Lately, I received numerous questions and inquiries about how I use L1 in my classroom. Some of the queries have come from fellow ESL/EAL practitioners but interestingly, more and more of my colleagues who teach other subjects have started reaching out wanting to know more about using multilingual pedagogies. I am always happy when teachers reach out but I’m especially happy to see a new trend emerging in my current school – subjects teachers are realising that harnessing the power of L1 in the classroom can be beneficial for some students.
Translanguaging, in its loose definition, means the use of more than one language at the same time. In this post, I use the term translanguaging to mean any instance where students use their first language to aid learning in an English medium context.
How it all started for me
I have to be honest, I didn’t always believe that L1 has a place in the language classroom. At the start of my Diploma, my mentor challenged me to reexamine my views around L1 use as he thought I was a tiny bit too rigid. I strongly believed that it had no place in the language classroom at all! At first, I felt frustrated at the thought of having to spend time researching something that I thought I’d never change in my practice but since I had no choice, I found out about Community Language Learning (CLL), a teaching method that was popular in the 1970s.
CLL is centered around the idea that students decide what they would like to express in the target language and the teacher, who speaks their L1, helps them translate what they want to say. The students and the teacher construct the text or conversation together and practise it until all students are able to recall it or produce it independently.
I experimented with CLL in both an adult and a young learner context and, to my utter surprise, I found it to be quite useful. I saw improvement in overall engagement with the topic, even when it was quite complex grammar. Students who normally sat quietly unless prompted to speak were actively contributing to the construction of the common text. Still, I wasn’t a convert when it came to using L1. I saw some benefits and so I slowly added elements of CLL to my repertoire and used it when it seemed useful, but I found CLL to be too constricted to be useful in the long run.
When I moved countries and my context changed, I abandoned the use of L1 completely as I didn’t speak the local languages. I did notice, though, that when I taught beginners or elementary students, they seemed to want to confer with each other in their L1. The school’s policy was to use only the target language so I encouraged my students to stick to it and taught them functional language to use when they asked for help from each other, but at certain times I also found that it was more economical to just allow them to exchange a few quick words in their L1.
The big change for me came when I started my current job as an EAL teacher in an international school. I work almost exclusively with students who are completely new to the language. These students struggle to keep up in every single subject because they don’t speak the language, even though they were often top students in their previous schools. This sometimes leaves them feeling frustrated, which negatively impacts their motivation. Seeing this over and over again made me realise that teaching them English isn’t enough in itself.
What I do
I have found that leveraging their L1 in the classroom helps tremendously. Here are some of the things that I do regularly with L1:
- Brainstorming: In my experience, EAL learners who are new to the language find open-ended activities overwhelming. Brainstorming is a useful part of any lesson and is often employed by all teachers. If I allow my EAL learners to use their L1, they generally come up with more ideas than if they are forced to only work in English. In my own classroom, I have a rule that brainstorming can happen in any language, as long as the output is in English (since that’s the only language I share with the students). When there are expressions that students struggle to find in English, we use them as a learning opportunity – I always ask if somebody in the class can help explain it and see if we can find the correct expression together, or we Google it together. I find that either one of these is a useful exercise.
- In-class support: I teach my secondary students to use a vocabulary tracker that helps them keep track of new words and expressions and immediately translates them into their L1. This simple step often allows EAL students to keep up with the class – I can even see the relief of recognition in their eyes when they see a keyword in their first language. I also ask my colleagues to let EAL students take notes in their mother tongues or to allow them to add L1 translations to their notes. These ideas speed up the process of comprehension and also aid revision when the students are using their notes at home.
- Flipped classroom: flipped classroom-type activities lend themselves to leveraging L1s. Students can do the research at home in any language they wish and then try to translate their notes into English. This is a valuable process, albeit time-consuming. However, in my experience, EAL students feel much better prepared for lessons when they have had the chance to engage with a topic in the language they feel most confident in.
- Think-pair-share: allowing EAL students to share their ideas and ask their questions in their L1 (if there are other students who speak the same language) is really powerful. They get the chance to double-check they understood the information and reinforce the learning at the same time. Sharing has to happen in the target language, though, for everyone’s benefit.
- Bilingual glossaries: with younger learners it’s a good idea to allow them to create visual glossaries of new keywords. If they are literate in their L1s, I encourage them to add the translation of the word or expression to it for future reference as well.
Rules, rules, rules
As with anything in teaching, multilingual pedagogies only work effectively, if the rules are clear. Learner training and classroom management are important to establish boundaries and to police that students use their L1s for learning.
- Make it clear when it is ok to use L1s and what for (e.g. use L1s for brainstorming but the output must be in the target language).
- When translanguaging is used, acknowledge ALL contributions, regardless of the language they are in.
- Keep it positive! We must avoid making students feel like speaking their mother tongues is wrong.
There are many benefits to allowing learners to use their full language repertoire instead of sticking to their limited knowledge of the target language:
- activating schemata becomes quicker and easier – students will inevitably have more ideas if they can use the language they are most fluent in
- improved motivation and involvement
- fostering trust between the teacher and the students – allowing learners to use a language I don’t speak takes a lot of trust but I have seen how it pays off in the long run