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.
image source:

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.


British Council. (n.d.). CELTA. Retrieved from

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


5 thoughts on “The Role of the L1 Classroom in the EFL Classroom Part II: Roadblocks to Using a Cross-linguistic Pedagogy”

  1. If I read correctly, Marie, L1 use is not to be avoided but used judiciously. The biggest problem with this is, of course, no ESL class I have ever taught has been comprised of students from a single country. In my case, a tiny bit of French and Japanese (okay, three or four words of Spanish) have seen me through, but, despite my lack of real ability in languages other than English, I do NOT consider myself to be “educated” in a bad way.

    1. Hi Peter,
      Correct, I am suggesting that the L1 does not need to be avoided and can be used judiciously. I agree with you that in the ESL context, using the L1 could be complicated given the varied L1s within the classroom which the teacher may or may not be familiar with. In this article, I’ve focused mainly on the EFL context (where almost all students would share the L1 and in many cases the teacher would also speak this language).
      Although not the topic of this article, there options for engaging the students L1 in a multilingual ESL classroom too! Translanguaging activities in particular would be something to consider. However this is just one tool of many that we can use as language teachers, although I believe the L1 to be a useful tool in many teaching contexts it is certainly not the only way to teach.

  2. Marie,
    Thank you for this article. We need to have this discussion in our places of employment, at our conferences, and here. My place of employment has an “English only in class” rule written right into the learner agreement that is signed when a newcomer registers. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it’s right up there with “phones on silent” and the absenteeism policy.

    The open floodgate is not just a fear but a daily reality. I am all for following what current SLA theory indicates, and I do use as much L1 as I am able in my literacy classes in spite of our school’s rule.

    I think a lot of resistance comes from an issue of classroom management. Students are chatting away in their L1 not in a way that helps them learn the TL, but because they are stressed out refugees who haven’t seen their classmates since Friday and need to talk to someone about their latest challenge navigating their new lives here. Or five of my senior students (over age 60) are again using Mandarin to share information about a sale on fish they found over the weekend. I may know Spanish and French, but I don’t know Mandarin and Arabic. I cannot understand them, just know the cacophony is overwhelming. I don’t know which L1 chatter is about the lesson and which is just a slide back into chitchat that could take place in the TL. So again, I think the two issues of classroom management and SLA theory are getting muddled.

    I’m a bit ashamed to admit that when I first became a language teacher, my attitude toward L1 use was heavily influenced by my days in the late 70s and early 80s as a language learner in those communicative classrooms. I was always keen to have a fully immersive experience. I was that kid who spoke the TL even during break time, scowling at the “cheaters” who would not. The idea of being charged 25 cents for every lapse into our shared first language tickled me. But the more I read current research, the more I’ve opened my mind to all the ways the use of the L1 can enhance learning and aid retention.

    1. Hi Kelly,

      The points you have raised here are very interesting, thank you for sharing how the practical issues of engaging learners’ L1s can play out in the classroom. I can absolutely understand how when trying to navigate some of these practical issues, a policy that prohibits the L1 could seem like a useful strategy.

      As I mentioned in a previous comment, the research that I am currently conducting and much of the research supporting these blog posts are concentrated on the EFL classroom where learners would share the L1 and the teacher would most likely also know speak that language too. I won’t deny that in a multilingual classroom L1-based tools can be more complex and leave us as teachers feeling like fish out of water.

      However, I know that other researchers and educators are exploring ways to help students’ benefit from their L1s and share the culture associated with their L1 in class too. One interesting activity to check out is the autobiography of intercultural encounters (CoE) which I’ve linked here.

      It’s great to hear that you’re exploring and trying to implement new practices for L2 education even with the practical challenges of teaching and even though these practices challenge the status quo at your place of employment. Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *