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The role of L1 in an EFL classroom


Hira Hanif
Princess Noura University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

L1 can play several functions to aid language learning in an EFL classroom. However the use of L1 to teach L2 often tends to be discouraged in language classrooms. This article explores the role of L1 in EFL education by drawing on a wide range of empirical evidence. The article will demonstrate how teachers can strategically use learners’ L1 as a pedagogical recourse in the classroom and what functions L1 plays or can play in language classrooms. The article also briefly discusses the concerns of the researchers regarding the negative effects of L1. The discussion will then move on to explain its implications for sociolinguistically informed training of language teachers.

KEYWORDS: L1, mother tongue, EFL

A large and growing body of literature has investigated the role of the use of learners’ first language in teaching second language and there is a common consensus among the researchers that it plays a significant role in language classrooms. In a study of Turkish high achieving students, Eldridge (1996) concluded that contrary to the popular belief, teachers’ use of learners’ L1 is not counterproductive in EFL classrooms. He found that L1 was employed as a communicative strategy rather than as an ‘avoidance strategy’ (1996:308). The findings showed that the learners showed a ‘code-switching curve’; with an increase in language competence, the occurrence of switches started decreasing. Reviewing a wide range of evidence to demonstrate the value of using learners' native language as a potentially effective strategy for teaching language learners, Yiakoumetti (2011, p.205) considers it a valuable communicative strategy. The following discussion will explore the role of L1 in second language education with some empirical evidence from a wide range of educational contexts. However, it should be noted that the discussion in this article focuses on EFL classrooms, which are defined as classrooms where students are learning English in their home countries and usually share the same first language (Bell, 2011). Although, in some cases it is possible for EFL classrooms to have learners who don’t share a common language, this article will mainly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of L1 in monolingual EFL classrooms.

Teaching vocabulary
L1 plays an integral role in language classrooms by serving a number of functions. A considerable amount of literature has explored the various functions learners’ L1 plays in language classrooms (Sampson 2012, Cook & Hall 2012). Firstly, use of L1 is an efficient and effective method of teaching vocabulary. Discussing the efficacy of code-switching to L1, Cole (in Celik 2003) states that a simple translation is time saving and prevents learners’ anguish. It can also be argued that compensatory aids such as miming and graded language can result into misunderstandings. Nation (in Cook and Hall, 2012) considers translation ‘the most effective way of learning vocabulary’. In a small scale study carried out on Turkish trainee teachers, Celik (2003) found that teachers’ use of L1 in classrooms did not only save time but also did not require any additional materials which are normally required in other vocabulary teaching strategies. However, he notes that despite these apparent advantages, use of L1 to teach vocabulary is a less widely used technique.

Function switch
Another way in which L1 is often employed in EFL classrooms is for function switch that is switching language for teaching grammar, classroom management and greetings. Macaro’s (2001) analysis of trainee teachers’ code-switching in France showed that the most common reason for switching to learners’ L1 was for providing procedural instructions. McMillan & Rivers (2011 cited in Oga-Baldwin & Nakata 2013), Cook and Hall (2012) and Sampson (2012) are among the others who found L1 to be used for better clarity and speed of communication in classrooms. Liu et al. (2004) also observed a substantial increase in the use of L1 of South Korean teachers when these teachers explained grammar.

Affective functions
In addition, the teachers’ use of learners’ L1 has also been reported to play affective functions in classrooms. In an investigation of attitudes of English teachers, Yavuz (2012) noted that the teachers preferred using L1 to lower the anxiety of the learners and to break the psychological barriers before the teaching began. Oga-Baldwin & Nakata (2013) also noted the use of L1 to create positive classroom culture among Japanese EFL learners in North America. Jenkins (2010) maintains that using L1 in classroom can make the learning process less intimidating than it already is. It has also been observed that often the native language of the learners is used by learners and teachers to show group identity and group solidarity (Sampson, 2012). Eldrige (1996, p.306) shows how the respondents in his study used the Arabic word Yani, which means meaning to show group solidarity. Similar affective functions have also been noted by Sampson (2012) and Azlan and Narasuman (2013). However, it can be argued that the teachers use code-switching to play affective functions unconsciously. For instance, Farzana (2017) found that although the teachers held positive views about L1 use and used it in their classrooms, they were unaware of the reasons of using L1. This unawareness can hinder the full exploitation of this resource.

Use of Learners’ L1 to reduce cognitive load
Another way in which employing L1 can facilitate language learning is that it can be used as a strategy to help lighten the cognitive load. A simple code-switch can facilitate learning by focusing the learner’s attention to work on the meaning of large chunks. In L1 only environment this selective attention is dedicated to a single communication breakdown thus slowing down the learning process. In a study, which set out to determine students’ strategic reactions to their teachers’ code-switching behaviors in a Chinese university, Guo (2007) found that teachers’ code-switches to learners’ L1 lessened learners’ processing burden. He suggested that a simple code-switch of a teacher prevents a potential loss of attention focus of the learners. This view is also supported by Cook and Hall (2012), who maintain that teachers’ use of L1 aids learning by decreasing the processing load for learners during cognitively difficult tasks. In the same vain, Levine (2003) notes that the teachers’ strategic use of L1 can help reduce the selective attention learners apply to process the new language. Commonly used strategies such as guessing and making inferences from the context do not only use a considerable amount of selective attention but also can often lead to learners’ anxiety and negativity (Levine, 2003).

Use of L1 to build on prior knowledge
A large majority of researchers now support the idea that learning is most effective when it is based on prior knowledge. This idea is supported by a number of theoretical traditions including humanistic and constructivist theories (Rostami, & Khadooji, 2010 and Philip, 1995). It has been suggested that paying attention to the knowledge that leaners bring to the classroom enhances learning. Cook and hall (2012, p.291) maintain that language learning should aim to activate learners’ prior knowledge. Yavuz (2012) considers the richness of a learners’ L1 knowledge and experience, a practical source for L2 learning. He also argues that a ban on L1 in a language classroom turns the learner into a ‘newborn baby with an adult mind’ (2012, p.4343). It is evident from the above discussion that learners’ mother tongue can play a significant role in connecting the new information with existing linguistic resources. However, despite the preponderance of literature regarding the efficacy of building on existing knowledge of learners, teachers have been noted to show obliviousness towards the possible value of L1. For instance, in his study, Macaro (2001) found that the trainee teachers failed to recognize the significance of making L1/L2 associations for long-term memory.

The list of above-mentioned functions is by no means exhaustive but these are the most prominent and useful functions of L1 in a second language classroom. Due to the efficacy of this strategy, linguists discourage eliminating code-switching from language learning classroom; they argue that the L2 only approach in classroom might slow the process of language acquisition and therefore can have a negative effect on motivation and confidence (Eldridge, 1996, p.310). It has been argued that eliminating the developmental use of L1 could impede second language acquisition (Eldridge, 1996). Jenkins (2010) claims that the insistence on L2 only policy often led to confusion and frustration in her classrooms; discouraging her students from participating and experimenting with the language. Sampson (2012) considers code-switching to L1 a quicker and less ambiguous alternative to paraphrasing in L2. Overall, the above empirical evidence from a wide range of EFL contexts demonstrates that code-switching to L1 is not necessarily a result of a deficiency in L2 competence but it serves some very distinct functions in language classrooms.

The discussion presented thus far provides the evidence that teachers’ use of L1 facilitates communication and learning, however, there are limits to how far the concept of code-switching to L1 can be adopted by teacher in language classrooms. There is some evidence to suggest that it can have some negative effects. Eldridge (1996) holds the view that despite its short-term benefits to language learners, Switching to L1 has a ‘risk of hampering long-term acquisition’. He argues that it can lead to the fossilization of learners’ errors. The switches can stop being developmental and beneficial and are used as an avoidance strategy. For example, it was found in a study of Malaysian EFL learners that an overuse of L1 overtook the target language in the classroom (Azlan and Narasuman, 2013). It can also be argued that the ultimate goal of an EFL teacher is to enable the learner to use the target language without relying on the L1 and allowing learners to use L1 impedes them to achieve this goal. Sampson (2012) argues that the overuse of L1 can prevent the learners from exposure to and practice of the L2 and also does not train them for L2 only contexts. The option of resorting to L1 during a breakdown in class does not prepare the learners to deal with communication breakdowns in real life. They acquire a hybrid variety, which does not enable them to communicate with target code monolinguals (Eldridge, 1996). It is also important to note that the overuse of codeswitching is not only evident in learners’ behaviors but teachers can also overemploy this strategy. This discussion shows that the teachers need to understand the notion of the optimum use of L1 in order to maximize the benefits of this resource and to avoid its negative effects.

Having briefly reviewed the role and the status of L1 in second language education and some ways in which it affects learning, I will now turn to its implications for sociolinguistically informed training of language teachers. It has been argued that despite a large number of empirical researches encouraging the use of L1 as a pedagogical tool, this finding does not seem to have reached the teachers (Copland and Neokleous, 2011). It can also be argued that the teachers lack sufficient and clear guidance on how to use L1 effectively and systematically in EFL classrooms. The following section will elucidate some guidelines that sociolinguistically informed teacher-training programs could follow:

Raising teacher’s awareness about codeswitching
The training programs should provide the teachers with the knowledge of the theoretical underpinnings of L1 research and practices. Attention should also be given to educators' attitudes and beliefs. Many teachers believe that code-switching to L1 is counter-productive in language classrooms. It was found in a study on high school English teachers in South Korea that teachers’ beliefs tended to affect their code-switching practices (Liu et al., 2004). It has also been noted that teachers generally feel guilty about using L1 in classrooms. In an MA TESOL course held in the UK, out of a total of 18 overseas students, 11 stated that they felt guilty using L1 to teach L2 (Copland and Neokleous, 2011, p.270). Similar unease about using L1 to teach L2 was noted in a study of the beliefs of Cypriot teachers (ibid). Therefore, the teachers should be informed of the efficacy of the use of L1 and its pedagogical, cognitive and affective functions. Also, teachers should be taught effective techniques and strategies for using L1 to enhance learning. Yiakoumetti (2011) suggests training the teachers to employ the mother tongue of the learners to achieve learning objectives as oppose to using it as an “avoidance strategy’.

Raising teachers’ awareness about the negative effects of L1 use
As mentioned in the introduction, it is possible for EFL classes to be multilingual. For example, Indian students learning English in their home country might speak different regional languages as L1. In such cases problems might arise, as it is not usually possible for a teacher to know all the languages of the learners. Also, if employing L1 in such situation another consideration would be that whose L1 should be employed. Therefore, the teachers should be informed of the suitable circumstances in which L1 can be employed. The teachers also need to be trained not to take L1 for granted. They need to make sure that L1 strategies are developmental and transient. Macaro (2001) maintains that teachers, particularly less experienced teachers should be provided with a clear framework. The teachers should be able to distinguish between a valuable use of L1 and a ‘lazy code-switch’. They should be introduced to the notion of optimal use of L1.

In order to make the sue of L1 a part of a practical pedagogy, the teachers should be encouraged to undertake classroom research to discover the benefits of code-switching.

This article reviewed the main benefits of using learners’ L1 in EFL classrooms with a brief discussion of some published empirical studies related to this issue. An attempt has been made to include researches from different parts of the world including a range of student and teacher populations to show the concerns, practices and attitudes related to this issue. The article discussed the functions L1 plays in foreign language classrooms. The discussion also highlighted the need for integrating L1 in teacher education in order to use this pedagogical resource effectively in foreign language classrooms.

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