The use of the students’ mother tongue in the classroom – pros, cons & best practices #ELTchat Summary 20/03/2013

A PLN for ELT Professionals

The use of the students’ mother tongue in the classroom – pros, cons & best practices #ELTchat Summary 20/03/2013


by Marjorie Rosenberg


To use or not to use?

The question of whether or not to use L1 in the classroom is certainly not a new one as this ELT Chat showed clearly. Participants jumped in immediately with both opinions and classroom applications.

@rosemerebard began by saying: Thanks Marisa, this is a very interesting topic and I look forward to it. I use L1 in class as part of my teaching practice. and @LTLLblog said It takes experience to know how and when to use it effectively. @jobethsteel agreed by saying  I am for it when necessary.


What are some of the ways L1 is used in the classroom?

We soon addressed the issue of how the use of L1 is regarded in ELT, both its uses and its taboos.

@Marisa_C commented  that  Using L1 in class used to be a no-no – no longer the case?  A no-no in ALM and Direct Method days but other participants defended its use. @LTLLblog said that with lower levels it can be invaluable and @CotterHUE continued this conversation with the comment that lower-level students may need more info on aspect of the new material, but not have the language in L2.  @jobethsteel was also in favour of making use of the students’ mother tongue and commented that L1 is useful at higher levels too for nuance and subtleties

@MarjorieRosenbe said she uses it occasionally to quickly translate a word when explaining it would take longer and that she gets to compare quickly translating to explaining when she has classes with non-native speakers of German.


Stigmas, problems and teacher training

The problems of using L1 were mentioned as well as how to deal with the issue in training teachers.

@Marisa_C reminded us that many Ts fear the stigma of being branded a Grammar Translation T and avoid it altogether. @dennis_p37 then contributed a link to one of the many blogs on the subject by adding: One more blog post on the use of L1 by Steve Brown

@Marisa_C continued with the question of training teachers on the topic: Can the principles of when to use or not use be taught to novice Ts?  They learn much more complex stuff than this!!


How to use L1 rather than questioning if it should be used

The general conversation seemed to move quickly to the acceptance of L1 in the classroom rather than addressing the issue of whether or not to use it.

@AlexandraKouk brought up the point that the discussion was really the ‘how’ and not the ‘if’ Seems like the how to use L1 in class is the question, not whether it should be used at all. and @MarjorieRosenbe said that in her classes Homework and tests are all in English (I teach B1 and upwards) so only use it for expediency. Examples were then given by several participants. @CotterHUE said Ss say a sentence in L1 and teacher translates for future use/reference. Good with incidental language like singular phrase/sentence; @MarjorieRosenbe said In pair or group work they are welcome to check a bilingual dictionary on their phones – we discuss it afterwards as well.


The teacher’s command of L1

Obviously the issue of whether or not to use L1 depends largely on whether or not the teacher has the possibility of communicating with students in their own language.

@jobethsteel brought this up by saying: T needs to know the lang well enough too and Shaunwilden said Well it would seem easier to use in a monolingual class than a multi one.


@Marisa_C took the conversation forward by asking When is it important or when will the use of L1 help?

@MarjorieRosenbe replied that she finds it helpful For quick understanding of term or sometimes to compare differences or point out similarities between L1 and L2. 

@Marisa_C continued with the problem of the teacher not being able to use the mother tongue of the students by saying Ts who spoke no other languages in the past would support the view of not using L1 in class

@PatrickAndrews agreed Yes, think that is a good point.  Those who only speak one language are very keen on monolingualism in class.. @MarjorieRosenbe also agreed with this point of view  saying that exactly – that’s when I have the long explanations –  major difference between EFL & ESL

@LTLLblog also agreed with @Marisa_C and then asked a very interesting question: When do people think it is ‘justified’ to use L1?

@MarjorieRosenbe replied Depends on level. I point out that they are listening to me in English so they must be thinking in English. At this point @Marisa_C began to sum up the chat so far So to sum up – so far the functions of L1 use can be to 1/check comp 2/clarify & compare L1 vs L2 – any more?


To teach new teachers the use of LT or not?

As this is an important issue in the area of teacher training, a new discussion was begun.

@annapires introduced the topic by asking How is use of L1 viewed in CELTA courses? to which @Marisa_C replied Attitudes changing but still many tutors and assessors who would rather not hear ANY L1 during TP.

@joebethsteel added that we should encourage trainees not to depend on it at first – so they can learn to do that to which

@Marisa_C replied that these are Both valuable skills – learn not to depend on L1 and learn to use it wisely .

@CotterHUE went on to elaborate on one of the arguments against the use of L1:  Con: Teacher isn’t skilled in students’ native language, and provides (slightly) wrong translation or instructions to which @Shaunwilden added  that yes, it is a problem but if they work with the class it can often be overcome.
@Marisa_C then described the difficulties of not being allowed to use L1 Newly qualified teachers go to great lengths to avoid L1 in classroom. Quite painful observing sometimes and @Shaunwilden agreed with this Yes the linguistic gymnastics they go thru to avoid L1 is often painful to watch and @Marisa_C said that she has experienced this herself: Have gone through those gymnastics myself in my far and distant past to which @annapires agreed wholeheartedly saying Especially when I was being observed!


@PatrickAndrews suggested that “Phillipson nailed the monolingual ism myth about 20 years ago”  (in his book Linguistic Imperialism, see link below)


The disadvantages and advantages of using L1 in the classroom

Both the disadvantages and advantages of using L1 in the classroom were discussed.

@rosemerebard went on to explain when using L1 in the classroom is a problem: Was thinking of meaningful acts when communicating in pairs/ groups + natural use L1-  this is the time when L1 not allowed and added I plan activities carefully in a way that L2 should be top priority, and use L1 for other moments when necessary only. otherwise L2 and went on to say hard 4 Ss to see L1 just a support 2 learn instead of a crutches. So, I’m firm on the L2 use in class. CotterHue agreed this is important and said Pro: Students build real skills, like how to repair communication breakdowns, when solely using L2. CotterHue also went on to say Ss can use their L1 to ask questions & confirm comprehension it may lead to clearer realization of the form & meaning.


Building rapport with students through use of L1

Participants of the chat gave some examples of how we can use our own experiences in learning our students’ first language and how this can help build a bridge of understanding between us.

@MarjorieRosenbe I also give examples of my whoppers in German to relax them and get over fears of making mistakes. and then added it is a wonderful rapport builder – puts us in the same boat. PatrickAndrews yes and shows interest in their language. @Marisa_C esp YL’s need their L1 on occasion for affective reasons!!! and @LTLLBlog agreed Re rapport building in EFL, if we use L1 then we are not just a ‘foreign mercenary’ Continuing on the topic of teachers learning L1 @BobK99 said re whoppers: my CELTA teacher thrown out of an epicerie for asking about ‘preservatifs’ in biscuits 😉


Using translation tools in the classroom

The chat then went into the direction of internet and other translation tools and dictionaries in the classroom.

@annapires posed the question Does anyone use Google Translator in class? to which there were several replies: LTLLblog said No, but we do use an online dictionary on which Ss can write Chinese characters if needs be. and Shaunwilden replied not yet though I can see lots of ways it could be used – do you? annapires answered I let sts refer to it while working on tasks, just like in the past when taking Port-Eng dictionaries to class  Shaunwilden raised a concern: It is notoriously inaccurate  though is it not? and went on to say Yes, but I’m around to help out. Though wondering how we could use it as a tool. Sts use it all the time outside class.


The learning effect of translations

Participants came up with ideas and examples as to how to use translations to teach students a variety of skills and not just to feed them with the vocabulary they need or give them instructions for classroom management.

Acquk went on to add I find translation can be an effective method of raising language awareness in a monolingual classroom and MarjorieRosenbe said Also very true – certainly shows differences – makes them think, always a plus. Marisa_C added Hence the value of using Contrastive Analysis for language awareness and said Must put up a link to Philipson’s “Linguistic Imperialism” in Google books and I think a must-read for Ts In continuing on the topic of making use of translation in the classroom @LTLLBlog suggested a Nice activity with L1 is to ask Ss to translate L2 text to L1 at start of class then retranslate at the end and @Marisa_C said If you can speak ur Ss’ L1 in a mono-L class – tell them a story in L1 – they write it in L2 and then read the original TBL or nt? and annapires added Watched Mario Rinvolucri demo a great storytelling activity with use of L1 and then said After watching him I felt a lot more comfortable using L1 with my sts.


Recording vocabulary

Questions were raised about how students record vocabulary.

@Marisa_C asked What about how Ss use L1 in their notebooks? They do so anyway whether u OK or not – any ways of training them to use best? and 2Shaunwilden replied I used to look at that in first lessons with sts showing them other ways to record and said many aren’t aware of different ways they could record so it is useful to do this.

@Marisa_C answered by saying yes – very worthy I’m sure but inevitable that Ss WILL use it – no? @AlexandraKouk has found a positive aspect of students recording vocabulary in their own language as they can use it for language awareness-  get Ss to record their most common L1 transfer errors, ie. collocations, tense usage etc. and @MarjorieRosenbe said If they learn the vocab and can use it they can record it anyway they like because they always need to get the word off the page and USE it. and went on to say Asked my CAE class to share ideas on learning vocab yesterday – all had different methods.

@Marisa_C gave a suggestion on recording vocabulary picture records – and online tools very useful.

@AlexandraKouk made an important comment regarding L1 and her students: Ss need to know when L1 is their friend and when not.

@robertmclarty then asked Isn’t use of L1 the only real proof of understanding of new grammar & vocab? For adults it is totally natural to take notes in L1. BobK99 gave some useful advice about vocabulary recording: most  dictionary software has a My Dictionary feature, where they can  add their own entries/comments. Acquk added that For vocab, many learners prefer L1-& L2 (I do). I think that learning method should be acknowledged even if it is not encouraged but adi_rajan asked a very practical question I’ve always wondered how u can get Ss to switch out of the L1 for sp. activities if they’ve been using it for 2/3rds of the lesson? to which Marisa_C replied 2 thirds of the lesson seems excessive to me – sb’s not able to control things if so.


Doing what comes naturally

The chat began to come to an end with the discussion of how we deal with two languages ourselves.

A new conversation regarding the use of L1 and L2 was then started by Marjorierosenbe who asked How many of you code switch at home when it is faster? Just curious. We do all the time. Marisa_C said that At work – very often do codeswitching – sometimes confuse myself!!!! jobethsteel went on to say Some words are just better in other languages, eg chela better than beer! and adi_rajan said code switch all the time, between languages, dialects, accents, registers to which MarjorieRosenbe made the argument So when we forbid L1 we are actually going against something we do naturally. rosemerebard commented that not a fan of L1/L2 word translation though in my classroom. But can’t avoid Ss doing it. Showing different ways helped in my class.


@Marisa_C suggested: take a poorly translated text and get Ss to think of it in their L1 then rewrite it properly in L2 and @Andivwhite’s response was Marisa that’s a great idea! and @Acquk said Thanks for the great language awareness raising activity! Poor translations are not hard to come by 😉 MarjorieRosenbe said Just did an error correction auction with typical Germanisms they had to find and fix. Fun and instructive.

To round this discussion off @Marisa_C offered Here is my favourite poorly translated text in an old post of mine Enjoy PlayPol



Two apps and a link were suggested.@Acquk offered Vokabel is an android app for bilingual vocab training and@Shaunwilden said My fave vocab app is A+ spelling test – this is it on the uk itunes store and AlexandraKouk mentioned a link on Useful tips on how to handleL1’s negative side in Learner English“Predomonolingual” Classes – the worst of both worlds? a blog post by Steven Brown

Phillipson, R., 1992, Linguistic Imperialism, Oxford University Press


The dangers of translations

l1a l1b

And on that note, sharing a hilarious video in which French and Saunders act out A famously badly translated interview of Madonna by Blik magazine