Image courtesy of Kelly Sikkema

Not because I want to, but because I feel I need to, I am going to address that linguistic ‘Pandora’s Box’: the use of the student’s first language (L1) in the target language (TL) classroom. Yes, the proverbial ‘English only’ policy. I have yet to work in a place that does not emphatically endorse this rule. You can see it on the classroom wall, doors, and even in the school bathroom. I even had one place put the sign on the back of the toilet stall door (still not sure who you would be talking to in your L1 while sitting on ‘the throne’).

As you can probably figure out, I am not a big supporter of this policy. Something about it has always bothered me, and not just as a rule, but as a philosophy. So, as I have started to do more regularly, I decided to dip into the research pool to see what others have found out regarding this approach to language education. I have decided to divide the results into two camps: the reasons for a monolingual classroom and the reasons for allowing L1 in the classroom (as you can tell, I have put a lot of creative thought into these names).

Arguments for having a monolingual, TL only classroom (‘English only’):

  1. Language transferability issues. Some have posited that L1 pronunciation, grammatical structure, and so forth can confuse learners and cause them to become frustrated, slowing down and even harming the learning process.
  2. Natural language learning. Children grow up learning a language without needing an additional language to support them. Krashen has built an entire hypothesis upon this way of thinking. The theory is that the conscious slows down the learning process and learners should be essentially absorbing the language through their subconscious.
  3. Maximum exposure to the TL. Students need to hear and see the new language being used properly, linguistically and culturally. This is the same premise on which native speaker English teachers are so highly favoured by many language learners. They feel that this gives them the best chance of examining the language being used properly.
  4. Alienation of other students. This is a particular problem for the ESL classroom or mixed-language classroom, not EFL. Students who share a language start to speak in their L1 subsequently alienating the other students in their group who don’t understand that language.
  5. Teacher control. It is hard to tell if the students are talking negatively about you as a teacher if you don’t know what the students are saying. It is the linguistic equivalent to talking behind someone’s back.
Arguments for using L1 in the classroom:
  1. Lowering the affective filter. Krashen also hypothesized that students learn best when not stressed, anxious, or bored. By allowing the use of their first language in the learning process, students will become more comfortable and be able to acquire what is necessary to use the language more effectively.
  2. Scaffolding. Students can draw from what they know in order to make connections. Vygotsky theorized that learners need a scaffold in order to apply their newly acquired knowledge. The student’s L1 provides that linguistically.
  3. Saving time. By using the first language to assist students in understanding the TL, time can be shifted to applying this new knowledge to help them deepen their understanding.
While at first glance it appears that there are more compelling reasons for an ‘English only’ policy, once you dig deeper into some of these arguments, you begin to see that they not as well supported by research as you might think. I will try to address them individually as listed above:
  1. While there is evidence showing that the first language does in fact cause transfer issues (Lightbown & Spada, 2006), eliminating the use of the L1 does not actually stop the problem. Why is that? Well, our brain does not divide up languages into neat little compartments, locked and separated from the others. As a result, even though we have stopped the user from using the language externally (ie. speaking and writing), they are still accessing it internally (White, Genesee, & Steinhauer, 2012; Swain, Kirkpatrick, & Cummins, 2011). Thus, the problem persists.
  2. While it appears that the argument saying children learn a language without the support of another appears valid, it loses its lustre when you take into account multi-lingual children. Studies have shown that these children DO draw on the ‘other’ language or languages when learning something new in their ‘first’ language (in these cases, it is sometimes hard to know what is their L1 or their additional language or languages) (Lightbown & Spada, 2006).
  3. It is proven that exposure to a new language will help you learn it quicker, but the problem lies in the level of anxiety associated with being forced to only use one language (Levine 2003). See the point about the affective filter.
  4. The use of the language to divide a group into linguistic ‘cliques’ is actually a classroom management issue and should be addressed differently. That is, this is a symptom, not a disease.
  5. See 4.

I would be interested to know how you feel about this topic. Do you use the student’s L1 in the classroom? If you do, how do you limit its use (or do you limit it)? Am I missing anything of importance that should be mentioned?

Feel free to comment or send me a tweet. I would love to hear from you and I attempt to reply to each message I get. I want to make this a place for open discussion on topics that are related to our roles as teacher, fascinator, administrator, and so on. Thank you for taking time to read this. I hope it was helpful.

Annotated bibliography:

White, E. J., Genesee, F., and Steinhauer, K. (2012). Brain responses before and after intensive second language learning: Proficiency based changes and first language background effects in adult learners. PLoS ONE 7(12): e52318. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052318

  • This is a very dense article on the way the brain process language information, particularly how second language learners access various parts of the brain. While I am not a brain scientist, I found the article very enlightening, especially when it came to how our brain changes once it begins to acquire languages. It verifies what we as language practitioners have known for a while regarding delays in responses from those who are learning versus those who have acquired languages.

Lightbown, P. and Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned (3rd Ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • This is a great book for language teachers to help in understanding how people acquire languages. Very readable, and yet detailed enough to support the information that is given.
Swain, M., Kirkpatrick, A., and Cummins, J. (2011). How to have a guilt-free life using cantonese in the English class: A handbook for the English language teacher in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Research Centre into Language Acquisition and Education in Multilingual Societies, Hong Kong Institute of Education. Retrieved from http://www.ied.edu.hk/rcleams/handbook/handbook.pdf
  • This is a bit of a light-hearted guide for teachers regarding the use of the student’s L1 in the language classroom. Quite surprising considering the people who wrote. While it is quite basic, it covers the main issues with support from research. This would be a good guide to share with someone who believes that there shouldn’t be any L1 used in the classroom.
Levine, G. S. (2003). Student and instructor beliefs and attitudes about target language use, first language use, and anxiety: Report of a questionnaire study. The Modern Language Journal, 87(3), 343-364. Retrieved from http://www.uic.edu.hk/~tesl/tesl4320/lectures/LEVINE%20G.pdf
  • Pretty much as is labelled on the tin. This is a study done on how students and teachers feel about the use of the TL and L1 in the classroom. The results were as expected.

12 thoughts on “Switching

  1. I really like how you covered this question, Nathan. Have you looked into Elizabeth Coelho’s research? I usually refer to her work and strategies for using and valuing L1 in the K-12 classroom. I often see the importance for older adult learners/newcomers using L1 as well.
    I often wonder where others “sit” on this. You have pulled together some great resources!

    1. Thank you for telling me about Elizabeth Coelho’s work. I just checked out her website and I am already seeing things I agree with.

      Thank you for taking time to read, comment on, and share my posts. You have been very supportive.

  2. I suspect that the “English-only” policy may have coincided with International House, Bell and other training institutions beginning to send out thousands of monolingual “four-week coursers” to Spain, Italy and Greece in the sixties and seventies. I was one myself. Explicit grammar teaching was also frowned on in many schools, which was handy for those of us who had little or no theoretical knowledge of grammar! The big EFL publishers also preferred to publish English-only coursebooks for reasons of economies of scale. Thanks for raising this issue – I’ll be interested to read the comments of others.
    Best wishes

    1. Thank you very much for your comment, Tim. I hadn’t considered the language school basis for this policy. I can see how this may have played a part in it. Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to have been part of language schools that are building strong foundations in language learning, not just being a language business.

      I value your feedback based on experience. Please keep adding to the conversation. Thank you.

  3. Just bumped into your blog~~ It is an interesting topic. I am an EFL learner as well. I prefer English only classes actually. The advantages do seem to applicable to my learning process. Maybe it is just individual differences. But I have to admit, many of my classmates they do suffer from foreign language anxiety in classes (me included). I would still like English only classes only. ^_^

    1. Thank you for visiting and commenting, Gail. I love hearing the student perspective. I think it is important to hear what the learner has to say about their role in the process.

      I agree. There is an element of personal preference that needs to be taken into account. This is a situation where the teacher needs to find out from the student what they would like. In this situation, you may choose to not use your L1. That is your choice and your right to do so.

      Thank you for sharing. Come back any time. I look forward to hearing more from the voice of the students!

  4. Quite what I needed to read as I’m working on my semester report that involves explaning why I split my groups in 2 (Higher level learners and Lower level learners). Thanks so much for the post, I was raising the same issues in my writing.

    I view the use of L1 as a pedagogical tool. I only realised the benefit of it when I understood that we (ELLs) use it anyway, so I don’t have a problem using it anymore. But because I was told not to use it for the reasons you have stated above, I felt very quilt when I felt the need to use it and this feeling went on until I bought the book Using the mother tongue (S. Deller and M. Rinvolucri), but even then, because of the constant reminder that we mustn’t use it, I could never considere it as part of the teaching approach in groups grouped by sort of the same level of English. However since last year, I have been working with small groups of 9th graders and the language gap is obvious. I was striving to find the balance between using only English or mixing both. How could I in a small room serve both group of learners teaching the same way and using the same material? It was through Sirja’s post ( http://swisssirja.wordpress.com/2013/05/06/whos-afraid-of-mixed-level-classes/ ) that I started experimenting with a new approach that not only gave higher level learners the opportunity to be challenged (using L2 at all times), but allow Lower level learners to use L1 as support to their learning. Later, I tried to understand how both groups (HLLs and LLLs) make use of L1 to understand the same text. After training LLLs to read a text and use the dictionary more effectively, I applied a simple reading comprehension text to both groups. The HLLs couldn’t use the dictionary as the level of the text was either easy for some or just about their level of English while for LLLs it was above their linguistic level. LLLs scored just as great as HLLs with the help of the dictionary. MY Dos is aware that I have split the group but so far haven’t questioned me why I did so. So, I am writing the report as a mean to help me understand the benefits and what would need to be improved in this experience. The second phase of the project “Light, Camera n Action” is going to happen in the first week of August. I tried to use the ONLY speak English policy for the learners in classroom and it didn’t work out either. With that project and spliting the group, I discover a number of reason why they don’t speak when the two groups are together. One common reason was that they knew they wouldn’t understand and secondly it was because when they get excited about something it is normal to switch to L1. It has been a nice learning journey for me as I am learning to listen to my students, consider the options and explore teaching.

    1. I think it is wonderful, Rose, that you are working through the process of questioning, planning, acting, observing, and then reflecting. This form of action research is what makes us stronger as teachers. We become more effective in our position as classroom facilitators, not just doing the same thing over and over again just because that is the way it is done.

      Your input is valued and I look forward to hearing how things progress for you. Keep in touch.

  5. At the university, there is not policy towards using English only nor any open emphasis on doing so. I too have never cared for such a policy, especially given a mixture of lower and higher level students. How is that fair? It’s basically saying ‘silence!’ to so many.

    I look over excerpts of L1 in my classroom as I think it’s necessary and natural. Where it becomes my issue is if discussions were to happen in L1, as that wouldn’t happen or be helpful not only in my class, but in those I’m preparing them for. Beyond this, like you mentioned above, it excludes those that don’t share the same L1, often only 1 or 2 students in my Chinese-filled classes.

    But an English Only policy? It’s a punishment more often than not. Adult students should be able to control what they do. Besides, it’s often them who want this policy.

  6. Great post, Nathan. I tend to agree with you for 3 reasons (which you’ve already touched on in some way):

    -Anxiety is often a control mechanism for learning, especially at the high end. While some is good, too much anxiety will limit learning greatly, and discourage students in the long run. (The degree of this may be culturally/individually specific)

    -TL only policies are top-down structure imposed in the learning process. I prefer to work more with what happens naturally. Education from Situation.

    -Guiding learners in ‘how to learn’ (learning about learning) is important no matter the content, and will often require L1 use.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Glen. You have hit on some really important points here. I agree that some anxiety is good. There is something to be said for risk / reward. I also like your idea of a more ‘grassroots’ approach to learning. It gives ownership to the students who then are more engaged in the learning process. The last point on learning ‘how to learn’ is so important, especially for those who are only in the classroom for a short time. I have been working on this for a while and I will be speaking on this topic at the TESL Ontario conference in October. I’ll share more about that here as well.

      Thanks again for sharing. Keep it coming. I love interacting with other instructors and learning from them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s