Current controversies on the use of L1 in ELT classrooms: focus on the Ethiopian context

Betelhem Taye Tsehayu


In Today’s multilingual world, teaching English or any other second language especially as a school subject, may or may not need the help of students’ first language. Different experts in English Language Teaching have been promulgating their claims on whether to use students’ L1 in ELT classes or not. The assertions made so far are of three types. The first ‘direct method’ type, bans students’ first language from interfering the learning of English while the second one opposes this approach, proposing translation as the best way of teaching a new language. The third, and the one, mostly accepted by many theorists these days, is the judicial use of students’ L1 by providing more space to the use of the target language being taught. These arguments mentioned are context-sensitive and can be applied effectively if they are good fit to the education environment of respective teachers. The writer does not intend to provide one precise response to the controversy of whether to use L1 in English classes or not but rather entertains the current varying viewpoints on the issue displaying no favour to any side of the argument. Thus, the paper aims at showcasing the current L1 use debate in language classrooms and allows readers to identify their stance on whether to use or not to use L1, or to be somewhere in between the two extremes depending on their specific contexts. In doing so, the writer referred to Ethiopian context as a relative real life instance to further elaborate on the perspectives presented.

Key Words: L1, first language, monolingual, English


Teaching English as a second or foreign language raises the issue of first language use in the classroom. The use of students’ first language in an ELT class is a debatable issue in English Language Teaching and probably continues to stay so for some time until reliable researches are conducted to explicitly state the pros and cons of using L1 in a language classroom (Debreli & Oyman 2016). When the use of L1 is considered in any English language Teaching (ELT) classroom, it is not only about how teachers use their students’ first language to teach English but it is also how students use their L1 to learn the new language (Harbord 1992; Debreli & Oyman 2016; Burden 2000).

On my very first day of public school teaching experience after graduation from college, I was strongly challenged by one of my students who insisted on the use of the first language in my English class. I was never taught to use any L1 while teaching English but was rather trained to teach the language using the language itself. I was taught to teach English in English so that I can help my students improve their fluency as well as their accuracy throughout the learning process. What I knew was, English Teaching should totally be monolingual and the interference of L1 was considered a failure from the teacher’s side and a taboo from the students’ side.

Richards and Rodgers (2001: 11) call this way of language teaching the ‘natural or direct method’ which was regarded as the best since the 19th century as there was a strong certainty on teaching a foreign language without translation or the use of students’ first language. This certainty still seems to be working in many private schools and various language institutions perfectly in Ethiopia. I have had the chance of teaching English in private and public schools. In private schools, it is strongly forbidden to speak students’ L1 during English classes and students have no problem with that and are well accustomed with the tradition unlike those in public schools. Private schools are successful in producing fluent English speakers compared to public schools in Ethiopia (Negash 2006). However, Hall and Cook (2013: 7) argue that this “English-only” method of teaching is these days strongly debated and the use of L1 in English classrooms is earning the acknowledgment. According to them, the total avoidance of students’ L1 is viewed as unfashionable in teaching English when students’ first language is considered as a potential resource in any ELT classroom.

Nevertheless, private schools are still performing better in teaching English without the use of L1 so why do we need to bother about using L1 at all? There are many English teachers like myself who are not taught whether the use of L1 should have a place in their English classes or not. But the fact is, whether permitted or not, students, especially beginners and intermediates, relate the new language with their first language, which Harbord (1992: 351) describes as ‘an inevitable part of second language acquisition’. So, the question is, how important is it to use students’ L1 while teaching English and when? Are there specific conditions and reasons which force teachers to use L1 and how cautious should they be?  I will answer these questions under different topics below by presenting the assumptions of different scholars and researchers in the field.


The total avoidance of students’ first language from a language classroom is termed by different scholars in various research papers and books as “monolingual teaching” (Cook 2010: 8), “direct or natural teaching” (Richards & Rodgers 2001: 11) and “intra-lingual and intra-cultural teaching” (Stern 1992: 279). Though all these terminologies have distinct features of their own in the history of language teaching method, they all oppose the use of L1 in a language classroom.

On the other hand, the use of L1 in teaching a language has been given various terms by different scholars that all mostly share the same meaning – which is the use of students’ first language or the language they already know (Cook 2010). ‘Cross-lingual teaching’ and ‘bilingual teaching’ are two terms used by different authors to mean the use of L1 in teaching a target language (Cook 2010 cited Widdowson 2003: 149). Different theorists or writers like Debrli and Oyman (2015: 148) also use ‘mother tongue’ to mean L1 of students. However, L1, as per the recent argument by Hall and Cook (2013: 7), can have a different meaning. They say, the term ‘own language’ should be used in place of ‘mother-tongue’, ‘native language’, or ‘L1’ as students in one classroom can be multilingual and one’s mother-tongue or L1 may not necessarily be the others. Despite all the arguments or different terms from different theorists, I shall use the term ‘L1’ in this paper to mean the first common language students know and use when learning English as their second language.

The L1 use controversy

There are three arguments so far made regarding L1 use. Some say, English or any new language should exclusively be taught in the target language and the use of students’ first language should totally be avoided (Chambers 1991; Richards & Rodgers 2001; Stern 1992). On the contrary, others say a new language should be taught with the help of students’ first language or translation, as that is unavoidable whether permitted or not (Cook 2010; Debreli & Oyman 2016). There are, however, some theorists who argue that it is essential to be in between these two extremes of monolingualism and bilingualism and strategize more use of the target language in any ELT classroom (Harbord 1992; Swain et al 2011; Hall & Cook 2013; Burden 2000; Littlewood 2009).

To start from the first argument, English has been considered best taught without the interference of students’ first language in the 20th century (Hall & Cook 2013). For Stern (1992: 279), this way of teaching English is best termed as “intralingual” and “intracultural” teaching techniques where translation or use of L1 has no place and the teaching is designed to remain in the use of L2 or the target language. Richards and Rodgers (2001) mention the ‘direct method’ similar to the intralingual technique which promotes monolingualism in teaching a new language. Language teachers who follow this technique are expected to teach the new language without using their students’ L1 in any part of their teaching. Every bit of the teaching learning process is confined to the target language (Richard and Rodgers 2001).

This monolingual method of teaching language has, however, been strongly argued by scholars like Guy Cook (2010) who say that a new language is best taught when bilingualism is recognised and used in the classroom. For Cook, first language use and translation are the two inseparable pedagogic advantages to both teachers and learners of a language. He addresses the use of L1 as ‘own language use’ and emphasises on the meaning saying that, ‘the term is referred to the language which students already know and through which they will approach the new language by means of translation’ (Cook 2010: 3). On the Contrary, Smith and Conti (2016: 185), even if they support bilingualism, still challenge the word ‘translation’ saying that translation is not yet known to be of a great significance in the language classroom since its impact on L2 learning outcome has not yet been researched or approved. This is unlike Cook’s (2010) assumption regarding translation in which he says that the term ‘translation’ is simply considered dull and discouraging without proper research to back-up this criticism. He says, ‘being able to translate in a language classroom is a major component of bilingual communicative competence so […] translation should be part of language teaching because all learners will need to translate’ (Cook 2010: xx).

The two extremes of adopting total monolingual, teaching by avoiding the use of L1, and the teaching of English through translation are controversial issues in the field. They are far detached from one another and probably work better in specific contexts (Littlewood 2009). This is where the third argument comes in. Quoting Vygotsky (1978), Hall and Cook explain the unavoidability of L1 from L2 learning saying that a human brain does not have separate parts to manage different languages in isolation from one another. Supporting this Stern states:

When we learn a second language, we always set out from a language we already know, i.e our first language. The new language is learnt on the basis of a previously acquired language. The L1-L2 connection is an indisputable fact of life…we tend to approach the second language on the tacit assumption that we can use the L1 as a reference system for L2. It is in the nature of linguistic and communicative competence that we behave as if the L1 is the yardstick and guide to our new L2. (Stern 1992: 282)

What Stern proves is entirely credible when it comes to second language learning but according to Harbord, L1, should be acknowledged to the limit that it does not have any negative impact on the language learning outcome. Harbord (1992) argues that though the recognition of L1 in English classroom is vital, special cautions must be applied to avoid any negative students and/or teachers’ dependency on it. He says, that is what should be emphasised so that learners can still use more English in their classes.

Cautions on the use of L1

In the absence of special attention to the use of L1, Harbord (1992) says that students and teachers might fall into the trap of being totally dependent on their L1 and may lack the motivation to communicate in English at all. He mentions the following side-effects when too much L1 is exercised in ELT class:

  1. The teacher and/or students begin to feel that they have not ‘really’ understood any item of language until it has been translated.
  2. The teacher and/or students fail to observe the distinctions between equivalence of form, semantic equivalence and pragmatic features and thus oversimplify to the point of using crude and inaccurate translation.
  3. Students speak to the teacher in the mother-tongue as a matter of course even when they are quite capable of expressing what they mean in English.
  4. Students fail to realize that during many activities in the classroom, it is essential that they use only English. (Harbord 1992: 351)

Many public schools in Ethiopia rely much on the use of L1 in their English classes and the majority of students and teachers accept this as an unavoidable phenomenon in their English classes. I have been challenged several times by my students to use their L1 literally too much as they believe that they cannot understand anything I say in English. It is not that they cannot understand but it is that they think they cannot understand. In Ethiopia, primary education is given in the students’ mother tongue and English language is a school subject given from Monday to Friday for 45 minutes only. Within this given 45 minutes, students probably learn for a total of 30 minutes. Students have no access to the language outside their English classroom and their English class is the only place they are expected to learn and use the language which, by the way, is the rationale behind monolingual teaching (Littlewood 2009). However, even within this small period of time, teachers and students highly favour the use of L1 in the classroom which shows that very little or no access is provided for students to use English in their classes. What I was taught in college as the best way of teaching my students- ‘monolingually’, is not going to help at all as majority of students are dependent on their L1 and time on the other end should be saved by facilitating the learning process through L1.  However, the translation or the total L1 dependency do not help students either as it will not allow them to use as much English as possible in the classroom. Therefore, the question is how and when should L1 be used in ELT classroom?

How and when should L1 be used in ELT?

Most recent communicative teaching approaches require a judicious use of L1 in English classes as their primary objective is to engage students in using the target language in classrooms (Richards & Rodgers 2001). Hall and Cook (2013) talking about the same matter mention that no research has been made so far on how much L1 should be used and exactly when, but teachers are held accountable for the timing and amount of L1 use in their classes depending on the need and their students level of proficiency as L1 is obviously used more with beginner and intermediate students than with the advanced ones. Many theorists agree that though students L1 should be recognized in English classes, teachers still have to use different strategies to minimise the use of L1 by the use of L2 so as to bring the desired communicative competence of their students (Harbord 1992).

Harbord (1992: 352-55) points out three major L1 use strategies which he argues are mostly applied in ELT classes. He says teachers still need to put extra effort into the extensive use of English in their classes and use these strategies if L1 is only a must-have option. These strategies are:

  1. Facilitating teacher-student communication
  2. Facilitating teacher-student rapport
  3. Facilitating learning

According to Harbord, L1 is used to deal with classroom administration and to clarify instructions. Teachers use students’ L1 in ELT classes not only to communicate with their students to deal with management issues and further clarify instructions and get message across easily but also to save time during the communication process. Quoting Atkinson (1987), Harbord says, the major argument teachers in favour of L1 use in ELT classes is the time saving aspect of it. Many teachers say the time L1 use saves can be used for other productive activities in English classes (Harbord 1992: 352). However, Harbord stresses on the fact that teachers should be more thoughtful in this regard as they might be tempted to use L1 whenever they want to simplify lessons and fail to add a variety of expressions to explain lessons in the target language.

In addition, L1 is used as a strategy in ELT classes to help the teacher-student relationship and scaffold the learning process (Harbord 1992; Storch & Wigglesworth 2003). Studying the L1 use in a language classroom, Storch and Wigglesworth (2003) explain that students highly favour the use of their first language to scaffold the learning of new grammar or vocabulary lessons.

Teachers’ and learners’ attitude towards L1 use

As I mentioned in my introduction, the L1 use issue does not only concern language teachers but learners as well. It is difficult to conclude the exact attitudes of teachers and learners towards the use of L1 but learners and teachers, according to recent studies, have different stances on the use of L1 in English or language classroom. Teachers have different attitudes to L1 use depending on their cultural background and the policy and tradition of their work place (Hall & Cook 2003). This can be linked with my personal experience of teaching at public and private schools. In public school, the tradition which works best is the use of L1 in English classes while in private schools the complete opposite happens. Teachers therefore tend to support what best works for their students and working environment. However, still the majority of reports show that teachers have a ‘sense of guilt’ and a complex attitude when using L1 (Hall & Cook 2003: 10).

In regards to language learners, very little research is made on their attitudes to L1 use in their English classes (Hall & Cook 2003). However, few recent researches have shown that majority of learners have positive attitudes towards the use of L1. Debreli and Oyman (2015), Schweers (2003), Storch and Wigglesworth (2003) have, for example, revealed that learners highly favour the use of L1 in their English classes to mainly make grammar, vocabulary or other complex lessons and instructions clear.


This paper presented few of the current arguments on the use of L1 in ELT classes. As per the assumptions covered, the total exclusion of L1 may work for specific contexts but the majority of language teaching realities require the judicious use of L1. As Hall and Cook (2013) explain, the reality that seems fashionable in literature is not exclusively applicable in every English classroom and acceptable to every English teacher. For example, I mentioned in my introduction that private schools and public schools in Ethiopia have different assumptions regarding the use of L1 in their English classes. Private schools are completely monolingual while public schools are mostly dependent on the use of L1. Therefore, what is working for one area may not work for the other. Richards and Rodger, in this regard, attribute the direct method for being successful in private language schools where native-speaking teachers and high level of learners’ motivation was available. However, they say, “it was difficult to implement it in public secondary school education as it overemphasized and distorted the similarities between naturalism first language learning and classroom foreign language learning and it failed to consider the practical realities of the classroom” (2001: 12). This failure encourages the use of students’ first language but again translation in English classes has been criticised for allowing no or little space for the use of L2 and for being an ‘uncommunicative sort of activity’ which promotes talking about the target language. Therefore, teachers are supposed to be in between these two extremes and implement a judicious use of L1 allowing more space to English to be used in the classroom. How judicious should teachers be while using L1 is not exactly known and is open for research and further studies.


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Swain , M., Kirkpatrick, A., & Cummins, J. (2011). How to have a guilt-free life using Cantonese in the English class: handbook for the English language teacher in Hong Kong. Hong Kong.

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Widdowson, G. H. (2003). Defining issues in English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


fotofBetelhem Taye is a proud English teacher from Ethiopia currently undergoing her MA study in English Language Teaching at the University of Warwick. She is a journalist and a teacher by profession. She has taught English for more than 8 years in her country and casted English news for the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation for over 5 years. Betelhem has been engaged in teacher training, conference hosting, news article production and translation works throughout her professional life.


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  1. Pingback: Exploiting L1 in the Young Learner Classroom: list of references | Ready, Steady, Go!

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