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Three Examples of Better English Learning through the L1

Using ESL students' first language in class improves learners' self-image and motivation, says David Balosa. See Elizabeth Coelho's Out of the Box article, "Sharing Space with English," Essential Teacher, March 2006, pp. 28-31.

In the intermediate ESL speaking class of adult learners I teach at LaSalle University, in the United States, I use the students' first languages (L1s) (French, Haitian Creole, Lingala, Portuguese, and Spanish) to help the students achieve the instructional goals. I believe that use of the L1 helps improve students' self-image and overcomes some of the limitations of English-only instruction (Wilen et al 2004; Temple et al. 2005). If I don't speak the students' L1s, or speak the L1 of only some of the students, I usually ask them to think how they would say X in their L1.

Here are three scenarios in which L1 use helped create a better learning environment for the students in my class.

A Self-Esteem Booster

Ligia was from Brazil. She was proficient in reading and writing, but was shy and didn't think that she could participate in guided discussions or group activities. After many failed attempts to encourage Ligia to speak out or share what she had written, I used a well-known saying in Portuguese, her L1:Quem n o tem c o casa com gato (He who doesn't have a dog hunts with a cat, which means If you don't have what you want, want what you have).

Ligia's attitude changed tremendously, and she became an active participant in classroom discussions. Using her L1 to demonstrate her responsibility to participate in class activities, no matter how limited she felt her speaking skills were, promoted her self-esteem.

The Complex Made Clear

While doing a group activity on tag questions, Maruti, a Spanish speaker, completed all the blanks with no, a vernacular form of the Spanish tag question (e.g., You are married, no? instead of You are married, aren't you?). After I had made many attempts to use English to help Maruti understand the difference between English and Spanish tag questions, Maruti was frustrated and reluctant to participate in the lesson.

I explained the difference in Maruti's L1. I gave examples in both Spanish and English to clarify my explanation and relieve her frustration. Afterward, I noticed her excitement. Before we had even begun the third example, she was already correcting the mistakes she had made in the previous assignment. Using her L1 had saved time and made the input more comprehensible than might have been possible with the "sink-or-swim English-only approach" (Temple et al. 2005, 498).

Cultural Concepts Untangled

In my classroom, the students and I called each other by our first names. We called Kasanzi Lola, who was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kasanzi because we assumed it was her first name. However, during a discussion about family members, we learned that Kasanzi had a brother also named Kasanzi. When another student asked why both had the same first name, Kasanzi explained that it was their father's name. This led to a discussion about whether Kasanzi was in fact her first name or last name.

To settle the confusion, I used Kasanzi's L1, Lingala, to explain the concept of first and last names in English and how they relate to Lingala names. I explained that in English first name and last name refer not to the order of names but rather to their social function. I related the concept of first name toKombo ya moklisto (Christian name, or the name given at baptism) and last name to kombo ya tata to ya libota (the name of your father or family).

After this explanation, Kasanzi revealed that her first name was in fact Arlette--her home name, the name her brother and friends called her even though her parents called her Kasanzi.

A Positive Classroom Climate

As these three examples illustrate, judicious use of the students' L1 can build an atmosphere of confidence and friendship in the classroom. I have found that the students' self-image and motivation improve when they are no longer frustrated by not understanding classroom instruction presented in the target language only.


Temple, C., D. Ogle, A. Crawford, and P. Freppon. 2005. All children read: Teaching for literacy in today's diverse classrooms. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Wilen, W., M. I. Bosse, J. Hutchison, and R. Kindsvatter. 2004. Dynamics of effective secondary teaching. 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

David Balosa ( teaches ESL at LaSalle University, in the United States.