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To Use L1 or Not to Use L1 - That is the Question

written by: tracedreyer • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 1/4/2012

As a teacher of a second language, it is tempting to use the learner's first language for learning once in a while. If you speak it, and it will help move things along more quickly, you might think, "Why not?" Or are there other considerations to take into account? Read on to learn more.

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    Is Using the First Language a Good Idea?

    The earliest evidence we have of an effort to learn multiple languages comes from the times of the Egyptian civilization along the banks of the Nile. The Rosetta Stone, created in 196 BC, contains samples of at least two different languages, and three different scripts. This demonstrates that the ancients used translations of language for learning and teaching a second language.

    The move from teaching a second language using the student's own first language for learning (the language learned since birth) as a base, to the exclusive use of the target language (the language that is being taught) is a rather recent phenomenon. Personally I have tried both methods in my classroom, and have come back to using the target language almost exclusively. I would like to share some reasons why to, and why not to, use the student's first language.

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    Go Ahead Use L1... at the Students' Risk

    One of the obvious reasons to use L1 (the student's first language) for learning is that it is very convenient. This is particularly true when students ask questions on abstract concepts or non-tangible terms (as pre-teens and teens often do). It can be very difficult, nigh impossible, to adequately convey meaning in such situations, and addressing the question in the L1 is a quick and easy "on the spot" solution - especially since "I'll look it up and tell you tomorrow" does not always wash.

    Another good reason to use L1 with young language learners is that it helps build rapport. Learning a second language can be a cold, dehumanizing experience for some (not all) people. Using a choice expression, aphorism, or cultural humor in the student's language creates an "insider" feel with the teacher like, "Yeah, we are learning this language but we are people, too."

    Using L1 can also be a powerful tool to regain control of the class, and send a clear message to the student when you are not happy with their conduct. This is especially true when the teacher is consistent in speaking the target language in class. To have the teacher suddenly speak in their own language can serve as a powerful signal - "Uh, oh...we are messing around too much, teacher is unhappy, we'd better cool down."

    Of course, using L1 is not without risks. I have found that after a long period of rather freely interspersing my classes with L1, the learning process is seriously diminished. This is what I would like to discuss next.

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    I Know You Can Understand Me

    I believe that one of the most powerful ways to let a student know that you believe he/she can successfully learn the target language is by talking to them in it. If I am speaking to the person in a language, it is because I am convinced that the act of communication will come to its fruition. If I persist, even in the face of difficulties and succeed, the feeling of accomplishment in the student is unequivocal.

    The flip side is that speaking to them in their first language conveys the idea that they will not comprehend the target language. I could even go so far as to say that you may, inadvertently, imply that they do not have the capacity to do so. This may sound outlandish, but I have seen the more "sensitive" and "touchy" students really have some negative reactions. People who are used to speaking to the teacher in L2 will insist on it, and will become red in the face if spoken to in L1 sometimes.

    The number one reason to speak to students in their first language for learning exclusively is that once you have breached the language barrier and spoken in their first language, you tacitly give students permission to follow suit. Many students will relapse into analyzing the language instead of attempting to learn how to use it. You could suddenly find yourself with a steady stream of comments and questions in L1, and this is certainly counterproductive for the student's own learning.

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    In the end, teaching is always about making choices. I hope my personal musings have helped you think about this topic, and make the best choice for you, and your learners. Check out other articles on this channel about teaching young learners, there are some really great ideas going around.