The L1 Elephant.

elephant in classroom


As English language teachers, L1 looms over our lessons like a constant hovering linguistic question mark. Most teachers I know have struggled with it: do we allow students to speak to each other in L1 in the classroom? Do we allow them to speak to us in L1? Do we speak to them in L1?  At what age/level is it appropriate to expect students to limit use of L1? What happens if we don’t speak L1 ourselves? Does using (or allowing the use of) L1 in the classroom make us a better or a worse teacher? These are my thoughts on what I used to do, what I did next, and what I do now.

The school at which I started my English teaching career had a pretty strict ‘no L1’ policy. I had colleagues who broke that rule, of course (hence my inheriting a YL class who,whilst late elementary, did not understand basic classroom instructions in English) but certainly during observations it was expected that ‘English only’ would be enforced. As a new teacher I simply followed what was expected of me – and so spent a fair few years firmly believing that successfully banning L1 from my classroom was the ultimate goal.

My current employer is far more relaxed about the use of L1, which led me to question what I had previously believed. I have observed quite a few colleagues who use a lot of L1 in the classroom, which led me to do some reading around this area myself. The very first article I found made me realise that whilst it is a ‘widely advocated principle’, the idea that all EFL classrooms should be ‘English-only’ is actually somewhat out-of-date. Tang cites various situations where observed teachers made use of L1 in the classroom, namely:

  • To explain abstract or culturally-specific words
  • To explain the meaning of a word following an English explanation
  • To keep order when the class is noisy
  • To play a ‘supportive and facilitating role’ when English explanations failed to work

Almost a convert? Not quite at this point, but both this article and observing my colleagues did show me that many people can (and do!)  make a case for using L1 in the EFL classroom. My stubborn mind however was only swayed by Schweer’s discussion of his own research findings – primarily because he addresses many of the fears and desires teachers have when it comes to using (or limiting the use of) L1 in the classroom.

Teachers (and students!) may seek to limit the use of L1:

  • In order to give students as many opportunities to hear, use and speak in English as possible
  • To build confidence in their students – through expecting them to communicate in English, they will see that they are capable of communicating in English
  • Through fear of students becoming overly reliant on L1
  • Through fear of students losing confidence in their ability to communicate in English

I have to admit that I was nodding along when reading many of these. He also makes some valuable points in favour of L1:

  • Use of L1 can enable quick and simple comprehension checks
  • Sharing a common language with the students when necessary can build rapport
  • L1 in the classroom can build positive attitudes towards English – L2 is seen as less of a threat as the two languages can coexist

Overall he suggests that careful, judicious use of L1 in the classroom can actually be beneficial.

I’ve come to realise over the past few months that my teaching and my classrooms can exist in both worlds. I still make it clear to my students (from grade 3 upwards) that I expect them to communicate in English during my lessons – both with me and with each other. I still use a ‘competition’ system each class to encourage the students to speak English rather than Czech – and to police themselves and each other. However there are no real ‘prizes’ for the winners or ‘consequences’ for the losers – because demonising L1 and keeping them back after class for speaking it is not going to inspire a love of speaking English. Despite my initial fears that my students simply wouldn’t speak at all, I’ve found them more than willing to enter into the idea of an English-speaking classroom. Seeing my students successfully communicate not only with me, but with each other in English has been some of my favourite moments of my teaching career so far.

I expect my students to communicate in English as much as possible – and they know this. But we also have a ‘loop hole’ – that if they want to ask each other for clarification, a translation of a word or an explanation of a grammar point – L1 is allowed. The simple act of asking to speak L1 makes my students aware of it, and they know that it isn’t to be used as an opportunity to chat off-topic. They are however aware that the option is available to them, and that they shouldn’t feel restricted or unable to communicate something important because of an ‘English only’ rule.

Last week one of my grade 5 students asked another to translate a new vocabulary word. Another student stopped her and said ‘Let’s listen to the English explanation first’. I think that’s progress.




One thought on “The L1 Elephant.

  1. Hi Elly,
    I think I went through a pretty similar evolution to you in terms of my attitude to L1 use. Here are a couple of resources you might be interested in looking at if you want to explore further:
    Guy Cook has done a lot of research into using L1. He presented a seminar for British Council about it: and also wrote a book called Translation in Language Teaching. I haven’t watched the seminar or read the book, but I’ve watched another talk by Guy Cook (not available online any more) which I found very insightful.
    Leo Selivan has some good translation activities here: One which I’ve used quite a lot, especially with higher-level students (though it works at any level), is back translation.
    For other activities, you might find this book useful:
    I really like the final sentence of your post 🙂


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