In a provocative article, Elsa Auerbach (1993:29) gives a sociopolitical rationale for
the use of the L1 in ESL classrooms. She primarily addresses the situation of immigrant
ESL learners studying in the United States. Her conclusions, however, are applicable to
any immigrant second language learners in any metropole. In this article, she states that
"everyday classroom practices, far from being neutral and natural, have ideological
origins and consequences for relations of power both inside and outside the
classroom." Auerbach (1993:19) summarized her conclusion in the following way:
"Starting with the L1 provides a sense of security and validates the learners
lived experiences, allowing them to express themselves. The learner is then willing to
experiment and take risks with English."
Piasecka seconds Auerbachs position when she states, "Ones sense of
identity as an individual is inextricably bound up within ones native
. If the learner of a second language is encouraged to ignore his/her native
language, he/she might well feel his/her identity threatened" (in Hopkins, 1988:18).
Uses for L1 in English classes
David Atkinson (1987:241) lists appropriate uses for the L1 in the L2 classroom (Table 1). Auerbach (1993) suggests the following
possible occasions for using the mother tongue: negotiation of the syllabus and the
lesson; record keeping; classroom management; scene setting; language analysis;
presentation of rules governing grammar, phonology, morphology, and spelling; discussion
of cross-cultural issues; instructions or prompts; explanation of errors; and assessment
I teach English as a foreign language to monolingual Spanish-speaking classes in Puerto
Rico. During the first semester of the 19971998 academic year, I designed and
conducted research on the use of the mother tongue in English classes at the University of
Puerto Rico, Bayamon Campus. Four of my colleagues kindly consented to participate in this
project. My research consisted of recording a 35-minute sample from three classes at the
beginning, middle, and end of the semester. I recorded the classes to see how frequently
and for what purposes these teachers used Spanish in their classes.
The teachers also filled out a short questionnaire about their attitudes toward the use
of Spanish in the English classroom. The same questionnaire was also distributed to other
members of my department. A total of 19 professors responded. I also handed out a similar
questionnaire to the classes of professors participating in my study and to my three
sections of basic English. The results of these two sets of questionnaires are in Table 2.
A high percentage (88.7%) of the student participants in this study felt that Spanish
should be used in their English classes. All of the teachers reported using Spanish to
some degree. Approximately 99 percent of the students responded that they like their
teachers to use only English in the classroom. Very noticeable is the 86 percent of
students who would like Spanish used to explain difficult concepts. Only 22 percent of
teachers saw this as an appropriate use. Students also responded notably higher than
teachers on the following uses for Spanish: to help students feel more comfortable and
confident, to check comprehension, and to define new vocabulary items. Neither students
nor teachers saw a use for the L1 in testing.
A notable percentage of students would like Spanish to be used in English class either
between 10 and 39 percent of the time. A sizeable number of students like the use of
Spanish because it helps them when they feel lost. About 87 percent of students feel
Spanish facilitates their learning of English between "a little" and "a
lot," and about 57 percent think it helps from "fairly much" to "a
These results showed that in English classes in a Puerto Rican university, Spanish
should be used to some degree. Students feel there are clear cases where Spanish will
facilitate their comprehension of what is happening in class. A majority also agree that
the use of Spanish helps them to learn English.
Studying students reactions to the use of the L1 in English classes, Terence
Doyle (1997), in his presentation at TESOL 97, reported that students in a study he
conducted claimed that the L1 was used approximately 90 percent of the time in their
classes. Some 65 percent of these students preferred the use of the L1 in their classes
sometimes or often. While the first figure is comparable to the one I found in my study,
the second is higher than the percentage in my study.
In this study, I asked teachers to respond to the question "If you use Spanish in
your classroom, why do you think this may be more effective than using English
exclusively?" Here are some of their responses:
Sometimes it is more important for students to understand a concept than it is
for that concept to be explained exclusively in English.
In my writing courses, I use some Spanish because it helps students write better
reports. It also serves as an additional input to ensure that they achieve the main
objective of the course, which is the production of higher quality written work in
First of all, I use Spanish to establish rapport with my students, and secondly,
to serve as a model person who speaks both languages and uses each one whenever necessary
I think students can identify better with a teacher who speaks to them in their
own language, thereby letting them know that you respect and value their native language.
This is especially important in the English class because of the politico-socio-cultural
implications of teaching a language that is basically imposed on them. In any case, I like
to joke around in the class, and one really cannot do that in English when not all
students understand it.
I recorded the classes of four different teachers this semester, and my findings
varied. Two of the professors never used Spanish to address their classes. One of them
permitted students to answer questions in Spanish, and the other only used one Spanish
word in the frame "How do you say X in English?"
The third teacher never addressed her class in Spanish, but she used Spanish very
cleverly to illustrate points she was making about English. For example, when teaching
greetings, she asked the class how one person greets another in English. They said
"hello," "How are you?" Then she asked them how they greet people in
Spanish. The students came up with a long list of possibilities. She then explained that
it was the same in English and listed many possible greetings used in that language.
The fourth teacher used the most Spanish in her teaching. Interestingly, she is the
most mature and experienced of the four. While she is speaking in English, she throws in a
sentence or phrase in Spanish. This seems to keep the students who do not understand her
every word on track as to what is happening in the lesson.
This semester I am experimenting with using more Spanish in my classes. The first two
days I used Spanish exclusively as I explained the course to them. I gave them two
small-group tasks to do in Spanish. The first was to describe their previous experiences
in English classes, and the second was to describe what their ideal English class would be
like. Gradually I reduced the amount of Spanish I was using and added more English.
I use Spanish to make comprehension checks. It is important as you go along to
periodically make sure students are understanding. I will ask, "Does everyone
understand? Who can tell me the Spanish translation?" Or, after making an important
point, I will ask, "Who can say what I just said in Spanish?" and I wait until I
get an acceptable translation. I find my students enthusiastic and receptive with respect
to our classroom activities. I also feel very much in touch with them, as we share a
common language when necessary.
In spite of my allowing a role for Spanish in my classroom, students spontaneously use
English in class and while working on tasks. They frequently use English with me when they
come up with questions or comments after class. I feel the relationship we have developed
by my using Spanish occasionally has made my students more eager than usual to tackle the
challenges of learning English.
Attendance is excellent and most are doing classwork and homework regularly. We also
have a lot of fun in class.
I realize that not all teachers would agree with the position I have put forth here.
Some would say that particularly foreign language learners need as much exposure as
possible to L2 input during limited class time, the only time in their daily lives when
they encounter the language. Others would say that if you only use English, you force your
students to try to communicate with you in that language, giving them the opportunity to
produce comprehensible output and negotiate meaning.
I, of course, agree that English should be the primary vehicle of communication in the
English classroom and that you should give students ample opportunities to process English
receptively as well as to produce and negotiate meaning in the language. I suggest,
however, that my arguments for the Ó13 pedagogical and affective benefits of L1 use
justify its limited and judicious use in the second or foreign language classroom.
Moreover, if we take the goal of creating a student centered classroom seriously, my
findings have important implications on what we do in our classes.
I also believe the results of my research prove that a second language can be learned
through raising awareness to the similarities and differences between the L1 and the L2,
and that the prudent use of L2 in the English classroom affirms the value of our
students L1 is their primary means of communication and cultural expression.
Additionally, bringing Spanish into the English classes has made learning English
appear to be less of a threat to their vernacular. They learn first hand that the two
languages can coexist. Finally, I have found that using Spanish has led to positive
attitudes toward the process of learning English and better yet, encourage students to
learn more English.
These quotes address Auerbachs concerns about the socio-cultural implications of
using only English in the classroom and are applicable to an EFL context such as the one
where I teach. Here in Puerto Rico our students are resistant to learning English for
cultural and political reasons. They resent its imposition as a required language. But,
maybe recognizing and welcoming their own language into the classroom as an expression of
their own culture could be one way of dispelling negative attitudes toward English and
increasing receptivity to learning the language. Perhaps similar conditions exist in other
Auerbach, E. 1993. Reexaming English only in the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly 27, 1,
Atkinson, D. 1987. The mother tongue in the classroom: A neglected resource? ETL
Journal, 41, 4, pp. 241247.
Doyle, T. 1997. The L1s role in ESL instruction. Paper presented at TESOL
97,in Orlando, FL.
Hopkins, S. 1988. Use of mother tongue in teaching of English as a second language to
adults. Language Issues, 2, 2, pp. 1824.