L1 Challenges and Opportunities for English Language Teachers

For English language teachers, few things are as frustrating as students using their first language (L1) in class. This not only hinders the learning process but stops students from immersing themselves in the English language. However, there are several strategies that teachers can use to reduce or eliminate the use of L1 in the classroom. Also, there are sometimes when students’ L1 can support language learning. In this blog post, we’re going to look at how teachers can manage students’ use of L1 and how teachers can take advantage of students using their L1 in class.

Managing L1 use with adults

Although there are times when students’ L1 can support language learning, most of the time it just gets in the way. In this section we will look at strategies for managing and minimizing adult students' use of their L1 in the classroom.

Clear expectations

One way to reduce the use of L1 in the classroom is to communicate clear expectations to students. Teachers can set rules for when and how L1 can be used. Teachers can create a flashcard with the students’ L1 written on one side (e.g. “Spanish”, “Chinese”, “Russian”, etc.) and “English” on the other. Use this to signal to students when you expect them to use mainly English and when it’s okay for them to also use their L1. For example, while students are planning what to say in a speaking activity, you might show the L1 side. You could say “It’s okay if you need to use some Spanish/Chinese/Russian to do this.” When the speaking activity starts, turn over the card to the English side and say “Please try to do this activity in English.”

Incorporate planning time

Students often use their L1 because they don’t know how to say something in English. Before tasks and role plays, give learners time to plan what to say. Before putting students in groups for a discussion, give learners a minute or two to note words they might need during the discussion. When the pressure is on, it is easy to forget words and fall back on L1. For role plays, pair students up with other learners who have the same role. In pairs, students plan what words and phrases might be useful for the role play. When you eventually start the role play, the students should already have had some practice and use less L1.

Don’t make activities ‘too’ engaging

We often assume that we want our classes to be as engaging as possible. Yet, students often lapse into their first language when they are engaged in a topic, discussion or role play. If your students are prone to this, dial down the engagement to the point where learners are interested, but not over-engaged.

L2 roles

Many students enjoy doing role plays in class. Sometimes students enjoy their roles so much that they forget to speak English. One way to solve this is to incorporate a “foreigner” role in role plays. The foreigner can’t speak the students’ first language. Students in this role will need to ask for help or clarification if their groupmates use their L1. For example, in job interviews, one of the interviewers could be a visiting colleague from the head office in another country. Or if students are planning a day out in groups, one of the roles could be a friend visiting from another country.

Managing L1 use with young learners

Children are even more prone to use L1 in class than adults. The following tips and strategies can help you manage L1 use with young learners (although some of the tips for adults will work too).

Teach Task Language

Sometimes students use their L1 because they don’t know which parts of an activity they should do in English. Children often play classroom games in English but use their first language to take turns. To solve this, model the task language for students when demonstrating an activity. To do this, teachers can:

  • ask the students what they should say to take turns, correct each other or borrow something. Ask students in their first language at lower levels.
  • include task language when demonstrating the activity. For example, asking the students “Who’s next?” before letting the next student take a turn.
  • elicit the task language. For example, when demonstrating you could deliberately let the wrong student take a turn. The students may then say “No” or “It’s her!” or something similar in their L1. You can then translate this into English.

After an activity, ask students to reflect on their language use. Ask them, what they said to take turns. How much English did they use? What could they do better next time?

Gamify L1 Use

When young learners play games in class, they sometimes get carried away with the game and forget to speak English. To combat this tweak the rules of the game to include a penalty for using L1 (or a bonus if you catch another student using L1). For example, in a game where students guess what cards other students have, include a rule where students can take a card from a group mate when they catch them speaking their first language.

Peer-monitoring

Add an L1 “police officer” or "language monitor" role where one or two students per class listen to other students while playing a game or doing a task. Tell students in these roles to remind their peers to speak English if they hear them using their L1. After the task, reward the group that used the most English.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement can also be effective in reducing the use of L1 in the classroom. Praise students when they speak in English. If you teach young learners and use a reward system, reward students who speak in English. Try to create a positive classroom environment that encourages the use of English.

Avoid over-correction

Many students avoid speaking English because they’re scared of making mistakes. If that sounds like your students, then avoid correcting your students when they make mistakes. Instead, do your best to respond to what students say naturally. Correction is still important, so you may want to note common errors and correct these as a class later in the lesson.

Avoid using L1 yourself

The culture of the classroom stems from the teacher. If you use L1 with your students, it is likely that they’ll use it too. Saying “No Spanish/Chinese/Russian!”, and then speaking Spanish/Chinese/Russian shows you don’t really mean what you say. The more you model using English yourself, the more your students will understand how important this is.

How to use L1 productively

Our aim as English teachers is for students to speak as much English as possible. That’s not the same as speaking as little L1 as possible. A class of silent students speaks no L1, but that hardly sounds like a successful class. Using L1 is not always a negative thing. In fact, using their L1 can help students understand new concepts and learn useful vocabulary. Teachers can take advantage of this through activities like translation exercises, or by allowing students to use L1 to ask questions or clarify information.

Respond in English

Teachers of very young learners should remember that it may be difficult for very young learners to go without using their first language for long periods of time. Instead of ignoring or punishing students when they inevitably speak their first language in class, respond to them in English. This provides valuable comprehensible input. For example, once when I was teaching a group of kindergarten students, I brought out a picture book. I held it up to show them the cover. The students all shouted in their first language, “It’s upside down!” I then replied, “Ah, it’s upside down.” This was an accident. But the next time I taught the same class, I deliberately held another picture book upside down. One of the students remembered, and said in English, “It’s upside down!” I praised the student, and the others copied him. The students learned a new word in English because of something they’d said in their L1.

L1 box

Each time you hear a student saying something in their L1, hand them a slip of paper and ask them to write down what they just said. Put this in a box. At the end of the class, pull out these slips of paper and ask the class to translate these from their L1 into English. This should both discourage students from using their L1 and help the students learn useful phrases in English.

L1 run through

Some games and activities can be very difficult for low-level students the first time they are introduced. While activities like Spot the Difference can be suitable for kindergarten students, getting them to understand what to do can still be a challenge. One solution to this problem is to have students perform the activity in their first language before attempting it in English. This allows students to become familiar with the procedure of the activity before adding a linguistic challenge. Teachers can first demonstrate the activity using L1, then have students complete the activity in their L1, and finally, have students create a list of words and phrases they would need to complete the same activity in English. After this, the activity can be repeated, but with different materials or partners, and using English.

Instant interpreter

Interpreting is a useful skill that your students may need to use in the future. Unfortunately, this rarely gets practiced in language classes, because we want students to use as much English as possible. One way to practice interpreting is using the instant interpreter activity. Put students in groups of three. Tell students that one of them (the interpreter) can speak both English and their first language. One partner (the interviewee) has forgotten all their English and can only speak their L1. The third student (the interviewer) can only speak English. The interviewer must interview the interviewee. The interpreter must translate the questions from English into L1 and the answers from L1 into English. To ensure everyone gets to practice English, ask the students to switch roles halfway through the activity. After the activity ask students if there were any words they didn’t know how to translate into English and help them translate these.

Translation loop

Like interpreting, translation is also a useful skill, rarely practiced in English language classes. One engaging way to practice translation is through a translation loop. Take some short, interesting English texts, like short quotations. Give different texts to different students (or groups of students). Ask them to translate these into their L1. Then, get the students to swap their text (now in L1) with another group. This group shouldn’t be aware of the original in English. The students then translate these back into English. There should now be two sets of texts in English: the originals and the translations. Ask students to compare their translations with the original. Has the meaning changed? What differences are there in grammar or vocabulary? Why?

Conclusions

Stopping students from using L1 in class can be a challenge, but there are several strategies that teachers can use to achieve this goal. By communicating clear expectations for language use, providing time for preparation and encouraging self-monitoring, teachers can create a classroom environment that promotes the use of English. It's also vital to be patient and understanding with students. Remember that students’ L1 isn’t always a barrier to learning, but can sometimes be a bridge. Teachers can use L1 in interpretation and translation activities, practicing skills students will need outside the classroom and become successful multilinguals.

About the Author

Ross Thorburn

Ross Thorburn is a teacher trainer, materials writer and consultant based in Shanghai. Ross started his career in language teaching in 2006. He holds a Trinity DipTESOL, a Trinity FTCL TESOL, an IDLTM from the University of Queensland and a Master’s Degree in Language Education from NILE. Ross is also a keen researcher and has published research articles on teacher training, teacher motivation, task-based learning and young learners. In 2020, Ross published his first book, Inside Online Language Teaching. He also is the host of the TEFL Training Institute podcast.

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