The Role of the L1 Classroom in the EFL Classroom Part II: Roadblocks to Using a Cross-linguistic Pedagogy

Rear view of a puzzled businessman in front of a huge chalkboard written with the word hallo in different languages and colors. Opportunity for learning many languages for students.
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Despite the wealth of research that purports the benefits of a cross-linguistic approach, many learners and teachers are operating in an environment where the L1 is used with trepidation and as a last resort if it is used at all. Why is it that teachers and learners are hesitant to take cross-linguistic and multilingual approaches on board, despite the value of these tools for language learning?

The Communicative Language Teaching Approach

The ongoing rejection of the L1 in the EFL classroom can be partially attributed to the influence of a communicative language teaching (CLT) approach, which became a dominant force in the 1980s (Kumaravadivelu, 2006). When using a CLT approach, the focus is on building oral communicative competence, with limited attention to form, and maximizing usage of the target language (TL). Omission of the L1 is a natural product of this type of approach. Even though TESOL is, on the whole, shifting away from a CLT approach towards alternatives such as task-based learning, the nature of such shifts is neither instantaneous nor is it uniform across all contexts. A CLT-informed approach where teachers are expected to instruct in the TL remains the preferred approach in many EFL language schools. CLT is further proliferated because it is the approach that is taught to teachers in well-reputed TESOL teacher training courses such as CELTA (British Council, n.d.).

CLT and Teacher Beliefs

Beliefs associated with the CLT approach are tied up with some teachers’ reluctance to use the L1. A study by Copland and Neokleous (2010) exemplified this relationship. The authors found that EFL teachers often underreported their usage of the students’ L1 due to feelings of guilt about not conducting all aspects of their lessons in L2 English. The tension between what teachers felt they should do and what they actually did was clear in the difference between the observation and interview data; all of the teachers who took part used the L1 for reasons such as translating for meaning and responding to learners’ affective needs, but 80% criticized L1 use as a teaching strategy in the interview session and said that they saw the L1 as a hindrance to teaching English. Here, the teachers’ actions clearly showed that they saw value in using the L1, but that they simultaneously were inhibited because using the learners’ L1 as a pedagogical tool did not fit in to their understanding of what it means to be a ‘good teacher’.

Teacher Confidence

A second factor that prevents teachers from making use of cross-linguistic approaches in the classroom is that they may be poorly equipped or lack the confidence to do so. Horst, White, and Bell (2010) encountered the issue of lack of teacher confidence in their initial feasibility study regarding introducing cross-linguistic awareness interventions for young L1 French L2 English learners in Quebec. They found that one reason why a French teacher of young learners was reluctant to add cross-linguistic activities was that she was worried about making mistakes in English (Horst, White, & Bell, 2010). When teachers have been educated in a way that has not prepared them to take a cross-linguistic approach, and when they do not have high proficiency in both the L1 and L2 themselves, they may feel uncomfortable about adopting such approaches. 

Fear of Excessive L1 Use

A third factor that may inhibit teachers’ use of the L1 in the EFL classroom is the fear that by inviting students to use the L1, they will be opening a ‘floodgate’ of uncontrollable and excessive L1 use by students (Turnbull, 2001). Although research where cross-linguistic pedagogies have been implemented has not shown this fear to be warranted (Horst, White, & Bell, 2007), it is a natural and common fear to have when one’s previous understanding of best practices was that the L1 should not be used at all for EFL teaching.

Taken together, negative beliefs about L1 use, the uncertainty and lack of confidence regarding how to use it, and the fear that it could lead to general chaos are not conducive to teachers’ use of cross-linguistic strategies.

In the third and final part of this series, I will provide activities and ideas for experimenting with a cross-linguistic approach.


Marie Apaloo is an MA candidate in applied linguistics at Concordia University. Her current research focuses on the effects of cross-linguistic awareness on the acquisition of L2 English morphosyntax.

References

British Council. (n.d.). CELTA. Retrieved from https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/teacher-training/celta

Copland, F., & Neokleous, G. (2010). L1 to teach L2: Complexities and contradictions. ELT Journal, 65(3), 270–280. doi:10.1093/elt/ccq047

Horst, M., White, J., & Bell, P. (2010). First and second language knowledge in the language classroom.  International Journal of Bilingualism, 14(3), 331–349. doi: 10.1177/1367006910367848

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