Use of Students' First Language in EFL

by Sara
(Iran, Mashhad)

Hi. How much can I use students' first language while teaching? In teenagers and adults intermediate level (B1). Thank you.

If you had asked me this question when I began teaching I would have said never, but my opinion has changed. When I began teaching I was forced to learn how to teach English without any use of the students' first language because I couldn't speak any. Now I have the luxury of choice, I sometimes use the students' language, but I use it as spice in a soup, not as a major ingredient. Here are some situations in which using L1 helps.

Benefits of Using L1 in an English Class

  • Mixed Level Classes - shouldn't exist, but they do, and I'm not talking about mixed ability either, although this contributes to the problem. When you really have a mix of levels, then some explanation in the students' language can keep those students involved. It's easy to give up if you seldom understand what's happening in class.

  • Odd Items of Vocabulary - sometimes occur in a class. When these are not a focus of the class, there's no harm, and often a great benefit in giving a quick translation.

    When I first studied Spanish, I said 'if' in English because I didn't know the Spanish. My teacher quickly told me how to say the word in Spanish and I never forgot. Likewise, a student once asked me what 'oak' meant. I immediately translated and continued the class without any disturbance. He was happy and I didn't need to become sidetracked with drawing pictures or lengthy explanations which might or might not have worked.

  • Reassurance. This would be truer in younger classes than you mention. Sometimes children might need some use of L1 to relax more into the class.

  • Translation Classes - of course need translation :)

  • Quick Check on Understanding

  • Sometimes you may need to cover a lot of vocabulary in a short time, perhaps for a specific exercise. In this situation translation will speed things up. But just make sure the situation really needs you to teach a lot of vocabulary at once. There are a few situations, but it's not the normal situation, unless your lesson plan or curriculum is a fault.

  • Sandwich Stories - are stories which to tell in English, but use L1 for any particularly difficult vocabulary. This enables you to tell stories you might not otherwise be able to, and they can be a lot of fun. Which brings me to my final point...

  • Playfulness - sometimes it might be fun to mix languages.

The important point is to get the balance right in using L1. It's easy to use it too much, and students can easily become dependent - even insistent - on the use of their first language.

I once tried an experiment when I taught in Spain. One of my classes really wanted me to translate everything into Spanish. For almost a month I translated, and I noticed that my students became more and more dependent on the use of Spanish. What I also noticed was their English got worse. I stopped the experiment and saw a gradual improvement begin.

The balance between using L1 and English will vary from class to class, and country to country. Too much L1 will inhibit your students' English, none could demotivate all but the strongest.

Comments or suggestions on this topic are welcome...

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