The Futile War being Fought in Language Classrooms

The War on Drugs

In 1998 the United Nations decided that it was going to eradicate drugs from planet earth by 2008. This project was doomed to failure from the start. Human beings have been getting high since prehistoric times. How could the UN ever obliterate in 10 years something which has been in used for 10,000 years? Instead of removing narcotics from society, the war on drugs created public health crises, mass incarceration and violence. Counties are now trialing alternative approaches - Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001 and drug use hasn’t increased there since.

The War on L1 in EFL

In many TEFL classrooms a similarly futile war is being waged. I call it the “war on L1” (L1 = students’ first language). Teachers set rules during the first five minutes of class and hope this will eradicate students using the language they have been speaking since they were two years old. Seeing any parallels yet?


The Problem with Banning L1 in EFL Classes

The “war on L1” hasn’t caused any soaring prison populations or gangland murders but it is damaging in other ways. Banning L1

  • Hinders learner autonomy by stopping students from asking each other questions in class
  • Takes away support from students in the use of dictionaries and translations
  • Sometimes results in longwinded and inefficient explanations from teachers
  • Can lead to unnecessary conflicts between students and teachers


How to Use L1 Responsibly in Language Classes

Yes, we want students in English classes to speak as much English as possible, but this is not the same as speaking as little L1 as possible. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. We need allow students to use their L1 in a way that promotes learning English. Here are three ways of doing exactly that.


1. Use L1 to Reflect at the End of a Lesson

Studies have shown that students who reflect on their use of learning strategies can become more autonomous learners. That’s great if you’re at C1 level, but if you’re a beginner, it’s not easy to reflect and discuss in English what you learned in class and what strategies you used. So? Ask students to reflect on their performance and learning strategies L1.

2.Get students to translate between L1 and L2

Our students might not end up translating the complete works of Shakespeare, but if they ever go on vacation with someone who speaks less English them, the chances are they’re going to do some “on the fly” translation. How can you help them prepare? Turn your regular pair role plays into translation activities by adding a third person who needs to translate between the shopkeeper and customer, waiter and patron, interviewer and interviewee, etc.

3. Control Students’ L1 Use

Make yourself a double-sided flashcard with a Chinese flag (if you’re in China, a different flag if you’re teaching elsewhere) on one side and an American (or British or whatever you like) flag on the other side. Signal to your students what language you want them to speak at different times. ‘Legalize’ L1 use at times that are going to benefit your students the most.


In summary then…

  • if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them
  • don’t start a war you can’t win - the War on L1 is as unwinnable as an invasion of Russia in the winter
  • your students’ first language is not your enemy, it can be your friend

What do you think about students using their first language in class? Please comment and tell us!