L1 in the L2 classroom: from a sin to a possibility

4 08 2013


As most people trained in the mid-80´s, I used to completely avoid using or referring to L1 in the L2 classroom. After all, as Scott Thornbury (2010) reminds us, the arguments against it are that:

  • translation encourages a dependence on the L1, at the expense of the learner constructing an independent L2 system;
  •  translation encourages the notion of equivalence between languages, yet no two languages are exactly alike (although languages from the same language family may be similar in lots of respects);
  • the L1 system interferes with the development of the L2 system;
  • translation is the “easy” approach to conveying meaning, and is therefore less memorable than approaches that require more mental effort, such as working out meaning from context;
  • the “natural” way of acquiring a language is through direct experience and exposure, not through translation.

I confess to having taught numerous groups of true beginners without ever, ever speaking a word in Portuguese, our common native language, in class. After all, what if they were in the U.S or the U.K, right? No one would speak their language there, so we had to simulate this L2 environment. At that time, I truly and naively believed that native speakers were the model for an L2 classroom and that students’ L1 was mostly an interference to be avoided. I’m sure this belief was also reinforced by the fact that English in regular schools in Brazil, public or private, was based solely on translation and was very ineffective, so doing anything similar to that should be avoided at all costs.

It was only in the mid-90’s, when I first read what would be one of my most cherished methodology bibles, Douglas Brown’s (2007) Teaching By Principles, that I came across the idea that “the judicious use of the L1” can be beneficial. Wow! That was already quite a stretch for me. But still, in the Methodology classes I taught, I always emphasized the word judiciously, and explained that it was really an exception, when there was no other way to explain a word or concept.


As time went by and a growing number of experts began defending the idea that the native language can be a facilitative tool, rather than just a hindrance or an interference (Atkinson, 1987; Auerbach, 1993; Cook, 2001; Nation, 2003), I slowly began to rethink my beliefs about this issue and, as a teacher, adopt a greater tolerance towards the idea that we can use this tool learners already have, their native language, to help them learn a second language. Rather than a hindrance, the L1 can sometimes be a springboard, or maybe the key to understanding. When teaching the present perfect, for example, I started to show my students that in Portuguese you say “I have read that book” and “I read that book yesterday” using the same verb (li), the reason why it was difficult for Brazilians to understand the concept of the present perfect. I would thus warn them that relating it to Portuguese wasn’t going to help. Conversely, when Portuguese could indeed help them understand something, I began signaling this to students, saying, “It’s just like in Portuguese.” With children, the idea of giving them a few minutes in the beginning of the class to share whatever they felt like sharing about their lives in the native language became more acceptable. After all, they weren’t proficient enough to express themselves the same way in English, yet they really needed the emotional bond.

Even so, my understanding of the debate about the role of L1 in the L2 classroom was still very pragmatic and “apolitical”. It was only when I became more familiarized with Critical Applied Linguistics (Pennycook, 2001), the Local Versus Global English debate and World Englishes, and the Non-native-English-Speaking-Teacher movement (Braine, 1999) that my view of the topic expanded. I began to understand all the historical, theoretical, and political reasons behind the “English-only” policy, clearly explained by Mahboob (2011) and summarized in an earlier post. The fact that sharing the same L1 with my students was a strength rather than a weakness really empowered me and made me rethink my role as a teacher and teacher trainer and developer. I also enhanced my understanding that there was a difference between using translation as a method and using the L1 system as a reference for students, a facilitator.


Though I had “seen the light”, I also still had many doubts:

  • How far should the teacher go in resorting to the L1 when it can be facilitative without transforming the communicative classroom into a translation-based one?
  •  Might the teacher’s reference to students’ L1 make them feel more comfortable to use their L1 in class and not make as much effort to communicate in the L2, wasting the only time they have to do so (in the case of an EFL environment)?
  • Might an excessive comparison or reference to the L1 hinder the development of students’ automaticity in the foreign language, creating an unnecessary “L1 bypass” in their brains?

Paul Seligson’s plenary in an event recently held at my ELT Institute – the 2nd Alumni, CTJ, and Ibeu TEFL Conference – shed some light into this discussion and helped clarify it for me in certain ways. He reasonably argued that “L1 is a tool to be used appropriately like any other, and its use needn’t be verbal.”  It can involve parallel processing or systematic contrastive reflection, for example. He suggested a number of awareness-raising activities that involve students making comparisons between their L1 and EFL without having to say a word in their L1. For example, students can think about whether the stressed syllable in each of the months in English is the same or different from in Portuguese. This can be done between Portuguese and English because the months in the two languages are of Latin origin. Thus, we can capitalize on the fact that Portuguese is a Romance language, that as much as 60% of English is Latin-based, and that there are more cognates than false cognates between Portuguese and English. Students can be trained to notice cognates and near cognates and work out their meaning from context. This can be done without even using the L1 in the classroom, but rather, just asking students to think about it. Seligson (2013) also argues that if we capitalize on the vocabulary that is Latin-based when teaching beginners, we can speed up their learning and give them a sense of being able to communicate adequately sooner, even if the words they’re using aren’t necessarily the most frequently used by native speakers.

Some of the key ideas put forth by Seligson (2013) are:

  • Highlight, use, and build on students’ strong, existing linguistic intelligence, addressing them as “insiders”, knowers, not “empty vessels” or aliens from another language planet.
  • Consider making reference to L1 whenever it might help; celebrate and accelerate where things are similar, prioritize what’s harder, and make humorous links.
  • L1 is a tool to be used appropriately like any other, and its use needn’t be verbal, e.g. parallel processing, systematic contrastive reflection, etc.
  • Accelerate presentations using L1 contrast or references to give them more time for practice.
  • Anticipate mistakes early on in lessons to help students avoid them.
  • Use cognates to provide much richer text and input, and be explicit when you’re using cognates.
  • Make systematic use of contrastive pronunciation to help break the habits they have acquired from L1.

Above all, Seligson stated:

Our goal is to create successful language switchers, not just turn them into native speakers.

I opened this post with Thorbury’s (2010) list of arguments against the use of L1. Now here is his list of arguments in favor, which certainly inspired Seligson in his plenary:

  •  New knowledge (e.g. of the L2) is constructed on the basis of existing knowledge (e.g. of the L1), and to ignore that is to deny learners a valuable resource.
  • Languages have more similarities than differences, and translation encourages the positive transfer of the similarities, as well as alerting learners to significant differences.
  • Translation is a time-efficient means of conveying meaning, compared, say, to demonstration, explanation, or working out meaning from context.
  •  Learners will use translation, even if covertly, as a strategy for making sense of the L2, so it may as well be used as an overt tool.
  • The skill of translation is an integral part of being a proficient L2 user, and contributes to overall pluralingualism.
  • Translation is a natural way of exploiting the inherent bilingualism of language classes, especially where the teacher is herself bilingual.

Just the other day I was teaching a group of low-intermediate adults and we came across the word “confident”, a false-cognate in Portuguese. Unhesitatingly, I pointed out that confident meant confiante, not confidente in Portuguese. Twenty years ago, I would probably not have resorted to translation and tried to explain the word in English. Maybe half of my students would have understood it, while half would still either be in doubt or think that it meant confidente.

As you can see, I’m now a believer and, as a teacher, I think I can make informed decisions about when to use or allow the use of L1 in my classroom. However, as a teacher trainer and developer in an ELT Institute with over 250 teachers, many of whom are novice, I confess I’m still reluctant to openly advocate the use of L1.  Besides the concerns I expressed above, which still haunt me, my fear is that the arguments above become an overgeneralization for any use of the L1 at any time, both by the teacher and the students; this would go against our institutional pedagogical principles, which emphasize the need to maximize L2 use in the classroom and authentic communication in L2, and, above all our students’ expectations. Thus, apart from L1 use for classroom management purposes and others presented by Mahboob (2011), Seligson’s idea of having students think about their L1 rather than actually use it in class might be a sound suggestion.

And you? How do you feel about this issue as a teacher? And as a teacher trainer/developer?




Auerbach, E. (1993). Reexaming English only in the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 27, 1, pp. 9–32.

Atkinson, D. (1987). The mother tongue in the classroom: A neglected resource? ELT Journal, 41, 4, pp. 241–24.

Braine, G. (Ed.). (1999). Nonnative Educators in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Brown, H. D. (2007). Teaching by PrinciplesAn Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy3rd Edition. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Cook, V. (2001). Using the First Language in the Classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(3).

 Mahboob, A . (2011, August 31). Using local languages in English language classes [Web log post].  Retrieved from http://www.nnestblog.blogspot.com.br/

Nation, P. (2003) The role of the first language in foreign language learning. The Asian EFL Journal 5 (2). Retrieved from http://asian-efl-journal.com/quarterly-journal/2003/06/30/the-role-of-the-first-language-in-foreign-language-learning/#thethe-tabs-1-4 (August 04, 2013).

Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical Applied Linguistics – A Critical Introduction. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Seligson, P. (2013). Advantaging Brazilian Learners. Plenary delivered at the 2nd Alumni, CTJ, and Ibeu TEFL Conference.

Thornbury, A. (2010, April 21). T is for translation [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/t-is-for-translation/

Images courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net



16 responses

4 08 2013
Bel Chavantes

Hi, Isabella. Great article!
Although the use of L1 is still frowned upon by many language schools, I do agree with Paul Seligson when he says that L1 is a tool like any other, and should therefore be used in the language classroom. As far as novice teachers are concerned, they will learn to use this tool correctly just like they will develop other skills.

4 08 2013

Thank you, Bel! It´s true. The novice teachers will also develop and will probably go through the same struggles I went through.

4 08 2013

I have always believed that L1-L2 comparison is a valuable tool both for processing reasons and making my job easier. When I think about one reason why we have ‘grown up’ somehow against using the L1 in the classroom it could be due to our training. Most trainers came from the lands of the native-speaker where they usually have multilingual classes. The students L1 was never an issue for these people as they have to many different languages in the classroom. Another thing is that some of them might not have even spoke a second language too. For those of us who have monolingual classes it is not only useful but necessary. However, if you think of the pedagogic literature and workshops that have developed over this time I can’t remember any on L1-L2 techniques. Maybe teachers were always using the L1 but didn’t like to say especially with the anti-L1 pedagogy of the past. They may have been afraid of being criticised for using a Grammar Translation method when all they were doing is using their common sense.
Good article btw.

4 08 2013

Thanks for your insights, Shaun. Yes, it´s true that it comes from our training and the fact that the trainers mostly had experience in a second-language setting. Mahboob points out other theoretical and political reasons as well. Have a look at his post in the nnest blog. There´s a link to it at the end. It´s very interesting.

4 08 2013
Jose Antonio

Hello Isabela,
That was a very interesting post. I also attended that plenary and I really liked some of the strategies he presented as a way of helping students use L1 as a tool. As a teacher, I am still a bit reluctant to use L1 too often and I do feel it is necessary to draw a line and know how to encourage students to use L1 as a tool and not as a crutch. I feel that when we are teaching adults, especially at very beginning levels, the urge to translate is overwhelming. In that case, in my experience, it is by teaching them that they do not have to translate all the that we manage to help them advance their learning.
There are times, however, that translating saves a lot of time and it is the most effective way to show students what a given word or structure really mean.
I guess that was all I had to say for now.
Thanks a lot for providing this opportunity to extend a little on this very important issue.
Looking forward to other opinions on this.

4 08 2013

Thank you so much for your very insightful comments, Jose Antonio. I really like your distinction between a tool and a crutch, and I agree that too much translation can make the L1 a crutch. I share your same doubts and reluctance and still think that the greatest problem lies in where to draw the line.

5 08 2013
Roseli Serra

Great post, Isabela. Thank you so much for making us reflect on this well written balanced ideas. Congratulations!

6 08 2013

Thanks, Roseli. I’m glad I’m contributing somehow to the complicated discussion.

6 08 2013

Anyone who’s learned a language from square one knows that L2 only is possible but much more laborious and rife with potential misunderstanding. L1 definitely has a place in the classroom and those who don’t agree are only limiting themselves and their students’ potential.

6 08 2013

Thank you, Kyle! Yes, misunderstandings may occur when we try to explain an abstract concept, for example, only in L2.

30 08 2013

Great text, Isabela! Although I think we tend to learn a second language effectively if we are more exposed to that language, I also think that L1 interference is important concerning meaning and form of the language. I mean, it is so good to know the correspondent word and expression in our native language. I, personally, like to expand my vocabulary in English and in Portuguese too. Something interesting happened to me many years ago, when I was living in the USA. An american friend taught me the word “twilight”. I could understand the meaning by his gestures point the sun going down on the mountains, but I didn’t know the correspondent word in Portuguese. Many years latter, I found out the translation and I felt great! All in all, I think that L1 has a point in L2 and it should not be neglacted. As a beginner teacher, I expect the challenge of knowing exactly how to draw the line between L1 as a tool and as a crutch. I will let you know, for sure!!

31 08 2013

Thanks, Wilsi. I’m glad you enjoyed reading my reflections on this issue and identified with my arguments. Your example about the word twilight clearly depicts our need to connect the two systems we know so well. It is a fine balance, though. I really appreciate your reflections on this topic!

11 05 2014
11 05 2014

What an honor to see my post included in the summary of such a great discussion. Thanks! Let’s keep this conversation going. I loved reading the summary of the chat.

10 09 2014

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11 09 2014

Thank you, John. Hope you enjoy the other posts.

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