The Role of the L1 in the EFL Classroom Part I: What Research Says

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In a time where TESOL teaching is turning away from prescriptive methods, and teachers may have the increasing freedom and responsibility of adapting to their students’ needs, a question that faces ongoing consideration is whether or not the first language (L1) has a role in the EFL classroom. The good news for teachers who engage or would like to engage L1 use in the classroom is that this approach is strongly backed by theory and research-based evidence in the field of second language acquisition. Here, in the first part of a three-part series on this topic, I will outline this body of support for incorporating the L1.

Theoretical Foundations

The theoretical foundations supporting the use of the L1 in L2 teaching begin with our understanding of how languages are represented and stored in the brain. Early theory explained by the two solitudes assumption, as articulated by Lambert (1984), asserted that the language teacher must act as if s/he were a monolingual speaker of the target language (TL), and that in bilingual education, the two languages are learned in two monolingual instructional spheres. While this assumption was convenient for supporting methods and programs such as the English Only Movement (Ovando, 2003), immersion courses, and communicative language teaching (CLT), all of which emphasize communicating solely in the target language, the assumption did not hold when tested by subsequent research.  In reality, this false monolingualism contradicts learners’ actual experiences. Speakers of multiple languages are unable to willfully shut languages off in their brain and instead experience  joint activation of linguistic systems, which has been referred to as ‘non-selectivity’ (Kroll & Bialystok, 2013). If all languages in an individual’s repertoire are activated during language processing, ideally, approaches to EFL instruction should attempt to harness this pan-linguistic activation as a tool for learning, as opposed to attempting to shut down what we know to be a natural process in language cognition.

Cross-linguistic pedagogical approaches also cater well to the development of metalinguistic awareness within and across languages. This ability to talk and think about language in the L1 is advantageous for learners because it develops their overall capacity for learning, allowing them to notice patterns and extend them to new situations. The application of this skill is not limited to applications in the L2; it can also be applied to future L3s and L4s, and even enhance one’s understanding of his/her L1 (Bono, 2011). These aspects of noticing and extending one’s own learning are consistent with the principle of autonomy, a characteristic that helps learners to take ownership of and expand their own learning (Coterall, 2000; Kumaravadivelu, 2003). Learner autonomy counteracts problematic traditions in language teaching, such as the power imbalance described by Freire’s (1976) ‘banking model of education’, which treats students as vessels into which teachers, the holders of all knowledge, simply inject information. In sum, engaging the L1 can be beneficial for building metalinguistic awareness that builds students’ capacity as lifelong learners.

Experimental Support for Cross-linguistic Pedagogy

Experimental research that has investigated the potential of cross-linguistic interventions has yielded further support for incorporating these strategies in the EFL instructional context. Research has shown that using contrastive information between learners’ L1 and L2 can improve performance on grammatical features in the L2 (White, Muñoz, & Collins, 2007). Research by Kumaravadivelu (2006) and Horst, White, and Bell (2010) has shown additional benefits of incorporating the L1 to include greater confidence, feelings of competence, and freedom to express oneself among students. Recognizing that these affective needs have a powerful role in the language learning experience, and that they are interwoven with learners’ linguistic needs, the potential that cross-linguistic activities have to not only contribute to learning outcomes, but also to address multiple aspects of student needs lends further support to this approach.

In sum, using the L1 when teaching languages is not only appropriate considering the nature of how we as humans process languages, but it has also been shown to be a valuable tool for learners and teachers for both improving performance in the TL and responding to holistic aspects of learner needs.

In part two of this series, I will discuss and debunk some of the explanations for why teachers remain reluctant to use the L1.

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.


Bono, M. (2011). Crosslinguistic interaction and metalinguistic awareness in third language acquisition. In G. De Angelis & J.M. Dewaele (Eds.), New trends in crosslinguistic influence and multilingualism research (pp. 25–52). Ontario, Canada: Multilingual Matters.

Cotterall, S. (2000). Promoting learner autonomy through the curriculum: Principles for designing language courses. ELT Journal, 54(2), 109–117.

Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics (CJAL), 10(2), 221–240.

Freire, P. (1976). Education: The practice of freedom. London, United Kingdom: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative.

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

Kroll, J., & Bialystok, E. (2013). Understanding consequences of bilingualism for language processing and cognition. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 25(5), 497–514. doi:10.1080/20445911.2013.799170

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2003). Beyond methods: Macrostrategies for language teaching. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2007). TESOL methods: Changing tracks, challenging trends. TESOL Quarterly, 40(7), 59–81. doi:10.2307/40264511

Lambert, W.E. (1984). An overview of issues in immersion education. In California State Department of Education (Ed.), Studies on immersion education: A collection for United States educators (pp.8–30). Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Education.

Ovando, C. J. (2003). Bilingual education in the United States: Historical development and current issues. Bilingual Research Journal, 27, 1–24.          

White, J., Munoz, C., & Collins, L. (2007). Thehis/her challenge: Making progress in a “regular” second language program. Language Awareness, 16(4), 278-299.


5 thoughts on “The Role of the L1 in the EFL Classroom Part I: What Research Says”

  1. Hi Marie,

    Excellent blog!

    I find it very encouraging as someone who has always been a bit suspicious of the “English Only” approach. I’ve been encouraged sometimes to even hold up an “English Only” sign in some of my classes. Gahh!

    Look forward to part 2 and 3!

    1. Hi Keith,
      I’m happy to hear you found this post useful! Hopefully by showing the research-based evidence and practical benefits for our students of incorporating the L1 in pedagogy, we can continue to challenge the “English Only” system where it’s still holding on.
      Good luck with your teaching!

  2. Thank you Marie, for this insightful blog.
    Although I feel immersing yourself in a language is the best way to learn a language, I also recognize the reality of “joint activation of linguistic systems.” In my beginner level class, I feel happy when one student who understands the lesson or concept can explain it to another in their L1. Having the freedom and ability to make use of all of the languages a person knows not only enriches their experience in learning English, but also increases their knowledge of other known languages (L1, etc) and linguistic concepts in general. As a simple example, I can recall how taking Ancient Greek at university totally opened my understanding of English (my L1). Grammar concepts that I struggled with during high school suddenly became so clear.
    I look forward to part 2 and 3, and hopefully you can provide some tips or resources on making effective use of L1s in the classroom.

    1. Hi Beth,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences. I agree with you, a true immersion experience where learners work/study/live in a foreign language (e.g., going abroad) is very advantageous for language learning. Yet since we can’t really replicate that experience in an EFL classroom where students might only get a few hours per week, it’s good to consider opportunities for efficiency and resourcefulness such as the example you pointed out from your students, and to not feel guilty about these L1 based strategies as they can also be great learning tools! Metalinguistic awareness (as you described in example you gave of how Greek helped you understand language concepts and structure) is another handy strategy for ourselves and our students when it comes to classroom learning.

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