The role of the L1 in the classroom

This post, as always, is used as a scratchpad for my opinions and ideas regarding a specific topic. This time, the role of the L1 in my classroom. I provide a number of anecdotes which outline my stance, and invite comments regarding similar experiences, or even opposing views as to those expressed here.

Until recently I’ve always felt guilty about speaking Japanese in the classroom. I’ve also felt guilty (or at least disappointed) about allowing students to speak Japanese in the classroom. I felt like if they are resorting to Japanese it’s because of a particular issue such as:

  • A pedagogical failure. In other words, there may not be enough supportive material, the level of the materials may be too high, the progression of the class may be to fast, etc.
  • Students are not interested enough in the class to attempt to try speaking in English.
  • We are all just being “lazy.”

Instead of focusing on the legitimacy or causes of these issues and concerns, I want to look at the positive uses of the L1. After all, the students in my context all share the same mother tongue. Therefore, it would (in my opinion) be ill-advised to disregard their shared ability to communicate using their mother tongue. Below are my thoughts on L1 use. I present a number of scenarios where the L1 use was deemed a useful tool for mediating students’ language learning.

Just as a reminder, and not to use my context as an excuse, I teach compulsory English communication classes for students at a science and technology university in Japan. I am also in charge of one of the lower level classes.

“In Japanese, OK?”

The first anecdote is more of a reflection on English education in general. How does one deal with the question “In Japanese, OK?” when asked by a student (As in – Is it OK to speak Japanese?). Possible responses:

A) “No…! In English, please.”

B) “Sure.”

There are probably times when either answer is “correct” and I’d like to go into these ideas here.

At first I suggest that students adopt the mindset of “English first.” In other words, it is a general rule in my classroom that students should attempt to express themselves in English first. If they are not able to make themselves clear, then switching to the L1 is an appropriate follow up. Using an “English first” approach promotes students to recognise the shortcomings in their interlanguage and thus the idea of noticing the gap in SLA. If they do not even attempt to speak English, there is little chance of any development occurring.

Thus, promoting a safe, secure and forgiving classroom ethos towards mistakes is of utmost importance. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly is that English should be used during activities that are designed to promote communication. Surely it goes without saying right? Well, not all students are 100% committed to speaking English during such activities, so, whereas I am rather lenient on students speaking Japanese during pre- and post-play activities, I am a ruthless enforcer of the “English first” rule during gameplay. Indeed, the KR framework has students add a rule during their second play through to punish L1 use, and reward L2 use.

Languaging

Languaging is the action of communicating with others (or yourself) in order to make meaning. It therefore differs from “output” in that students are essentially talking about what they want to say, or about the meaning of a particular input (see Swain, 2010).

In more simpler terms, and how I first learnt about it, is to consider languaging as “talking about the L2.” So how does this manifest itself in my classes? Mainly during group work, and more specifically during debriefing sessions. Some examples include:

  1. Confirming their comprehension of rules with others.
  2. Talking about English mistakes and possible corrections.
  3. Discussing why they did or did not use a predicted grammar point.
  4. Discussing what they did and didn’t enjoy about game sessions.
  5. When presenting ideas to the class which they do not have the ability to formulate in the English.

I think the above list represents the majority cases when I think it is appropriate to use the L1. My goal is to get them engaged in and around English, so discussions and talk on the _subject _ of English, even if in the L1, is a productive and valuable use of time in my opinion.


Where do others stand on the topic of L1 usage in the classroom? I’m very eager to hear opinions.

  • What to do with low level learners?
  • What to do with monolingual classes?
  • What to do with large 20+ classes?
  • Should skills to communicate outside of activities be focused on instead?

References

Swain, M. (2010). Talking-it through: Languaging as a source of learning. In R. Batstone (Ed.), Sociocognitive perspectives on language use/learning (pp. 112–130). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Author: James York

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