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How to Save Time and Increase Learning with the Students’ First Language -by John Bankier
Summary : This articles challenges the preconception that English-only is the best way to teach. I will give reasons why you should use the L1, and give suggestions on how to use it in class to both save time and increase learning.
How to Save Time and Increase Learning with the Students’ First Language
One of the central preconceptions about English language teaching is that the English-only classroom is the most effective way to teach. In this article I will first discuss why I believe this misconception has arisen, and why it is damaging EFL teaching in particular. In the main part of the article, I will give some suggestions for how teachers can use the students' first language productively in classroom, and allow students to use their own language in ways that benefit their learning of English.
First, what do I mean by an “English-only classroom”? Many people see the issue in terms of two polar opposites: a nonnative-fronted classroom in which lessons consist of a discussion about English in the students' first language, with little L2 production, versus the native English-speaking teacher-fronted class in which everything, from explaining the meaning of vocabulary to finer points of grammar, is done in English, and any use of the L1 is forbidden. On reflection, I think most teachers would recognize that these are not two separatepossibilities but a continuum, and that stepping away from one extreme does not automatically lead to the other. In this article, I will be arguing that we should step away from English-only as the default, towards a more balanced approach in which teachers reflect on how the L1 can be used productively.
Why do we believe using the students' L1 is so bad? Partly it is because the majority of research and teacher-training textbooks are biased towards ESL, with students of many nationalities studying English in English-speaking countries. In these environments, it is easy for the teacher to create an English-speaking atmosphere, simply by pairing or grouping learners who do not speak each others' L1. English-only teacher talk is generally preferable, except perhaps in situations when they are reasonable numbers of each nationality. Otherwise, the single student from Serbia or Egypt or the ReunionIslands will be left out (all situations I experienced while teaching ESL!). Comparatively little attention has been paid to the overwhelming majority of students who study in their home countries. As a result, it is often assumed that EFL and ESL are the same. Of course an ESL teacher should probably speak English all the time, unless they happen to know the L1s of all their students. But an EFL teacher, especially a NNEST, has the advantage of knowing the students' L1.
The above statement is not, of course, always the case. Certainly teachers who have only recently arrived in the country cannot be expected to know the national language. But research suggests that a good knowledge of the students’ L1 may be very important for teachers (Atkinson, 1995). However, perhaps the main reason for many NEST's English-only policy is that it avoids admitting to students that, despite having lived in the country for a number of years, they have not managed to learn the language. It is not an opinion likely to make many friends in the EFL teaching community, but perhaps the main reason teachers do not use the L1 is hypocrisy. Students are expected to learn, but teachers are not. I can certainly say this was the case for me for many years.
Reasons to Avoid the L1
Now that we decided to enroll in those low-cost language classes or start talking to our partners and spouses in their own language, why should we use the L1? I will examine the reasons many EFL teachers avoid the L1. For more on this topic, see Nation (2003).
1. If the students see the teacher using the L1, then they will follow suit and the classroom will become the other extreme of the continuum, the dreaded grammar-translation class.
2. Mixing L1 and L2 is confusing to students, and will encourage interference. As the L1 and L2 are different, they need to be separated so that words and concepts with similar but different meanings are not confused.
3. All forms of English in the classroom are useful input and output. Listening to the teacher's grammar and vocabulary explanations is good listening practice, and trying to explain a word you want to say is always good speaking practice, for example.
4. If students constantly hear and use the L2, it will become more natural and they will be more comfortable using it.
5. If you always use the L1, the students won't listen when you speak English.
Let us look at these points in turn. Firstly, exactly how good a model is a language teacher who can apparently only speak their first language? Similarly, if students see the teacher using the L1, my experience tells me they are not more likely to use it themselves, but less likely. Certainly students may use the L1 because they are lazy, but generally they use the L1 because they do not understand something or want to have something reinforced in their first language. Learners are better judges of what they do and do not understand than we are. If a learner is asking a question in their L1 such as "Is this word the same as [L1 word]?", they are responding to a real language learning need. If these answers are provided by the teacher, the students are less likely to need to speak L1 themselves. Students appreciate judicious use of the L1 by teachers, but feel justifiably frustrated when they are prevented from comparing their first language to English.
This brings us to the second point. It is certainly true that many mistakes students make can be attributed to interference from their L1, such as a Japanese student saying "He was fallen by the rain" (Celce-Murcia & Larsen-Freeman, 1999, p. 343) rather than "The rain fell on him". However, by in large the differences between languages are better learned when they are made explicit. If you teach Japanese students how to form the passive in English, it would also be helpful to show the differences between using it in Japanese, and the only way to do this is through using the L1. You don't have to be fluent in Japanese, but a few memorized Japanese sentences would be sufficient.
In all languages, the vast majority of words in L1 and L2 do not have significantly different meanings. Pointing out how the same meaning is conveyed in the L1 is by far the best way to cement the meaning in English, whether this be vocabulary or whole sentences. Any student of a language knows this intuitively; for example, I never used the comparative yori in Japanese well until I started thinking of it as similar to not as good as. My assumption may not be completely correct, but it gave me a method of formulating sentences, and after a few months I forgot it and was able to use the grammar without referring to the English. NNESTs are the best source for these types of insights.
For the third point, we need to separate different proficiency levels. For high intermediate to advanced learners, we should expect a greater explicit knowledge of the language. As a result, if you explain the meaning of a word through valid techniques such as those recommended by Nation (2001, chapter 3), for example, then the learners will be receiving comprehensible input, which means they are likely get something from it besides the meaning of the word or grammar point. Equally, these students will benefit from explaining meanings of unknown words or discussing grammar points among themselves. However, many words can be explained much more efficiently through translation, and higher level students are likely to benefit a great deal from comparing their L1 to English, providing they do so in English.
For learners of lower proficiency, it is different. What is the value of explaining the meaning of pride in English, for example, to high beginners? Or tospending fifteen minutes of teacher talk on the difference between the past simple and present perfect to uncomprehending elementary-level students? The students are probably not listening to the teacher, because they cannot understand. They are probably waiting for the teacher to write the word or sentence up on the board so they can look it up in their dictionaries. In fact, the teacher is probably waiting for them to do just that, as it is clear the teacher talk is not being understood. At lower levels, this type of teaching is a waste of time; rather, a quick translation would be more helpful, followed by fifteen minutes of the learners actually having a chance to use the language focus, or to hear it used in a comprehensible manner. Alternatively, other techniques, such as consciousness-raising activities (Willis & Willis, 1996), are ideal for learners of all levels, but the key point is that learners of low ability are not able to talk about the language or to understand it being talked about. NESTs often complain that L1-fronted classes are talking about the language rather than doing it; in reality, I could have said the same for many of my classes conducted entirely in English. My maxim is "Do not assume that just because you are talking that they are learning".
The above also addresses the fourth point. It is certainly true that quantity of language use in the classroom is hugely important, but it must be comprehensible and graded to the learners' level. Some vocabulary and grammar cannot be explained in a manner which is comprehensible in a reasonable amount of time. The time-on-task principle (Nation, 2001) must be used; learners need to be doing useful language work for the most amount of time, and using the L1 sensibly is a great way to save time.
Furthermore, it is wrong to think teaching can "erase" the L1. Thinking in English is something that comes naturally with time and fluency practice, not something that can be forced. If learners are forced to speak English, this will not change what is going on in their heads. It takes a very long time for meaning to become linked to the L2; for the most part, the L1 will be the route to meaning, and there is nothing you can do about it save use class time intelligently to provide practice.
The final point is perhaps the most valid. Students waiting for the L1 explanation or translation to come is little different from waiting for the chance to used the dreaded electronic dictionary. This kind of situation blights many compulsory school classrooms in Japan, with native English-speaking assistant teachers frustrated that the Japanese teacher translates everything they say, causing the students to not listen to a word of the English. This situation only appears if you do translate everything. Rather, the goal is to use the L1 to add meaning to your teacher talk, not to repeat it in the L1. I will look into this issue in more detail below, but first I will summarize the reasons for using the L1 in class.
Reasons to Use the L1
1. Students will feel more comfortable knowing you are learning or have learnt their language. As a result, you will be a better model for them as learners and rapport will improve.
2. If you use the L1, the students will feel they do not need to talk amongst themselves, or consult dictionaries, in order to confirm meaning-form links. It will also make classroom management easier as students will be listening to you rather than their electronic dictionary's 19th century-style mistranslations.
3. Using the L1 saves time in class, allowing students to do more useful activities such as actually communicating confidently, rather than in an atmosphere of constant uncertainty about meaning. For the teacher, this could take the form of translations of vocabulary items, or quick comparisons between L1 and English grammar. Allowing lower-level learner groups to prepare for activities in the L1 is likely to result in better fluency, as the students will be thinking about how they are going to say something, rather than what they are going to say.
4. Using the L1 allows learners to strengthen the link between form and meaning, which is central to language learning. If you do not create this link, students will be doing grammar practice but not actually communicating any meaning as they are unclear what they are actually saying. If students do not understand meaning clearly, they will not remember the language. Consciousness-raising activities, examples, correction and English explanations some of the other ways, to do this; L1 translation is simply one weapon in the teacher's arsenal.
5. Drawing attention to how the L1 and English are different will reduce interference, and make students more conscious of areas in which they need to be careful.
6. Finally, using the L1 in class will give you some valuable practice of your own, and might make you enjoy your classes more, which is better for everyone!
I hope the above is sufficient to provide a compelling argument for L1 use. However, I am sure many would raise the question of how to actually use the L1 without resulting in the types of L1-conducted language classes we all experienced in high school. I will now provide some guidelines on how to use the L1.
How to Use the L1
I would say the central rule of a good balance of English-to-L1 is "English only, except when I say". Students need to understand that they must use English as default, and not resort of the L1 out of laziness. The steps given by Eric (2005) can be applied here, with the proviso that instead of "Never use the L1", the students are told "Think before you use the L1". Here are some of my own guidelines:
1. Give reasons and, if necessary, set clear rules for using the L1.
You might want to do this on the first day of class, but there's nothing wrong with beginning in the middle of a course. A good way to set the rules is to ask the below questions, with the help of L1 translation or an NNEST to help you if necessary:
A. Why do we use only English in class? (To improve fluency.)
B. Do you want to use [Japanese]? Why? (Yes, a little. It's helpful)
C. If you use [Japanese] all the time, what will happen? (Our English won't improve.)
D. Do you want the teacher to use some [Japanese] to help you? (Yes!)
E. Why don't teachers usually use [Japanese]? (Because you think we'll speak in [Japanese] all the time.)
The answers to these questions make learners think about the reasons for using L1, and the reasons for using English as the default language. A small number of higher level students may answer “No, we only want English”. If this is the case, I would suggest continuing an English-only policy, but using the L1 when you think it would be helpful without any particular rules. Some institutions are very strict about English-only classrooms, so this might be the best policy to avoid conflicts with the administration as much as possible. It is one thing to slip in or elicit the odd L1 translation, and another to agree on written rules about how you are going to intentionally break with school policy.
As yet, I have not heard of any lower level students who have asked the teacher not to use their L1 at all. In my experience, learners tend to have clearer and more logical ideas about L1 use in the classroom than some of their teachers do, and understand the advantages and disadvantages of L1 use; they simply do not have the opportunity to put these ideas into practice, and resort to the aforementioned dictionary use, or talking in the L1. Generally, the goal of making rules is to allow limited L1 use by teacher and students, but to retain English as the language of communication as much as possible.
If it is necessary, the next stage is to set written ground rules with the class. It is best to allow the students to formulate the rules (Ushioda, 2003), but you need to bargain with them until you have something that resembles any of the below:
"Only use Japanese when you really need to."
"Only use Japanese when John says OK."
"Never use Japanese except to answer John's question, or in a sentence like 'How do you say _____ in English?"
You can also tell the students:
"If I use Japanese to help you, then you have to use English. If you start using Japanese, then we'll go back to English-only!"
Once this rule is set, the teacher can make exceptions on an activity-by-activity basis, or by asking students for translations directly.
2. Provide motivation for using English.
If you teacher younger or less mature students, when you are formulating your class rules you may want to bargain with the students to decide on a punishment for using the L1 without being allowed to. It is a good idea to be fairly harsh, such as lines ("I promise not to chat in Spanish in class because my English will not improve" twenty times) or other tedious homework. If you can't give out-of-class punishments, having the student stand up at the end of class and deliver a speech or song is usually sufficient, providing you are always careful to do it in good humor; and of course to remind the class that they choose this punishment!
If you think you can do so without creating anarchy, I would prefer to avoid punishments in favor of positive reinforcement such as "Well done today, the class is using English a lot more than last week. Kazu, Masami and Yuushi spoke English the whole lesson" or by highlighting examples in which students used English in situations they would normally have used their first language, such as:
"Could I borrow your eraser?"
"I hate this grammar!"
"Wow, I drank too much last night! I can’t concentrate at all."
In my experience, setting punishments for L1 use tends to result in L1 use returning as soon as the teacher changes and the punishment is removed, whereas positive reinforcement might not work as well at the beginning, but has better long-term effects. If you keep reminding students how good it is to use English, and why, they will probably respond better to the rules. If some students insist on needless L1 usage, then I would certainly be strict.
3. Be clear when students may or may not use the L1.
As mentioned above, I tell students that, when in doubt, they should be speaking only English. Students are not stupid; they understand that answering a question like "What's this in Chinese?" is appropriate L1 usage and that making irrelevant comments like "Wow, I'm feeling tired today!" in the L1 is not. If the class is of lower level students then the teacher can either allow students to use the L1 in some activities ("Talk aboutit together. You can use Japanese") or, for very low level or trustworthy learners, the reverse ("This activity, only English!"). In long classes with lower level students, it is a good idea to have a mixture of English-only and L1-allowed activities. Signs or symbols put up on the board can remind students what language they should be using.
If your students are at a high level, make sure they do not use the L1 at all, unless asked to do so directly by the teacher or within English sentences such as "How do you say shinrai in English?". Be strict, and make sure they realize you will stop using the L1 if they begin to do so inappropriately.
4. Do not allow students to assume you will use the L1.
Sometimes the students don't need to be listening to your English, such as when you want to deal with a minor vocabulary or grammar point which is not relevant, for instance when a beginner student who has not mastered the first 1,000 words of English asks "What mean 'criminal'?" L1 use speeds up the classroom and makes use of the time towards more useful areas. However, most of the time it is better for students to be communicating and listening to you in English. If students think the lesson is going to be delivered in the L1, the students will not pay attention to the English. Therefore, it is important to avoid simply repeating yourself. Only use the L1 when you think it will be helpful, and vary how and when you use it to keep students on their toes. Do not deliver whole sermons in the L1, but sentences and words within English teacher talk. Questions are also very useful, particularly when you are unsure of the L1 translation but want to make sure everyone understands. This is a very successful approach in multi-level classes, as it allows higher level students to confirm meaning-form links between each other, and lower level students who may be completely lost to understand.
Furthermore, do not respond to questions in the L1 if there has been no attempt to express it in English. This is important for low level learners also, as generally questions low level learners ask in the L1 have answers which are beyond their level, such as "What's the difference between had been used and have been used". Here are some examples of what I would consider good L1 use by the teacher, or by students in responding:
"What's tomorrow in Japanese?"
"What's ashita in English?"
"How do you say this sentence in Japanese?"
"How do you say John ga ame ni furareta in English? Is the grammar similar or different?"
"Do we have this grammar in Japanese?"
"You can see in English, we have two words. Scary and scared. How about in Japanese?"
"Is this a noun, meishi, or a verb, doshi?"
"This is homework. Homework? Shukudai! What's that in English? Yes, homework."
Even if these questions result in a minute of two of L1 use by students, they are targeted towards important areas and are more likely to result in learning than one minute of circuitous English explanation. Completely avoiding the L1 results in teacher talk like "Is speaker a noun? Noun? A noun is a thing. Cat, dog, bike, policeman. A type of speaker? No, noun is just a grammatical term... it's... ah... you know grammar? Grammar means..." or "In Japanese you say this differently. You say John the rain in fallen, right? What do you mean you don't understand?".
L1 use by the teacher gives the best return for effort with a small amount of time giving the best results, and helping students learn more. In situations when classes are short, it is particularly good value as it allows more time to be spent on communicative work. The essence of modern communicative teaching is that students should communicate; avoiding the L1 not only makes learning English harder for students and teaching English harder for us, it also wastes time with teacher talk the learners do not need and do not understand. Teacher training programs which are geared towards ESL environments train teachers in ingenious ways of explaining grammar and vocabulary without using the students' L1, but often train us to over-teach in the erroneous belief that teacher talk is "real English", which it is not. Teacher talk is an important part of comprehensible input, but if this input is in the form of explanations students are unlikely to encounter outside the classroom it is not very useful. It is much better, for example, to tell the students a story using vocabulary you have defined in the L1 than to spend the same amount of time in English only to teach the meaning.
Meaning and the first language are inexorably linked. Aside from saving time, the best argument for L1 use is to provide a better link to meaning and English form. Simply presenting form, meaning and use in English does not compare with doing the same with the addition of the L1. Comparing languages is also the best way to understand their differences and avoid interference.
Using the L1 in class often involves making agreements and rules with students about how to do so, and also often means doing so semi-secretly in schools with "English only" teaching policies. It involves getting used to having another teaching tool, and in working out when L1 use helps and when it is best avoided. It also involves some effort in terms of language learning by the teacher, or brief consultation with NNESTs or proficient nonnative speakers. It is, however, an excellent tool I recommend any teacher to try for month. After that month, ask the students how much they understood of the class. Ask yourself if teaching was easier and the classes went more smoothly. Then try testing the students on the vocabulary or grammar you have taught while making use of the L1. You may be pleasantly surprised.
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Nation, I.S.P. (2003) The role of the first language in foreign language learning. Asian-efl-journal.com. Retrieved October 10, 2009 from http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/staff/Publications/paul-nation/2003-Role-of-L1-Asian-EFL.pdf
Ushioda, E. (2003) Motivation as a socially mediated process. In Little, D., Ridley, J. & Ushioda, E. (Eds.). Learner autonomy in the foreign language classroom: Teacher, learner, curriculum and assessment.Dublin: Authentik.
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