Controlled Use of L1

A former colleague of mine has gone on a bit of a teaching advantage, taking up a post in the Galapagos islands! He recently sent me an interesting query about the place of L1 in the classroom, particularly in monolingual classrooms. DELTA Series ImageHere’s his question:

Have you got any good sources of information for the use of L1 in the classroom? There is no institutional policy against L1 here and it is very difficult to eliminate it entirely when students are allowed to use it with other teachers. Also, what about L1 in beginner classes? I’m starting to think that given the circumstances very careful use of L1 might save time and even facilitate learning and instruction giving. Do you think this is the case? If so, do you have any tips on how to do it in a way that does not hamper the students learning of communication strategies and their ability to derive meaning from context.

L1 is something we’re normally encouraged or enforced to avoid in the classroom at all costs. Although there are sound reasons for this, it seems to me that those reasons are more often than not underappreciated or even ignored and L1 is banned from the communicative classroom on ritualistic grounds as opposed to principled grounds.

Here’s my response to my colleague:

Today I finished the intensive DELTA at IH Newcastle. L1 in the classroom is a topic we looked at during the course. What they teach you at DELTA level blows everything you learn at CELTA level out of the water (including the overreliance on ritualistic practice). With my new knowledge, in short, I would say let learners use L1, especially at beginners level. Don’t force learners to speak – let them speak when they’re ready.

When you might and might not accept L1 across all levels depends on what you are trying to achieve at each stage. So, for example, if you are presenting new language or  your learners are discovering it, they might need to use L1 to figure some things out or ask other Ss for support in understanding.

If you are running a stage where you want them to show you what they can do with the language (not a productive stage at the end of the lesson but a stage where you give them an activity and you are listening to see what they can and can’t do) then you really need them to talk only in English.

When it comes to productive stages, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt on DELTA is you can’t expect learners to be ready to produce new language by the end of the lesson – you have to sit back and give them the opportunity to produce the language if they feel ready to.



4 thoughts on “Controlled Use of L1

  1. Hi Ash,
    Congratulations on surviving the Delta, and I hope the exam went well!
    I agree with most of Angelos’ points, although I think the sandwich method of instructions shouod only be used the first couple of times you do a particular task, otherwise the learners become reliant on the L1 version, and don’t really pay attention to L2 because they don’t need to.
    ELTchat has done a couple of chats about L1 – you can find the summaries at I have a collectiono of bookmarks related to L1 use in the classroom: Delta Publishing recently released a book which I think was called ‘Translation’ by Rinvolucri, with a lot of activities you can use to exploit L1 in the classroom.
    While I don’t think L1 should be completely banned from the classroom, the primary language should be English, and students need to be taught functional language to enable them to communicate effectively without having to fall back on L1, for example classroom language and turn-taking phrases. It’s hard work, and takes a lot of training, but it benefits the students in the long run.


  2. Wow Angelos! Thank yo for this great response – lots of info here.

    If the teacher knows the L1 of the learners, they’re at a great advantage, but if they don’t I think they could take advantage of stronger learners in the class who can understand the teacher’s instructions and translate them or help explain things to other learners. I don’t mean to do this all the time – just when there’s difficulties and it would present itself as a nice solution.

    Have you ever found yourself using Greek in Greek monolingual classes?


  3. It is great to read a post about the use of L1 in the classroom, a taboo topic within the ELT ‘circles.’ We have seen a period when the use of L1 in the language classroom was completely banned, but we didn’t know any better. Nowadays, research evidence suggests that not only is it harmless to use the L1 – in certain occasions, it is also much needed.
    As you’ve written in the post, teachers must be aware of when and why to use the L1 in the classroom. Here are some examples of L1 use:
    -When teaching vocabulary (collocations, idioms, etc.): the use of L1 could raise the learners’ awareness as to the arbitrariness of problematic lexical areas.
    -When giving instructions to beginner level learners: the sandwich way (instructions in L2, in L1, and in L2 again) has been proven to be much helpful, here.
    -As a breather: teacher allows 2′ of exclusive L1 use – particularly helpful with young learners.
    -When examining discursive features, for example turn-taking habits: again, this helps to raise the learners’ awareness on cultural issues that affect language use.
    -When examining complex grammatical areas: by comparing and contrasting with L1, learners become more aware of the source of difficulty they might face when attempting to use a particular phenomenon.

    I am pretty sure that the list can go on and on. Philip Kerr has recently published a book on the issue of L1 use; it is called Translation and Own-Language Activities (Cambridge University Press) This is the link for anyone interested in reading more about it:


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