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Using First Language In the Classroom

Using First Language in the Classroom

When I was first thinking of advertising my services as a young one-to-one teacher I decided to read some advertisements by my colleagues to see how it was supposed to be done. I remember vividly one advertisement of a very impressively dressed lady. It said “I don’t use any Russian in the class. You won’t hear a single Russian word from me”. Wow, I thought sadly, she is so cool, and here I am, still using some Russian almost in every lesson, even though I know from my CELTA training that I’m not supposed to.Using first language in the classroom

Now that I have 10 years of teaching experience and a DELTA to back me up, I can say with some degree of certainty that while “not using a single first language word in class” is one of the possible approaches, is not necessarily the most effective one.

In the latest ELT discussions there has been quite a lot of arguments in favour of using first language in class as long as it’s appropriate and principled. What I would like to concentrate on in this article is the use of first language in a one-to-one context which is a bit different from a group context in this respect. I’m going to use the common abbreviations L1 (first language) and L2 (second language).

Here’s what my colleague Anthony Ash who is now teaching at IH Buenos Aires has told me about his experience of working with Spanish-speaking students: “In a monolingual group the easiest option is always to revert to L1. I don’t let my students know that I speak their language. That way I create an actual need for them to communicate with me in English”.

However, in a one-to-one classroom the teacher has a greater degree of control over which language is being spoken. A gentle “And how do you say that in English?” or just responding to an L1 utterance in L2 usually does the job. So, an individual teacher doesn’t really need to worry about the dangers of L2 and can fully focus on using the time and resources available to help the student achieve the best result.

In my experience, occasionally speaking the student’s first language can be quite beneficial for the following purposes.


Check Understanding

The most obvious use of L1 is translation to check understanding. It can be done in different formats – the student asks you a word they don’t know, you ask them to translate something to see if they understand it correctly, you name it. I turn to it quite often to give short explanations of grammar.

At this year’s IH conference in Barcelona I felt really liberated by the talk on teaching grammar given by Michael Swan. He said that grammar and some vocabulary are better explained in mother tongue, because it makes the explanations more economical and clear, and, most importantly, frees up the time for actually practicing the target language.

If you don’t know the L1 really well, asking the students to translate something into their first language can still do them good. This is a variation of the “learn from your student” format that works so well in the business one-to-one context. If you’re not an expert in the student’s field, you ask them to explain the details of their job to you, and use it as material for linguistic work. Asking them how things work in their language helps them to notice and be more aware of the differences and possible pitfalls.


Upgrade Language

With one-to-one lessons, you usually know pretty well what exactly your student is capable of, so if they’re avoiding more challenging constructions or new vocabulary, you want to push them a bit to make better use of their resources. One of the most time-efficient ways to challenge them like this is to prompt what you want them to say in their mother tongue.

I also usually use L1 at the end of the class to quickly recap some of the language we worked with. I mostly teach in Dogme style, which means working with emergent language and thinking on my feet a lot. True, sometimes L2 is sufficient for it – I start a sentence and pause or I remind them of the context in which the language was used. However, if I can’t think of a clear and quick way to let the student know which language item I want her to recall, L1 is a perfect tool.


Reformulate Content

Often when a student doesn’t know how to say something, they say it in L1 and the teacher translates it. However a one-to-one context it’s easy both for the student and the teacher to start over-relying on that. While there is nothing wrong about supplying the student with the language they need, we should also prepare them for the fact that in real life they are unlikely to enjoy such a possibility.

What I often do is reformulate what they said (still in L1) in a way that I know they’ll be able to express in English. (As mentioned earlier, an attentive one-to-one teacher is usually well aware of what the student currently can and can’t do with the language). My student then says in L2 what I said in L1.

I’ve found this kind of reformulation to give the student confidence that they can actually get across their intended message – and do it themselves, not just listen to a translation and nod along. It also trains them in the strategy of reformulation and shows the ways in which it’s possible to get around the “i-don’t-know-how-to-say-it” situation. Later they are able to do this with less and less support on my side. After an utterance in L1 I just say “Can you say it simpler?” and they will often come up with a suitable reformulation.


Create Comfort

 In my previous article for the EFL magazine I wrote about how important and beneficial creating comfort and lifting psychological blocks can be in one-to-one context. If you speak L1 well, you might want to use it to talk through psychological issues when they arise. I am currently teaching a student who had been educated in a strict soviet school and is terribly afraid of making mistakes when she speaks English. Rather, I should say “was terribly afraid” – after we talked about it several times, things started getting better. “I am not terrified of going to my English lesson anymore”, she says.

Her level of English is not advanced enough to discuss topics like psychology and self-esteem, so we did it in Russian. Throughout the last several lessons the time I invested in these “therapeutic” conversations has totaled to about 30 minutes. These 30 minutes might have actually had a more significant impact on my student’s progress than all the rest of the time I spent teaching her. Not only did it have an immediate positive effect (the student relaxed, got more confident, started speaking more fluently). They are also an investment in the future. Hopefully, her whole perception of what language learning is about and how it should be approached has changed.

Another aspect of creating comfort is that one-to-one classes generally tend to be more intensive and tiring than group ones. For some students speaking a foreign language for an hour or two in a row can be extremely stressful. In this case such a small thing like occasionally saying what they want to say in L1 before repeating it in the target language gives them a moment to catch their breath and focus on what they are going to say.


To wrap up, I’d like to say a few words about the so-called code switching or code mixing. I first learned about this concept from a talk by Scott Thornbury “Is language a countable noun?”. Among other things, it called for a greater tolerance to L1 in class. Thornbury pointed out that in the modern globalised world borders between languages are getting blurred and languages are frequently mixed in communication. Therefore, he argued, switching between languages in an English classroom to get your message across is a natural and realistic thing. I find it especially relevant to one-to-one work, which is more reminiscent of an authentic conversation than a group classroom.

From my own experience of learning Spanish I can say that probably the most beneficial kind of activity for me has been a conversation with a Spanish-speaking friend who also knows English well. We speak in a mix of Spanish and English, switching between them at will. I say in Spanish things that are easy for me to say and switch back to English to say more complex stuff. This makes the communication smoother (my friend doesn’t have to wait for me to laboriously build a complex sentence) and gives me a chance to rest my brain a bit. When I arrived to Argentina, the percent of Spanish I spoke in such code-mixing conversations was maybe 10% while now it is probably over 50%.


The first language of the student can be a valuable tool in one-to-one classes if you use it in a principled and conscious way and try to find a balance that will create a more productive learning environment for your students. If you find yourself explaining something at length in English and you feel you are not being understood, ask yourself “Is the student benefiting from it? Can I do with one or two L1 words what I’ve been trying to do in L2 for ages?” Likewise, when you are speaking in L1, ask yourself “What learning purpose is this serving?” and the answer will show you if you’re on the right track.


[jbox=”Further reading”] 

Bowen, Tim – Teaching approaches: Using L1 in class

Case, Ale – A well-balanced use of L1 in class

Samsonova, Olga – One-to-one: Creating comfort

Scrivener, Jim – One-to-one: Teaching tips – Tips for longer lessons


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2 Responses

  • Andrew Weiler

    There are many reasons why I desist from using or allowing L1 in the classroom. One that was not mentioned here is that by doing this we "force" the learners to develop the learning and person strategies that can enable them to become more powerful learners. The use of L1 of course makes life easier, however that will not enable the kind of struggle that all of us need to break through the kinds of things that have us not progress as we wish. A teacher can organise the class in such a way that this struggle is not random, but in fact designed! Designed to help them move faster than they could outside such an environment.


  • Ekaterina Zubkova

    I use L1 for clarifying the meaning of abstract words and challenging sentences. It is necessary at low levels when a learner's vocabulary is limited. Besides, it is essential to find L1 equivalents for ESP terms especially. For example, law or finance.