Situational Responses

By Mr Mustapha Louznadji
Inspector of National Education

Judicious Use of L1 in Foreign Language Learning

      Using L1 is not the problem. The problem is when and how to use it. Before answering this question, it should be born in mind that L1 use must be considered “as a means to an end”. The target language must be used where possible and L1 when necessary.  Here are some examples of appropriate use of L1 in EFL classes.

  • Beginners
    The mother tongue can be probably more beneficial to beginners. As they progress in their learning the target language will take the lead.
  • L1 can be time-saving.

Instead of going through long explanations in the target language, it is sometimes easier and more efficient to give a translation of a vocabulary item or an explanation of a grammar point.

  • Comparison
    A comparison of English and the mother tongue can be a very enriching experience. In fact, discovering the similarities and differences of both languages can enhance the TL acquisition. This comparison can be done at different levels:
    • Vocabulary
      - Exploring the nuances of vocabulary items in both languages
      bilingual (or even multilingual) semantic maps
    • Grammar
      - A comparison between L1 grammar and TL grammar yields interesting results.
      - This comparison will highlight the differences between the two languages. Teachers and learners may build on these differences to avoid negative transfer ( L1 transfer which may be a source of errors.)

- The comparison also shows the similarities which will undoubtedly boost the internalization of the TL grammar.

  • Culture
    Language is a vehicle for cultural aspects. If teachers ban the use of the mother tongue, this underlies an ideological conception of L1 culture as being inferior. Alternatively, cultural differences and similarities can be highlighted to help learners accept and tolerate differences while at the same time preserve their cultural uniqueness. This can be done through various activities where L1 plays an important role.
    • Proverbs
      Students may be given a set of proverbs in the TL and be asked to find the corresponding ones in their mother tongue if they exisit. If not they try to translate the proverbs into their language.
    • Idiomatic Expressions

     Again, finding the corresponding idioms or a translation of TL idioms might be very helpful to detect cultural differences or similarities

    • Songs
      Translation of lyrics
    • Jokes
      Funny EFL activities can be built on jokes. Students may translate and tell or act TL jokes to create a free stress environment and spot TL cultural specificities.
  • Stress
    Using L1 gives a sense of security and acknowledges the learners identity, allowing them to minimize the stress they may feel in EFL classrooms. With careful use of L1 learners may become willing to experiment and take risks with English.
  • Needs
    Learners needs must be expressed in L1 since the TL is not yet mastered. Learners will never be able to express and communicate their needs with a language they speak poorly.
  • Classroom management

       Management of conduct and discipline is sometimes hard to be done in the target language. For instance, if a serious problem emerges in the classroom, will the teacher really insist on an English-only policy when coping with it?

  • Grammar
    L1 can be of great help when teaching grammar. Translation exercises for example may be the perfect practice when there is a grammar point that is causing trouble to students.
  • Instructions
    Many failures in tests are due to learners lack of understanding of instructions. L1 can be used to redress this issue, helping students to understand what is exactly asked from them.
  • Rationale
    Students need to understand the rationale behind activities or methods. It is important that they know where they start and what they will able to do. They should understand what lies behind the methods the teacher is using. This can only be done at this level through the students’ native language.

           Of course, the list may be extended to other areas of foreign language teaching.

Extracts from the ‘Using of the Mother Tongue’ book of

                Sheelagh Deller and Mario Rinvolucri