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.