Should teachers use students’ first language(s) in the English Language classroom?
Go into many language centre classrooms, and you will see a sign on the wall: ‘English only’, or ‘speak English in class’. Students are expected to survive in their classes without using their first language (L1). However, in the majority of primary and high-school English classrooms around the world, English is taught through the medium of the students’ (and the teacher’s) first language, with translation and L1 explanations used as common teaching methods.
These two examples represent two approaches to language learning: an immersion approach, and a plurilingual approach. There is much debate about the role of students’ L1 in the classroom, so which approach is most effective, and when?
Is translation enough?
The most common use of learners’ first languages in the English classroom is translation. This usually takes the form of words or sentences being presented in both the L1 and English, or tasks where students have to translate from one language to another. However, this is a time-consuming task, and does not really represent the ways in which English is used outside of school, so may not be a particularly useful exercise.
In addition, translation is risky - with so many shades of meaning, multiple meanings and cultural implications to any word or phrase, translation does not effectively help learners to perform in the language they are learning with fluency and confidence. If a learner’s ideas have to be translated piece by piece, then put together with appropriate grammar before being spoken, it will never come as naturally as if it is delivered through planning and thinking in English from start to finish. There may be more mistakes in the final student message if it produced directly in English, but it will be spoken with more ownership and confidence.
Translation can also limit students to only being able to produce forms that they already know, from the chunks of language they have translated, and can lead to limited range and flexibility, especially when applying language rules to communicate new ideas that they have not directly studied before.
Translation is a common learner preference for language study, but if translation is not enough to allow students to communicate effectively, what other uses does L1 have in the language classroom?
Monolingual and multilingual classes
The answer to this question, as with so many educational issues, is: it depends. In a monolingual classroom, where all students speak the same language, any pairing or grouping of students will be able to interact and reference their L1 in classroom activity. However, in a multilingual group, students may not share the same L1, so L1 activity will be limited to individual work (often meaning that students will resort to the familiar strategy of L2-L1 translation on their phones to plan the message they want to produce).
Idea: If you have groups of students who share the same L1, get them working together to compare the language they are learning with the forms they use in their own language. Ask them to look out for similarities or surprising differences between their L1 and English and share them around the class. This encourages not only an interest in how English works in comparison to students’ own L1s, but also how other first languages in the group work.
Language tools for immersion settings
There are also situations where it may be beneficial to students if they can explain, describe and discuss the language they are learning. Students in an English-medium international school, for example, may not be able to use their first languages in other subject classes, so will need the tools to deal with new language and concepts in English. In this kind of situation, an immersion technique is beneficial, though students will need the metalanguage (the language used to describe language) to do this effectively.
Idea: Language learning can be an effective context to present questions about language, terminology to describe language and strategies to navigate around unknown words. These skills can increase independence and curiosity about language, enabling students to perform better in any English-language situation. Teaching useful questions (‘what does ____ mean?’ / ‘Is this the same as _____?’ / ‘What’s another word for ____?’) or structures which can help to describe unknown words (relative clauses: ‘the thing you use to ___’ / ‘the animal that can run really fast’, etc.) can give students the tools they need to survive linguistically in an immersion environment.
Study strategies vs language use
Another reason to incorporate students’ L1 into a lesson is to support learning through more strategic work. When setting a more complex or higher-cognitive activity, a pre-task stage where students can discuss how they are going to complete the activity, performed in L1, can increase performance when they come to do the task itself. This increases learner independence and self-management of learning processes, important aspects of higher-order thinking that are often missing in language study.
Idea: A 5-minute discussion in the learners’ L1 to think about the best way to perform a task will not affect their English use, and can lead to more positive learning outcomes. Set some planning questions before a group presentation, for example, looking at which topics will be covered, how long each person should speak for, and how to use key vocabulary for the topic. This will encourage students to take control of their study processes in their L1, before performing in English and putting their plan into action. This is a much more effective use of time as compared to translation of words or phrases, and serves the language focus of the lesson more fully.
In conclusion, there are many more ways of using students’ first languages than simple word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase translation. Incorporating L1 into the classroom in a planned and purposeful way can aid learning and build interest in the different languages in the classroom.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on online language education.