Sunday, February 23, 2014

Using students' L1

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure to attend the annual IH conference in Barcelona and listen to whole lot of fantastic speakers. One of the sessions that stood out for me in the programme was Philip Kerr’s ‘Using the students’ own language: a toolkit’, a presentation full of practical ideas on how to use L1 in the classroom.

I don’t know about you but during my CELTA training we were told that L1 was not to be used at all inside the class. Students needed to be constantly encouraged to speak English and teachers were taught techniques that were totally independent of students’ L1. Using Turkish (in my case) during TPs was completely forbidden and even though teaching 100% in English seemed like an impossible task at that time, it turned out to be quite possible indeed.

I understand that we, as teachers, have to learn the hardcore way. It’s an undeniable fact that some of us teach in multilingual environments. Besides, if you start teaching in foreign country, chances are you don’t know the language yet or might not be interested in learning it all. The majority of us, I daresay, don’t fall into these categories and using L1 is frowned upon and treated like a dirty little secret by many of us.

The thing I keep asking myself now is why? I’m sure that 99% of people reading this will admit to having used L1 with students in real life, as opposed to TPs. Because it might save a lot of time, speed up activities, make things much clearer or help you with discipline. It might let you play great games with complicated rules that once explained using L1 can be played many times again. Sometimes students simply need a breather and apart from that they will surely appreciate the fact that you’re trying to use their language. And don’t get me wrong here, I’m not talking about explaining grammar rules in students’ L1 or translating every single word but using it with moderation when (absolutely) necessary.

According to Philip Kerr the general attitude to L1 use in the classroom is changing. 
Does that mean classes on L1 use will be included in the CELTA syllabus some time soon?

What do you think? Do you ever use L1 in class?  Why do you do that?

PS Practical ideas on using L1 coming up soon!


  1. Nice post here--short and sweet! You ask a good question: Why do we feel sometimes like we have to keep it to ourselves that we sometimes use L1 in class? Like you noticed at Philipp Kerr's talk, the attitude is changing and we are moving from the all-L2-all-the-time approach that dominated the 20th century to attitudes where we see the Ss' L1 as a resource--we can compare and contrast the two languages to show similarities and highlight differences they need to be careful of, we can enjoy seeing how idioms differ between the languages, and as you mentioned, we can use L1 to clarify complex concepts or just quickly clarify something. Guy Cook's book "Translation in Language Teaching" is a great resource if you want to learn more about how and why we came to see translation and use of L1 as a dirty little ELT sin.

    I'm curious to know why you specify "I'm not talking about explaining grammar rules in students' L1"--I have my own inner debate on this subject, with arguments both for an against, so I'm curious to know if this means you're against it and if so, why?

    1. Hi Christina - it's so nice to see you here! :)
      I don't think we should explain grammar rules in L1 as it seems unnecessary. I've been doing it in English for the past couple of years and the students seem to get so using Spanish, in my case, would be a waste of time. I do believe though that making students have a chat with each other about what they've been exposed to in L1 makes sense. Also using translation to provide further examples or clarifying differences etc.
      Another major disadvantage of explaining rules in L1 is that the teacher has to know it well. And while it might not be a problem at lower levels, with upper-ints things might get harder. I often ask my students: 'How would you say that in Spanish?' and even if I don't know the answer, they usually agree on their translations.
      Sometimes I get new students who automatically ask 'that's ... in Spanish, no?' and very often I have no clue so it's better to stick to English and use L1 when really necessary.
      Thanks for the book recommendation btw, will try to get it asap.