L1 in a teen classroom

L1 in a teen classroom

Getting teenagers to use English in our lessons can be a real struggle. There are a hundred reasons why they stick to their mother tongue: peer pressure, difficult topics, lack of motivation, low level, no teacher’s support. However, there are situations when mother tongue or L1 can be used as a powerful educational tool which you’d rather not ban from your classroom. 

Arguments FOR L1

  • Especially at lower levels of proficiency, teens will be much more confident if allowed to speak L1. The use of the language they know lowers their anxiety and relieves the fear of using English. We should still find a way of encouraging students to speak. Ideally, set the limits from the very first lessons. Say, ‘We can speak Russian while studying grammar’ or ‘All the instructions in September will be in L1’.
  • Teens often face double trouble: what to say and how to put it right. You can mitigate the first problem if you allow teens to discuss the issue in their L1 first. At the same time, you can deal with the second problem if after discussion you allow 5-minute time for teens to ask you any questions about the choice of words or some tricky collocations they need.
  • Not all teenage students have a good command of metalanguage (i.e terminology). Probably, it will be easier for them to discuss grammar concepts in their L1. If you are asking them for feedback, it will be more accurate and detailed in their mother tongue too.
  • ‘I can speak more eloquently than that!’ is a common complaint of teens and adults who don’t want to sound primitive, being restricted by their low level. Encourage consulting bilingual dictionaries or asking you every time they need to make their phrase more precise.
  • Talking about higher levels, contrastive analysis is a gold mine when you are discussing the difference between, say, an obstacle, a hurdle and a hindrance. To know a word means to be aware of all shades of its meaning. And the more you know, the easier it is to retrieve the word. Add some L1 parallels to your lesson and your teens will definitely benefit from that. 
  • Using L1 is a great way of scaffolding when you work with a mixed-ability group. Provide weaker learners with a little glossary after their reading task or add a multiple-choice question to some of the most complicated phrases. The question I often use is ‘Which Russian phrase do you think conveys the meaning best?’ 

Ideas for using L1

We have already addressed the issue of translation activities in class. Here, you will find some more ideas of using mother tongue with teenagers.

Research in L1, present in English

This one is ideal for homework or some shorter research in class. Students have to read on some topic, person or concept in their mother tongue and then give a short presentation in English, telling about their findings. 


Students work as a group of three or open class. Allocate the roles of an interviewer, a celebrity who can only speak L1 (in my case, Russian) and an interpreter. Teens must carry out an interview with the help of the interpreter. Two key tips for this activity: give enough time to prepare, i.e. to write down the questions, and start with nominating the strongest students for the role of the interpreter. The activity works well with both low and high levels, though.

Chinese whisper 

Do you remember the good old Chinese whisper game? In this game, students form a line and the teacher whispers a word into one of the student’s ear. They pass the word along the line, whispering. The final student says the word out loud – and quite often it’s a wrong one! You can adapt this activity to your needs and use a bit of L1. 

The teacher whispers a short phrase in L1 to the nearest student. The student translates that into English and passes to the next person. The next person translates it back to L1. So it goes till the last person in the line. This can be really amusing and you will probably end up discussing where the translations went wrong.

Spot the Error competition

Nowadays there are many websites which provide translations of phrases and extended pieces of texts. One of them, for instance, is Reverso Context. With my teens, we have a competition. Every time they see something like the example below, they screenshot it and bring to the class. We discuss why the example looks weird: is there a mistake in grammar? Or the wrong choice of words? Then, students try to find a better way of translating the piece into L1. We can go further and make up a short dialogue or a situation with the phrase. It teaches students contrastive analysis and helps them notice that languages function in a different way. Every month we name the winner by counting the screenshots like these. 

All in all, L1 often performs as a bridge towards English. It is a short-cut for explaining abstract concepts and complicated grammar. What’s more, it helps students develop activities such as code-switching for later use in real life.  

What’s your L1 policy and how strict are you about that? 

Надежда Попова

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