Teaching any foreign language can be both fun, motivating, and at the same time quite challenging. The challenges for the learners are to overcome the language barrier and communicate fluently, for the teachers — to make sure the learners acquire the knowledge and skill set necessary to reach a level of coherent and cohesive speech.
One of the biggest challenges though is the usage of L1, or in other words, the interference of the mother tongue in the way of learning a new language.
Today we will talk about the reasons why the students start to use L1 in a foreign language classroom, whether it is a positive or negative phenomenon, and what are some ways of bringing its usage to a minimum.
Why students shift to L1
There are several reasons why language learners resort to their mother tongue when in a foreign language classroom. One of them is that they don’t feel confident enough to use the foreign language in communication due to limited vocabulary or structural resources. They are afraid to make mistakes, to sound funny, and it doesn’t matter what age we are dealing with. This is a human feature not to want to be wrong.
Another reason why students shift to L1 is simply to clarify and/or check the information. When dealing with abstract vocabulary patterns and certain grammatical structures, learners feel the need to make sure they had fully comprehended the matter at hand and double-check it in their mother tongue.
Telling jokes and language-specific humour is another reason why L1 can interfere with communication in a foreign language. There are certain things that will just not sound the way they do in a foreign language, so it is quite common for students to shift to L1 in these cases.
The last but not the least reason is that the students are just not interested in the class. This is quite a challenging thing and gives a lot of food for thought to the teacher in terms of lesson planning, material design and context of the lesson in general.
All of these mentioned, the question arises of whether using L1 is such a terrible thing to do in a foreign language classroom. CELTA course will normally tell you that it is, that using L1 should be eliminated altogether as students will always go back to it whenever they have trouble expressing their thoughts in the target language.
This, of course, is true, however, it is also argued that using the mother tongue is not necessarily a deadly sin. It can sometimes actually be quite helpful when dealing with idiomatic expressions (students can find the equivalents in their language), explaining the differences between tense forms (some languages are quite similar in grammatical structure and translation can assist in assimilating the material faster), as well as dealing with abstract lexical sets difficult to define in the target language comprehensively.
This, of course, doesn’t suggest that L1 should be there any time we have difficulty in expressing our ideas in the foreign language. Actually, it should be used as a last option.
How to Minimize the usage of L1
There are several ways of how we can decrease the usage of L1 in foreign language classes. Not all of them will work for everyone, however, we can give them a shot.
- Create a trustful environment
When students feel safe in the classroom, in terms of not being judged and teased, they are much more likely to do their best to use the target language instead of L1. We can achieve this by, for instance, not commenting and correcting each and every mistake the students make. Instead, we might want to ignore some of them depending on the target at the moment of teaching and give the students a chance to practice fluency. This will make the students feel more confident and the fear of being wrong will gradually disappear.
- Show the progress
Showing the progress students make during the course can also be a great motivator for them to gain confidence in their learning and using the language. This can be done by tests, spoken productions, role plays, timed talks, competitive games, etc. Basically, anything that will show the students where they were and where they have reached. Positive comments on successful spoken production will create a feeling of achievement and the students will want to do more. A long as the class time is limited and it will not always be possible to allocate so much time to positive feedback, video feedback (use Flipgrid) or audio feedback (Use Vocaroo) sent to students will be a good idea. It can be done every now and then when you feel the student has gone the extra mile and deserves to be praised. Another effective way to do this is short post-it notes given to the students at the beginning/end of the lesson, highlighting the achievements and progress they have made during a specific period of time. As for young learners, giving stars for extra work is a nice idea and it brings about a lot of excitement.
- Adapting the language
As it is well known, different language competency levels need different types of challenge. We, as teachers, sometimes get too excited and fail to grade our language for a specific group of students (A2, B1, etc.). It is equally bad using too challenging language with low-level students and giving less challenge to learners of higher competency. Low-level students feel like the language is too difficult for them which results in demotivation, whereas higher-level students get bored. In both cases, it is quite likely for them not to take the class seriously and relax.
An example of instruction for Elementary level students can be something like this;
“Open your book, p. 6. Read the text. Answer the questions after the text.”
For Advanced level students it can be more eloquent (if the teacher is not trying to reduce the TTT);
“Read the text on p.6, comment on the follow-up questions and share your viewpoint with your partner.”
Using penalties is another way of minimizing L1 usage. Tongue twisters, extra exercises, putting money in a cash bank in case of using L1 are all practiced techniques. However, in my experience, we should be very careful what penalties to exercise. Some students might be very dissatisfied with the penalties used which can result in demotivation, disinterest and failure.
But why just penalties? Bonuses for not using L1 can also be good motivators. Competitive games like “the person with the fewest L1 phrases wins….” work with almost all age groups as people like winning and being the first 🙂
Asking the students to reformulate/translate their L1 sentences into the target language can also be a nice tool. Firstly, it shows the students that they can say the same in the target language and increases their level of confidence. Second, it is a good practice both in terms of sentence structure and word choice. Finally, students are more likely to remember the phrases they construct themselves rather than being told by the teacher.
Jotting down those phrases and sentences that we want the students to say in the target foreign language and coming back to it at the end of the activity or the class is a nice trick especially in the case of group activities aimed at boosting fluency.
- Body language
Having good acting skills is a great asset if you are a teacher, especially when teaching low level students. There are lots of instructions that can be acted out completely through body language, miming, gesturing, using keywords and demonstrating. In this case even learners at the lowest level will have no difficulty in understanding what the task is.
If the task is something that is done regularly, instructions can be gradually be put into sentences as the students will already be aware of the procedure and will have a chance to focus on the language itself.
- False identities
This is a very nice tool for creative and fun loving groups. The idea is to give foreign names to the students, preferably different nationalities, and mention that the communication language is English for instance. Next is to set up a context. It can be anything, starting from a regular discussion/debate topics ending with a small talk at a conference. Students normally enjoy this activity and have fun at the same time.
- Provide the language
As long as students resort to L1 when having difficulty in the foreign language, it is a very good idea to present the key phrases that should be practiced in advance by eliciting, handing it out, etc. This is more of a controlled practice task, however, it makes sure the student assimilate the language the teacher aims for at a particular session. Later on, this language can be taken away from them for more independent practice. By this time, the students will have had enough exposure to the target expressions and will easily use them in free production.
Students have different needs, competencies and characters in group classes. To meet them all and make certain that both the skills and the language are exercised properly is quite a challenging task. So, why not use the knowledge we have about the students to make our life easier?
Pairing up students with different learning styles can work here. There is always ‘a chatter’, ‘a silent one’, ‘an initiator’, ‘an interrupter’, ‘a rule breaker’ in all groups. Flashcards can be very handy here to organize them accordingly. If the ‘rule breaker’ is the one who is always using L1, why not to appoint him as the ‘police’ to penalize any L1 usage and urge the group to use the target language. Why not give the ‘summary’ card to the ‘silent student’ as the first one who will finalize the points of the discussion and report to the class. Why not to assign the ‘initiator’ to come up with 2 or more solutions/opinions about a topic. In a word, we can think of many more roles and tasks to match everyone’s personalities.
These were some tricks and tools that always work for my classrooms but, surely, this is not an exhaustive list. We are more than sure that there are more ideas and tested ways of dealing with L1 interference. We challenge you to share yours!