There are some teachers, whether because they learned the language of their students or they are a native speaker who mastered English, who can communicate with their students in the students’ language. This is becoming much more common as English proliferates all over the world.
However, knowing the students’ language is a double-edged sword. There are some obvious advantages but using the students’ L1 can lead to problems as well. This post will explore the pros and cons of using the L1 in the classroom.
Using the L1 in the classroom can be useful when the students are evaluating their performance. In other words, the teacher and students talk about the students’ English performance in the L1. This does make sense from a metalinguistic perspective as the students are addressing challenges and developing solutions. They are talking about their learning.
Translating activities is another instance in which L1 use is considered acceptable. The students shift back and forth between the two languages as they translate material. This allows the student to compare the two languages.
A third reason that some support L1 use is that it helps to maintain a conducive classroom environment. When students and teachers are able to just “talk” it often helps with maintaining the social cohesiveness of the class.
One major concern with using the L1 is that it is used too much. It is tempting to only talk about English in the L1 rather than use English. Another problem is that using the L1 limits the students’ exposure to English, which stifles L2 acquisition.
Depending on the context, some English classes are holistic in that each class addresses all the skills of language (reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Other places address each skill separately. If a school approaches the skills separately one place where the L1 is not accepted is in the speaking class. In such an environment many support L2 only.
Dealing with the L1
Here are some ideas for use of the L1 if you consider its use appropriate
- Think about the level of English-Lower level students need more support and thus L1 use is more appropriate. As the students advanced there should be a gradual reduction in the L1.
- Establish rules-With the students, set up guidelines for L1 use.
- Accept the L1-Students can feel discouraged when they are harassed about their language. Understanding their desire to be understood should call for patience rather than anger when they speak in their L1.
It is up to the teacher and students to decide the use of the L1. This post just provides ideas on how to handle what could be a sensitive topic. The goal of teaching is to balance the goals of the curriculum with the needs of the students. As such, it is the context that should determine how to handle L1 use rather than a philosophy of learning acquired in a classroom or even from years of experience.