Justifying selected uses of the learners first language in the foreign language classroom within communicative language teaching

Author: Jeanne Rolin-Lanziti


The main objectives of the paper are: to contribute to the current methodological debate about the use of the learners' first language in foreign language teaching; to base the discussion on the examination of teacher classroom practices; to advocate the introduction of a controlled use of L1 in the foreign language classroom, through a careful consideration of variables such as materials and linguistic targets.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


The ban on the use of the learners’ first language (L1) in foreign language teaching (L2) was introduced with the direct method at the end of the nineteenth century and thus has lasted 120 years (Cook, 2001). Although some uses of the native language are acceptable for Communicative Language Teaching methodology, there is still debate over the issue. For example Miles Turnbull answers an article by Vivian Cook advocating a more open view towards L1 use, by warning against the risk of a more permissive stand on L1. He argues it may lead to an overuse of L1 by teachers (Turnbull 2001). Advocates of the exclusive use of the target language, however, are losing ground and most researchers now argue in favor of a more tolerant approach to L1 use. Such is the view of contributors in the special issue of Etudes de Linguistique Appliquée on ‘alternances et apprentissages’. In this issue, most researchers believe some L1 uses play a positive role in foreign language learning (Castellotti and Moore 1997). No one however, takes the regressive position that L1 should deal with all teaching purposes, as with the grammar-translation method. All argue for the introduction of a limited use of L1. This position raises questions in methodology. Which L1 uses should be selected and integrated into classroom practices? Which ones should continue to be banned? On what grounds do we decide which code switching practices are permissible and which ones are not?

This paper will argue that research has to address some fundamental issues before we can advocate the introduction of selected L1 uses in language teaching. Two issues (among others) will be considered here:

  • How do teachers code switch? Which language is dominant in teacher speech? Does code switching occur when teachers are speaking in L2 or in L1?
  • Can we posit what effect code switching has on L2 learners? In particular, can we foresee the influence of different kinds of code switching on L2 acquisition? To what extent can we anticipate the effect of L1 use on the perception of L2 forms?

Whereas the first question opens the debate on linguistic grounds, the second one is set within the psycholinguistic framework of Second Language Acquisition research. The final goal of this paper is not so much to provide answers to the above questions, which are extremely complex, but to open the agenda for future research in these areas.


Some samples of L1 use will illustrate the terms of the discussion. The samples have been collected in language classes for beginners in French at the University of Queensland, Australia, over the period 1998-2002. In these classes, teachers use mainly an immersion approach to the teaching of French. This means that L2, in this case French, is the dominant language in the classroom. [A previous study aimed at assessing quantitatively the distribution of L1/L2 revealed an average of 91.20% of L2 use in our context (Rolin-Ianziti and Brownlie 2002)]. Furthermore, most of the samples to be considered were collected when learners were involved in communicative activities focussing on meaning. Such activities included: 1) a comprehension activity based on a videotaped lesson from the method French in Action (Capretz 1987, 1998: 2) a guided pair work encouraging students to reuse previously introduced vocabulary; and 3) oral multiple choice exercises fostering classroom interaction on topics related to learners’ experience.

Two kinds of teacher code switching

Although some classroom research has already investigated code switching in teacher speech using a linguistic approach (Causa 1996; Gearon 1997), further research is needed to describe teacher code switching more accurately. Studies investigating code switching in contexts other than the language classroom provide models, which are applicable to the language classroom context. For example, Myers-Scotton’s (1993) Matrix Language-Frame Model offers dichotomies, which may prove useful to the analysis of bilingualism in language teaching. The model distinguishes between a switch from one language to another within a sentence (intrasentential code switching) and a switch between sentences or at the end of a sentence (intersentential code switching). The Matrix Language-Frame Model also considers the language quantitatively dominant in the sentence. Whereas the Matrix Language is statistically more important upon calculating the number of words in the sentence, the Embedded Language plays a lesser role with regard to the quantity of words. Applying the Model to the language teaching context leads to contrasting two kinds of code switching. Teachers may either switch to L2 within an L1 Matrix or to L1 within an L2 Matrix. Examples coming from our data illustrate these two kinds of code switching. In example 1, the teacher explains the grammar of the French possessives commenting in L1 (the Matrix language) and making occasional switches to L2 to illustrate the rules (given in L1) with examples (in L2):

1. Oui? Ça va? Vous comprenez? Now the important thing is that… what you need to know is the gender of the word + not who it belongs to because I am saying to him + SON stylo I am saying to her+ SON stylo I am saying to her SES chaussures I am saying to him SES chaussures. So it does not matter if [it's + belonging] to a male or a female it’s what the actual object is masculine or feminine

In example 2, the reverse occurs: the teacher translates the French adjective ‘agaçant’ into English (L1) while speaking in French (L2). The L1 adjective is embedded within an L2 Matrix:

2. Les lessives washing powder+ les lessives les deux lessives coûtent combien?

Positing an effect of code switching on learners

We may now posit that each kind of code switching has a different effect on L2 learning. Commenting in L1 about formal aspects of the target language with a few switches to L2 to give examples is a discursive strategy typical of the grammar and translation method. This strategy may impart knowledge about the L2 linguistic system but this kind of code switching may fail to promote proficiency in L2. We may anticipate that learners will become able to talk about L2 rules in L1 but will not develop the ability to talk in L2 unless other classroom activities promote communicative competence.

As for intrasentential switches to L1 embedded within an L2 Matrix, we will explore samples collected at the University of Queensland in order to posit the effect on L2 learning. The examination will take place within the current theoretical framework in Second Language Acquisition, working on the hypothesis that exposure to natural input is necessary but not sufficient to develop L2 proficiency. Attention to form in the input during meaning based activities is also needed (Long and Robinson, 1998). Within this framework, we will examine first samples of switch to L1 for translating an L2 lexical item; second, samples of switching to L1 for checking comprehension; and thirdly samples of L1 aiming at giving feedback.

Translation as a potential strategy to target a specific lexical item

In the following example (example 3), the switch to L1 occurred during a comprehension activity. The subject elle in the sentence Elle n’aime pas les enfants, refers to a character in the videotaped lesson 8 of the textbook French in Action:

3 T: Elle n’aime pas les enfants + parce qu’elle les trouve AGAÇANTS. Agaçants c’est votre + irritating + agaçants.

In this example, the teacher’s goal is to introduce learners to the lexical item agaçant. To achieve this aim, the teacher repeats the sentence coming out of the videotaped dialogue, then she extracts the targeted word from the repeated sentence. The word agaçant becomes the subject of the new sentence Agaçants c’est votre +irritating+agaçants and is then translated into the English equivalent irritating. The strategy consists of isolating the word from the flow of speech with the aim of making it the focus of teaching. Then the teaching strategy consists of translating the word into L1.

This strategy may help draw learners’ attention to this particular lexical item during the comprehension activity. The switch to L1 may contribute to the perception of the L2 adjective together with other devices, such as the isolation of the word from the context of the dialogue as well as its repetition in L2 several times. Translation could be regarded then as an essential component of a move aiming at introducing a shift of attention to one lexical item which the teacher sees as having the potential of causing a comprehension problem during the listening activity. Such a move may help direct learners’ attention to one targeted formal aspect of L2 within an activity focusing on meaning.

Some evidence of uptake after a comprehension check in L1

In example 4, the teacher’s aim is also to introduce a new lexical item, in this case the adverb presque. She first uses illustration in L2. She contextualises the French word in the classroom setting by counting students and comparing the number of students in class on that particular day to the number of students enrolled in the course. After the illustration, she checks comprehension with the question in L2 ça va ou ça ne va pas? One student indicating incomprehension, she switches to L1 to translate the French targeted word into English. Afterwards the teacher checks the comprehension of the expression tout le monde introduced to the class in a previous lesson. After the students’ translation of the expression, the teacher gives positive feedback with the French affirmative word oui as well as with a second switch to L1 to translate both presque and tout le monde (almost everybody). After a final comprehension check (ça va?), the teacher gives the linguistic objective of the interaction –the one of explaining the meaning of presque (c’est pour le mot presque).

4. T: Ecoutez bien la même chose. Enfin + PRESQUE tout le monde est là. PRESQUE tout le monde. Tout le monde + PRESQUE tout le monde. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20. Normalement (dans) cette classe il y a euh 26 + 26 étudiants 25 26 étudiants. Aujourd’hui 20 étudiants sont là + présents. Presque tout le monde. Il y a 5 absents + il y a 20 présents. Presque tout le monde est là. Oui?? Seulement un petit peu d’absents. Quelques-uns . Quelques-uns. Oui?? D’accord? Presque tout le monde? Ça va?? Ça va ou ça ne va pas??
S1: xxx
T: Non ça ne va pas. Almost. Presque. Oui?? Presque tout le monde. Almost. Tout le monde??
Ss: Everybody.
T: Oui. Almost everybody est présent. Ça va? Presque. Euh c’est pour le mot presque.

Using an immersion technique (L2) as well as translation (L1) within an interaction aiming at targeting the same lexical item could be beneficial to the learning of the selected word. During the illustration phase in L2, the learners have the opportunity of being exposed to input and have the chance to form a hypothesis about the meaning of the word. The subsequent translation validates the hypothesis for students who were able to guess the meaning of the word, or provides the meaning for students unable to understand the previous explanation in L2.

In their study on the effect of corrective feedback on L2 acquisition, Lyster and Ranta (1997) use the term uptake to indicate a learner’s effective response to teacher correction of a student error. Similarly, we can use the term uptake to designate a learner’s positive response elicited by a teacher code switching strategy. Our data provide one such example of uptake of the word presque following the above teacher L1use. Later on during the same one hour class, one student reused the adverb presque in the sentence il est presque marié when talking about a class peer who was about to get married. Obviously no generalization on a positive effect of translation can be drawn out of one student’s reuse. Furthermore, the teacher use of illustration may have contributed to the uptake of the word just as much as the translation. We may also assume that the effectiveness comes from the combined use of an immersion technique and translation. However, such an instance of uptake indicates some effect of translation prompting further research on the contribution of L1 to vocabulary acquisition within an immersion approach to language teaching.

Instances of learner correction after teacher feedback in L1

Our data provides another example of uptake occurring after an instance of teacher feedback in L1. In example 5, the teacher corrects pronunciation after a role play. She uses a strategy which research in linguistics terms ‘contrast’ (Causa, 1996) and which consists of opposing the L2 incorrect form to the L1 corresponding form. In this example the targeted form is the L2 sound EL at the end of the adjective sensuel, which the students mispronounced as AL during the role play. The teacher, a native speaker of French, first contrasts the two cognates sensual and sensuel (Sensual. En Français sensuEl), then she opposes the two phonemes El and AL (El et pas al):

5. T : Pronon… prononcez bien. Je sais qu’en anglais…Qu’est-ce que vous dites? Vous dites sensual. C’est ça que vous dites?
S1: Yes.
T 3: Sensual. En Français + sen + su+ EL + EL.
Ss: Sen + su + EL.
T 3: Oui oui. Il est sensuEL. Oui tout le monde répétez répétez hein.
Ss: Il est sensuel.
T 3: El + et pas al. Il est sensuel.

After the first contrast, the teacher encourages the students to repeat the word (tout le monde répétez…) triggering the learners’ repetition in chorus. The recording gives some indication of an improvement in the pronunciation of the adjective (at least for some students in the class) offering another example of uptake. In the above example, the student negative interference with the English phoneme AL, prompted the teacher use of L1 to give feedback. This strategical use of L1 appears to have had some efficiency. We may then posit that contrasting is a teaching resource which may help learners perceive differences between the L2 and L1 phonetic systems and avoid cross linguistic influences in the area of pronunciation.

Example 6 indicates further that L1 may also be effective to deal with morphosyntactic targets. In this example, the teacher does not use contrast as in example 5, but she does quickly switch to L1 to give feedback on the morphology of the French Passé composé previously introduced to the class. The teacher and the University students are interacting on the topic of high school studies:

6. T: Et vous xxx, vous avez fait de l’histoire à l’école secondaire?
S: Oui j’en fais. J’en fais.
T:Oh so you are still in High School? <>
S: + + J’en ai fait.
T: J’en ai fait. D’accord. J’en ai fait. Oui j’en ai fait.

The quick comment in L1 embedded within an interaction in L2 in which teacher and students are engaged, not in talking about the morphology of past tense, but in communicating about school matters, seems to be successful in helping the student to self correct. After a pause, the student is able to use the right form of the passé composé (S: ++ J’en ai fait). Here again, this instance of uptake gives support to our claim of some effectiveness of L1 in immersion. In this case, the L1 shift (briefly commenting on the learner’s situation regarding her studies) may have raised the student awareness about form while she was engaged in meaning. The quick comment in L1 helped her redress an error, which she was most likely not aware of making while communicating about school studies.


The above examination of L1 samples leads us to posit a role of L1 within Communicative Language Teaching. Shifting to the learners’ first language may help the perception of L2 forms. The use of L1 could be particularly efficient (together with other immersion techniques) to introduce vocabulary items, which cause miscomprehension during a listening activity. Code switching could also be added to teacher techniques such as recast, which aim at drawing learners’ attention to errors performed during communicative activities. The use of L1 could be considered then as a strategy helping to introduce a ‘focus on form’ in the foreign language classroom (Robinson and Long, 1998). However, further research is needed to confirm the hypothesis of an effect of code switching to L1 on L2 perception of targeted items. Obviously the investigation has to be pursued with L2 learners, who alone provide data that will allow us to examine further the psychological impact of code switching on L2 acquisition.


The transcription conventions used in the study are the following:

Symbols to identify who is speaking:

T 1 identify teachers, using numbers (T 1, T 2, T 3, T 4)
S 1 identify students, using numbers (S 1, S 2, etc)
Ss unidentified group of students or whole class, speaking together
Su pseudonym for students’ names

Symbols in the text

<< >> use to report any comment, such as paralinguistic information
(laughing) or classroom activities (writing on the board)
x one unclear word
xx two unclear words
xxx more than two unclear words, usually a whole sentence
(...) uncertain transcription
+ short pause
++ longer pause (about two seconds or more)
? rising or falling intonation in questions
?? strong intonation contour in questions
. utterance final falling intonation
YES stressed words (use of capitals)
plain text words in L2
italics words in L1