their L1s.

Or Not?

However, when I returned to the USA, I noticed instructors here were not so excited about the idea of encouraging students to use their L1s in ESL class. I certainly hadn’t been before I went to Belgium. When I looked back at some of my old course syllabi with the idea of revising them for use in my new classes, I came across my strict “English only” policies. Now, as a program coordinator, I have to observe teachers in our Intensive English Program, as well as archive their course syllabi, and I have certainly noticed that the English-only policy is alive and well.

I understand that the circumstances are different. Now, I am teaching adults in a Community College. Unlike my BSB students, the only exposure to English some of my current students have all day is the two hours they spend in my class. Obviously, I want to make that time count and having them do a lot of work in their L1 may not be the best way to do that.

A Special Place for the Mother Tongue

However, I can’t help but feel that all the research that supports treating the mother tongue as something valuable rather than illicit isn’t that far off the mark, even in my new context. My own anecdotal experience of learning French when I was in Belgium (described in the post, Lessons Learned in the French Classroom) lead me to question my previous English-only policies in class. Moreover, Folse [2004] debunks the myth that students need to use monolingual dictionaries to learn new vocabulary. In fact, he cites research that suggests that readers understand and remember more when they make use of a bilingual dictionary (Knight, 1994).

This has lead me to revise my syllabi so that going forward I don’t have an English-only classroom. I will encourage students to try to speak English as much as possible to make the best use of their time in the class, but I will also urge them to exploit their L1s by using bilingual dictionaries to translate new vocabulary and to discuss concepts to other speakers of their native language in the mother tongue to make sure new ideas are understood by everyone.

After all, as Van Den Bosch argues, the supporting students’ mother tongues “is not only about progress and linguistic ability, but also – perhaps even more crucially – about international-mindedness and creating an atmosphere of belonging and well being.” I like the idea of my classes being internationally-minded and welcoming. How about you?

Folse, K. (2004). Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Knight, S. (1994). Dictionary use while reading: The effects on comprehension and vocabulary acquisition for students of different verbal abilities. The Modern Language Journal, 78(3), 285-299.
Van Den Bosch, J. (2015). Making active and creative use of all the languages in your classroom. Lexicallab. Retrieved from


Comment from Toni Jensen
October 8, 2015 at 2:41 pm

As an ESL teacher here in California and having worked overseas as well, teaching English, I also revised my English only stance, particularly in the beginning when students have little to hang onto linguistically except their mother tongue. I think that as students move into the low intermediate range it is important that we become more strict about English only. It’s a process. thank you for your columns. I appreciate them very much!

Comment from @JorisEAL
October 11, 2015 at 10:48 am

Hi Tamara,
Great blog post and many thanks for citing me! On the whole mother tongue debate; it seems people think there are only two ways: either the students chat in their home language all lesson or an English only class!
ESL/EAL teachers need to know there is a middle path in which L1 is used as a superb resource and students feel that their language (and culture) is important and useful for acquiring a new language. You can still have rules about using L1 in class. There is a place for L2 and L1!
Keep writing!

Comment from gerson rodriguez
October 11, 2015 at 9:07 pm

Hi Tmara,
I am very, very happy to know that you are not the onLy one who thinks that the only English approach is not adequate in EFL. I have felt like this for years but frustration sometimes sets in because program directors differ.I wish you the very best, Gerson

Comment from Tamara Jones
October 12, 2015 at 5:38 am

This post hit a nerve for many of you! I received several emails as well as these comments. I really likes Joris’ point about there being a middle path between L1 all the time and no L1 at all. Hopefully, as more and more teachers come around to this way of thinking, administrators will too and strict English-only policies will become a thing of the past.

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