L1 in the L2 Classroom – For or Against?  

English_182278637Should teachers speak their learners’ L1 in the English language learning classroom? It’s a hot topic for sure and one that still triggers ongoing debates within ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps all over the world.  But what about the other side of the coin? –what about students speaking their L1 in the L2 classroom?

Some would argue that L1 usage in the planning stages of a task is ‘no harm’ and can help students gather their thoughts and formulate translations, as long as students are producing in the L2 or target language afterwards.


As a language learner in a previous life…I DON’T GET IT! 

Isn’t planning in the L2 within a group just as integral to language development (if not more) than presenting the findings afterwards?  According to Ellis (1994) several authors maintain that L1 has no essential role to play in EFL teaching and that too much L1 use might deprive learners of valuable input in the L2 and I’d have to agree.

In private language schools in English speaking countries, the vast majority of teachers are native speakers so in my experience, this issue has never really raised its head in our staffrooms.  Why? There are two main reasons.

1)  Most teachers don’t speak the learners’ L2

We all have the odd lexical chunk we’ve drilled into ourselves to enable us to order a beer (or coffee), to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to avoid seeming rude or to greet the receptionist in the hotel lobby as you make your way to breakfast, but that’s probably the extent of many teachers’ second language knowledge, unless they’ve studied it in school and can still recite the irregular verbs list backwards (while drinking a glass of water and walking across hot coals!)

Most native teachers don’t understand students L2 and therefore have no part to play in an L1-friendly task, so they don’t allow it!

2)  Adults classes tend to be multilingual

Teaching a multilingual class doesn’t leave room for translations, L1 explanations or instructions!  If you have a mix of 5/6 L1s in your class, you would need to be a serious polyglot (and multi-tasker) to classroom manage that.

So where does this situation leave teachers who walk into a short-stay, monolingual class of 15 teenagers who are all speaking in their L1? (which you don’t understand and that’s fine with them because they’re on holidays)

‘Speak English’ you say as you smile and point to the signs on the classroom noticeboards.  ‘Yes’ you hear back, before they revert to their own language, leaving you lost and confused and wondering why you ever became a teacher in the first place.   Sound familiar?

But for those of you who do sit with me in the ‘against’ camp, there are ways around this, but first …

Why do students speak their L1 in class? 

  1. That’s what they know.

In their own country, chances are that their teacher does use the L1 with them.  They are provided with translations, L1 instructions and explanations and so it’s the norm for them.

  1. The level is too low.

Unless teenage learners have the language to enable them to communicate with each other and the teacher with ease, they won’t!

  1. They need a break!Break_220455253

Speaking a second language is tiring, frightening and boring (depending on content) When they need a mental break, they will take one and revert back to their L1.  The fifth hypothesis of Krashen’s Monitor Model (as outlined by Lightbown and Spada, 1999:39), the affective filter hypothesis, implies that students or more accurately ‘acquirers’ of a language will filter or block out the target language if they become tense, angry, or bored.

  1. They want a translation from their peers.

Instead of struggling to make sense of the definition you are explaining, they will shout across to their classmate who seems to have understood, for a quick and easy translation – it saves them time and energy!

  1. They check they have understood task instructions.

As clear as you feel you have given instructions, there are always students who double-check in their own language, just to be sure!

  1. They get over-excited.

Two things excite teenage learners; using their imagination and games! When they get overwhelmed, they revert to L1 and if you throw a competitive edge into the mix, they will find it extremely difficult to stick to L2.


So what can we do??

WaystoIncreaseL2 (2)

What camp do you sit in?  Do you agree that teachers should be a little more lenient with teenage learners who speak in their L1when in group work? Is there a place in the ELT classroom for the L1?


Ellis, Rod (1994): The Study of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford University Press, USA
Lightbown, P. M. and Spada, N. (1999) How Languages are Learned. (2nd edn.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

10 Responses

  1. I don’t know about *lenient*, but realistic is maybe better 🙂

    I like the suggestions. It’s disheartening when everyone’s chatting away in Spanish, and you say, ‘English please!’ only for it to be replaced with dead silence. Sigh.

  2. Colette Diamond

    Nowadays I find that students turn to their phones when they’re tired, tense, angry or bored not L1 as per ( Krashen’s Monitor Model) outlined by L & Spada 1999 . So the mobile phone reduces the use of L1 to some extent. They might even be communicating with other students in L2 on Facebook!
    Having said that it certainly is problematic in a large monolingual class and repeating the mantra English please is as predictable as it is boring. For teenagers, I think the reward is about the only answer, be it with chocolate or praise. Maybe imposing a deterrent such as confiscation of phones would also work .
    I’ve often asked students the reason that they do this particularly if they’re a fairly strong group. The usual response is that it’s quicker! So it’s all about speed of communication !

  3. I like 8 ways to increase L2. Confidence is an important factor and making the students feel relaxed. The students always enquire if I can speak their language on the day they arrive and when they know I understand French and German it actually is a disincentive for them to speak in their mother tongue. It makes them much more attentive and more effort is made to speak English only!
    Rewards are important for students who make the effort to speak L2 and verbal praise more than anything else means a lot!

  4. Hi its good way to teach and guide the teacher s through well knowledge. Please show the more teaching methods for international level teaching

  5. Nayeli Castillo

    Thanks to share these great ideas 🙂

  6. Slightly off topic but Colette’s point about L2 on FB is significant. All my research see (www.TESOLacademic.org) suggests that’s precisely what going on and I have argued with Krashen (2014)that this is an important source for comprehensible input. More recently in press I’ve looked at output (with Ellis).
    And on topic as a young teacher I was very much an L2 only person, but these days I am less dogmatic as I think L1 is helpful for some learners. In a post ppp and post methods era there’s no one size fits all.

  7. Hi Aoife,

    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be putting up a post about it on today’s TeachingEnglish Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil, if you’d like to check there for likes and comments.


  8. I am for L2 in the language learning classroom

  9. Do you mean “Most teachers don;t speak learners’ L1”? The opposite doesn’t make sense to me.

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