Using L1 in the L2 Classroom

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  • Research findings

    In provocative article, Elsa Auerbach(1993:29) gives a sociopolitical rationale forthe use of the L1 in ESL classrooms. She pri-marily addresses the situation of immigrantESL learners studying in the United States.Her conclusions, however, are applicable toany immigrant second language learners inany metropole. In this article, she states thateveryday classroom practices, far from beingneutral and natural, have ideological originsand consequences for relations of power bothinside and outside the classroom. Auerbach(1993:19) summarized her conclusion in thefollowing way: Starting with the L1 providesa sense of security and validates the learnerslived experiences, allowing them to expressthemselves. The learner is then willing toexperiment and take risks with English.

    Piasecka seconds Auerbachs positionwhen she states, Ones sense of identity as anindividual is inextricably bound up withinones native language. If the learner of asecond language is encouraged to ignorehis/her native language, he/she might wellfeel his/her identity threatened (in Hopkins,1988:18).

    Uses for L1 in English classes

    David Atkinson (1987:241) lists appropri-ate uses for the L1 in the L2 classroom (Table1). Auerbach (1993) suggests the followingpossible occasions for using the mothertongue: negotiation of the syllabus and thelesson; record keeping; classroom manage-ment; scene setting; language analysis; pre-sentation of rules governing grammar, phonol-ogy, morphology, and spelling; discussion of

    cross-cultural issues; instructions or prompts;explanation of errors; and assessment of com-prehension.

    Research design

    I teach English as a foreign language tomonolingual Spanish-speaking classes inPuerto Rico. During the first semester of the19971998 academic year, I designed andconducted research on the use of the mothertongue in English classes at the University ofPuerto Rico, Bayamon Campus. Four of mycolleagues kindly consented to participate inthis project. My research consisted of record-ing a 35-minute sample from three classes atthe beginning, middle, and end of the semes-ter. I recorded the classes to see how frequent-ly and for what purposes these teachers usedSpanish in their classes.

    The teachers also filled out a short ques-tionnaire about their attitudes toward the useof Spanish in the English classroom. The samequestionnaire was also distributed to othermembers of my department. A total of 19 pro-fessors responded. I also handed out a similarquestionnaire to the classes of professors par-ticipating in my study and to my three sectionsof basic English. The results of these two setsof questionnaires are in Table 2.

    Research results

    A high percentage (88.7%) of the studentparticipants in this study felt that Spanishshould be used in their English classes. All ofthe teachers reported using Spanish to somedegree. Approximately 99 percent of the stu-dents responded that they like their teachersto use only English in the classroom. Very

    mong a number of professionals in the field of second language

    acquisition, there appears to be an increasing conviction that the

    first language (L1) has a necessary and facilitating role in the

    second and foreign language (L2) classroom. In my case, this

    conviction comes from personal experience, recent literature I

    have read, and presentations I have attended. This position may seem heretical in light

    of what most of us were taught when trained as ESL/EFL professionals, but I believe it is

    worthy of serious consideration.

    6 A P R J U N 1 9 9 9 E N G L I S H T E A C H I N G F O R U M




    in t






    B Y C . W I L L I A M S C H W E E R S , J R .


  • noticeable is the 86 percent of students whowould like Spanish used to explain difficultconcepts. Only 22 percent of teachers sawthis as an appropriate use. Students alsoresponded notably higher than teachers onthe following uses for Spanish: to help stu-dents feel more comfortable and confident, tocheck comprehension, and to define newvocabulary items. Neither students nor teach-ers saw a use for the L1 in testing.

    A notable percentage of students wouldlike Spanish to be used in English class eitherbetween 10 and 39 percent of the time. Asizeable number of students like the use ofSpanish because it helps them when they feellost. About 87 percent of students feel Span-

    ish facilitates their learning of Englishbetween a little and a lot, and about 57percent think it helps from fairly much toa lot.

    These results showed that in English class-es in a Puerto Rican university, Spanishshould be used to some degree. Students feelthere are clear cases where Spanish will facil-itate their comprehension of what is happeningin class. A majority also agree that the use ofSpanish helps them to learn English.

    Studying students reactions to the use ofthe L1 in English classes, Terence Doyle(1997), in his presentation at TESOL 97,reported that students in a study he conduct-ed claimed that the L1 was used approxi-

    E N G L I S H T E A C H I N G F O R U M A P R J U N 1 9 9 9 7

    Starting with the

    L1 provides a

    sense of security

    and validates the

    learners lived


    allowing them

    to express

    themselves. The

    learner is then will-

    ing to experiment

    and take risks with


    Suggested Uses for the L1 in the EFL Classroom

    1. Eliciting language How do you say X in English?

    2. Checking comprehension How do you say Ive been waiting for ten minutes in Spanish? (Also used for comprehension of a reading or listening text.)

    3. Giving complex instructions to basic levels

    4. Co-operating in groups Learners compare and correct answers to exercises or tasks in the L1. Students at times can explain new pointsbetter than the teacher.

    5. Explaining classroom methodology at basic levels

    6. Using translation to highlight a recently taught language item

    7. Checking for sense If students write or say something in the L2 that does not make sense, have them try to translate it into the L1 to realize their error.

    8. Testing Translation items can be useful in testing mastery of forms and meanings.

    9. Developing circumlocution strategies When students do not know howto say something in the L2, have them think of different ways to say the same thing in the L1, which may be easier to translate.

    Strategy Spanish Englishnegative antonym vivo not dead

    simplification/approximate synonym fue vergonzoso it was terrible

    circumlocution se mostr reacio he didnt want to do it

    simplification el precio del viaje the tickets expensivese compensa por lo but lifes cheap therelo barata que es lavida

    explanation pulpo it lives in the sea,its got eight legs


    TABLE 1

  • mately 90 percent of the time in their classes.

    Some 65 percent of these students preferred

    the use of the L1 in their classes sometimes or

    often. While the first figure is comparable to

    the one I found in my study, the second is

    higher than the percentage in my study.

    Teacher responses

    In this study, I asked teachers to respondto the question If you use Spanish in yourclassroom, why do you think this may be moreeffective than using English exclusively?Here are some of their responses:

    8 A P R J U N 1 9 9 9 E N G L I S H T E A C H I N G F O R U M

    Results of Questionnaires on the Use of Spanishin the ESL/EFL Classroom

    Should Spanish be used in the classroom?Students: yes 88.7% no 11.3%Teachers: yes 100%

    Do you like or would you like your teacher to use Spanish in class?Students : not at all 0%

    a little 49.0%sometimes 28.2%a lot 22.3%

    When do you think its appropriate to use Spanish in English class?STUDENTS TEACHERS

    To explain difficult concepts 86.2% 22.0%To introduce new material 6.4% 0%To summarize material already covered 4.2% 2.5%To test 1.4% 0%To joke around with students 5.0% 15.0%To help students feel more comfortable and confident 12.9% 7.3%To check for comprehension 20.2% 10.4%To carry out small-group work 3.1% 2.5%To explain the relationship between English and Spanish N/A 2.5%To define new vocabulary items 22.7% 12.6%

    What percent of the time do you think Spanish should be used?

    Time Response Time Response

    Students: 0% 0% 50+% 0%10+% 17.2% 60+% 2.2%20+% 14.0% 70+% 3.2%30+% 21.5% 80+% 1.1%40+% 11.8% 90+% 1.1%

    How often do you think Spanish should be used in the English classroom?Teachers: never 0%

    very rarely 0%sometimes 50%fairly frequently 0%to aid comprehension 50%

    If you prefer the use of Spanish in your class, why?Students: Its more comfortable 13.4%

    I am less tense 18.3%I feel less lost 68.3%

    Do you believe using Spanish in your English class helps you learn this language?Students: no 12.6%

    a little 29.5%fairly much 26.3%a lot 31.6%

    TABLE 2

  • Sometimes it is more important for stu-dents to understand a concept than it isfor that concept to be explained exclu-sively in English.

    In my writing courses, I use some Span-ish because it helps students write betterreports. It also serves as an additionalinput to ensure that they achieve themain objective of the course, which isthe production of higher quality writtenwork in English.

    First of all, I use Spanish to establishrapport with my students, and secondly,to serve as a model person who speaksboth languages and uses each one when-ever necessary or convenient.

    I think students can identify better witha teacher who speaks to them in theirown language, thereby letting themknow that you respect and value theirnative language. This is especiallyimportant in the English class becauseof the politico-socio-cultural implica-tions of teaching a language that is basi-cally imposed on them. In any case, Ilike to joke around in the class, and onereally cannot do that in English whennot all students understand it.

    I recorded the classes of four differentteachers this semester, and my findings var-ied. Two of the professors never used Spanishto address their classes. One of them permit-ted students to answer questions in Spanish,and the other only used one Spanish word inthe frame How do you say X in English?

    The third teacher never addressed herclass in Spanish, but she used Spanish verycleverly to illustrate points she was makingabout English. For example, when teachinggreetings, she asked the class how one persongreets another in English. They said hello,How are you? Then she asked them howthey greet people in Spanish. The studentscame up with a long list of possibilities. Shethen explained that it was the same in Englishand listed many possible greetings used inthat language.

    The fourth teacher used the most Spanishin her teaching. Interestingly, she is the mostmature and experienced of the four. Whileshe is speaking in English, she throws in asentence or phrase in Spanish. This seems tokeep the students who do not understand herevery word on track as to what is happening inthe lesson.


    This semester I am experimenting withusing more Spanish in my classes. The first twodays I used Spanish exclusively as I explainedthe course to them. I gave them two small-group tasks to do in Spanish. The first was todescribe their previous experiences in Englishclasses, and the second was to describe whattheir ideal English class would be like. Gradu-ally I reduced the amount of Spanish I wasusing and added more English.

    I use Spanish to make comprehensionchecks. It is important as you go along to peri-odically make sure students are understand-ing. I will ask, Does everyone understand?Who can tell me the Spanish translation? Or,after making an important point, I will ask,Who can say what I just said in Spanish?and I wait until I get an acceptable translation.I find my students enthusiastic and receptivewith respect to our classroom activities. I alsofeel very much in touch with them, as we sharea common language when necessary.

    In spite of my allowing a role for Spanishin my classroom, students spontaneously useEnglish in class and while working on tasks.They frequently use English with me whenthey come up with questions or commentsafter class. I feel the relationship we havedeveloped by my using Spanish occasionallyhas made my students more eager than usualto tackle the challenges of learning English.

    Attendance is excellent and most aredoing classwork and homework regularly. Wealso have a lot of fun in class.


    I realize that not all teachers would agreewith the position I have put forth here. Somewould say that particularly foreign languagelearners need as much exposure as possible toL2 input during limited class time, the onlytime in their daily lives when they encounterthe language. Others would say that if youonly use English, you force your students totry to communicate with you in that language,giving them the opportunity to produce com-prehensible output and negotiate meaning.

    I, of course, agree that English should bethe primary vehicle of communication in theEnglish classroom and that you should givestudents ample opportunities to process Eng-lish receptively as well as to produce andnegotiate meaning in the language. I suggest,however, that my arguments for the 13

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  • E N G L I S H T E A C H I N G F O R U M A P R J U N 1 9 9 9 13

    The Use of L1 in the L2 Classroomcontinued from page 9

    pedagogical and affective benefits of L1 usejustify its limited and judicious use in thesecond or foreign language classroom. More-over, if we take the goal of creating a student-centered classroom seriously, my findingshave important implications for what we do inour classes.

    The results of my research prove that asecond language can be learned through rais-ing awareness to the similarities and differ-ences between the L1 and the L2. The pru-dent use of L2 in the English classroom alsoaffirms the value of our students L1 as theirprimary means of communication and cultur-al expression.

    Additionally, bringing Spanish into theEnglish classes has made learning Englishappear to be less of a threat to their vernacu-lar. They learn firsthand that the two lan-guages can coexist. Finally, I have found thatusing Spanish has led to positive attitudestoward the process of learning English and,better yet, encourages students to learn moreEnglish.

    These results address Auerbachs con-cerns about the sociocultural implications ofusing only English in the classroom and areapplicable to an EFL context such as the one

    where I teach. Here in Puerto Rico our stu-dents are resistant to learning English for cul-tural and political reasons. They resent itsimposition as a required language. But mayberecognizing and welcoming their own lan-guage into the classroom as an expression oftheir own culture could be one way of dis-pelling negative attitudes toward English andincreasing receptivity to learning the lan-guage. Perhaps similar conditions exist inother countries.


    Auerbach, E. 1993. Reexaming English only in theESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 27, 1, pp.932.

    Atkinson, D. 1987. The mother tongue in the class-room: A neglected resou...


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