Feb 17

Using L1 in the English Classroom

classroom management
When, why and how much to use L1 in the English Classroom?
Is it a good thing to use the learners' first language (L1) in the classroom? YES! It definitely can be at times. If you want to know three reasons why, here they are!

Video transcript

Here’s a question- when, why and how much should we use L1- the learner’s first language- when we’re teaching English? Want some thoughts on this? Keep watching…

If this is the first time we’re meeting, I’m Jo Gakonga, I’ve been teaching for over 30 years, and training teachers on CELTA and MA TESOL programmes for over 20 of those. I’ve also got a website at ELT-Training.com where I make video based material for teachers at all stages of their careers. Check it out and don’t forget to like and subscribe if you want to see more – I make a new video every week.

When I started teaching in the 1980s there was a strong feeling in the private language schools I was working in, that using ONLY English in the classroom was the right way to go and maybe this was a bit of a backlash to traditional language classrooms like my French lessons in school where the teacher hardly ever spoke French. Really. I thought he couldn’t for a long time…

We don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater though. There are good reasons to mostly use English in the classroom- it’s really good to get the learners used to listening to the language and I’d say it’s motivating too. But clearly there ARE also very good reasons to use the learners’ first language at times. Here are three:

Three ways that L1 can be useful…

1. Reducing anxiety- especially for lower level learners.

The first one- and it’s important- is that if learners know they can ask or get clarification in their first language, they’re likely to feel more comfortable, more confident and less anxious. All of these things mean a better learning environment and a much better chance of progress.

2. Speed and efficiency.
Using translation for words and phrases is likely to be much faster and a more efficient way of getting learners to understand meaning… and generally I’d say ‘why not?!’ … the only caveat to this is that you need to be careful of where semantic boundaries don’t align- wow- that sounds technical doesn’t it?! All it means is that very often the meaning of a word in L1 and L2 aren’t always exactly the same in all contexts- I asked ChatGPT for some examples and got some interesting ones including this one between French and English. You can see that ‘big’ usually translates to ‘grand’ in French but there are some examples in English where we can say ‘big’ but ‘grand’ wouldn’t be right.

3. Comparative analysis of language.
My third reason is that it can be super-useful to compare what your first language does to what English does. If you can see the differences, it’ll help you NOT to make the mistakes that you’d make by direct translation and it’s often quite memorable too. This could be something quite simple like word order. Adjectives in Swahili come after the noun but in English they usually come before it.

"Gari jipya" (New car), "Mti mrefu" (Tall tree), "Mwanafunzi mwerevu" (Smart student)

This kind of comparative analysis is great for grammatical structures and it’s useful for false friends, too. If you are Spanish, it’s worth knowing that ‘embarrassed’ in English doesn’t mean you’re pregnant for example!

I hope those thoughts are useful and as with a lot of things in life- there’s a balance to be found here about how much L1 to use and it’s your job as a teacher to decide where that balance lies. Have fun with it and see you soon.

Created with