Attitudes to Learner L1 (Abridged)

Earlier this year, as part of an English teaching course, I undertook a research assignment. My first one, in fact, so I was pretty excited about it. (That excitement waned momentously while I was transcribing interviews, and I am grateful I wasn’t daft enough to interview all my participants, or do a phonological-based study!) I did promise I’d share the findings in May, but I’ve had other priorities, not least the teaching course and a Delta exam (Put this Delta hat on: when you enter the enemy proficient teacher camp, they will be fooled by its power and mistake you for one of them!). But, can’t put these things off forever, so here we go.


We are, now, moving away from the principle of forcing exclusive use of the target use onto our students, and a lot of previous research has already shown the benefits of L1 use by both teacher and learners. Movements surrounding lingua franca core (moving from English as lingua franca to English-based lingua franca to English as non-dominant part of a multilingual lingua franca) and translanguaging (aka multilingualism, plurilingualism, translingualism, code meshing, code mixing, etc) flagged concerns of EFL as being guilty of popularising and propagating an anglocentric approach to the spread of English. It is not the role of the English teacher, as in the past, to contribute to the subjugation of the foreigner by replacing their language with her own. Rather, it is the role of the English teacher, as it is for any language teaching, to aid cross-linguistic communication by providing learners the linguistic and phonetic resources to best express themselves and understand those from different language communities. There is, thus, no real, contemporary political basis for denying learner use of L1, and the work done on aforementioned lingua franca and translanguaging indicates L1-use does have pedagogical benefits beyond the tired-old “It’s OK for the new or lazy teacher” trope.

In contrast with the progress being made regarding the positive relations between native and target languages in English language teaching, the relation between teaching and research is poor, if very steadily improving (thanks, in part, to a surge of interest in April, when it was brought up in Glasgow). Various claims and theories have been put forward about this, and I have no interest in rehashing them here. Suffice it that I would consider any research into teaching an ivory-toweresque, academic exercise if it was not accessible to the teacher. Further, being experienced, first-hand, in their field, the attitude of the teacher is of considerable value to the researcher, while the attitudes of the student must always interest the teacher. So, being interested in L1 use, I opted to investigate attitudes (researcher, teacher and student) towards L1 use.


Just a quick point: I’m not going to go into the literature review, here, as I feel I’d mostly just be copying my own report, but I’ll leave a reference list at the end of this post for anyone interested.

The study was mixed-methods, meaning (for the layperson) looking at the data in terms of both the numbers and the stories. Numbers were vital in indicating which attitudes represented a theme across the population, while stories (call it qualitative data, if you want) provided insights and implications. Although I was aware, at the time of starting the research, of a growing call to allow learner L1, I had no idea as to how widespread it might have been, which meant I had no preformed ideas about what results I’d get (nor, being a monolingual speaker with a new but growing interest in multilingual teaching, did I have any clue one way or another what I hoped my data would show). What I did know was that I was looking for trends (numerical data is uninteresting if it can’t be generalised, save the instance of case studies), and why those trends were held. Numbers and stories, then.

In keeping with research ethics, all data was anonymised, with participation done on an entirely voluntary basis. People volunteered to complete a questionnaire, and people volunteered, having completed the questionnaire, to be interviewed. Thanks to one person (who shall remain anonymous, but they will know who they are should they be reading this), to whom I again express my sincere gratitude, I discovered the merits of Google Forms, which made the whole investigation much easier than it otherwise would have been. Having obtained volunteers for the questionnaire through (thanks to social media) exponential snowball sampling, and using stratified random sampling to select interview participants (or random sampling, if you count the questionnaire-takers as the entire population), I feel I collected a decent and balanced amount of views. Remember, as well, that this was only ever intended to be a small-scale study, so there was never going to be any case of “Half of the 2.5 million participants…” or anything near so large.


I did try to get around issues of interpretability in the questionnaire by including a variety of question types, such as the well-known Likert scale, and qualifying each question with a ‘Please state why’ extension. Even then, however, there were clear cases in which questions were misinterpreted, or data was too difficult for me to interpret without wondering into the foggy mire of conjecture, which has, I think, no place in data analysis. The ramification, here, was an evident conflict of data between quantitative and qualitative data, though I sought to get round this by categorising and separately analysing data sets (E.g., the numerical data for question 5 was analysed, then the ‘why’ statements were treated as a separate question, with results then being cross-referenced and triangulated as closely as possible. Utterly nonsensical or uninterpretable qualitative data was discounted).

I’m also entirely open to the accusation that people taking part in my investigation were at least as aware (often moreso) as I was of the growing preference for L1 use, and so answered questions in accordance with that trend, either because they were unconsciously conforming to current worldviews or because they simply wanted to give what they perceived to be the topically preferable answers. Beyond mind-reading, however, there is little can be done about such things. I did attempt to minimise the impact, however, by posing a series of related questions as opposed to stating the research question directly. This applied in both the questionnaires and the interviews.


So, here are the main findings from the research (being generous, or ‘Corbynistic’, as it were, I am saving you the burden of reading umpteen pages of raw and analysed data)


Students can use their own language if it helps them understand instructions (n=60)

Agree 51.7% (n=31)

Please explain why (n=45)

DIFFICULTY FOR SS                                          15   33.33%

When communicating with each other, students should only use English (n=60)

Agree 38.3% (n=23)

Please explain why (n=53)

DIFFICULTY FOR SS                                          16  30.19%

Students can use their own language if all the other students can understand them (n=59)

Agree 32.2% (n=19)

Please explain why (n=49)

LINGUISTIC DEVELOPMENT         11           22.45%


Students can use their own language if the teacher can understand them (n=59)

Disagree 28.8% (n=17)

Please explain why (n=47)

Linguistic support                            13           27.66%

Please select the statement(s) you agree with (n=53)

Teachers feel pressure from institutions not to allow first language use – 60.4% (n=32)

Please explain why (n=51)

Exclusion of other students (Most frequent response across all statements)

Which teacher do you agree with? (n=57)

Students need to develop linguistic proficiency, but lower-level students can use their own language(s) if texts are too difficult – 42.1% (n=24)

Which student represents the ideal student (n=53)

None – 39.6% (n=21)

Which statement represents a valid reason not to allow first language use? (n=60)

I don’t allow students to use their own language because I feel other students react negatively to first language use – 45% (n=27)

Various other reasons were given for answers, more often relating to affective than linguistic or pedagogical concerns, but these, above, were the most popular ones. L1 status or value is, seemingly, not valued so highly as the affective states of the learners and, in some cases, the teachers. Nearly all of the respondents, however, were teachers, and I’d like to see how a study of researchers, students, or stakeholders might affect the data.


3 people were interviewed. Below are the more salient reasons they gave for permitting or not permitting L1 use.

Interviewee In favour of L1 use Against L1 use
1 Not entirely averse to L1 use from ss. Peer translation saves time for T. Banning L1 encourages its use Code mixing may irritate monolingual participants. L1 use unnecessary to convey meaning – simplify language use instead. L1 use wastes speaking/listening opportunities. L1 use unfair to ss with different L1s. May cause cliques. Higher level ss should maximise TL.
2 Trusts ss to use L1 appropriately. Ss entitled to L1 use. L1 useful for ss to provide mutual support. Can quickly support weaker ss with L1. L1 provides ss sense of identity. Some groups need own space & opportunity to use own language amongst stronger groups. TL use more taxing for lower levels. Stop L1 use if need to get a point across. L1 can cause cliques. L1 use can isolate ss with unique/different L1.



3 Ss can support each other using L1. Unrealistic to expect no L1 at lower levels. Allow L1 if ss tired/confused. L1 helps ss affirm own identity. L1 use promotes laziness. Less vocab practice. Less opportunity to practise sounds of TL. L1 not acceptable if disrupting/dominating. Sound formation essential for learning vocab, not just meaning. L1 use doesn’t allow sound formation. L1 dominance easily creeps in. Ss can feel excluded if don’t understand another group’s L1. TL promotes (social) cohesion, communication.

The exclusion of learners was prominent across the interviews. An effect of communicative approaches, perhaps? Or maybe one rationale behind them. In any case, it is clear that communication is valued above linguistic competence, and anyone looking to advance English teaching as a field needs to be asking ‘What can learners do with this?’, rather than ‘What can they learn from this?’


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