On the tip of my (mother) tongue

Using students’ L1 (their first language) has come under a lot of criticism for several years. According to Scrivener (2011), this ‘bad press’ is due to ‘an over-strong reaction to some traditional teaching styles in which teachers only used L1 in class’, which prevented learners from hearing or using any English. As a consequence, many teachers feel discouraged from using L1. Nevertheless, there is a growing number of ELT professionals who are trying to promote a paradigm shift and encourage teachers to embrace the use of the mother tongue as a pedagogical resource.

In his talk during the Richmond authors’ roundtable, Paul Seligson presented some stimulating ideas on how we should view students’ own language as ‘a whole language support system’.  He argues that using ‘the mother tongue as a basis for second language learning is the world’s favourite and most common language learning strategy’, so we can’t stop students from translating. The author suggested looking for equivalents between mother tongue and target language since ‘the first tenet of language learning is to build on existing knowledge’. Choosing to ignore this ‘makes language learning laborious’, especially for lower level students, who ‘should be able to become more fluent much more quickly by embracing the similarities between the two languages’. By helping learners compare and contrast Portuguese and English, we might be helping them learn about both.

So why would we avoid using the learners’ first language at all costs, even when comprehension is at stake? Sometimes I dwell on the best way to explain the meaning of a word or phrase. We can use realia, pictures or mime to convey the meaning of a noun or a verb more often than not. When it comes to adjectives or idioms and other chunks, though, I usually consider if it’s best to explain the meaning in English or say the equivalent term in Portuguese. For example, the adjective ‘overwhelmed’ might not be easily translated into Portuguese depending on the sentence.

On the other hand, why would I spend time saying that a ‘daisy’ is a kind of wild flower with white petals around a yellow centre? Chances are some students will not be satisfied with this explanation, and some students who did understand will say the translation out loud as a means to confirm their guess or will simply write down the word in Portuguese. If I’m not able to show students a picture, I could just say ‘margarida’. Similarly, comparing and contrasting sentence structures in English and Portuguese might make teaching conditional sentences or the past perfect tense, for example, a lot less confusing to students.

Another compelling reason to argue in favour of using learners’ L1 judiciously is the fact that it creates more ‘opportunities for increased participation as it gives a voice to weaker students’, according to Seligson. When assessing reading comprehension, for instance, you may want to ask students to summarise the text they have just read orally in L1. Scrivener (2011) states that ‘this can reveal interesting insights about what learners have understood or misunderstood’. Asking them to talk about the text in English, while providing most students with an excellent chance to practise speaking, may cause great anxiety in lower level students who don’t feel confident enough to share their thoughts in the target language. By the same token, not allowing questions in the mother tongue, Seligson explains, means that ‘you are eliciting from the strongest students and just praying for the rest, as if they will eventually pick up the language and start asking questions in English’.

In my opinion, we should regard these situations as ‘teaching moments’. If the student says something in Portuguese but is actually expressing their views on the topic, it shows that they’re engaged in the lesson and willing to participate. So why not take this as an opportunity to teach something they will be able to use instantly? It might be a chance to review some vocabulary or grammar point which has been covered or perhaps a way to have a look at some pieces of language which may not have come up in the lesson otherwise.

Just like with any teaching technique, we should be able to strike a balance between empathy and effectiveness. L1 should be used with a clear purpose so that learners have the opportunity to understand things clearly while the general aim of the lesson is pursued.

Make sure you watch the Richmond Authors’ Roundtable. The event was packed with riveting ideas. The recording is available on the Richmond Brasil Facebook page.

Scrivener, J. (2011) Learning Teaching: The Essential Guide to English Language Teaching (3rd ed.). Oxford: Macmillan.

Leandro Zuanazzi

Leandro Zuanazzi has been working as a teacher since 2011. He holds the CELTA and the CPE. He is very passionate about professional development for teachers.

  • Timothy Paul Phillips
    Posted at 22:27h, 03 abril Responder

    There is no doubt in my mind that an intelligent being who already shows proficency in the use of one language will naturally (and should) use that as a basis for acquiring a second one. Natural language acquisition is exactly that… natural. It depends on maximum exposure to the target language used in real, contextualized situations. Language teaching, on the other hand is often (always??) best done in the first language. “L1 should be used with a clear purpose so that learners have the opportunity to understand things clearly” PERFECT. or in other words … Using L2 as the basis for teaching concepts and rules about L2 is like letting the students wander around in a thick fog and wondering what they are doing there i.e. not understanding anything clearly at all.
    I suspect the art here is not to balance the amount of L1 and L2 used but to simply separate their use according to one simple criterion: i.e. is this a teaching point or a language item? If the former, blast away inthe first language. If the latter, stick to the target language even when student understanding is less than 100%.

    • Leandro Zuanazzi
      Leandro Zuanazzi
      Posted at 19:33h, 24 abril Responder

      Hi, Tim! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Sadly, many teachers still feel discouraged from using L1 in class. I believe discussing the issue and analyzing the reasons why many professionals shy away from using learners’ first language is an effective way of raising awareness of the importance L1 can have in the learning process. By debunking myths, we can empower teachers to make more informed decisions.

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