Using students’ L1 in the English language classroom

A perennial debate in the TEFL world is whether and to what extent teachers should use their students’ L1 in the classroom. In the case of English teachers in Japan then, then question is: should we use Japanese in the English language classroom?

Second language ability of English teachers

When a language teacher first arrives in their host country, they probably don’t have much choice about the matter. Unless they have studied the host country’s language extensively before arriving, they will not possess the requisite language skills to to order an orange juice, let alone explain the present continuous in their students’ native tongue.

Likewise for those teachers who teach multi-lingual groups of students. There is no place for L1 instruction in this scenario, because there is no single L1 that all the students possess.

But where the teacher has lived in the host country long enough to acquire at least an intermediate level of the native language, and teaches groups of students all of whom possess the same first language – should he or she use the language?

CLT and the ‘no L1’ precept

The strict version of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), the current dominant methodology in TEFL, suggests that learners acquire a language by using the language and being exposed to the language. In this sense, we might argue that the teacher should provide all possible opportunities to their students to be exposed to the language in use. As addressing students in their L1 also tends to procure responses in L1, a teacher who adopts the students’ L1 for grammar explanations and classroom management instructions arguably not only deprives their students of the chance to improve their receptive skills but also deprives them of the chance to improve their productive skills.

The exception to the rule

However, I would argue that there are situations where addressing students in the target language is actually counter-productive, and adopting the students’ L1 does not deprive them of the chance of acquisition in the way that CLT suggests. (I also argue that there is a place for grammar explanations and classroom management instructions, despite the impact of CLT in relation to the former, and the wisdom of the adage don’t explain, demonstrate in relation to the latter. These issues are, however, topics for another blog post).

These situations occur when:

  • students are of an elementary or low-intermediate level of English
  • the focus of the lesson is reading or writing, not speaking or listening

Where students are of an elementary or low-intermediate level of English, it is very likely that they will lack the requisite knowledge to understand meta-linguistic grammar explanations or complex classroom management instructions.

Yes, students probably should know words such as noun, adjective, verb, subject, present simple, etc. But some do not, and if the teacher has the ability to express these concepts in the students’ L1, he should not refrain from doing so on the basis of depriving them a chance of exposure to the target language.

After all, in elementary and low-intermediate lessons, what is the target language? It will most likely be language relating to self-introductions, expressing likes and dislikes, talking about hobbies and interests, and other building blocks of basic expression.

L1 as a direct route to understanding

Even if the teacher does insist on using the English words for grammatical concepts (noun, verb, adjective, etc), it is very likely that he or she will have to use the L1 translation of each word in order to teach its meaning, thereby confounding their efforts to use only English in any event.

Furthermore, it is a lengthy digression from topics such as self introductions and expressing likes and dislikes, to teaching English words for grammatical terms. And who needs to use such words anyway, other than English teachers themselves? Yes, we need to understand the concept of a noun, a verb and an adjective to learn a language effectively, but we don’t need to know the words for these concepts in the language we are trying to learn – or at least, its not a priority at the elementary to low intermediate level.

Finally, in relation to classroom management, as I previously stated, the old adage don’t explain, demonstrate is a reliable one – at least with demonstrable concepts. But to convey ideas such as: “Please go to the school office and hand in these questionnaires”, or “If you miss two more classes you will fail the course” or “These are the criteria for course assessment” to learners who have an elementary level of English, I would argue, requires, at the very least, an L1 gloss of the key words in each sentence.


About Paul Raine

Paul has taught English as a foreign language in Japan since 2006, and obtained a masters degree in Teaching English as a Foreign and Second Language in 2012. He has a wide range of experience in a variety of different teaching contexts, including conversation schools, junior and senior high schools, blue-chip companies, and colleges and universities. He is particularly interested in integrating technology with English language pedagogy. You can contact Paul on Twitter @paul_sensei or visit his homepage at

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