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An Asset in the Classroom: The Value of Native Language Use in the ESL Classroom

An Asset in the Classroom: The Value of Native Language Use in the ESL Classroom
Admin - Mar 11 2018

Allowing students to use their first (native) language, or L1, in a language learning classroom is often hotly debated. You may even have experience from learning a second language, or L2, yourself. For example, in your high school Spanish class, your teacher would probably not allow you to use your native language to talk to your fellow classmates. You would ONLY be allowed to communicate in the target language (aka the L2). The logic here is clear… obviously forcing you to communicate in the L2 will increase your ability to communicate in the L2 (and cut down on time spent talking to your friends in class when you’re supposed to be working on a group project). However, what if L1 use in the language learning classroom became less taboo? What if we could start to see the L1 as an asset?

Teacher L1 Use vs. Student L1 Use

First, there is a distinction to be made between the teacher’s use of the L1 and the students’… each has their own merits. The teacher’s use of the L1 is most effective in EFL/ESL settings IF the students are beginners, and should be phased out as proficiency levels increase. Teaching low level students a foreign language IN the language from the very beginning is difficult. Allowing teacher use of the L1in this context comes with a number of benefits that will be discussed below.

Similarly, the students’ use of the L1 is most effective for meaning clarification and interpersonal communication at the beginner stage as well. Creating an environment where students feel comfortable and able to express themselves is key in this early stage. For more information on how students’ comfort level in the classroom can impact their ability to learn see information on Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis.


Teacher L1 Use Benefits

Supportive Role

When teachers use the L1 in the classroom, it serves a supportive role.  Using the L1 in a language learning classroom allows more time for L2 practice. The L1 can often provide a shortcut to explaining complex content in the classroom. For example, when explaining a difficult to master grammar point, the students would benefit more from total understanding through an explanation given to them in a language they already have control over, more than they would benefit from working together to negotiate meaning on the lesson. Negotiating meaning is a critical skill, but best saved for vocabulary content inside the classroom, NOT grammar rules.



Students can be intimidated by their teachers. Remember back to your days as a language learner. Asking a question in the L2 might have seemed so daunting, that you instead chose not to ask it. Allowing students to ask questions by whatever means necessary, including asking the question in their L1, gives them some breathing room. Allowing students to clarify meaning with each other might also give them the confidence to communicate with you for freely. Because you appear to be more accessible, you are also making students more comfortable in your classroom, thus lowering the affective filter.


A Means of Scaffolding

As mentioned before, teacher use of L1 is most effective for beginning level students. As your students begin to understand more and become more comfortable thinking and speaking in the L2, the L1 can slowly be replaced with exclusive L2 use. This is a means of naturally scaffolding your students into thinking and speaking solely in the L2 as well.

Student L1 Use Benefits

Zone of Proximal Development

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, specialized in developmental psychology. His work was often controversial and little known in the West until better know Jean Piaget brought developmental psychology to prominence. However, Vygotsky did introduce a theory of learning called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).  Simply put, the ZPD states that there are three levels to learning. The level in which the student can complete the task without and help, the the level where students can complete the task with guidance (from their instructor in this case), and finally the level in which the student cannot complete the task at all. For example, a beginner student might be able to say, “Hi, my name is _____.” On their own. With help from an outside source (fluent on both their L1 and the L2), they might be able to carry on a simple conversation. “How are you?” “I am fine, how are you?” “it was nice to meet you.” Etc. However, there is no set of circumstances that would allow a language learner at this stage to compose a Master’s level dissertation on the environmental impact of plastic usage in the L2. That task is so far above their ability level, the student would never even attempt it. Hyperbole aside, the basic premise still applies. If you ask students to complete tasks outside of their abilities, they will more often than not choose to not engage. Allowing students to use the L1 in the classroom, allows them to work within their ZPD.


Adult Learner L1 Use

The content for adult learners can sometimes be difficult to balance. They require higher level thought provoking content, but often this content needs to be leveled as though a native speaking child were reading it. L1 use in the classroom helps to bridge this gap. Because students naturally have more advanced vocabulary knowledge in their L1, the use of the L1 in the classroom allows students to better communicate higher level thinking than could be possible given the limited L2 vocabulary they posses (aka speaking in a higher register). Mutually beneficial, a higher register of content for the conversation opens up the ability to learn higher register vocab in the L2 because it exposes them to concepts and vocabulary they may not have learned in the L2 otherwise.



As with all educational methods, there are pluses and minuses for using the L1 in the L2 classroom. However, as this article has outlined, there are definite advantages to viewing L1 use as an asset in your classroom. From a supportive role to operating within the student’s ZPD to scaffolding, L1 use in an L2 classroom enhances learning and allows for more in-class time to be spent practicing the L2.

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