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Using L1 – the learners’ perspective

A short video with Nik Peachey interviewing the author Philip Kerr about using and knowing learners’ L1.
In language teaching, we often use the terms L1 to describe the learner’s native language or languages, and L2 to describe the language they’re learning– in our case, English. You are going to watch an interview with the author and teacher trainer Philip Kerr. He talks about the role and importance of learner’s own language in the classroom and the importance of teachers knowing the learner’s L1. As you watch, consider your own views on using the learner’s L1 in language teaching. Isn’t that a bit of a forbidden fruit? Because when I was taught to teach we didn’t– it was like grammar translation or langua– it was kind of one of those things from the past that we weren’t supposed to do.
We were supposed to teach all in English and immerse the students in the culture. Yeah, there is that perception of it. And when I started getting interested in it– I probably share your background in teaching, more or less, anyway– and yeah, I was trained English only in the classroom. So there is that perception that it should be English only. It’s the default position, but only really in a narrow world of ELT. And if you talk to most English teachers around the world– normal teachers in normal context; high schools, universities, wherever– then yes, of course they use their own language; the language they share with them. And they use it on a regular basis.
They use it maybe with a degree of guilt sometimes, because they’re aware of people like you or me saying, English only. So yes, it’s been taboo, but it’s always been there– the elephant in the room that no one talks about. [INAUDIBLE TANNOY ANNOUNCEMENT] Give them a break, eh? We’ll give them break, yeah. Yeah. [TANNOY ANNOUNCEMENT] Yeah, it’s interesting because the context that I work in with online teaching in my school, our students prefer to have a bilingual teacher or someone who understands their own language, especially because they’re learning online and they want tech support sometimes, or they just don’t get it sometimes.
And we have more students asking for a bilingual teacher rather than a native speaker, maybe for that reason. I think it’s normal. The attitudes are fairly clear, because a lot of research has been done into attitudes, but the maj– not all learners, but the majority of learners would prefer a bilingual teacher. But the other thing that’s interesting is about the technology, because one of the reasons why translation is coming back in a big way is because more and more people are learning languages with digital support– Duolingo, for example, or whatever it might be. They’re using digital flashcards, and all of these are bilingual tools.
There are some excellent bilingual or bilingualised dictionaries out there, so it’s sort of becoming normal again in that way. So could you give us an example of what a known language activity might look like, or how a teacher might exploit that? Yeah, I could.
The book that I wrote, though, was a bit different from some books– the sort of recipe books, which typically have very specific classroom activity to practise a particular language point. And I was more interested in generic activities or techniques– really simple techniques, like for example, before a speaking activity, giving students time to brainstorm their activities in their own language because they’ll brainstorm more in their own language; or during a speaking activity– I call these own-language moments. During the speaking activity, when it kind of stops working and they’re drying up, right, boom. Back to your own language for 30 seconds, a minute, before we go back into English. So I’m interested techniques like that, but also some bigger activities.
And the biggest and the most well-known is reverse translation, where you take some kind of text in English, translate it into your own language, and then, at a later date– possibly later in the lesson, but perhaps another lesson– try to translate that back into English. And this is a technique that’s at least 500 years old, 550 years old. So you’re a plagiarist. I’ve nicked this idea from– there’s a Spanish humanist, Juan Luis Vives, who used this technique when he was teaching Princess Mary, one of the daughters of Henry VIII. So we’re talking 1555, 1553. So you’re lucky he won’t be prosecuting you for that one. Not for that one, no. It’s a well-known technique.
I mean, people have been using it for a long time. But it’s a rich technique, and there’s so many different things you can do with it. So does that mean that you have to be a bilingual teacher to use these techniques, or if you don’t speak your student’s language, can you still use some of the techniques from this book? This question about what do you do if you can’t speak the student’s language is what I was addressing in the talk yesterday.
So I thought, well, instead of talking about some of the more exciting activities, especially using tech, I thought I’d address the context where the teacher can speak the student’s language, although that, in a mono– let’s say there’s an English teacher in Austria teaching English to Austrians. Why are they there if they can’t speak German? They kind of do need to know. But there are lots of situations where it’s not possible, because it’s a multilingual class. So that does mean that the teacher can’t use the student’s own language, but it doesn’t mean that the students can’t use their own language. And they don’t all have to be speaking the same language. So those were the things I was exploring.
I don’t know, things like learner training, training people to use bilingual dictionaries well. They don’t have to have the same language as the person sitting next to them, and the teacher doesn’t need to know it, either. But there have been–
from my experience, I’ve been in classrooms where I didn’t understand the language and I was trying to sort of get over a grammar point to a student, and the person sitting next to them just leaned over and said it in Arabic. [INTERPOSING VOICES] [? It’s ?] like, oh yeah, sure. So you kind of stop doing it after a while. You think, well, maybe my training wasn’t that great. And I could tell stories of the number of times where things go wrong because you don’t know the student’s language, or perhaps you’re just insensitive to the cultural norms.
And I think it was Scott Thornbury was saying earlier today that a lot of the recent history of language teaching is finding ways to compensate for the fact that the teacher doesn’t speak the student’s own language. This is completely wrong. The starting point should be, let’s assume that the teacher knows a certain amount about the student’s language, and let’s proceed from there. No? Yeah, why not? Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s not always possible, but– It’s not always possible, but in most cases it is.
Michael Carey was giving some statistics of however many– 15 million English language teachers around the world, something of the kind, and he said that the estimate is maybe 90% to 95% of them share the language of their students. But the whole discourse of English language teaching is dominated by that little 5% UK-based, US-based, who are often monolingual teaching in multilingual situations. And we’ve got a whole theory of English language teaching which is being driven by these monolingual people. Is something wrong? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We’ll probably go into that some other time. OK.

Teachers often have a good knowledge of their learners’ native language (or L1). Perhaps they share the same L1 or they have learnt it because they work in a different country. However, the question of when teachers should use L1 (or even if they should use it at all) when teaching a foreign language (L2), remains a matter for debate.

Watch Nik Peachey interviewing the author Philip Kerr about using and knowing learners’ L1.

What’s your view? Share your thoughts in the comments.

  • As a foreign language learner, do you prefer a teacher who knows and sometimes uses your native language?
  • Do you use your learners’ L1 in your teaching? Why/why not?
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