Help or hindrance? Teacher use of L1/L2 in the classroom

When I first started teaching, at a language school for adults, there was a strict ‘no Turkish’ policy within the walls of the school. Anybody caught talking or communicating in Turkish on the premises, whether a complete beginner or in an advanced level class, was promptly kicked out with their money for their current course refunded. The owner of the school explained that he had struggled as a youngster to learn English and it was only when in a total immersion environment that he started to speak more fluently (granted, that total immersion consisted of 6 years studying and working in the UK) and so he felt it best to maximise the talking time available to his students. It soon became clear to me that this was also a marketing ploy as keen bosses and parents sent students to the ‘English only’ school.

Whatever the reasoning behind it and the rights or wrongs of its enforcement, the rule made little difference to me as I knew hardly any Turkish at the time. I could just about tell the guy in the greengrocer what I wanted (though he often pointed towards the supermarket when I mispronounced mantar, the Turkish for mushroom, as manti, a mini-ravioli style dish!), ask the taxi and bus drivers to drop me off at the next corner and get another beer but that was it.
By the time I started teaching kids, much had changed. After nearly 3 years in the country, I had an ever expanding vocabulary and I was able to communicate with most people, albeit not entirely fluently. A friend whom I had worked with at the language school until he started teaching kids a year before me told me that one of the biggest changes I would have to get used to, apart from classroom management issues, was starting to speak Turkish in class. “You’ll have to”, he said. “There’s no other way.”

I took his word for it at first and started to use Turkish when they didn’t understand words or activities and when dealing with discipline issues. They giggled a bit at my mistakes but I used the opportunity to discuss how it wasn’t nice to laugh at other people’s errors and generally everything was fine. For the first couple of years that was fine until one day with a new class, after just having worked on ‘What is this?’ questions and responses, the children started to point at unfamiliar objects in a picture in their course book at ask me ‘Bu ne?’ (that being the Turkish for ‘what’s this?’). I tried to encourage them to ask me the question they had just learned but they wouldn’t. It then occurred to me that outside class they were generally talking to me in Turkish as well saying things like ‘merhaba’ and ‘iyi günler’ when passing me in the corridor.

I then resolved to ‘play dumb’ when it came to Turkish with future classes. Any utterance of ‘Bu ne?’ was met with a shrug and ‘Sorry, I don’t understand’ from me. I also taught a whole host of useful phrases for the classroom (e.g. ‘Can I get something from my bag?’), which was added to on a need to know basis. It was difficult at first but it had the desired affect. Kids started to use the language they had learnt to communicate with me, sometimes startling me with the ways they were able to manipulate their limited knowledge to express themselves.

However, despite what I see as advantages in using English only (that is me using English only – I don’t prohibit the kids from using Turkish between themselves), some teachers I know are not keen on the idea and think the teacher not using the kids’ own mother tongue can have a negative impact. As a result, the issue has been discussed often and, in the rest of this post, I’ll look at some of the arguments I’ve heard against the teacher only speaking in English and my counter-arguments:

1. ‘It’s so much easier to translate words.’
They say: Why put so much effort into explaining, miming or eliciting meaning when a quick translation will suffice.
I say: Isn’t that what we want our students to do? We want them to find meanings of unknown words by themselves. We want them to process the meaning so it sticks. In one class, I was asked what wet meant. I could have just said islak but instead I poured water onto the sleeve of my shirt and said ‘Look! It’s wet!’ I bumped into a student from that class years later who said he had never and would never forget that word!

2. ‘You can’t build a relationship easily with the students unless you chat to them in Turkish.’
They say: Getting to know students early in the year is impossible if you don’t use Turkish. That prevents the building of relationships between the teacher and the class/individual students.
I say: Some of the best teacher-class and teacher-student relationships I’ve ever had have been in classes where I haven’t spoken a word of Turkish. They feel more of a sense of achievement when they have been able to communicate with somebody in a foreign language and this helps build positive relationships. Also, what do they want to know about me? Not where I’m from or how long I’ve lived here. They want to know what I like, what cool gadgets I’ve got and what I can do and they want to tell me the same – all topics that are covered early in the year anyway.

3. ‘Turkish is essential for discipline issues.’
They say: Sometimes Turkish is necessary when dealing with misbehaviour in class. It’s the only way to make the rules clear.
I say: There are just two rules in my class: Listen when the teacher is talking and Be nice to your classmates. Easy to understand. Also, those kids get lectured at length enough by their other teachers. They don’t need the English teacher to do it as well. In serious cases, I have a deal with the floor manager (one is placed in an office in each corridor in my school) that they will help me out and do the lecturing for me!

4. ‘Students lacking in confidence will suffer.’
They say: Some students will be overwhelmed if their teacher only speaks English and will lose even more confidence as a result.
I say: It is exactly for the benefit of these students that I do this! In the past, I used to speak Turkish in class and the insecure students would constantly ask for help in Turkish, ask me to repeat instructions in Turkish and ask me simple questions in Turkish. When they are placed in a situation where they have to use English, they actually start to listen and they realise they can do it. I’ve seen students really blossom and grow in confidence as they see that they can speak English and be understood as well as listen and understand.

5. ‘In case of illness or emergency, there is no other option'.’
They say: If a child desperately needs to see the doctor or go to the toilet, it’s unfair, bordering on cruel, to make them speak English to tell you.
I say: A difficult one this. However, in most genuine emergency cases, it’s obvious what is wrong and the teacher can act accordingly, calling the school doctor or letting the child out of class as required.

6. ‘It doesn’t actually help their English in the long term.’
They say: Later, they have non-native speaker teachers anyway (1st, 2nd and 3rd grades are exclusively taught by native speakers in my school with other higher grades split between NNS ‘grammar teachers’ and NS ‘conversation teachers’) and so will talk Turkish in class then. Besides, it’s all forgotten during the summer.
I say: Quite the opposite! Teachers who have taken over my old classes at the start of a new academic year always say how surprised and delighted they are that the kids speak so much English with them from day 1. Also, as they do start to have lessons later on with non-native speaker teachers who may speak Turkish with them in class, isn’t it better for them if their native speaker teachers use English as often as possible?

So that turned into a longer post than I expected! I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Do you use L1 with your students? If so, when and why? If not, why not and how do you cope with some of the difficulties that arise as a result?


  1. Hi David,

    As an EFL teacher in Brazil I think I can tell you the role L1 plays in my classes (and I dare say in my school). The BNC (binational Center) I teach at has a no-L1 policy. It is a little less enforced in groups with very young learners. However I have to make it clear it in no way resembles the way it was enforced in the first language school you worked at. Teachers have "carte blanche" as to using it if/when they find necessary.

    I usually do not use L1 in class. I feel no need to. If lower level students don't understand something I say I try other ways of expressing it: mimicking, drawing, synonyms - you name it!

    But when I do resort to using L1 it can be in higher levels groups when there's a word I just can't find a better way to explain (I have had disastrous attempts at trying to define or explain a word and its use where the explanation just became too complex and confusing, besides greatly increasing TTT - a waste of time). Or it may be in a lower level when I am having some serious conversation with them (because of behavior, lack of commitment, etc), for giving more serious, lenghty announcements... That's all I can think of right now.

    Thanks for the great post / sharing. This is a topic that interests me very much (I voted for it for tomorrow's ELTChat :-)

  2. This one isn't usually an issue for me, as I rarely find myself teaching groups of learners who share the same L1 - however, when I first started teaching ESOL I experimented for a while with translating instructions for poorly motivated low-level beginners, in a bid to help them out.

    Unfortunately, this seemed to foster the assumption that I would carry on translating for them whenever they got stuck, and they became very passive and even harder to motivate than they had been in the first place!

    I learnt my lesson, and have avoided digging that particular hole for myself ever since. These days, my second language utterances are mainly confined to phrases such as "En inglés, por favor!" and such... ;-)

    Having said this, one situation where I think it can be worthwhile using L1 in class is where students need to pick up the basics of ICT tools. For example, an L1 handout to support the process of setting up email accounts & blogs, etc, can often speed things up considerably with beginner and elementary level groups.


  3. Thank you for the comments. One thing that your replies confirm is how varied the contexts in which teaching and learning take place are: I work as a native speaker teaching students with a common L1; Cecilia shares a common language with her students; and Sue works with groups of students with different nationalities and first languages.

    Cecilia - I agree that it should be down to the teacher's discretion and judgement to decide when/if to use L1. The policy at my old school was unecessarily harsh. I also agree that at higher levels more abstract words and concepts can be very difficult to explain using only English. I haven't taught that level for a few years now but I think I may use L1 in such a situation if the translation is direct (and if I know the word myself of course!).

    Also I'm lucky that my current school is not a deidcated language school so important announcements are made in Turkish anyway!

    Sue - It seems we had a similar experience. I also found that some students became over-reliant on my translated help (the less confident students I mentioned above). I also see a huge difference when I get new classes each September between those whose previous teacher spoke Turkish with them a lot and those whose previous teacher used English either exclusively or the majority of the time. Their test scores may be the same but their ability to communicate is very different.

    Interesting that you mentioned ICT tools. My school had recently started using wikis for English from 5th grade upwards and this has been supported in the regular computer studies class, the reasoning being, as you said, it can speed up their knowledge of how to use wikis by removing the language barrier.


Post a Comment

Thanks for commenting! Your comment will appear after Dave has approved it. :-)