My TESOL FRANCE workshop –: L1 – How to avoid it and ways of using it in the language classroom.

According to Thornbury “ no other single issue in the history of language teaching has polarized opinion as much as the question of mother tongue use” (Big Questions in ELT, 2003)


Ever since the Grammar Translation method fell out of fashion it has been considered a weakness or fault to use L1 in the EFL classroom.

Methods such as Krashen’s Monitor Method argued for massive target language input to acquire rather than learn a language.

The Communicative Approach and other methods made no mention of L1.

Many resource books (Harmer’s “How to teach”, Thornbury’s “A-Z of ELT”) make no reference to it.

Teacher training continues to advise against any use of other language in teaching English.

A little theory:

Deepti Jindal (2013): “Let’s Humanize Language teaching by using L1” asks the important question “Why do teachers feel guilty using L1?” and comes up with the following reasons:

  1. Students need exposure – yes, but only exposure of comprehensible language, otherwise it makes no difference at all, a child is exposed to approx. 10,000 hours of language before they begin to speak, are we assuming our students will also remain silent for the first two or three years of language class?
  1. Students must learn L2 in the same way they learnt L1, without explanations in another language – it is ridiculous to compare a business man learning English with a young child learning their first language, Vygotsky points out that language learning takes place in the proximal zone and is scaffolded by previous knowledge of language which will be based on L1.
  1. Students need to be encouraged to think in English – you can’t decide what language someone will think in, you know if you have learnt a foreign language yourself that you will automatically compare it to and contrast it with your own language, if you believe you can influence how people think, just sit & try not to think about white bears for a few moments.
  1. Interference errors– research shows that there are no more interference errors in classes that use L1. In fact this argument assumes that monoligualism is the norm, which is not the case, or that bilingual speakers do not regularly switch between languages, as is often the case.
  1. Translating will make learners feel both languages have exact equivalents– on the contrary, comparing and pointing out that in English you ARE your age, whereas in French you HAVE your age will help students avoid this error.

Research in favour of L1 Use

Auerbach (1993) questioned the “neo-colonial” element in refusing to allow TESOL students in the United States to use their L1.

Nation (2003) mentioned the harmful psychological effects in forbidding L1.

Also: A comfortable, safe atmosphere is essential in the language learning classroom, what better way to develop this than by a few jokes or a kind comment to a student who seems ill-at-ease? Also when teaching children for example, discipline in L1 seems to be much more effective than in English.

It seems the most important element in L1 use would be the teacher’s conscious decision of when and how to use it.


  1. Visual reminders– stick up a flag, use Puchta’s heart & E idea, use facial expression to show disapproval.
  1. Give them the necessary language – posters, useful phrase charts & lists, pre-teach necessary vocabulary before speaking activities, if a student speaks L1 get class in pairs to help him find English equivalent.
  1. Give them a safe place to learn & practice, be sure to be very careful & avoid correcting errors mid-flow.

4. Give them something to say – there are loads of great speaking activities about, use them.

  1. Rewards– piggy banks & fines, oral evaluation, sweets.
  1. Send out spies – can note L1 use & class can come up with English equivalent at end of activity.

7. Puchta’s poster – Our CLASS RECORD IS… post-it with days/hours or minutes …

  1. Ask students opinion – use questionnaire at start of year and get class to come up with rules & consequences concerning L1 use, often students don’t want it in classroom.


  1. Instructions – sandwich L1 instructions by giving them in English before and afterwards, give instructions in English, get a student to repeat to class in L1, later try opposite – give instructions in L1 & get a student to repeat them in English for the class.

2. Comprehension Checks – orally, or give L1 summary of a text with mistakes to be corrected, give several versions of L1 summary & get students to choose the correct one.

  1. Translation games– consequences, Chinese whispers – choose a phrase from future text, popular song or quotation, using recent vocab or grammar point & get students to translate from L1 to English then pass it on and next student translates back to L1 and so on. Use Google translation to show possible errors that occur.
  1. Interpreter games– one student is interpreter, 2 others have “discussion” in given situation (bank, restaurant…), student interprets. Press conference – one student is star, class question him, either in L1 or English & interpreter must interpret questions and answers.
  1. Cultural awareness – often treats subjects above language level of students, code-switching/L1 maybe necessary.
  1. Learning Skills– important part of learning, again may be above students’ language level, vocabulary cards, etc.
  1. To avoid Burn out – especially in intensive or all-day courses, to brainstorm ideas before new activity, etc.

To conclude: L1 has a valid place in ELT classroom, however must be teacher’s choice – and teacher should lead by example, don’t expect your students to use English whenever possible if you slip into L1 at any opportunity.

Obviously multi-language classes or teachers in countries where they don’t know the L1 cannot use all of these activities, but that doesn’t mean L1 or multiple L1s cannot be used in variations of the activities proposed.


About fabenglishteacher

enjoying sharing learning
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2 Responses to My TESOL FRANCE workshop –: L1 – How to avoid it and ways of using it in the language classroom.

  1. Pingback: TESOL France 2014 – thoughts, poster, handout and links | EFL Notes

  2. Thanks! The full immersion method became fashion after Berlitz started it.
    Not using the student’s knowledge and skills in another (mother) tongue is highly inefficient, especially for beginners. Even advanced students can benefit from a quick translation or explanation for a difficult issue. I’ve experienced this as a German and English teacher to adults for the last 12 years.
    I view grammar competence and drills as being very helpful to acquire confidence in one’s foreign language use.

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