The Role of the L1 in the EFL Classroom Part III: Where to Begin? Ideas for Incorporating Cross-linguistic Strategies

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Bringing the L1 into the EFL classroom does not need to be an overhaul of current practice in the classroom, nor does it need to be applied to each and every classroom activity. It is something that can be applied strategically and with intent at the teacher’s discretion. The point is not to create a new method, but to understand that cross-linguistic awareness is one of many useful teaching/learning techniques that are available to us as language teachers.

Facilitative Effects

Identifying features that are similar in the learners’ L1 and L2, and bringing these to their awareness, is a good way to introduce the idea that the L1 can be a tool rather than just a hindrance for L2 learning. A basic example of this type of similarity that could be used to facilitate L2 learning is cognates (e.g., English–French tourist/touriste, tradition/tradition). However, facilitative effects are not limited to lexis and can be seen across all language features. Other examples include phrasal verbs in English and Swedish (grammatical) and nasalized vowels in French and Portuguese (phonological). Identifying L1-L2 similarities (especially the surprising ones) and sharing them with students is a good first step because it not only facilitates learning, but also shows students that when it comes to language learning, they already have a set of resources that they can access if they are able to make connections with their L1.  This technique would generally be easier to implement in EFL contexts where teachers also speak the learners’ L1.  However, it can also function in cases where the learners are more advanced than the teacher in the L1 by situating the learners in the role of ‘experts’, which can give them a sense of confidence and empowerment (Horst, White, & Bell, 2010).

Negative Transfer

It is also a good idea to address areas of negative transfer because this phenomenon can be quite challenging for students and lead to persistent errors. For example, false cognates can be a good place to start as it may be necessary to alert students that word pairs such as gentle/gentil and attend/attendre do not have the same meanings.  Another example of where negative transfer can occur among EFL learners is with possessive determiners, as in English they agree with the gender of the possessor (his/her car) whereas in French and other Romance languages, they agree with the possessed entity (e.g. sa voiture, son stylo). For these learners, contrasting the two languages can be helpful for overcoming negative transfer effects (White, Muñoz, & Collins, 2007).

Translating the ‘Untranslatable’

An activity that asks students to identify words or concepts that they find difficult to translate into the L2, and then encourages them to push past this difficulty and put the concept into words in the L2, is a good idea to consider, particularly for intermediate and higher-level students. An interesting feature of this activity is that it goes beyond the purely linguistic realm and gives students the chance to bring an idea that may also be part of their culture into the classroom and explain their understanding of it. This activity could also give students a chance to acknowledge collectively that as language learners, the frustrating occurrence of not being able to fully express yourself, or even be yourself in your L2, is a common and shared experience. Overall, exploring activities like this one allows learners to go beyond the linguistic aspects of language learning and experientially explore the negotiation for meaning, cultural sharing, and the affective experience of L2 learning.  It is not only a chance to include cross-linguistic techniques, but also to teach to learners’ multi-dimensional needs and characteristics.


Hopefully, the ideas provided here could be a starter-kit for teachers who are uncertain about using cross-linguistic approaches and are also curious about how these approaches could be implemented or how they might play out in the classrooms. In reality, these are just a few ideas that exist in a realm of limitless options for addressing the varied needs of diverse groups of EFL learners in the current, post-method era of language teaching.

Further Reading

Visit my previous posts in this 3-part series!

The Role of the L1 in the EFL Classroom Part 1: What the Research Says

The Role of the L1 in the EFL Classroom Part 2: Roadblocks to Using a Cross-linguistic Pedagogy

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.


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

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


3 thoughts on “The Role of the L1 in the EFL Classroom Part III: Where to Begin? Ideas for Incorporating Cross-linguistic Strategies”

  1. Hi Marie,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking piece. Great points about cross-cultural learning opportunities through translation. I love the idea of getting students to share the process of translating from their L1 to L2. I often tell my students about my experience learning French. Once, my Québécoise roommate overheard me talking on the phone and told me that I had a completely different personality when I spoke English. 🙂

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      It’s great to hear that you find the idea of translation activities valuable. I have enjoyed doing these activities with students in the past too, I’ve found it engages them as they get to share their background and culture as well as teach other students something they may not have known before. I can also absolutely relate to the idea of an “L1 personality” as you mentioned. I think experiencing this phenomenon is an important experience for language teachers as it brings us a great deal of empathy for students’ learning experience.

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