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Should I Allow My ESL Students to Use Their Native Language?

This post was written by Matthew Clark
Whether to allow ESL students to use their first language (L1) in the foreign language classroom often sparks quite fiery debate. While some argue that allowing the L1 prevents learners from developing fluency in the target language, others see many reasons for the inclusion of L1 in classroom tasks.

While the decision to include or exclude the L1 may depend on any number of factors (instructor beliefs, school policy, political environment, customer wishes, etc.), it is valuable to at least consider the uses of the mother tongue.

  1. Perhaps the most common usage of the native language is to introduce or confirm the meaning of a new target language item. This is particularly handy when the word that is causing difficulty is not entirely relevant to the core content of the lesson. Rather than digressing from the topic or completely dismissing the student’s question, a teacher or fellow student can provide a quick translation, and the class can proceed.
  2. Teachers may also use the L1 to set up a task. If the students’ level of English comprehension is not high enough to grasp the directions, the entire activity will fall apart and students will not be able to practice the target language.
  3. Strategy instruction can be just as valuable as language instruction. Again, if students are not proficient enough in English to understand the discussion of study skills, much time and energy can be wasted trying to explain.
  4. As teachers, we require feedback from our students on the lessons. Students will likely feel more comfortable giving feedback in their native language. Additionally, their feedback will be more accurate and detailed than if they were to required to use a language in which they possess a limited capacity.
  5. For those interested in second language acquisition theory, I suggest researching the Revised Hierarchical Model and Bilingual Interactive Activation Model. Both suggest that L2 conceptual processing is facilitated by the L1, as well as activation of the L1 during L2 use.
  6. Finally, even if teachers firmly believe in the exclusive use of the target language, they may want to justify this approach to the students using the L1.

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