and Abbreviations|Definitions and Abbreviations

1. Research findings on the use of L1 and L2

2. |From journal pages to the classroom

3. |Methodical difficulties - pros and cons

4. Research and suggestions for future research on L1 and L2

L1 - first language acquired (native language / mother tongue)
L2 - second language acquired
TL - target language
FL - foreign language
S - student
Ss - students
T - teacher


external image 1desklamp-med.jpgVarious studies have suggested that the L1 mediates the learning of another language. It is an essential tool for making meaning of text, retrieving language from memory, exploring and expanding content, guiding learners through the task, and maintaining dialogue. In Turnbull (2001) the author agrees that teachers in their classes should maximize “target’s language” use because:
  • The amount of TL input makes a difference to learners' TL development.

  • Learners see the TL as immediately useful as opposed to at some distant point in the future (real life communication).

The use of TL in class forces the students to try to figure out what the teacher or other students are saying to them. Nevertheless, the usage of TL does not mean that L1 should be avoided all the time. The use of L1 and TL should be seen as complementary.

In Polio and Duff (1994) eight common uses for the L1 were found in the FL classroom:
1) classroom administrative vocabulary
2) grammar instruction
3) classroom management
4) empathy/solidarity with students
5) practicing English on the part of the instructor
6) unknown vocabulary /translation
7) lack of comprehension
8) interactive effect of students' use of English

Polio and Duff (1994) argue for little L1 use in the FL classroom "because the classroom is often the students' sole source of FL input (and output)." (p. 313) "The more comprehensible TL input (and output) available to classroom learners, the better." (p. 323)

But how much L1 should teachers use in a FL classroom?
"There seems to be a lack of awareness on the part of the teachers as to how, when, and the extent to which they actually use English in the classroom." (Polio & Duff, 1994, p. 320).
Contrary to long held views that L1 use should be kept out of L2 classrooms as much as possible, socio-cultural theories recognize that "the L1 creeps back in, however many times you throw it out with a pitchfork" (Cook). Especially when it comes to collaborative tasks, it is important to emphasize the vital role of students’ freedom to use their L1 in a L2 classroom. Drawing on results of a study performed on adult native English speakers learning Spanish, Antón & DiCamilla establish the socio-cognitive functions of L1 as a crucial psychological tool in the students’ joint attempts to tackle collaborative tasks that they have been assigned. The main functions of L1 use as determined by this study were:

  • maintaining intersubjectivity
  • scaffolded help
  • externalizing inner speech

Cook argues that when students are working in groups or as partners, it is best if they use as little L1 as possible and try to communicate entirely in the TL. However, similar to Antón & DiCamilla, she also points out the important scaffolding function of L1 for students, thus arguing for a systematic and deliberate use of L1 in the classroom.

In a response to Anton and DiCamilla, Wells agrees that interaction in L1 can play a valuable role in the collaborative performance of tasks in L2 and hence in the creation of opportunities for learning L2. More specifically, a first language mediates the learning of another language. In teaching French (L2) to native English (L1) speakers, Wells' analysis would therefore encourage the use of English to teach French, but he also acknowledges that the balance between L2 and L1 necessary for the enactment of this principle needs to be enunciated and justified. This balance is the challenge faced in the classroom by every teacher of a foreign language.

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"However, the principles on which the balance between L2 and L1 is struck also need to be enunciated and justified." (Gordon Wells - 1999)

There is no doubt a wealth of knowledge on the use and non-use of L1 and L2 in foreign language teaching, and what we all look for is something that makes us feel that we are doing the best to ensure that learning is optimized. Then again, optimum learning is often defined by the prevailing wisdom or philisophy of those that establish curricula. Some believe high final semester exam grades are the appropriate measure of learning level, while some envision production of students equipped with enough or the minimum knowledge needed to survive in the target society.

Even when departmental policies chaperone the ideal amount of L1 and/or L2 we use, we are often faced with unpredictable classroom responses from students and are challenged daily to read their written, verbal, and non-verbal feedback indicating whether or not they are learning. I believe this should be one of the main determinants of where, how, and when to use L1 and/or L2. I wouldn't think that a teacher should pride herself on how much L2 she has used in the classroom even as her students' verbal and body language clearly show they are not following. Being able to assess this and to make necessary adjustments without compromising optimum learning standards would seem more pragmatic. Methods are useless if they do not translate into holistic learning of language: reading, speaking, and writing. None of our classes are constituted by homogeneous student populations, therefore, we cannot assume that our students possess equal ability to learn the foreign language.

We should also distinguish between the aspect of language being taught as a determinant of whether we use L1 or L2, and the appropriate balance between the two. I am a strong proponent of predominant L1 use for grammar topics because they should be the scaffolding or foundational structure for any language. We cannot wager the freedom our students should feel in learning this central aspect of language. Without grammar as structure, spoken words cannot constitute communication. When teaching reading and speaking, L2 should be optimized as surrogate for immersion. Written, verbal, and non-verbal feedback from our students should probably provide the balance Wells recommended as crucial between L1 and L2. Students are the ultimate yardstick here.

I would like to add that it is often the case that a teacher plans a class that will be taught mostly in L2, and then during the course of the class realizes that the students are not following. It is important to predict these cases so that L1 can be used appropriately when it is needed, while still using enough L2 to expose the students to it and challenge them. While many argue in favor of using only L2 in the classroom, in practice, I have found that using a combination of L1 and L2 is the more efficient way of teaching. The question as to how much of each is ideal is something that I will discover with experience, for now, I agree that using L1 to explain grammar is the best way to get across to students.
In my personal experience as a language learner, the classes that were completely in L2 and were part of immersion programs taught me a lot in the higher levels. The problem was that because I had only L2 classrooms of the basic levels, I lacked most of the grammatical structures and rules that I had not been able to understand when I was first exposed to the language, and at higher levels, when my understanding was broader, I had to start by filling the gaps that probably I wouldn’t have had if I had been able to help my learning with L1.

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a) Often communication breakdowns occurred in classes observed in the study completed by Polio and Duff (1994) and instead of negotiating meaning in the TL, the language switched to English. "when they [communication breakdowns] occur in the TL, the students presumably have a greater chance of learning how to negotiate meaning and interact with others in that language. In fact, if instances of miscommunication are not negotiated through the TL, the students may have limited opportunities to develop suitable strategies and conventions for initiating and understanding repairs not only inside the classroom but outside as well." (p. 321)

b) For situations in which empathy, or solidarity occur in the classroom, FL should be used.
When the L1 is used, it "prevents students from receiving input they might be exposed to in "real life" social situations outside the classroom and reinforces the notion that English, not the FL, is the language for genuine communication in the classroom." (Polio & Duff,1994, p. 322)

c) "If teachers resort to English (e.g., by translating difficult TL items), students will be less likely to attend to the TL forms. (Polio & Duff, 1994, p. 323)


a) Use of isolated English words in the TL are often utilized to emphasize (and thus, draw student attention to) the
importance of an upcoming event, or the word simply may not exist in the TL.

b) Certain concepts will not be understood clearly if only addressed in the FL. The word (and therefore cultural concept) may not exist in the L1, and some cultural ideological background would help to grasp the concept. This is easier to explain in L1 to assure the understanding.

c) Sole use of the FL in a classroom might make concentration for long periods of time from the students harder. In this case, some use of F1 will help bring students back and provide some structure to what is happening.

Questions to consider for L1 use:

Efficiency: Can something be done more effectively through the L1? (e.g. to explain a grammar point)
Learning: Will L2 ;earning be helped by using the L1? (e.g. to express complex cultural definitions, vocabulary, etc.)
Naturalness: Do the students feel more comfortable by having some L1 interaction? (e.g. for words or expressions that
do not translate smoothly to L2, or to fill in blanks)
• External Relevance: Will the use of both help with learning of L2?

When is it ok to use L1?

  • To provide a short-cut for giving instructions and explanations where the cost of the L2 is too great
  • To build up interlinked L1 and L2 knowledge in the student’s mind
  • To carry out learning tasks through collaborative dialogue with fellow students
  • To develop L2 activities such as code-switching for later real-life use. (Cook, 2001)
  • To ensure that students understand a difficult grammar concept (Turnbull).

Keep in mind:

Maximizing the usage of TL does not mean that L1 should absolutely be avoided all the time and at any cost.
Rather, the use of L1 and TL should be seen as complementary, depending on the characteristics and on the
stages of the language learning process.


4.1. Results and Methodical Difficultiesface.jpg

There is a clear need for more studies to determine the relationship between teachers’ TL and L1 use and the students’ TL proficiency. Also, maximized and optimal TL use by teachers in the classroom must be determined in terms of quantity. At this point, more studies about when to switch into the students’ L1 and its convenience are required.

A study by Duff & Polio among students at UCLA revealed that there was considerable between different teachers with respect to their amount of TL use, ranging from 10% - 100% of the time measured. This points to the methodical difficulties of simply stating the cross-class average for TL use (67.9%) or the median (79%), as they misrepresent the data. Also, there is some variation in the percentage of TL use between the two observed sessions for each teacher, showing that the percentages are never consistent.As for the students, their questionnaire-responses showed that for the most part, they favored the current amount of English use in their classes, regardless of the actual amount of English used in the classrooms. From the teacher interviews, the researchers found that the teachers were very self-conscious about the amount of English they used in their classrooms, i.e. they did so knowingly and had reasons to do so.

4.2. Factors Which Affect the Amount of L1 Use

One of the biggest factors affecting the amount of English they used was the relationship of the TL to English. For Romance and Germanic languages, they English use was less prevalent because of the similarity between English and the TL’s. For language with no familial relation to English, teachers often claimed that English was more necessary, because it was almost impossible to explain, say grammar, for instance, in the TL. Some of the professors may consider at some point switch to use L1 because they think that this would save time, and in a fifty minutes class each minute has to be carefully spent.

  • The pedagogical beliefs of the teachers play an important role, too. Teachers who believed in minimal use of English did in fact use English less often in their classrooms.
  • One variable that seemed to have no effect on English use in the classroom, was the teacher’s English proficiency.
  • The students’ willingness to use more or less L1 and L2 and their attitude towards the class if the teacher does not comply with their preferences.
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  • Reading:
  • Antón, M. and DiCamilla, F. J. (1999). Socio-Cognitive Functions of L1 Collaborative Interaction in the L2 Classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 83(2), 233-247.
  • Brooks, F. and Donato, R. (1994). Vygotskian approaches to understanding foreign language learner discourse during communicative tasks. Hispania, 77(2), 262-274.
  • Burnett, J. (1998). Language alternation in a computer-equipped foreign language classroom: The intersection of teacher beliefs, language and technology. Canadian Modern Language Review, 55(1), 97-123.
  • Cook, Vivian. (2001). Using the First Language in the Classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review, 57(3), 402-423.
  • Duff, P. and Polio, C. (1990). How much foreign language is there in the foreign language classroom? Modern Language Journal, 74(2), 154-166
  • Liu, W., Ahn, G.-S., Baek, K.-S., & Han, N.-O. (2004). South Korean high school English teacher’s code switching: Questions and challenges in the drive for maximal use of English in teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 38(4), 605-638.
  • Turnbull, M. (2001). There is a Role for the L1 in Second and Foreign Language Teaching, But ... Canadian Modern Language Review, 57, 531-540 .
  • Available:
  • Wells, G. (1999). Using L2 to Master L2: A Response to Antón and DiCamilla’s ‘Socio-Cognitive Functions of L1 Collaborative Interaction in the L2 Classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 83(2), 248-254.
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