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Using First Language (L1) in the ELT Classroom


Using L1 in the ELT ClassroomPhilip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.  In this post he discusses the use of L1 in the classroom and shares some guidelines for its use.

The majority of English language teaching takes place in classrooms where both the students and the teacher share the same L1 (first language). In these contexts, the L1 is often banned from the classroom, and for many good reasons. Many teachers and heads of department forbid the use of L1 because an all-English speaking environment is prized since it actively encourages communication in English. Another reason is that the L1 can easily take over if not restricted. While there are many reasons for banishing the L1 from the classroom, there are also good reasons for using it. What I believe is needed are clear guidelines for effective use of the L1. Below I set some guidelines in three levels; from basic to more in-depth.

Level One: Functional

Level one can be used by all ELT teachers to help the class function more effectively without essentially compromising the popular principle that English should be used at all times. The use of the L1 is quite restricted and the teacher is always in complete control so there is no chance of the L1 taking over the class.

  • How do you say ____?: Students are allowed to ask how to say something from their L1 in English.
  • Can I say something in my language?: If students have something important to say but do not have the level of English to do so, they can request permission from the teacher to speak in their L1.
  • Time out: Just as in Basketball, the teacher can indicate that they will create a short space within the regular class to use the L1, and then return to the English class. This is especially useful when something needs to be discussed which could not be done in English.

Level Two: Strategic

In this second level, the teacher has at their disposal all the uses outlined in level one, but now encourages students to draw on their knowledge of their L1 and English to develop language learning strategies. This is essentially done by asking students to make comparisons between the two languages. The teacher is able to do this without the need to use the L1 themselves if they do not want to. Again, if the teacher fears losing control they can use the time out idea to create a ‘window’ from the exclusively all English atmosphere in the classroom.

  • English you already know: When there is a new word that has some relation to a word from their L1, the teacher asks students, “Does it look like a word you know in your language?”
  • Finding patterns and similarities: When there are grammatical patters or phrases that are have similarities between English and the L1, the teacher can ask, “What is the equivalent in your language?” or “Is it similar or different in your language?”

Level Three: Discourse

Level three uses the L1 to develop language awareness, higher order thinking skills, and to explore and comprehend features of discourse in English. The teacher also incorporates the ideas from levels one and two.

  • Discussing register: When looking at a phrase in context that has a particular register or degree of formality, the teacher asks students for an equivalent in their L1. This opens up discussions about appropriacy and register.
  • Just for fun: All bilinguals are aware of words and phrases that are easily mistranslated and produce funny consequences. By highlighting some of these and encouraging students to play with the language, we not only bring some light relief into the classroom, but encourage creativity and heightened language awareness.
  • Translating: Students work together and translate extracts or short texts from one language to the other. The teacher encourages students to discuss and justify their choice of words and phrases. This develops insight into features of context, appropriacy and register, develops higher order thinking skills, and promotes greater awareness of both languages.

These ideas are designed to encourage teachers to make principled use of the L1 in their classroom without feeling guilty about doing do so, while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that are often associated with its use. It is hoped that all teachers will feel comfortable using some of these ideas and will consider the possible benefits of others.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

8 thoughts on “Using First Language (L1) in the ELT Classroom

  1. L1 in the classroom is a total failure! It justifies incompetent teachers’ conducting classes in L1. L1 is beneficial in homework assignments, but not for regular teacher-student or student-student interactions.

    • Have you researched enough of this? Sorry to tell you that it is totally the opposite. My dissertation on Code-switching helped me find out how useful it is. It is a very good strategy. Maybe you should analyze it and research about it, before you say it is a total failure.

      • I agree with you Martha, some times it’s impossible to give an exact meaning in L2 unless you translate the idea of it to L1

  2. Some very sound advice. Thanks a lot for this post. Translation and many other things (e.g. drilling) have been too easily demonized as WRONG. However, as you rightly point out, there are perfectly good reasons when we could and should resort to for example translation. Of course, I totally agree with what you say at the beginning – it should not be overused.
    This post reminds me of the talk Anthony Gaughan gave at one of the previous IATEFLs: The 7 deadly sins of EFL.

  3. I have just started looking into using Translation in the classroom – I want to do some research before I decide to use it with my Proficiency group. As part and parcel of my background reading, I’ve found a couple of great posts on effective use of the L1 in the classroom – this one included! Some great ideas – will share them.

  4. This is an important topic, as use of the L1 often leads to an atmosphere of anxiety for teachers (including worrying about losing their jobs) when planning what practices works best for reaching communicative targets each particular group of learners. Here’s a list of articles and books by prominent SLA scholars (you can Google each of their names to learn more about their contributions to the field):

    Vivian Cook:

    Guy Cook

    Paul Nation

    Merrill Swain


  5. Thanks James. Really good points. Translation is such an important skill in the outside world, but so rarely practiced in the classroom.

  6. Excellent article , translating is one of many tools a competent teacher has to work with , the guidelines mentioned make a lot of sense and in no way does translation justify incompetence , a good bilingual teacher is every bit as valuable as a native speaking good teacher , and along that line a bad bilingual teacher is just as damaging as a bad monolingual teacher .

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