Making the most of L1 in the classroom #1

Philip Kerr

“You can’t use the students’ own language if you don’t speak it yourself.” True, but they can! Philip Kerr shares some thoughts on how to make the most of students’ L1 in language learning.

Is it OK sometimes to use the learners’ own language in English language classes? The question remains a contentious issue in discussions on social media about language teaching, but there is actually nothing contentious about it at all. The jury returned its verdict a long time ago. Succinctly summarising the findings of research in a plenary talk at the 2007 IATEFL conference, Guy Cook said that “the use of translation in teaching has no substantial arguments against it, and much to recommend it“. Don’t just take his, or my, word for it – check out the research yourself.

A more useful question to ask concerns not whether good use can be made of the learners’ own language in English classes, but when, how and how much. The answers are not straightforward and will depend on a host of considerations, including the age and level of the learners, the objectives of the course that the learner is following, and the institutional context.

In some contexts, such as a private language school in the UK, it would seem impossible to make use of the learners’ own language. ‘You can’t use the students’ own language if you don’t speak it yourself,’ you might think. ‘You can’t use the students’ own language if there are lots of different languages in the class,’ you might add. Both observations are true, but what matters more in a language class is not what you, the teacher, can do, but what they, the learners, can do and do do. Like it or not, they will use their own language. Part of the teacher’s job is to help them to do so in ways that are supportive of their English language learning.

The most useful tool for any language learner is probably a dictionary, whether print or online. Teachers can help their learners by making them more aware of the range of dictionaries that are available and by showing them how to use them well. Here’s one way of doing this in a multilingual class. Next time you mark some written work, underline or highlight those words or phrases where the learner would benefit from checking what they have written in a dictionary.

Dear Sir or Madams,
I saw your advertisement in newspaper I am very interested in your advirtisement as spend three months on a sailing trip around the world.
I’m 22 year old of ages. I had a job as tourist and have the qualification of First certificate.
I would like to have experience of meeting different countries people It is good way to learn other langage.
I can talk other countries people in English.
If I accepted to join, It would be nice for my future.
Because I would like to go university in England next year.
Please Do not hesitate to contact with me if there is any information if you want to know.
I can attend an interview in the any time if It is convinient to you.
Yours, faithfully

In class, hand back the written work and allocate some time for everyone to use dictionaries to try to improve their work. After some time working individually, the learners can work in pairs or small groups, comparing what they have learnt. Round off the activity with a whole-class discussion about the relative merits of the different dictionaries that people have been using. The next time you do this with your class, encourage them to use a different dictionary. For most major languages there will a reasonable selection of free online bilingual dictionaries, and some are a lot better than others.

If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out the second part of the series where Philip shares some ideas for using L1 in the classroom.

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