Using L1 in class – some post #ELTchat reflections

My last post (Help or hindrance? Teacher use of L1/L2 in the classroom) detailed why I don’t use L1 with my young learners but I now want to add some further thoughts following last night’s stimulating #ELTchat on the same topic.

First of all, I should make it clear that my comments refer only to me and what I say in class. I would never prohibit students from talking to each other in L1 (unless they are doing a speaking activity which requires use of the target language). I agree with some of the comments from last night that banning L1 is overly-harsh and potentially disrespectful, especially if you are in your students’ home country. While there was a policy like this at the first school I worked at here, I never agreed with it. I saw a few good, enthusiastic students literally being marched from the premises in tears because they had been caught translating one word to help a friend – hardly a way to build a positive learning environment.

When I say I don’t speak Turkish in class, I mean just that – I don’t speak Turkish in class. I’m happy for students to help each other out by explaining something. It shows me that the student doing the explaining has fully understood and I always like to see the kids helping and supporting each other. I also act like I don’t understand Turkish in class and this makes the students communicate with me in English. Previously, they would ask me simple things like “What’s this?”, “Do you like football?” and “Have you got a pet?” in Turkish but now I pretend I don’t understand them and they ask me in English. Often, their friends will help them if they are struggling to find the words and, again, I love to see this kind of scaffolding going on. For example, I just had a class today in which the speakers for the computer were missing having been taken away for repair. As I switched it on, a girl came up to me to try and tell me what was wrong but all she could say at first was ‘the computer… er ….no…hoparlör…’. She paused then another student said ‘no sound!’. ‘Ah, yes! The computer hasn’t got sound,’ she said. No prompting from me – they just constructed what they wanted/needed to say collectively and told me what the problem was.

However, I did realise something about myself in class during the chat last night, which I explained in the following tweet:
Let me elaborate: I listen in on my students speaking Turkish during activities and I check if they have understood correctly. If I hear a few students saying to each other that they don’t understand or find the task difficult, I help them out (but try to do so in a way that doesn’t reveal I understood them). So I guess, I do use my knowledge of the students’ L1 as a resource in my lessons, just not out loud. ;)

Also, when I revealed that I don’t use L1 with classes of 9 and 10 year olds, some people in the chat asked how exactly I managed it:
YouTube is not an option here in Turkey alas (still blocked after all these years…) but I can attempt to explain. One of the first things is to introduce some useful classroom phrases from day 1, such as:
  • Can I go to my locker?
  • Can I go to the bin?
  • Can I get my books?
  • Can I drink some water?
  • I haven’t got my …..
  • Can you say it again?
I also teach them some things I am likely to say regularly in each lesson:
  • Repeat after me
  • Listen to the CD
  • Look at the picture
  • Come to the board
  • OK, start
  • See you tomorrow! etc
Of course, I don’t introduce them all at once. This is done gradually over the first couple of weeks as we go over the ones we already know each day and add some more. There are no punishments for not using them but there’s plenty of praise when they do. I write the phrases on the board each lesson and add new ones each day and use flashcards and gestures for the classroom instructions. However, this is only the case at the beginning of the school year. After a while I remove the visual support so they start to use the language from memory. Slowly, it becomes more and more automatic. Soon, they are able to make other questions and phrases from the ones they already know. So ‘can I go to my locker?’ soon becomes ‘can I go to my bag?’ and that turns into ‘can I come to the board?’ . As we move through the units in the book, they realise the language can actually be used to talk and get to know their teacher. They will ask me about my likes, my pet, my family etc whereas in the past they would ask me such things in Turkish.

After that, it all flows easily. Instructions can be given in English. Words can be explained and examples can be given in English. We can even do self-assessment activities and answer reflective questions at the end of the lesson in English!

I always ensure the whole class gets praise for their efforts. I get their main class teacher in on the act too and she will tell them how impressed she is that they can communicate with me without relying on Turkish. Together, we stress to them what a big achievement it is to be able to learn in this way and this has helped me establish some of the best rapport I’ve ever had with any class I’ve taught.

Maybe I’ll get a video uploaded one of these days so you can see it all in action!


  1. Great follow up post, Dave. I really enjoyed the chat, and your contributions struck a chord each time. I think a lot of teachers who have a knowledge of their students' L1 (or who share their students' L1) are following very much the same principles. I know I do, I know some of my kids' state school teachers do too, whether they're local or "imported" (I hate using NEST/NNEST). And a video would be great to share, the more accessible examples there are of success, especially with YLs, the better!

  2. Yes, although I came down in favor of using L1 for a variety of things, classroom functions is not one of them--"classroom L2" is a great, functional way to get students used to quickly responding to and actually doing things in/with the L2. I finally have a Japanese teacher who actually tells us to turn to certain pages and sections in Japanese, and it's useful. I wish we'd gone over classroom functions more initially, but oh well--that ship has sailed.

  3. Very interesting post and I enjoyed the chat last night too. You English teachers in Turkey seem very tech-savvy, bravo for you!

    I have administrative duties in the university-level business school I teach in, so I can't pretend I don't understand French...sometimes I wish I could go back to those days!

  4. Thanks for the comments. Your opinions and input are greatly appreciated. :)

    cerij - I like your term 'imported'! We tend to get called 'foreign' where I work. One thing I got from the chat was that everybody tries to use L1 sparingly. The key is in finding a way to encourage our students to produce as much in the target language as possible.

    Clarissa - I found the same when learning Turkish. Once I got away from people who were trying to teach me in English, I started to improve rapidly. My wife always helps me out by explaining things in Turkish too, which she started doing in response to me helping her out with English in the same way!

    Betty - I wish more people I worked with were tech savvy though. We have a few technophobes amongst us. Obviously, the pretence of not knowing doesn't work for everyone but I have to admit to enjoying giving some people at my school (admin, not students) the run around!


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