Ok, we can use L1, but are we doing it right?

Lately I have encountered more and more people talking about the benefits of L1 in ELT. At same time that I love it, I wonder: are we going the right way? I will not deny that I love the fact that we have started considering and enhancing the use of L1 in ELT, not only due to my personal experience as a teacher and as a learner (I have recently taken Korean and Spanish lessons for that matter), but also due to data my colleagues from Duque de Caxias and I collected through classroom-based research. The evidences tell us to use L1 to the benefit of the learner. As a result, a number of important events have had main speakers spreading the word: Lourdes Ortega at IATEFL 2018, Phillip Kerr at LABCI 2019, as well as talks and plenaries on bi/multilingualism which frequently address the topic (for instance, BrazTesol Southern Cone 2019 and BT Rio Chapter 2018 had Luciana de Oliveira and Rita Ladeia, respectively).

I am a believer; therefore, I feel forced to be even more critical than the skepticals are. Believing L1 is a valuable tool makes me ask questions regarding how and when it is. I fear the status of L1 moves from the dungeon which is reserved for the sinner (in this case, bad teachers and weak students), as it used to be, to the hill teachers run to so that they protect themselves when they do not know what to do. The point is as follows: we might be starting to move away from forbidding L1 to using L1 without proper rationale or background. If this is the case, we are blowing a great chance to add such an extremely powerful tool to our teaching repertoire, just by doing it wrong. Consequently, I cannot help but wonder:

(1) when (or if) is using L1 no longer helpful and starts hindering learning (if it does)?

(2) what skills can be improved with the help of L1 (if not all; or maybe none)?

(3) what moments of the lesson are more prone to have students talking in their L1 and what moments should have it in a lower amount?

(4) when do students start reducing their use of L1?

(5) how should the teacher react to spontaneous use of L1 by the students in light of all these factors?

(6) how can we plan our use of L1?

Last year, I and four teachers who I work with (Jasson Rodrigues, Paula Costelha, Patrícia Santana and Verônica Mariani) observed 20+ hours of lessons in groups of teens and adults, A1 and A2. We wanted to know what kind of L1 the students were using: was it healthy (e.g. to clarify vocabulary), unnecessary (e.g. asking the teacher to repeat using L1), among themselves on a random topic or among themselves to perform a task better. Moreover, we wanted to know at what point of the lesson they were using L1 and, more importantly, how all of this impacted their performance. In order to do that, we crossed their marks on different tests with their use of L1 in class. Among the findings, we discovered that:

(a) none of the uses of L1 seemed to impact their performance in none of the skills;

(b) our adult learners speak considerably more L1 than our teens;

(c) the use of L1 by the adults decreases considerably throughout the stages  of the lessons;

(d) A1 adult learners use L1 more frequently with the teacher whereas A2 adult learners use L1 among themselves to solve more complex tasks.

Of course these data provides a sample from our students in Duque de Caxias, RJ, and might not represent other contexts. Even so, it may indicate, for instance, that students reach the final stages of the lessons – usually the most rewarding ones – using considerably less L1 than at the beginning of the lesson. Another important finding is that, at A2 level, students do not usually use L1 because they are lazy – they use it to solve any last questions about more complex tasks quickly, get to the core of the task and perform better at the ultimate goal.

That being said, and knowing that the different uses of L1 did not seem decrease students’ performance, the next step is developing clear, reasonable, well-structured strategies and techniques to make L1 help improve students’ skills. One example of good techniques with L1 is instrumental English, that enables students to read in English with classes delivered mostly in their L1. Now it is time to develop more tools and test them with good experimental methodology. This is the only way we can make sure our assumptions and ideas are effective.

Victor Virginio

Victor has been teaching for eight years and is interested in the use of own-language to learn English and classroom-based research. He holds an M.A. in Linguistics and a B.A. in English/Portuguese from UFRJ and is taking the Trinity CertTESOL. He has presented at ELT and Linguistics conferences such as ABCI and Abralin.

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