Situational Responses

By Mr Mustapha Louznadji
Inspector of National Education

Using L1 in the Communicative Class

    The question of whether or not to use students’ first language (L1) in the foreign language class is an issue that is as old as the teaching of a foreign language itself.

    I was trained to be a Communicative teacher. In the time I did my basic training as an EFL teacher in the 80’s. If you were to be a qualified teacher you had to be one. I was taught not to use L1 in the classroom, I remember one of the items in my inspector’s observation sheet during his observation of my classes said “ use of L1 “, I was encouraged to avoid using L1 and told to use it only “as the last resource possible”.

   I was taught a thousand and one forms not to use (or allow students to use  L1 in class: “getting meanings from contexts”, “paraphrasing “, “miming“, ”gestures”, “the use of realia” ”paralinguistic features”, etc, etc were some of the techniques I was taught to use to avoid the “hampering” use of L1 in the class.

     Using L1 impeded acquisition, we were told. The very famous L1 interference, language transfer, among others was held responsible for many of our students’ mistakes in the process of learning a foreign language. The conclusion was simple: There was little (if any) we could get from using L1 in the communicative language class.

     The fact of the matter is that while teachers kept telling their students not to do it, students kept translating (and most likely will always translate) into and out of their own languages; any fairly experienced EFL teacher knows this. So how do we deal with this? What are we supposed to do with regard to something we have been told to avoid but in practice very few of us can actually manage to achieve? Does the fact that we usually cannot get our students to avoid using L1 in the classroom mean that we somehow fail as communicative teachers? These and other questions on the subject drove me to do some further research on this extremely relevant topic.

     By using a 100% DIRECT METHOD approach we can find ourselves in some bizarre situations, performing real contortionist acts when trying to explain a language item when a simple translation could save both teacher’s and students’ a great deal of time and anguish. Could you easily explain just in English the meaning of FAITH to a group of students? Would it not be much faster and memorable to use its equivalent in L1 directly?


     So far we can say that using L1 in the foreign language class has not been CLT’s favorite principle. However, recent research findings have demonstrated that much too radical CLT methodology advocates’ disagreement, it has an important place in the EFL classroom. Let us begin by mentioning when it is not advisable to use L1.

    We should not overuse L1 in the classroom. Learning a foreign language is a difficult process. Using the target language as much as possible should be the main goal of any language course. I think there is no need to argue on this point. Therefore, we should be careful about overusing L1.

L1 should not be used during speaking and creative activities, there is little justification for this unless misunderstanding of instructions may lead to different results. The use of L1 in pronunciation is usually inappropriate. The use of L1 should not become students’ (or even worse the teacher’s) lifesaver they can take hold of every time a difficult moment comes up. L1 should not be used to explain simple vocabulary or to remind students past items they have already studied and simply cannot remember. The use of L1 is not advisable either to save students from embarrassment or miscomprehension in the understanding of COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT. It is not something they should use to avoid hard work, placate fear of failure or compensate for lack of motivation. In these cases the teacher must make students think and speak in TL..

     I understand that not all EFL teachers will agree with the ideas presented in this article. I particularly support the idea that English should be the main language to be used in an EFL class. I totally support communicative methodological arguments like the one saying that students should be exposed as much as possible to the target language to permit its acquisition considering that their language class is the only time when they can be in contact with the target language in their otherwise L1 environment, and the one stating that by inhibiting L1 use in the class, students are forced to think and speak in English therefore to produce COMPREHENSIBLE OUTPUT and negotiate meaning.

     However, I suggest that in contrast to traditional Communicative Language Teaching methodology a controlled and judicious use of L1 can have both pedagogical and affective positive effects in the communicative language class. In the light of recent research the use of L1 seems of particular importance in EFL classes.

     Additionally, I suggest that in contrast to ESL contexts where English teaching presents a different context, EFL teachers in the Middle East and North Africa should take into account not just the mere linguistic aspect of English but also its important socio-cultural implications. By bringing English to the language class with elements of their mother tongue students will welcome English more easily and will feel that neither the English language nor its culture is being imposed to them.

      All this, is of particular importance if we are to create a student-centered classroom as most new methodological trends seem to be suggesting these days.

By : Edgar Larrea