Whether to use L1 or L2 in the classroom – that is the question


One of the issues still constantly debated within the EFL community, is whether to use L1 (the learners’ mother tongue) or L2 (the target language) in the classroom to teach. This question often divides opinion with people either strongly for or against it.

The most common reason put forward for not using L1 in the language classroom, is that students will become lazy and depend on the teacher for explanations, translations and so on, without them even trying to first understand what a word in context or a grammar point means, or how it is used in the language they are trying to acquire and become proficient in. Or they will turn to their Companions, read the unknown vocabulary in L1 and disregard the L2 explanation; or just ask a classmate for the meaning. Paper dictionaries have long disappeared from most ELT classrooms, so the Companion is seen as a viable alternative. This methodology, in turn, can lead learners to be unable to express what they want or need to say in the L2 language because of their inadequate skills in communication.

Historically, in the late 19th and early 20th century, the dominant methodology of the time was the Grammar-Translation system and it was not considered advisable to use L1 during language learning. Learning a language during that period was seen as a way to foster intellectual advancement instead of for communication and learning about other cultures. In contrast, the Direct Method, the trend adopted after this, was a complete turnabout. This was targeted towards acquiring competency in speaking and listening, with the emphasis on learning the target language naturally – such as young children do learning their own language – with no explanations or translation and again with no L1. This was soon followed by Audiolingualism, which claimed that L1 would impede new linguistic practices, because language achievement was merely a set of previously learned language habits and L1 would hamper learning new linguistic conventions.

The 1970s saw the birth of the TEFL industry, which endorsed further resistance towards the use of L1. This situation was partly brought about because many teachers were moving from country to country and did not speak the L1 of the place they were teaching in, but it was also due to teachers staying in their own country and teaching multi-lingual classes rather than mono-lingual, and the target language was the lingua franca of the classroom.

In the last three or four decades, there have been further methods which advocated not using L1, including Total Physical Response, a teaching method formulated by James Asher of San José State University and based on the bringing together of language and physical movement. His methodology is an example of the comprehension approach to language teaching, which stresses the understanding of a language rather than speaking it, in contrast to the communicative approach, whereby language and production – a focus on speaking and writing – is considered more conducive to language learning.

However, others, such as Suggestopaedia, have incorporated L1 into their learning strategies as an essential part of their methodology. Yet mainstream methodology, in contrast, has a more indecisive attitude, sitting on the fence, supporting not one theory or the other, but defending their position of ‘it depends’.

Just what it depends on is never made clear. There are many legitimate and logical reasons for not using L1, such as students becoming over dependent on the use of it, but equally there are many valid reasons for using L1 in the classroom. For instance, there is no need to waste time on tedious explanations in L2 which the class are having difficulty understanding. With younger learners or beginners, it would enable the teacher to explain more clearly and quickly in L1 rather than not being able to explain at all in L2 because they have no knowledge of the target language.

In addition, some student’s level of understanding may be better than their ability to actually use a language. All learners study and become skilled at something at their own pace and in their own way, so some might need the reassurance of being able to revert to their own language if they do not understand something or want clarification. Asking students to explain something themselves in their L1 and then reformulate the information into the L2, can also be a useful tool in the EFL classroom.

The teacher does not always need to speak in L1, but might only be required to understand what a student is saying in their own language and continue in class in the target language. This means would offer what could be termed ‘middle ground’ in the L1 versus L2 debate: the learners can ask questions in L1 and thus be reassured, but they will be motivated to understand the teacher speaking in the target language. This, naturally, can be more of a problem with multi-lingual groups, when it would be unrealistic for the teacher to be familiar with all the languages that could be spoken. Therefore, the focus would be more on the L2 than listening to students speaking in their L1., some of which the teacher cannot understand or speak.