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English Only in the EFL Classroom: Worth the Hassle?
In considering the use of the L1 (the learners’ mother tongue) in ELT (English Language Teaching) by the teacher, one of the first assumptions is that the teacher has sufficient command of the students’ L1 to be of value initially. Place. Another assumption that may well affect this scenario is that all learners in a class or group have the same L1. While these assumptions may be the case in many cases of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teaching/learning, many times they are not. In the case of multicultural classrooms (ie, USA, UK, Australia, Canada, India, etc.) where the learners have different L1s, or when the teacher has no knowledge of working with the L1 learners, often occurring in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, the use of L1 in the classroom in EFL is very limited or may become almost impossible.
Using L1 in the classroom
In my case, I will talk about those cases where I do use L1 learners in my EFL classes. I have acquired a working knowledge of Spanish and all my university and freelance students have Spanish as their L1. Although I am against any substantial use of the L1 in ESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes, there are situations where its use is very valuable. In addition, at early levels a ratio of about 5 percent mother tongue to about 95 percent target language may be more profitable than using “only English”. (Atkinson, 1987) On the first day of class with a new group, I explain to the learners that they are allowed to ask “How do you say ______ in Spanish?” When the word or phrase in Spanish (L1) is filled in the blank. This allows students to acquire key vocabulary in their written or spoken expression while limiting their use of the L1 in the classroom.
When the learners get confused about an abstract dictionary, a word or a phrase that cannot be easily brought up during the lesson, I will simply “give” them the word in Spanish to help continue the smooth flow of the lesson and not get “stuck” trying to come up with the elusive lexis by other means. When a student gives me an incomprehensible language production, that is, I (and the other learners) cannot decipher what the student is trying to say in English, I will say “Tell me that in Spanish”. Armed with this new understanding I (or one of the other learners) can provide that learner with revised and understood forms that might otherwise elude both of us (or even all of us).
During a written exam, I will also “give” learners a word or phrase to write on the board in English and/or Spanish to avoid widespread disruption to the exam process. Since I don’t prepare the exams, new lexis can creep into readings, instructions, or exercises. When a learner, and as other learners, asks for a meaning or explanation of the words, I will simply point to the language on the board without speaking.
When playing communicative games, TPR (Asher, 1966 and Passim) or “fast-paced” vocabulary games, such as a student favorite called “STOP,” I will again provide a new dictionary translation to help develop the learners’ vocabulary. These can be a dictionary of places, English/Spanish names, foods, animals or certain verbs or using L1 in various code-switching activities. (Clandfield – Foord, 2003) This happens often especially when I have to explain why a certain word is incorrect or unusable.
L1 use with LEP learners
Another instance when I switch to Spanish is when I have to talk to LEP (Limited English Proficiency) learners about important administrative matters or procedures that they don’t have the depth of vocabulary to understand. The importance of the material and the need to understand it outweighs the strictness to the strictness of “English only” which is my “standard operating procedure” in the classroom. This is especially true in my case with groups of learners with less than 250 contact hours in English which is equivalent to a third semester or less. Note: Atkinson (1987 and Passim) prescribes 150 hours or less (semester 2) for this phase, although I have found that it often extends for another semester.
On occasion, students will bring in a song or lyrics, usually rock or pop music, and ask the meaning of a word, phrase, expression or sometimes even the title. In providing the requested explanation (when I can), I use comparisons and/or translations into Spanish as often as necessary. The same may occur with dialogue from popular films, movies, and videos produced for English speakers. On rare occasions, a tape recording of a radio broadcast or a book on tape made its way into my classroom for the same reasons.
A final common instance of my use of L1 in the classroom is with learners in “remedial” or “remedial” classes of LEP learners. Since these learners have already proven that the “traditional” teaching methods detailed in their course books are not sufficient to teach them the material. All of these learners have failed a course at this level at least once, some twice or more. Then, I use a series of alternative methodologies including translation and other types of input/feedback with the L1 learners to assist the learning-acquisition process. These methods, in fact, have proven to be very successful. One of the reasons may be that using highly targeted methodologies and changing classroom conditions help to lower the learners’ affective filters (Krashen – Terrell, 1983) and direct the new material and lexis to them in ways that are more compatible with their multiple intelligences and preferred learning. styles (Gardner, 1983).
In conclusion I stated that my use of L1 in the EFL classroom is minimal and will not exceed a ratio of more than 5% of the L1 to 95% of the target language. Key situations in the EFL classroom where the L1 can be used include:
o Request for a new case
o Explain abstract terms
o Assist in the creation of comprehensible input/production
o During exams and other high pressure situations
o Maintain the flow of dynamic activities
o explain idioms and expressions in songs, movies and videos
o Providing information / instructions to LEP learners
o Adapting materials to the special needs of the learners
Although the use of L1 learners must be strictly controlled, it is reasonable to use it accurately in activities to promote learning and acquisition. Ongoing language acquisition research and classroom practice support that the use of L1 should not be banned for its own sake, but rather allowed occasionally as an additional tool in the teacher’s and learners’ repertoire depending on the conditions.
Note: Academic references for this article are available upon request.
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