English Only in the EFL Classroom: Worth the Hassle?

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In considering the use of L1 (the learners’ mother tongue) in ELT (English Language Teaching) on the part of the teacher, one of the first assumptions is that the teacher has a sufficient command of the students L1 to be of value in the first place. Another assumption which may well impact this scenario is that all the learners in a class or group have the same L1.

While these assumptions may often be the case in numerous EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teaching/learning settings, many times they are not. In the case of multi-cultural classes (i.e. in the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, India, etc.) where the learners have different L1s, or when the teacher does not have a working knowledge of the learners’ L1, a frequent occurrence in Asia, Africa and eastern Europe, applied L1 use in the EFL classroom is severely limited or may be rendered virtually impossible. 

Use of L1 in the Classroom

In my case, I’ll talk about those instances where I do in fact use the learners’ L1 in my EFL classes. I have acquired a working knowledge of Spanish and all my university and independent students have Spanish as their L1. Although I’m against any substantial use of L1 in ESOL (the teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes, there are situations where its use is quite valuable. In addition, at early levels a ratio of about 5 per cent native language to about 95 per cent target language may be more profitable than the use of “English only”. (Atkinson, 1987) On the first day of class with a new group, I explain to the learners that they are allowed to ask “How do you say ______ , in Spanish?” where the Spanish (L1) word or phrase is filled in the blank. This allows the students to get key vocabulary in their written or spoken expression while limiting their use of L1 in class.

When learners are stumped for abstract lexis, a word or phrase which cannot be easily elicited during the course of a lesson, I’ll simply “give” them the word in Spanish to aid in continuing with the smooth flow of the lesson and not get “bogged down” in trying to come up with the elusive lexis by other means. When a student gives me production of incomprehensible language, i.e., I (nor the other learners) cannot decipher what the student is trying to say in English, I’ll say “Tell me that in Spanish.” Armed with this new understanding I (or one of the other learners) can then provide that learner with corrected, comprehensible forms which otherwise might elude both (or even all) of us.

During a written exam, I’ll also “give” the learners a word or phrase writing it on the board in English and / or Spanish to avoid extensive disruption of the test-taking process. Since I do not prepare the exams, new lexis can creep into readings, instructions or exercises. When a learner, and as additional learners, ask for meaning or explanation of the word(s), I’ll simply point to the lexis on the board without speaking.

When playing communicative, TPR (Asher, 1966 and passim) or “fast-paced” vocabulary games such as a learner favorite called “STOP”, I’ll again provide a translation of new lexis to help develop the learners’ vocabulary. These could be lexis of places, names in English/Spanish, foods, animals or some verbs or use of the L1 in various code-switching activities. (Clandfield – Foord, 2003) This happens especially frequently when I need to explain why a particular word is incorrect or cannot be used.

L1 Use with LEP Learners

One additional instance when I switch to Spanish is when I must talk to LEP (Limited English Proficiency) learners about important administrative matters or procedures for which they do not have the necessary depth of vocabulary to understand. The importance of the material and their need to understand it outweigh the adherence of sticking to “English only” which is my “standard operating procedure” in the classroom. This is especially true in my case with groups of learners with less than about 250 contact hours of English which is equivalent to third semester or less. Note: Atkinson (1987 and passim) states 150 hours or less (second semester) for this stage although I have found it often extends into an additional semester.

On occasion, students will bring in a song or lyrics, usually Rock or Pop music, and ask the meaning of a word, phrase, expression or sometimes even the title. In providing the requested explanation (when I can), I use comparisons and/or translations into Spanish as often as is necessary. The same may occur with dialogue from popular films, movies and videos produced for native speakers of English. In rare instances, a cassette recording of a radio broadcast or book-on-tape has made its way into my classroom for the same reasons.

A final common instance in my use of L1 in the classroom is with learners in “repeat” or “remedial” classes of LEP learners. Since these learners have already demonstrated that the “traditional” teaching methods provided for in their course books is insufficient in teaching them the material. All these learners have failed the course at this level at least once, some twice or more. I subsequently use a series of alternative methodologies including translation and other types of input/feedback in the learners’ L1 to aid in the learning – acquisition process. These methods have, in fact, proved to be very successful. One reason may be that use of specially-targeted methodologies and altered classroom conditions help to lower the learners Affective Filters (Krashen – Terrell, 1983) and direct the new material and lexis to them in ways more compatible with their individual Multiple Intelligences and preferred learning styles (Gardner, 1983).

In conclusion I have stated that my use of L1 in the EFL classroom is minimal and should not exceed a ratio of more than 5% of the L1 to 95% of the target language. Key EFL classroom situations in which L1 can be utilized include:

  • Requesting new lexis
  • Explaining abstract terms
  • To aid in the generation of comprehensible input/production
  • During exams and other high-stress situations
  • To maintain the flow of dynamic activities
  • To explain idioms and expressions in songs, movies and videos
  • Giving information/instructions to LEP learners
  • In adapting materials to the special needs of the learners

While the use of the learners’ L1 should be strictly controlled, it is plausible to make accurate use of it in activities to promote learning and acquisition. Ongoing language acquisition research and in-class practice supports that use of L1 should not be prohibited for its own sake, but allowed occasionally as an additional tool in the repertoire of the teacher and the learners as conditions warrant.

Written by Larry Lynch
Larry Lynch is an English language teaching and learning expert author and university professor in Cali, Colombia.
Academic references for this article are available on request.

9 comments

  1. Michael

    Everyone must be allowed to speak their own language. They find safety in it as well as being able to feel at home with the nuances and connotations of their own language. This “English only” is part and parcel of what is implied in English culture…. “we know what is best for you foreigners”. I know from long experience that just as most Chinese will long to eat rice they also long to speak their own native language as if it is necessary for their inner soul. The same with subtitles on DVDs. Let them choose what subtitles they want to begin with.

  2. Frank Lee

    Here in Thailand, ESL teaching where L1 is officially banned is pushed by the govt. and the industry as the only proper way to teach this subject because far less than 1% of English teachers have a good command of L1 (so the industry criticizes what it can’t supply) and Thai governments (for political reasons) don’t actually provide a modern education, only schooling in what to think rather than how to think. However, I have persevered with EFL methods because, for many of the reasons cited above, they are far more effective and classes are far more enjoyable. Sadly, at present perhaps only 1% of students here who complete 12 years of govt. schooling have sufficient basic English communication skills to confidently approach English speakers. Of course, the industry’s well paid apologists and govt. propagandists will try to convince you otherwise, but the truth is abundantly clear to all who wish to see.

  3. Mark

    The National Institute of Health (USA) recommends mostly L1 until finally reaching a 50:50 ratio around age 12.

  4. Ganti

    A very useful and enlightening article. As a teacher in Malaysia which has 3 main communities speaking various mother tongues, I have always been faced with the decision of whether to resort to mother tongue translation when explaining things in English. Though I feel it does aid in learning, I think we should not make a habit of it as learners may become dependent on translation.

  5. Stefan

    I taught ESL intro, and advanced ESL for one semester each in an enforced English only environment, and took an EFL course in Europe. My experience is that instructions are best done in L1, and since the advanced course was a polyglot having a dictionary from every language was invaluable.

  6. Frank Lee

    Here in Thailand, ESL teaching where L1 is officially banned is pushed by the govt. and the industry as the only proper way to teach this subject because far less than 1% of English teachers have a good command of L1 (so the industry criticizes what it can’t supply) and Thai governments (for political reasons) don’t actually provide a modern education, only schooling in what to think rather than how to think. However, I have persevered with EFL methods because, for many of the reasons cited above, they are far more effective and classes are far more enjoyable. Sadly, at present perhaps only one per cent of students here who complete 12 years of govt. schooling have sufficient basic English communication skills to confidently approach English speakers. Of course, the industry’s well paid apologists and govt. propagandists will try to convince you otherwise, but the truth is abundantly clear to all who wish to see.

  7. Daphne

    I agree completely with what is mentioned in the article. I am a teacher trainer and the teacher trainees I supervised when they are doing their practicum training constantly use L1 in teaching English in Malaysian public schools. Here, English is the second language but the trainees as well as the students they teach frequently fall back to L1 in several of the instances that you mentioned in your article. I’d really appreciate if you can recommend some references on this topic as I am thinking of conducting a research on the use of L1. Thank you.

  8. Brahim

    I think that the use of L1 in an EFL context is a big issue that raised debatable questions among scholars and researchers all over the world. I say that using L1 in teaching English is relevant in some cases and not in others. It can be used to facilitate the learning process and make learners understand things easily, but it causes interference and slows fluency.

  9. Benoit de Pontaven

    I think English only is absolutely bonkers. Where I have seen it used over the course of a term, generally, it causes more problems than it solves, you find the least confident students just don’t say anything, the low level students who can’t work things out from context stay further behind than they already are and for teaching abstract concepts to people at A1/A2 level it’s a nightmare. There are other ways you can get people to speak other than a total ban, i.e you can have a card system, i.e an English card for when we speak English and an L1 card you show for when you speak L1. The research doesn’t support that it’s the most effective way to learn, most studies I have read show that allowing L2 gives you better results overall.

    There are lots of smart ways you can use translation and often you can use L1 to explain the cultural background of something you are teaching effectively, to draw interest and then go into the material.

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