Using L1 to support and enhance language learning

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A while ago I had the opportunity to chat to Laura Wilkes at TESOL Pop about using L1s in the language classroom. You can listen to the podcast here or watch the video here. TESOLPop has a great podcast series for busy teachers where they explore different aspects of teaching, learning and CPD in 15 minutes. Earlier this year I saw a callout for ideas to be covered on the series and I approached Laura with the topic of using L1s to support learning.

using L1 to support and enhance language learning Adrienn Szlapak

I had never done a podcast or been interviewed before so admittedly I was a little nervous. Now I can say that I really enjoyed the process of preparing for the podcast as well as the actual recording of it. Laura is not only an expert of podcasting (she even runs a course for educators who are interested in podcasting) but she is also great at creating a friendly and calming environment.

I have been passionate about using L1s in the classroom for a while now and I’ve written about how my views have changed here and here. This time, Laura and I explored some scenarios when L1 can be used in the classroom to enhance learning and the difficulties surrounding this.

  • Scenario 1 tackles the issue of having several L1s and not one dominant language shared by the group. This is typical in my context as Malaysia is a multicultural and multilingual country where it’s a rarity to only speak one language. People tend to have a ‘home language’ that they communicate with their families in, most people speak Bahasa Melayu, which is one of the official languages of the country, and depending on the type of school they attend they might speak Mandarin, Tamil or English as well. Since I don’t speak the majority of the languages my learners do, I rely on grouping them with language peers (if possible), making my instructions clear and specific and setting rules for the use of L1s. Having rules in place helps me as well as my learners to navigate this web of languages. I make it clear that the output must be in English, the language we all share, so that the students know they will be called on to contribute in the target language.
  • Scenario 2 focuses on working with a group of learners with whom you share a language. What if the learners frequently use this shared language instead of the target language? When I used to teach in Hungary, I shared an L1 with most of my students. During the DELTA course I even experimented with Community Language Learning (CLL) in a young learner class. My experience tells me that acknowledging contributions regardless of the language used is key, however, agreeing on some ground rules such as the teacher sticking to the target language might be a good idea. The dynamics of that particular young learner group completely changed when they were allowed to speak Hungarian if they needed to. Suddenly, they were more engaged and asked intelligent questions to clarify language. We all learned a lot from that experience.
  • Scenario 3 sheds light on the difficulties a teacher faces when school policies are restrict the use of L1s. Having worked at a school that used to have an “English only” policy, I have seen the enormous positive change that the inclusion of multilingualism brought. When the policy changed it didn’t magically make everything better but it opened an avenue for teachers and learners to start thinking about all these languages as valuable resources rather than distractors. Liaising with SLT and advocating for your learners is important, albeit not always possible. However, there are ways in which you can make your classroom a place that welcomes and celebrates all of your learners’ languages. Multilingual displays, L1 brainstorming, or drafting a piece of writing in a learner’s strongest language can be achieved in a single classroom. Reaching out to colleagues, you might be able to build a network of teachers who use multilingual-friendly pedagogies and start a grassroots revolution. Who knows!
  • Scenario 4 explored the possibilities of collaborating with colleagues across the school by leveraging the learners’ interests. The beauty of language learning is that it can and should happen across the curriculum so the options are boundless. Co-planning is essential for successful co-teaching so the subject teacher and the language teacher need to find time to agree on the learning objectives (both subject specific and language aims) as well as plan what each person’s responsibilities are before, during and after the session.

At the end of the podcast, Laura asked me for my top tips for teachers who would like to give using L1s a go:

  1. Trust the process! Letting learners use languages you don’t understand is scary and uncomfortable at times but it’s worth it in the long run. You can build trust and get to know your learners even better.
  2. Put some rules in place so that everyone is clear about the expectations and boundaries surrounding the use of L1s.
  3. Stress the importance of producing output in the target language. This way you can be sure that your learners are developing their language skills and that you’ll be able to give feedback.

If you’d like to learn more about working with multilingual pedagogies, check out the CUNY-NYSIEB Youtube channel.

What challenges do you face when trying to work with L1s in the classroom?

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