L1 vs L2

When your learner says, ” That’s Greek to me!” Is it OK to use… Greek?
There is a lot of talk going around about whether or not a teacher should use the learners’ L1 when teaching them English. I  speak two languages well. English and Greek. I also speak a bit of German. So, when I teach learners whose language I know, I do tend to use the students’ L1. Is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so. For me, from time to time (not always!), it is OK to use the L1 in class. OK, but when?

  • To highlight the difference between the L1 and L2:
    • For example, in Greek we say, ” Πάω για ψώνια  (pao gia psonia)” which if when translated, is “I go for shopping”. This is of course what my Greek learners very often say.  So, I resort to Greek and explain the differences between the Greek language and use of preposition and the equivalent English structure go + verb+ ing (go shopping). I also use the L1 to explain collocations. I highlight the different verbs and how the collocate with nouns. In fact, when teaching Grammar and vocabulary I often use the L1 to clarify terms, to show differences and avoid L1 transfer errors. I know learners are not supposed to translate from the L1 to the L2 and that I, the teacher, am supposed to instill in them the English way of thinking/saying but reality is not that simple.
  • To focus on/teach an English word:
    • When I am teaching young learners, I often sing to them and very frequently I sing a well known Greek song but add English words! The English words are translations of the Greek lyrics. My learners always remember the English words that accompany a Greek  tune!
  • I use the L1 out of my own insecurity just to check (clarification/ comprehension or concept checking) that we are on the same page:
    • What can I say here? I know this is wrong, but I still do it. I ask my concept checking questions, I do an example in class but there is always a part of me, a little devil that pushes me to say something in Greek. Just a little check to make sure that everyone is on board! I want to be 100% sure, especially with my younger learners.
      Being on the fence about L1/L2 usage
  • I use it when I am giving feedback on writing (especially with weaker students):
    • Sometimes some of the things my learners write in their essays do not make sense and then I ask them in Greek, ” Do you mean ……….?” They tell me what they want to say. they give me their English version and then I guide them towards the correct version of what they wanted to say.
  • To avoid frustration:
    • there are times when my students are just simply tired of trying over and over to say something in English, so they just blurt out the Greek word. I then offer the English equivalent and they just repeat what I said. I try to discourage this, but at times, I do let my students get away with it. In Greece very often students come to class after a full day of school. Therefore, my learners are often extremely tired and frustrated and when it is 10 o’clock at night, they may resort to their L1.
    • I use my (bad) German with my German students to show my students that I too have difficulty learning a foreign language:
      • I often use German with my German learners because I want them to understand that I know where they are coming from. I understand. I know that learning another language is hard. When using my lower level German I show them that it is OK to make mistakes and that they should be willing to take risks. Another bonus? My students feel like teachers cause there is a reverse in roles. They teach me some language as well. They become my teacher and they love it : D
    Learning a language is not something black and white. I am here to help my students learn and sometimes using the L1 simply does that. It helps them. Should the L1 dominate the class? Of course not, but it can facilitate learning, don’t you think?

    Till next time…….

    12 thoughts on “L1 vs L2

    1. Hi Joanna, I don't think it's wrong to use L1 in the classroom especially if both parties can speak it or if it's their mother tongue. There are students who need to anchor from time to time. It can be really tiring to constantly speak and concentrate on L2 so why not let our hair down for a while (this time should be spend productively, of course – for explanations, clarifications, concept checking, as you point out). We are not pretending to be native speakers, right? We all know too well that we are in the classroom to learn the language so whatever helps is OK with me, provided communicative teaching principles are followed most of the time. A great post, thanks for sharing.


    2. Hi Hana!
      Thanks for reading! Something I haven't mentioned is that when I am teaching EAP to my Chinese sts they often look at me baffled. I try and try to explain all these difficult concepts and the weaker sts seem to sometimes struggle. I then ask the stronger sts to tell me what I am talking about and then tell their classmates in Chinese what I am talking about. So, concept checking in English and then translation of my concept checking/explanations in Chinese. I do whatever I can just to be on the safe side! Thanks for the comment. I love reading comments 😀


    3. Hi Joanna and All!
      As you mentioned there cannot be a one-to-one translation from L2 to L1. For example, in the first post of this blog “To highlight the difference between L1 and L2”, the translated sentence “I go for shopping” has an extra preposition. This should actually be redundant. “I go shopping” is shorter and correct, too. Perhaps, the error might be re-enforced as it might get repeated later. It would be safer to use L1 for beginners and very simple English words for elementary, pre-intermediate, and higher. As far as teaching is concerned language has to be 'simplified' to suit the level of understanding of the Ss.
      Thanks Joanna and All!


    4. Hi Sundaresh!
      Thank you for reading and for your comment. What I am saying in my post is that whilst in Greek the direct translation would be I go for shopping in English the expression is go shopping. In Greek the verb go is frequently followed by the preposition for.This is why my learners make this mistake. It is an L1/L2 error transfer. When I teach this structure: go +verb+ing, I point out the difference between the English and the Greek structure : ). That is why, in this case and others, I use Greek in class. To highlight differnces in structures.


    5. Hi Joanna, I wholeheartedly agree with you! My take is that it's just social conditioning: 'old school' entails using the 'full immersion' approach to teach English to non-native speakers, as much as, many believe that is counterproductive to explain grammar and just teach pronunciation, is the only way to go. I believe that in this day and age, many of the old schemes have been shattered. In my opinion, there isn't one right way to teach English to non-native speakers, since there are multiple case studies e.g. non-native speakers living in an Anglophone country OR non-native speakers living in their own country OR non-native speakers living in a foreign non-Anglophone country, just to name a few. In the end, and in Aristotle's words, my take is that: “Virtue (truth) stands in the middle” or at least that's how it's been, for me, so far. Communication is why language was invented and to convey information we, as teachers, need to leverage all that makes us human i.e. non-verbal gestures, writing, facial expressions, and so on. That's why I truly believe that every teacher sets up the best 'encoding' and 'decoding' method for his or her audience. Hence, there's no rule etched in stone. It's all about sensitivity and common sense. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK 🙂 Questioning ourselves and others in the field, wondering if we are doing a good job, is what will make us effective teachers! Cheers, 🙂


    6. Hey Viviana!
      Thanks for reading. I am glad you agree with me and I think the most important thing here is what you said there is no one way of teaching English. We have loads of 'tricks' up our sleeves and using the learners' L1 can be one more : )


    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s