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domingo, 21 de octubre de 2012

English only or English mostly? The use of L1 in the English class

To Spanish or not to Spanish? The question whether we have to follow an inflexible “English only” policy in our classes or not is often revisited in the field of English language teaching.  The answer to this question is simple:  every single activity we carry out in our profession is determined by context. Therefore,  how much L2 will be used in the classroom  depends mainly on the students’ level of interlanguage, as well as on  other contingent factors such as  age, their socio-cultural background and  their motivation. 

The level of the course is the first factor that determines our decision. It goes without saying that the higher the level, the less L1 we need to use. At upper-intermediate and advanced levels, the use of L1 in the EFL class is negligible or non-existent.  At intermediate level, learners and teachers may find L1 useful to compare structures and check understanding. The great dilemma arises when we have elementary and pre-intermediate students in front of us. Can we use L1 in our classes? If so, how much and what for? Here the other factors mentioned above acquire greater relevance.

 We should start by considering age:   young children can interpret gesture and miming more readily than older ones.  If well delivered, the class is a game which motivates them to learn. As the input at this stage is mostly visual, L1 will be used as the last resource. With groups of teenagers, the students´ socio-cultural background acquires relevance. Teenage students from lower-middle classes in suburban areas in Buenos Aires tend to reject English for several reasons: they consider this language does not represent them, or they often feel that it is impossible for them to learn it.  Speaking only English in this context from day one would mean for students to build an insurmountable affective filter. This is why English should be introduced in small doses, constantly checking that they understand, and assuring them that you will be there to help if they do not.  As regards teenagers from middle-class environments, in general they are highly motivated because they are used to listening to American and British bands, and they usually watch American sitcoms, so English is part of their daily lives. In this context, the class will be delivered in English, and L1 is used only for the odd word we need to translate for the sake of economy or clarification.

In the case of adults, the main factors that intervene in the decision of using L1 are their experience with the language as well as the motivation for learning. For these students, L1 may be a “safe place” where they feel they can understand, so  our challenge is to make them walk out from this comfortable area and do things with language by focusing on the skills they need to develop according to their specific needs.

There are no universal rules as to how much L1 can be used in the English classroom. Our experience and common sense tell us that our decision will depend on several factors, all of which are related to the contextual issues. We need to keep an open mind to detect the needs of each group and escape from rules of thumb.
Drawing by Juanjo Colsa




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