Taboo language – Is L1 such a curse?

A challenge teachers frequently face is reducing the amount of L1 used by their students in class. For obvious reasons, we all want our learners to take the most of our lessons. They also like to feel challenged and to leave the room (or wherever you teach them) feeling that they have spent an hour or so only speaking English. In addition, all of us teachers tend to believe that every minute of communication in the target language is worth the effort. These arguments make complete sense, but let us look at them from other angles.

If we learn to use the language by using it in meaningful contexts, I wonder how meaningful some moments of the lesson actually are, and question how much more meaningful they can be. For example, consider giving instructions. The more we make our students practice the more frequent it is to give instructions; the more complex the tasks are, the more time we spend giving instructions, checking them, modelling, etc. One argues that I am giving students input, they are practicing listening, but how meaningful this time is to them, especially at lower levels? Very frequently beginners are spared more complex tasks because of these management issues. Shouldn’t we maximize their time using the target language? What if using L1 to help giving instructions could reduce my talking time and end up increasing students’ talking time?

Another point to consider is that much of our resistance in using L1 in class comes from our beliefs on how languages are learned. We cannot deny that our beliefs in this regard derive, to a great extent, from how we have learned English and what we have learned that teaching is about. In general, the methodologies and approaches that shaped ELT tradition were thought of in English-speaking countries, where learners very often did not share a language with their classmates or with the teacher. Students were immigrants, exchange students or any of the kind, who came to English speaking cities and wanted or needed to learn the language in this context. Well, my teaching context, which I believe I share with many of you, is teaching Brazilian students who obviously share Portuguese as their L1 and can take advantage of their previous linguistic knowledge to learn an additional language.

Today there is plenty of scientific evidence that L1 does indeed help learning a second language. On her talk at IATEFL 2018, Lourdes Ortega, a Second Language Acquisition researcher from Georgetown University, lists a number of studies showing that learners who perform better in their L1 are the same who perform better in L2. If that is the case, then we cannot turn a blind eye to making “sound use of L1”. The moment now is to dive into this jargon and ask: what is it exactly to make “sound use of L1”? Is it using students’ mother tongue to clarify vocabulary faster? Is it using L1 to compare grammar points and make it clearer? Is it to check understanding of complex tasks more quickly? Is it to reduce affective filter? Is it to help connect better to students?

McManus and Marsden (2017) carried out a very well structured study regarding grammar presentation. They instructed two groups on the same grammar topic, but to one group they included L1 in their presentation, and to the second group the presentation was exclusively in L2. Turns out the group which had L1 in their presentation showed higher improvement on the topic than the second group. On another study, Storch and Wigglesworth (2003) analyzed students’ interaction and how they used their shared L1 or not. Due to the their intermediate level, they tended not to use L1. However, students reported that using L1 could have helped clarify some aspects of complex tasks, especially when they focused on meaning. The authors argue that, in such situation, a brief use of L1 could enable students to perform the task at a higher cognitive level.

If we agree that we learn better through meaningful tasks, and that being meaningful very frequently involves performing at higher cognitive levels, then doing complex tasks such as analyzing, evaluating and creating should be a central part of our teaching. If L1 can make students potentialize the power of these tasks, shouldn’t we rethink the role of L1 in our lessons? What about you, how do you feel about using L1 in your lessons? Can you think of examples of “making sound use of L1”?

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.

2 Comments
  • Gulcay Karakoyun
    Posted at 09:49h, 06 maio Responder

    I have always had doubts if I should use L1 in especially clarifying meaning for grammar points. It is a misconception that The ideal classroom is where a teacher should speak in English all time time as well as the students. However, when students do not understand what they are given as input, they feel insecure and accordingly they do not produce output so L2 acquisition does not occur. I am not strict about the use of L1 especially when clarifying grammar points even sometimes words if there is confusion. If the target is the achievement of success and create a friendly learning atmosphere, why shouldnt I use it?

    • Victor Virginio
      Posted at 13:28h, 19 maio Responder

      Hi, Gulcay!
      It is interesting to see you mention this now because this week I was talking to a colleague and she told me that one of her groups proposed an interesting deal. They promised to make an effort to speak English all the time, but asked the teacher to explain only the grammar points using their L1. They did it because they had had bad experiences with grammar lessons. The teacher gave it a try and she says it has helped them improve a lot.

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