To Use L1, or Not To Use It, That Is the Question!

First of all, we need to systematize the definition of L1 and L2. When we are born, regardless of the location, we learn to use the language which surrounds us in our routine. We call such a language mother tongue, first language or L1. However, if you have any interest in learning another language, using it in specific situations and places, such as visiting another country, we call this second language or L2.

In my case, I have Portuguese as my L1 and English as my L2, and I teach English as a foreign language (TEFL). Most English teachers must have come across a scenario of students that only use L1 instead of L2 in class, and there are also cases where students prefer to be quiet and remain speechless the whole class, even when we ask a question directly to them. What shall we do in these cases? Before answering this question, it is important to understand what are the possible reasons for this behavior:

  •    Anxiety: One of the biggest phobias that people have is the fear of speaking in public. Usually, students do not feel very comfortable to talk in front of their colleagues, because they feel judged by the ones who are observing them. This type of student is often isolated avoiding any interaction with the class;
  •    Lack of vocabulary: Early L2 students and the people who find the L2 too difficult do not have an advanced knowledge of the second language grammar structure and vocabulary. Based on that, they do not feel confident enough to speak the second language but may say loose words instead of a sentence;
  •    Disinterest: Occasionally, is okay to see this type of students in the class. They go to class mandatorily, do not participate in the class, are often on the phone and crave for the end of the lesson. Comparing to the ones mentioned before, this is the worst student to have because they disturb our class regularly.

The possible behaviors mentioned above are the ones most frequent in a teaching scenario; obviously, there are other or even personal reasons for their choice to use the only L1 in class. Nevertheless, expert L2 teachers can identify which kind of behavior the student has, and then try to find out how to deal with this condition to develop the interest of the student on speaking the L2.

If you have anxious students, a nice way to engage them is to bring group activities. This way, each student of the group will motivate the others to use the target language, like a chain. For students who have a lack of vocabulary, the best way to solve this problem is to bring new words and make them use such words, using the L2 grammatical structure, assisting them with pronunciation when needed. However, bear in mind that students may feel dispirited when teachers are overcorrecting their mistakes.

Finally, for the disinterested students, I recommend a serious conversation with them and their parents, mentioning the implications of their behavior in class. If that does not work, the teacher is free to bring new dynamics to the class to bring their interest. Good teachers are always open for new opportunities to improve their lesson, it shows our humbleness when we assume our mistakes and decide to change for the best.

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