Archive for Tag: l1 in the classroom

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.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In Praise of Explaining

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

When I did my initial teaching course way back in 1992, our trainers made it clear that standing at the front of the class and explaining things to students was simply not the done thing. Good teachers, we were told, don’t explain things; good teachers have special techniques for “eliciting” or “facilitating discovery” of the points they want to get across.

I suspect that this was a reaction to the excessively teacher-centered methods that had gone before, and to be fair, my trainers did have a point. After all, who wants to sit in a classroom and be “talked at” day after day? As with so many things in our profession, however, this new awareness did not result in a logical “Perhaps we should do less one-way explaining” or “Perhaps we should combine explaining with other methods of instruction,” but rather the more reactionary “Right! Nobody is to explain anything anymore!”

This way of thinking was particularly noticeable in the area of vocabulary instruction. In the 1990s, no self-respecting teacher would offer students a simple translation of a new word. Well, not in an observed lesson, anyway! I remember being told that there was no need to translate words because a skilled teacher should be able to convey the meaning of any vocabulary item through other methods, such as the use of gestures or mime. I still hear this claim a lot even now: I can explain any word without using the students’ language!

Again, an argument can be made in favor of this approach, but I think it misses an extremely important point that is often overlooked in language teaching: the question we should be asking ourselves is not “Is it possible for me to do XYZ?” but rather “Is XYZ the most productive way of using the very limited time available?” It is all very well contorting yourself to demonstrate the meaning of a word like “accelerate” through exaggerated mime, but is that really the best use of the teacher’s and the students’ time?

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On “False Friends”: Embracing Cross-Language Connections

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

There he was, sprinting toward our classroom, eager to see his new group of EFL-teachers-to-be, fixed on sharing his latest lesson materials.  My college professor, a jovial and energetic Brit, captured our hearts for many reasons, not the least of which was his active interest in languages other than English, especially our L1.

His signature opening phrase, “Jaka data, prosze?” (“What’s the date, please?”), literally and roughly translated from his English into our Polish, and pronounced in a typically “Britishly” aspirated way, would begin class every day. 

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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.