English Only in the EFL Classroom: Worth the Hassle?


In considering the use of L1 (the learners mother tongue) in ELT (English Language Teaching) on ​​the part of the teacher, one of the first assumptions is that the teacher has a sufficient command of the students L1 to be of value in the first place. Another assumption which may well affect this scenario is that all the learners in a class or group have the same L1. While these assumptions may often be the case in numerous EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teaching / learning settings, many times they are not. In the case of multi-cultural classes (ie, in the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, India, etc.) where the learners have different L1s, or when the teacher does not have a working knowledge of the learners L1, a frequent occurrence in Asia, Africa and eastern Europe, applied L1 use in the EFL classroom is strictly limited or may be rendered virtually impossible.

Use of L1 in the Classroom

In my case, I'll talk about those instances where I do in fact use the learners L1 in my EFL classes. I have acquainted a working knowledge of Spanish and all my university and independent students have Spanish as their L1. Although I'm against any substantial use of L1 in ESOL (the teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes, there are situations where its use is quite valuable. In addition, at early levels a ratio of about 5 per cent native language to about 95 per cent target language may be more profitable than the use of "English only". (Atkinson, 1987) On the first day of class with a new group, I explain to the learners that they are allowed to ask "How do you say ______ in Spanish?" where the Spanish (L1) word or phrase is filled in the blank. This allows the students to get key vocabulary in their written or spoken expression while limiting their use of L1 in class.

When learners are stumped for abstract lexis, a word or phrase which can not be easily elicited during the course of a lesson, I'll simply "give" them the word in Spanish to aid in continuing with the smooth flow of the lesson and not get "bogged down" in trying to come up with the elusive lexis by other means. When a student gives me production of incomprehensible language, ie, I (nor the other learners) can not decipher what the student is trying to say in English, I'll say "Tell me that in Spanish." Armed with this new understanding I (or one of the other learners) can then provide that learner with corrected, comprehensible forms which else might elude both (or even all) of us.

During a written exam, I'll also "give" the learners a word or phrase writing it on the board in English and / or Spanish to avoid extensive disruption of the test-taking process. Since I do not prepare the exams, new lexis can creep into readings, instructions or exercises. When a learner, …

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