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.
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.
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:
– Exploring the nuances of vocabulary items in both languages
– Building bilingual (or even multilingual) semantic maps
– 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.
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.
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
Translation of lyrics
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.