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by Erica Fischer on Jun 1, 2012

What Role Does L1 Play in the L2 Classroom?

On May 31st, LangChat participants were asked, “What role does the L1 play in the L2 classroom?” L1 use in the classroom is a controversial subject among language teachers, so this topic made for a great debate! We heard opinions from all sides: from those who use L1 when necessary to those who feel that the L2 classroom should be an L1-free zone, no exceptions.

Many participants cited a goal using the target language during 90% of class time (leaving the other 10% for L1 use). It can be a difficult goal to stick to, but participants felt it was well worth it.

Of course, some argued that once someone makes the switch to L1, it can be hard to go back to L2. @placido described L1 use as “polluting the air” and “breaking the spell” of L2.

When to Use L1

Most participants conceded that there are certain situations when L1 use is appropriate, important, or at least did not detract from L2 learning.

  • @katchiringa argued that some L1 use is necessary at the beginning of a school year to build trust and make clear expectations for L2 use. @ProfesoraMedina uses L1 to personally get to know her students, but L2 for everything else.
  • @tiesamgraf and @SECottrell believe that if it becomes necessary to discipline a student, a teacher should do so in L1, so that it is clear to the student what he or she has done wrong.
  • If a student appears upset for some reason, @tiesamgraf will do a personal check-in in L1.
  • Many participants shared that they often use L1 for written directions on assignments. This prevents students from claiming that they could not do an assignment because they did not understand the directions.
  • @SECottrell makes sure all her assessment descriptions and rubrics are in L1 – after all, she argues, teachers are assessing students’ ability to complete a task, not to understand directions.
  • @cbdamasco uses L1 when lecturing about difficult L2 grammatical concepts.
  • @gwalbrecht and @trescolumnae use L1 when students are clearly lost and frustrated. A brief switch to L1 can still offer comprehensible input.
  • Given the choice between 100% target language use and 100% student comprehension, @CalicoTeach and @trescolumnae would both choose 100% comprehension, even if that means some L1 use.

When it comes to students using L1 amongst themselves, @gwalbrecht doesn’t mind if one student uses L1 to help a fellow student who doesn’t understand what’s going on in class. @CalicoTeach agreed, saying that she is not “anti-L1” use by students, but that it is important not to let students “manipulate the airwaves.”

The Case for L1 Use in Advanced Topic Discussions

@SECottrell made a case for allowing L1 use, especially with lower-level students, when discussing more advanced topics about the culture of the target language. @Catherineku1972 shared that L1 can be used to point out tricky cultural differences that students might not understand in L2. @trescolumnae suggested creating conversations activities in L2 that build off of those L1 discussions.

@tbcaudill disagreed, arguing that allowing students special times to use L1 suggests that L2 is optional. She acknowledges that some L1 use is probably inevitable, but that giving L1 its own designated times will only increase this.

Strategies for Minimizing L1 Use

Participants offered up their strategies and philosophies for how they keep L1 use in check in the classroom.

  • @placido will write L1 on the board, but all oral communication occurs in L2.
  • @trescolumnae teaches his students according to a general principle of “do in L1 what you can’t (yet) do in L2.”
  • @trescolumnae also suggests doing interpretive tasks in L2, discussion in L1 if necessary and then L2 presentations.
  • @gwalbrecht has tried using a point system in her lower level classes to encourage more exploratory L2 use.
  • @SECottrell has heard of a teacher who marks out a square on the floor in the classroom, and allows L1 only if the speaker is standing in that space.
  • @SECottrell recommended having designated gestures for “I understand” and “I don’t understand” so that students can still communicate without using L1.
  • @CalicoTeach may sometimes use L1 when she is in a hurry, but she prefers to use circumlocution in the target language to get a point across. Circumlocution can allow both teachers and students to avoid L1 use, when they might otherwise be tempted.

Of course, all participants agreed that the number one way for teachers to keep students from using L1 was by avoiding it themselves!

Further Reading

For more perspectives on this topic, @suarez712002 suggested chapter two of Helene Curtain’s book Languages and Children.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this thoughtful discussion! And special thanks go to @CalicoTeach and @DiegoOjeda66 for moderating.

Keep suggesting new topics for future LangChats! And remember to join us every Thursday at 8pm EST/5pm PST for more engaging discussion!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

Erica Fischer
Erica is the founder and CEO of Calico Spanish. Her passion for teaching her own children to speak Spanish led her to create Calico Spanish. Our mission is to give all children the opportunity to learn to speak real Spanish for life.

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