Using the L1 in the Classroom

 SLA Topics Vivian Cook 

multi-competence means knowledge of two or more languages in one mind
compound bilinguals link the two languages in their minds
coordinate bilinguals keep the languages apart
reciprocal language teaching is a teaching method in which pairs of students alternately teach each other their languages

The traditional principle: minimise using the L1 in the classroom

Howatt (1984, p.289), ‘the monolingual principle, the unique contribution of the twentieth century to classroom language teaching, remains the bedrock notion from which the others ultimately derive’.

Maxim: discourage the use of the L1 in the classroom.
           strongest: ban the L1 from the classroom.
           weakest: minimise the L1 in the classroom.

The Academic Justifications

a. L1 acquisition; children in the L1 can't fall back on another language

b. Compartmentalisation; the L1 and L2 should be kept separate at all times

Teaching Reasons (mostly unstated):
· maximise quantity of L2
· use L2 for real-life functions
But the classroom is L2 use, not imitation L1

Methods that deliberately involve the L1
(A) alternating language methods
Reciprocal language teaching
Two-Way immersion: Alternating Days etc
(B) methods that actively create links between L1 and L2
i) the New Concurrent Method
ii) Community Language Learning (CLL)
iii) the Bilingual Method
iv) bilingual presentation methods

Ways of Using the L1 in the classroom
Factors in using L1: efficiency, learning, naturalness, external relevance
A. Teacher conveying meaning

- teacher using L1 for conveying meaning of words or sentences
- teacher using L1 as a meta-language for explaining grammar
B. Teacher organising the class

- teacher using L1 for managing the classroom
- teacher using L1 for giving instructions for teaching activities
- L1 used for testing
C. Students using L1 within the class

- students using L1 as part of main learning activity
- students using L1 incidentally within classroom activities
Howatt (1984, p.289): if there is another ‘language teaching revolution’ round the corner, it will have to assemble a convincing set of arguments to support some alternative (bilingual)?) principle of equal power’

Dodson's Bilingual Method: a teaching method that uses the student's first language to establish the meanings of the second language.


Cook, V.J. (2001), 'Using the first language in the classroom', CMLR, 57, 3, 402-423 Online version

Dodson, C.J. (1967), Language Teaching and the Bilingual Method, London: Pitman

Hawkins, E. (1987), Modern Languages in the Curriculum, second edition, CUP

Howatt, A. (1984), A History of English Language Teaching, Oxford: OUP

Jacobson, R. & Faltis, C. (Eds.) (1990), Language Distribution Issues in Bilingual Schooling, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Macaro, E. (1997), Target Language, Collaborative Learning and Autonomy, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Mitchell, R. (1988), Communicative Language Teaching in Practice, London: CILT

Stern, H.H. (1992), Issues and Options in Language Teaching, Oxford: OUP