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First Language to Teach Second Language: Complexities and Contradictions Essay (Article)

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The relevance of L1 in teaching L2

First language (L1) has been used to support teaching and learning of second language (L2). L1 has become a rich resource for teaching L2. This is a way of maximising the learning experience especially for the case of bilingual English teachers who can speak the first language of their students.

This is contrary to the cognitive way of teaching and understanding the English language, which recommends that L2 should dominate the learning process. Teachers use different methods to teach the English language. However, it was observed that bilingual teachers often adopt the use of L1 to enhance the students’ understanding (Copland & Neokleous, 2011, pp. 270-272).

Translation as a way of saving time

Translation is a convenient way of providing further explanation to students. The teacher limits the use of L1 in further explanations. This also saves on the time taken by a student to learn a given concept. A student who learns the equivalent of an English word in the native language is ready for the next step and does not require much time to figure out its application in a sentence (Atkinson, 1987, pp. 241).

In the case of Maria, who only intervenes when a student has failed to get the meaning of a word on several attempts, translation is used as a motivating tool. She used translation to maintain the students’ interest. Allowing the student to speak in L2 gives the teacher an opportunity to measure the level of understanding before intervening. This may slow down the learning process, but it helps the instructor to establish how much the student has learned.

Those teachers who do not employ translation as a mode of teaching, like in the case of Tina, take more time to teach a concept. They also turn learning into a difficult process for students. This mode of teaching does not consider learning needs of students but only the cognitive processes that benefit teachers. Translation enhances the learning process and should be used frequently in class (Auerbach, 1993, pp. 7-8; Copland & Neokleous, 2011, pp. 272-274).

Creating a rapport with students

The “Question-answer” aspect is an effective mode of learning languages because it familiarizes students with the common used phrases. When L1 is used to communicate, students feel comfortable and motivated to learn. For example, in Maria’s lessons, she preferred to use Greek while giving instructions and responding to questions. Each response she gave in Greek would be followed by the English version.

This ensured that the communication process was faster, and students were interested in learning the English form of interaction. On the other hand, Tina responded to questions asked by students in Greek using English. This resulted to a long stream of enquiries that would have easily been eliminated by using Greek. This form of communication is slow and may lead to a student’s lose of interest in the learning process. Students may also be embarrassed for seeking an explanation if they do not get the message on several attempts.

Using L1 language on students who are trying their best to address the teacher in L2 is for the benefit of the teacher. For instance, when students addressed Maria in English, she responded back in Greek to get a clearer understanding of the questions that students were asking in English. Mixing L1 and L2 in class gives the teacher an opportunity to measure the students’ understanding (Auerbach, 1993, pp. 5; Copland & Neokleous, 2011, pp. 274-276).

When teachers mix L1 and L2 in their question and answer mode of teaching, they do so in an effort to provide a free learning environment. Students are encouraged to ask many questions in an effort to compare what they know and the new knowledge introduced. This gives them an opportunity to initiate the learning process in an effort to polish the acquired knowledge. When teachers use L1 to explain, they get a better clarification of the question that they have inquired.

Repeating the answer given in L1 using L2 promotes the students’ understanding. This also helps in identifying the similarity or difference in the use of the two languages. Teachers who opt to use L2 to address question-answer mode of teaching focus on the cognitive techniques. This may not help students to learn the new language effectively.

Teachers should clarify or seek clarity from their students using L1 in order to ensure that students are interested and motivated in the learning of the new language. Alternating the languages familiarize students with common terms and phrases used in dialogue. The “Question and answer” model encourages dialogue, and this gives students a relaxed environment to learn (Auerbach, 1993, p. 5; Levine, 2009, p. 4).

Teaching Grammar and Skills as a gradual process

Learning grammar is the most challenging part for both students and teachers. This is because it involves the learning of skills by students, and this is greatly influenced by the classroom systems. Maria preferred addressing new concept in Greek language. This would then be followed up by a similar explanation in English.

This saved on the time taken to deliver the concept that she was teaching. Using L2 initially may force the teacher to switch to L1 and then to L2 again. The teacher may opt to begin with the known language before the unknown language to avoid multiple explanations. It also reduces the stress that students may feel when they cannot easily comprehend the meaning of the information delivered. Using L1 gives them confidence because the students are already aware of the concept delivered by the teacher.

They have to be keen to get the L2 version of the concept. Through this form of teaching, the teacher can then take the opportunity to highlight the difference between the two languages. In this case, the students’ learning interests are addressed. It is advisable to limit the use of L1 as the level of students’ understanding progresses.

This helps students to focus more on L2 than on the comparison of the two languages. It is also advisable to introduce grammar with L1 before switching to L2. This motivates students to learn and improves the learning capability (Copland & Neokleous, 2011, p. 276).

On other occasions, the similarity between L1 and L2 is very limited and may misguide students in learning the foreign language. In such situations, L1 can be used to introduce a new concept while avoiding direct comparison. As such, teachers’ talk time is reduced and students can easily start the required activity. Explaining the diversity in the new language also prepares students for a different form of application in grammar (Auerbach, 1993, p. 5).

For instance, Maria explained the activity that students were to carry out in Greek and later introduced the concept in English. Students were aware that they were to learn about the present tense. They were also aware that this would have a different structure compared to what it was in Greek language. To ensure that students do not concentrate on comparing the two languages, there should be a progressive use of more L2 than L1. The whole process should be gradual (Copland & Neokleous, 2011, p. 276).

Using L1 to Teach L2; Teachers’ point of view

The attitude that teachers have on the use of L1 to teach L2 influences the performance in teaching the new language. In the case of the Greek teachers who used Greek to teach English, there was an aspect of contradicting beliefs from practices. However, teachers admitted that it was impossible to avoid translating and using Greek to clarify concepts to students.

L1 simplifies the teaching process and keeps students focused on learning. When students are stressed by the introduction of new concepts in L2, they tend to lose interest and develop an attitude towards the new language. The L2 is used by teachers as a way of simplifying students’ task and motivating them to learn. On the other hand, the cognitive approach that is emphasized in teaching denies the opportunity to use L1 with confidence.

From the teachers’ feedback, it is clear that using L1 is essential for teaching L2. This is evident in the response given by Tina who preferred to use L2 exclusively. She admitted that the use of L1 by students improved their learning speed (Copland & Neokleous, 2011, pp. 276-278).

Therefore, the cognitive approach does not address the interests of the students but rather concentrates on ensuring that the teaching practices are used. Teachers should be free to use L1 in class since it enhances the learning process (NiżEgorodcew, 2007, pp. 5-7).

The exclusive use of L2 has been recommended as the best communication approach in teaching. The cognitive processes require that teachers should use the standard procedure of teaching that measures input against the output obtained from the students. However, there are linguistic realities that may force teachers to use different approaches in teaching.

L1 serves the learning interests of students, which are not only limited to learning the language and grammar but also other learning expectations (Auerbach, 1993, p. 7). For example, behavioural issue can be managed better by communicating in L1 to serve the psychological purpose of emphasizing a given instruction. For instance, if a teacher uses L1 to instil the importance of doing homework to a student, it will serve better than when using L2.

Expressing emotions in an unfamiliar language may seem ridiculous and appear like drama to students. However, if this is first addressed in L1, then students are likely to get the communication intended. L1 also simplifies teaching vocabularies because teachers can easily match phrases from L1 to L2 without confusing students’ understanding.

The use of L1 to teach L2 should be used appropriately with the aim of meeting the course objectives. The use of native language should not dominate the use of the new language in the classroom (Atkinson, 1987, pp. 242-245).


The mode of teaching is determined by values that a teacher attaches to the use of first language. For instance, some teachers who share the same first language as their students prefer translating most of the phrases that they give in second language. Lisa, who is a Greek-speaking teacher that teaches English to Greek students, preferred to translate every phrase that she introduced in English. She used translation as a way of captivating the students’ interest in knowing the meaning of words (Copland & Neokleous, 2011, p. 273).

In such a situation, it is acceptable to use L1 because students are not familiar with L2. This is natural, easier, and more convenient to use L1 given that the teacher also speaks the same native language. Using English to address Greek students can be frustrating especially to students who are shy and feel that they are not proficient in L2.

To ensure that L1 does not dominate L2 while teaching, the teacher should ensure that the use of L1 is limited to explanations. Both languages should be used equally in the classroom. Using more of L1 than L2 can slow down the learning process (Levine, 2009, p. 1).

The use of first language can be a strategy to retain the native language especially in cases where students are young children. Today, teaching methods have become very sophisticated. The emphasis about writing systems has become relaxed, and teachers can now use the native languages to improve the learning speed of learners.

However, in situations where learners have a limited opportunity to use the second language (L2) beyond the classroom, they are encouraged to maximize on the use of L2 in the classroom. This includes other instructions apart from teaching the language (Levine, 2009, p. 3).

According to Copland and Neokleous (2011, p. 274), the cognitive approach of teaching language may not approve the use of L1 to teach L2. However, the linguistic realities have established that the use of a native language to teach a foreign one simplifies the learning process. Using L1 to teach L2 is essential based on the experience of the Greek teacher who integrated Greek language in teaching English.

However, L1 should only be used to clarify concepts and address issues that need a clear communication, like administrative issues. The native language should be used sparingly to avoid domination. The domination may hinder students’ concentration, as well as learning objectives of the new language.

It is important for teachers to understand the first language of students so that they can know the best strategy to apply when teaching. Using a student’s first language gives a student a better understanding for grammar in other languages. It gives a student a fast, sure, precise and complete means of approaching a foreign language.

Therefore, BETs should be employed to teach students with multilingual backgrounds. BETs should not feel guilty when they use the L1 language to teach students. Teachers should support L1 students to understand academic context. Teachers should not criticize the students using L1; neither should the teachers feel guilty when teaching using L1.

Reference List

Atkinson, D 1987, The mother tongue in the classroom: a neglected resource?ELT Journal, vol.41, no. 4, pp. 241-247.

Auerbach, ER 1993, Reexamining English only in the ESL classroom, TESOL Qarterly, vol. 27, no. 1, pp. 9-31.

Copland, F & Neokleous, G 2011, L1 to teach L2: complexities and contradictions, ELT Journal Volume, vol. 65, no. 3 pp. 270-280.

Levine, R 2009, Native Languages and Language Teaching in B.C., Northwest Journal of Linguistics, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 1-7.

NiżEgorodcew, A 2007, Input for instructed L2 learners: the relevance of relevance, Multilingual Matters, Clevedon [England].

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