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’):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.