Using L1 in language learning

It’s been fifteen years since I caught that Easyjet flight to Madrid, en route to the initial TEFL course I’d signed up for. Could I survive outside of England? Could I make a living in a foreign country? Could I make a new life for myself? Could I learn Spanish? Moving abroad for the first time was perhaps the greatest challenge I have ever faced.

As I’m writing this in Malaysia fifteen years later it’s clear that the answer to most of the questions is yes. I survived. And yes, I did also learn Spanish. When I left Spain I was borderline B2/C1 level. I had friends I’d only use Spanish with. I used Spanish to help my school sell courses. I could live and work using Spanish. It took a while and some stubbornness on my part. After my morning Spanish classes I would regularly go to the internet café across the road. (Yes they were popular back then, in the days of pesetas.) I’d use the best Spanish I had, and without fail, they’d reply in English. It  was typical of much of my time there, until I was at least intermediate level. I really do believe it’s harder for English speakers to learn a foreign language, due to the necessity to speak it, but that’s not the point of this blog.

So how did I learn Spanish? I learnt through studying and practising a lot. I went to classes. I bought Uso del a gramatica española. I did language exchanges. I got a Spanish girlfriend. I read Spanish newspapers and books. You name it I did it! Being young, fairly carefree and living in the country is by far the best way to learn a language.

I’ve mentioned finding English a hindrance to learning,  but it’s worth reflecting on whether it helped in any way. In class, if I struggled, an English speaking friend occasionally translated. Rarer still, the teacher would use English. A new Italian classmate who sold artificial grass knew the phrase in English and used it after explaining what he did in Spanish, as he knew it’s quite hard to explain without translation. I never thought of any of this as restricting my exposure to the language. It was always useful and it never took long.

I also had my trusty little bilingual dictionary; still the book I’ve probably spent the most time using. I’d sit on the bus going to my morning class with a newspaper and the dictionary. I’d use it when using the Spanish grammar book. I used it when I wrote in Spanish. Occasionally I’d use it in Spanish class. I learnt a lot studying that way. I got a bit better and got a monolingual dictionary too, as you should. But I never found it nearly as useful as the bilingual one. I tried but it just look longer to get it. I’d look up words, then the other words from the definitions. Sometimes still I’d not get it. As a teacher it’s been ingrained that students should use a monolingual dictionary. It’s not something I found more useful as a learner, even though it was something I knew I should.

As I trainee teacher I was told about the direct method. We only use English to maximise exposure. It’s not like I had a choice in the early days anyway. As my Spanish got stronger though I had the choice to use it, and very selectively that’s what I did. When unsure of understanding I’d concept check by asking for the Spanish. When students asked how to say something in English I’d help. It certainly played a small part of my classes, but Spanish was there if necessary.

So does ELT still believe in the direct method? Yes, though this is partly though necessity. How do you enforce teachers to know the language of all the students? How do you train them? How do coursebooks accommodate this? It’s clearly impossible. But does the research support this position? The answer is n0. ‘A growing body of research clearly supports the principled use of the learner’s first language (L1) in aid of second and foreign language learning, especially when teaching at beginner and intermediate levels.’ (Wolfgang Butzkamm and John A. W. Caldwell 2009). For more information see Silvana Richardson’s plenary at the 2016 IATEFL conference, which talks about this in the wider context of the NEST/NNEST debate (highly recommended if you haven’t seen it).

So what’s my advice for regarding students’ L1 in class? In monolingual classes this is easier. Use it as a resource. English is the main language, and the one to be used whenever it can be in a clearly comprehensible way. Concept check  and translate if there’s an issue, though not as a first resort. Definitely make sure students still feel the need to use English whenever they can. Don’t force only monolingual dictionaries. Be aware of the weaknesses of resources like Google translate, but also be aware that the false translations are relatively rare and often get over-quoted.

In multi-lingual classes L1 use is harder. Be understanding if students translate for each other. Try learning a few key phrases in the most common to help you gauge understanding. For example, what does …mean?/ I don’t understand./How do you say…? If you hear these you know there’s an issue to check. Knowing the students’ L1 gives you respect as it shows you have some awareness of the position a language learner is in.

Where do you stand? How much L1 should be in a language class?

Image – My bilingual and monolingual dictionaries © David Bunker 2016


11 thoughts on “Using L1 in language learning

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences on this topic, Dave. It so happens I have been focusing on this a bit in my own context, as we often work with predominantly (but not completely) monolingual classes. Lately this has raised issues regarding exclusion of the students who don’t speak the majority L1. I blogged about this myself a while ago: (
    and I did some more research recently, so hope to come out with something else soon.
    Interesting to see how your own experience in learning Spanish doesn’t really tally with how people are trained to teach English. There’s a lot to consider here – SLA theories but also issues of power, exclusion and linguistic imperialism.
    Thanks for another good post,


  2. I personally divide the whole course into three parts and in the first phase I let them use L1 but I don’t. In the following phases there comes a L1 ban. The first is a kind of warm up stage for different kind of activities, procedure etc. By the end of it, student knows what to do in class and has gained considerable confidence. After this phase it’s much easier to make them use English abundantly.


  3. This is a central issue where I teach as we only have monolingual classes, and my L1 is the same as my students. So I’m kind of in the opposite position compared to the one you describe.

    Interestingly, I noticed that if I only speak English in and outside the classroom to my students, they’ll make an effort to answer back in English — even though they know I’m Italian (some go as far as asking each other things in Italian thinking I don’t understand!). Whereas if I start using Italian in class, or even in the corridors or when I meet them in the streets, then they invariably end up telling me things in Italian when they find them too difficult in English.

    So my policy now is: as little Italian as possible, and I sometimes go as far as pretending I don’t understand Italian to push them to tell me things in English. 🙂

    I still resort to L1 translation sometimes though, as you say, to clarify meaning or avoid confusion.


    1. I agree with your approach, using as little as possible. There’s a fine line between using L1 to help comprehension and encouraging L1 for conversation. Seeing that your students use English with you shows you walk the line well.


  4. I never taught multilingual classes until I began teaching online. For my online accent training programs people are usually Intermediate/Upper-Intermediate, so the issue of using L1 isn’t relevant. Prior to that, it was always my understanding as I taught beginner and Pre-Intermediate English to Russian speakers that we should use L1 to make things move faster. The Dean of the College where I used to work would tell me, “Don’t use English as a fetish,” meaning if students don’t understand and you see it after multiple explanations, just translate and continue with your lesson. Thank you for sharing your story.


  5. I went from a lot of L1 explanation at the beginning of my career (in Japan) to none to something close to your recommendations as I’m about to leave Japan for good. I agree that there’s a fine line between using the L1 as one teaching tool of many and seeming to endorse L1 classes. You might be interested in a post I made a while ago about incorporation grammar-translation into communicative classes, which many teachers would regard as stepping over the line.


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