Using learners’ L1 in class – four myths busted

Delia Kidd

It is one of the most contested topics in ELT: how much, if any, of the learners’ L1 (first or native language) should we allow and use in the English language classroom? In his recent Cambridge paper in ELT, Philip Kerr tackles the issue head on, laying out arguments from both sides, along with some reasons it can in fact be effective and beneficial to use L1 in certain contexts.

Here, we will look at four common myths, believed by many in the ELT community as reasons not to allow L1 in the classroom and insights from the research that might suggest otherwise.

Beliefs vs research

Belief 1:
Learners need to think in English and the use of L1 discourages them from doing so.

Even at proficient levels, it is unlikely that students will ever be able to think completely in English. However, they can and should work towards being able to process English without mentally translating. Excluding L1 from tuition does not accelerate this processing.

Furthermore, there is not one part of the brain that controls English and another part that controls L1. It is possible for multiple languages to be processed and recalled in parallel.

Belief 2:
The use of L1, especially translation, will exacerbate the problems of first language interference, because it encourages the false belief that there is word-for-word equivalence between languages.

It is certainly possible for language transfer/interference to have negative effects. However, it is easy to forget that it can also have positive ones.

For example, there are many cognates that can be found in the Latin family of languages that would be familiar to, say, Spanish, French and Italian learners. Take the adjective ‘active’ for example:

  • Spanish: activo
  • French: actif
  • Italian: attivo.


It is easy to see that a student with one of these L1s would be able to comprehend the word ‘active’ without too much support or added context.

Belief 3:
The time that is spent using the L1 is time that is not spent on using English, so L1 use deprives learners of valuable learning opportunities.

When learning a language it is of course important that students get as much exposure and opportunity to practise it as possible. However, there are certain aspects of a lesson that will benefit from allowing L1, especially with younger learners. These include:

  • When developing and supporting self-motivation
  • When raising awareness of metacognitive strategies
  • When engaging learners in self-assessment tasks
  • When training learners in learning strategies.


Belief 4:
Translation is not a valuable skill to practise; learners should focus on the four main skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Translation can in fact be a hugely valuable skill, especially in today’s global society. Several benefits of translation skills include:

  • It develops mediation skills – these have been recognised as increasingly important by the Council of Europe and are featured in new CEFR descriptors (you can find these in the CEFR Companion Volume)
  • It supports the development of bilingual competence
  • It can be fun and motivating, especially to those students who enjoy translation
  • People will naturally do it anyway!


Can you think of other reasons using the L1 in the classroom might be beneficial to your learners?

For more information and practical ideas for the classroom, you can read Philip Kerr’s book Translation and Own-language Activities.

For more insights into nurturing competent English speakers, have a look at Niall Curry’s blog on giving feedback on speaking

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