Should L1 be used in EFL classes?

Classroom Management

Use of L1 in EFL classes

The use of the mother tongue in EFL classes is debatable in the foreign language classroom. Advocates of the monolingual approach suggest that the target language should be the only medium of communication, believing that the prohibition of the native language would maximize the effectiveness of learning the target language. However, some teachers believe that the use of the mother tongue can be helpful in learning new vocabulary items and explaining complex ideas and grammar rules. They contend that teachers who master the students’ native language have far more advantages over the ones who don’t.

The monolingual approach

A proponent of the monolingual approach, Krashen has argued that learners acquire foreign languages following basically the same path they acquire their mother tongue. According to him, the use of the mother tongue in the learning process should be minimized (1981).

In fact, a lot of teachers believe that L1 use in EFL classes must be discouraged because of many reasons.

  • Use of L1 may become a habit that both learners and teachers may resort to whenever a difficulty is encountered.
  • L1 may be sometimes misleading when learning the target language. Despite the existence of universals governing language systems, languages differ more or less.
  • When using L1 to teach EFL students, errors may emerge due to the L1 transfer. Examples of errors range from vocabulary to grammar. French learners for example may be misled by the similarity between the French word “actuellement” and the English word “actually”. Despite the similarity, the meaning of these vocabulary items differ. The French “actuellement” means “now” or “at the moment” while “actually” in English means “really”. Arab learners may also encounter difficulties related to the syntactic structures of sentences. In Arabic, the sentence structure is V-S-O while English sentences are built following the S-V-O structure. Arabic and English also differ morphologically. The morphology in Arabic is non-linear while in English it is linear.
  • The use of L1 in EFL classes hinders the provision of enough comprehensible input, a prerequisite for acquiring any language.

The bilingual approach

The monolingual approach has been criticized by many teachers who find that the use of L1 in EFL classes is beneficial at various levels. This point of view is expressed clearly by Sheelagh Deller and Mario Rinvolucri (2003)  in their book  Using the Mother Tongue and earlier by Atkinson (1987). More recently Widdowson (2003) also called for an explicitly bilingual approach.

L1 has long been considered as a lower language and a source of errors. This view is now being criticized because EFL teachers have become aware of the significance of L1. Vivian Cook (2001) writes about the mother tongue in EFL classes as

“a door that has been firmly shut in language teaching for over a hundred years.”

When students come to the classroom they don’t come out of the blue; they come “loaded” with their native language and cultural heritage that nobody must deny or underestimate. EFL teachers working with monolingual students at lower levels of English proficiency find the prohibition of the mother tongue to be practically impossible. So instead of looking at the students’ native language and cultural background as inferior or a source of errors, they must be used as a tool to maximize foreign language learning.  It’s worth noting that the use of  L1 in EFL classes is just a “rehabilitation” of those “students who were forced to smuggle their bilingual dictionaries into classrooms and hide them under the table.”  The mother tongue represents a powerful resource that can be used in several ways to enhance learning but it must always be used in a principled way. Sheelagh Deller and Mario Rinvolucri’s book Using the Mother Tongue, which provides practical L1 activities, shows that judicious use of L1 can maximize language learning.

Judicious use of L1 in foreign language learning

Using L1 is not the problem. The problem is when and how to use it. Before answering this question, it should be born in mind that L1 use must be considered “as a means to an end”. The target language must be used where possible and L1 when necessary.  Here are some examples of the appropriate use of L1 in EFL classes.

  • Beginners
    The mother tongue can be probably more beneficial to beginners. As they progress in their learning the target language will take the lead.
  • L1 can be time-saving.
    Instead of going through a long explanations in the target language, it is sometimes easier and more efficient to give a translation of a vocabulary item or an explanation of a grammar point. Imagine a teacher  who wants to teach the word “car” to French students and start by phrasing the explanation as follows “a car is a road vehicle with an engine, four wheels, and seats for a small number of people” while a simple translation of the word ( or perhaps the use of visual aids) would be enough.
  • Comparison
    A comparison of English and the mother tongue can be a very enriching experience. In fact, discovering the similarities and differences of both languages can enhance the TL acquisition. This comparison can be done at different levels:

    • Vocabulary
      – Exploring the nuances of vocabulary items in both languages
      – Building bilingual (or even multilingual) semantic maps
    • Grammar
      – A comparison between L1 grammar and TL grammar yields interesting results.
      – This comparison will highlight the differences between the two languages. Teachers and learners may build on these differences to avoid negative transfer ( L1 transfer which may be a source of errors.)
      – The comparison also shows the similarities which will undoubtedly boost the internalization of  the TL grammar.
  • Culture
    Language is a vehicle for cultural aspects. If teachers ban the use of the mother tongue, this underlies an ideological conception of L1 culture as being inferior. Alternatively, cultural differences and similarities can be highlighted to help learners accept and tolerate differences while at the same time preserve their cultural uniqueness. This can be done through various activities where L1 plays an important role.

    • Proverbs
      Students may be given a set of proverbs in the TL and be asked to find the corresponding ones in their mother tongue if they exist. If not they try to translate the proverbs into their language.
    • Idiomatic Expressions
      Again, finding the corresponding idioms or a translation of TL idioms might be very helpful to detect cultural differences or similarities
    • Songs
      Translation of lyrics
    • Jokes
      Funny EFL activities can be built on jokes. Students may translate and tell or act TL jokes to create a free stress environment and spot TL cultural specificities.
  • Stress
    Using L1 gives a sense of security and acknowledges the learners identity, allowing them to minimize the stress they may feel in EFL classrooms. With careful use of L1 learners may become willing to experiment and take risks with English.
  • Needs
    Learners needs must be expressed in L1 since the TL is not yet mastered . Learners will never be able to express and communicate their needs with a language they speak poorly.
  • Classroom management
    Management of conduct and discipline is sometimes hard to be done in the target language. For instance, if a serious problem emerges in the classroom, will the teacher really insist on an English-only policy when coping with it?
  • Grammar
    L1 can be of great help when teaching grammar. Translation exercises for example may be the perfect practice when there is a grammar point that is causing trouble to students.
  • Instructions
    According to my experience with EFL classes, I can dare say that so many failures in tests were due to learners lack of understanding of instructions. L1 can be used to redress this issue, helping students to understand what is exactly asked from them.
  • Rationale
    Students need to understand the rationale behind activities or methods. It is important that they know where they start and what they will able to do. They should understand what lies behind the methods the teacher is using. This can only be done at this level through the students native language.
  • Errors
    Discussion of some recurring errors. It is true that a lot of errors are caused by L1 transfer. French students, for example, say “I’m agree” instead of  “I agree” which is an error due to L1 transfer (in French “Je suis d’accord”.) A discussion in L1 of such errors will help students overcome these problems.

Of course, the list may be extended to other areas of foreign language teaching.


The debate over the use of L1 in foreign language teaching hasn’t been settled yet. On the one hand, there are those teachers who reject the use of L1 altogether or fail to recognize any significant potential in it. On the other hand, there are those who either massively overuse it. Both are abusing a resource of great importance and delicacy each in his own way. My view consists of using the target language as the medium of instruction when possible and switching to the mother tongue when it is really necessary. A rational and judicious use of L1 in EFL classes can only be advantageous. L1 use must be tuned up with effective target language teaching, taking into consideration learners mother tongue and cultural background and using them to the best of their interest.

15 thoughts on “Should L1 be used in EFL classes?”

  1. Pingback: CAREER - Different TEFL Course Durations Mean - CGI BIZ Blog

  2. Pingback: Fifteenth Edition of the ESL/EFL/ELL Carnival | Teacher Reboot Camp

  3. In my present job, L1 use is strongly discouraged. I can see the benefit for intermediate-level speakers who should think about different ways of expressing words and opinions. However, I think occasion L1 use is fine for novice-level speakers. In my current program, I don’t encourage L1 use, but have in past teaching positions. Sometimes being frustrated and unable to express a word or opinion defeats the purpose of language learning and can de-motivate students. Thanks for the post.

  4. @Neil Barker
    Totally banning L1 may not be a wise idea and overusing L1 may kill language acquisition too. So Teachers must strike a balance between the two options.
    1. Use of L1 when it is really necessary.
    2. Keeping the target language as “the Default language”
    Thanks for the comment!!

  5. สถานที่ท่องเที่ยว

    Actually not so controversial. I think the no L1 policy was massively supported by schools (abroad) who tried to sell the idea of the superiority of native speakers. Obviously these schools employed many such native speakers.

  6. Undoubtedly the use of L1 from time to time is required especially with poor achievers because you feel it motivates them and it puts them on the track. But to teach the TL through the native lge is a harmful sin that teachers must avoid.
    Many tks for med rh

  7. We should not be a fanatic whether to use L1 or L2 in English classroom. There are special conditions when to use the L1 and when to use the L2. For me, however, I prefer to use L2 in my own classes though I will have to use L1 when necessary. To help students get better language acquisition, we should discourage the use of L1.

  8. Hi!
    Nice to read your opinion. I am not very much different from you all. In my opinion, we must try to make the target language as a vehicle for communication in classroom. We need to teach the target language using the same language. However, I think that the judicious use of mother tongue of the students will not be harmful, rather it facilitates language learning.

  9. 1. Differences between one’s native language and English in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and stylistic usage should not be ignored by foreign learners living and learning English in non-English speaking countries to master English thoroughly. When learning and using English foreign learners cannot but notice those differences between English and their native language. Knowledge of those differences by foreign learners of English is essential for understanding correct forms, meaning and use of English grammar and for vocabulary usage to reduce making mistakes in English as much as possible, especially in fine tricky points of English grammar, vocabulary and stylistic usage. Native language interference when learning and using English by foreign learners is a natural thing equally as translation is a natural language activity in human communication. Therefore native language interference when learning and using English cannot be prevented or eliminated until English has been mastered by foreign learners as good as their native language. Knowledge of phonetic, grammatical, lexical and stylistic differences between English and one’s native language weakens natural native language interference when learning and using English.

    2. In my view it is easier for foreign learners, especially for absolute beginners to study English through their native language explanations of English pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary for easier, better and quicker understanding. Non-native teachers of EFL know that perfectly well. Of course practice/exercises should be done in the English language only. Most ESL/EFL teachers do not exclude native language use in ESL/EFL classroom. I could share with you links to some interesting professional articles on the role of native language in learning English.

    3. In the setting when a native ESL teacher teaches English to students from various ethnic backgrounds all explanations of English pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary have to be done in English only at English classes. As you know there are monolingual English courses for learning and practising all four skills in one course in each lesson (listening, speaking, reading and writing alongside pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary). Four skills English courses include textbooks with audio and video recordings for all levels including for beginners and are suitable for self-study as well. There are also monolingual online English learning courses.

    4. Would most foreign learners of English especially beginners prefer bilingual English learning courses to monolingual English courses? Which are more effective, more time- consuming and harder to master the material? Is there convincing evidence to support one’s claims?

    I look forward to get to know your new thoughts on those issues.

  10. There should be zero L1 in the classroom, with only one exception: Students can ask you “What does ____ mean?” “How do you say ____ in English?” But don’t translate for them, engage them in meaningful dialogue. Say, “Gee, I’m not sure.” [Even if you are!] “Is that a ____”; “Could you give me an example…?” etc. Keep it up until the meaning has been worked out IN ENGLISH. Don’t worry about wasting the other students’ time: they will be all ears—English ears. When you are speaking in L1 for the sake of efficiency, then worry about wasting the students’ time because that is exactly what you are doing. In an EFL situation, this kind of student-teacher exchange may be the only chance they have of ever communicating directly with a native speaker.

    If L1 is used students will become conditioned to endure L2 explanations (i.e. snooze) while waiting for the inevitable translation.

    Students will come to regard L2 use (if they use it at all) as part of some kind of silly game but certainly not for REAL communication. After all didn’t their teacher demonstrate to them on a daily basis that L1 is what is used for the true grit of conveying ideas?

    The very act of using L2 for explanations on the other hand gives students a mini-listening lesson (with full attention) every time meanings are clarified. They not only get the idea [not always] being conveyed they also get exposure to the rhythms, stress, intonations of the target language. They pick up new vocabulary and, if they are clever and interested enough, they can steer the instructor away from the dull stuff s/he had planned and on to something more engaging.

    Not finally, but why flog the obvious: Don’t launch into an explication of the arcane inner workings of the Parliamentary System of Government in a class of full beginners. Challenge the students with stuff they CAN assimilate IN English. Wait six months and then get to the good stuff.

    Using L1 in the classroom is a disservice to the people who pay our wages.

  11. Hola,
    I’m bilingual, and have 2 children who are fully bilingual. I’ve taught Spanish to American students in different schools (from elementary-high school).I’ve also read Krashen’s theories on language acquisition and have applied them in my daily teaching. What have me confused is that with the many theories and approaches(over decades)and the many experts in languages(including Krashen, who I respect tremendously)we have in this world no one have founded a language school to demonstrate the validity of their theories…
    Hmmm, maybe because the process of language acquisition is more difficult than what the experts and we (we count as experts too!!!)might proclaim to be?
    I’m the one who believes that we can’t not make assumptions.
    Right now I’m being harrased by another Spanish teacher who doesn’t agree with my philosophy that I should respect/value my students first language, which is English. She and some of her colleagues (like many of you)think that by using Spanish (or French)90-100% of the time will make their students fluent and that they will be better off when they go into the real world…
    My response to that arguemt is simple…
    That might me true regarding some students and not so true regarding many others. If not, schools would have more than 1 section of AP courses evry year(assuming that those students started in level 1).
    My response to this well intentioned teacher is that I use my students first language any time I can–for to me the respecting and using my students first language is what invites them to be eagered learn my own language–Spanish(none of us like to be where we know are not being appreciated). I understan that school division guidelines,second language theories, fluency, etc. are important, but for me my students expressing their emotions and needs and concerns in their first language is as important—if not, the most important!

  12. I think even if you’re not going to use L1 in class, it is very helpful to have a firm knowledge and understanding of it. Obviously this is not possible for the majority of native English teachers ho flit about the globe, but even they can learn some basic differences.

    I would say that the teacher should speak almost 100% in English, except where doubts arise, with the exception of complex instruction giving in lower levels, in order to maximise time. It can be frustrating for teachers who have learned their students’ language to a high level like I have (and I have a sneaking suspicion that most teachers who advocate 100% English in class are monolingual English speakers so they have nothing to lose) but it IS for our students’ good that they speak in English.

    I really disagree with Sam’s comment that, “My response to this well intentioned teacher is that I use my students’ first language any time I can” because as Grover mentioned above, “Students will come to regard L2 use (if they use it at all) as part of some kind of silly game but certainly not for REAL communication”. There should be no double standards in language teaching: if in the ESL classroom English is the no. 1 communicator, then so should Spanish be in the Spanish classroom. I have found that in most cases pictures are a great way to teach concepts, and a lot of L1 is avoided thereby. Students really need to get used to understanding and explaining new ideas in the L2, since this is what they will have to do in the real world. L1 should be a last resort.

  13. I agree with the judicious use of L1 in classrooms. I’m currently teaching children in Spain and I’ve found knowing Spanish has recently helped me when trying to explain family members such as cousins and granddaughters.

  14. I think the idea of using L1 judiciously is to be pedagogically interpreted. Discourse Oriented Pedagogy (DOP), which I had introduced in the schools of Kerala and AP proposes code-switching as an inevitable pedagogic strategy for facilitating second language acquisition. We have to critically examine the most common classroom ELT practices advocated and practised, by the stake holders of “Standard model of English Language Teaching”. Deviating drastically from the conventional and non-critical ELT, Discourse Oriented Pedagogy does away with the teaching of discrete elements of language such as sounds/letters, words and sentences, grammar and pronunciation. DOP drives its impetus from the theory of innateness, social constructivism and critical pedagogy. Deviating drastically away from the conventional and non-critical ELT, DOP proposes a modular mode of classroom transaction, where both the input and output are conceived in terms of various genres of discourses such as narratives, descriptions, conversations, speeches, and so on, each with a set of well-defined and level-specific features. More importantly, classroom theatre is used as a pedagogical tool comprising of discourse genres such as narratives, choreography and drama. For facilitating language acquisition of the beginners switching of codes takes place at the discourse level embedding L2 expressions in the larger context of L1 narratives; there is no need for translating such expressions into the mother tongue as the learners will be able to comprehend the narrative contextually. Eventually, the L1narratives will be gliding over to L2 narratives.

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