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The usage of l1 in teaching foreign language and translation

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2009

Автор: Хакак А.Б.

If you don’t like people, don’t become a teacher. You have to cherish your students and think well of them as well as their own cultures.

James E. Alatis

Most members of the language teaching profession realize that their students' learning potential increases when attitudes are positive and motivation runs high. The research into the connection between positive attitudes and successfully learning a second language supports this simple observation, although it is important to understand that many variables are involved because we are dealing with complex social and psychological aspects of human behavior. For example, students' ability to learn a second language can be influenced by their attitudes towards the target language, the target language speakers and their culture, the social value of learning the second language, and also the students' attitudes towards themselves as members of their own culture. In addition, English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers should recognize that all students possess positive and negative attitudes in varying degrees, and that the negative ones can be changed by thoughtful instructional methods, such as using materials and activities that help students achieve an understanding and appreciation of the foreign culture.

This article will describe some of the points about attitudes, motivation, and language learning; it will look at the historical background of the topic about the significance of using and influence of L1. The project utilized classroom action research, which is a useful method with clearly defined stages to allow teachers to identify, investigate, apply solutions to, and report on results and make recommendations about how to improve teaching strategies and educational policy.

Attitudes and language learning

It is widely known that attitudes are cognitive and affective; that is, they are related to thoughts as well as to feelings and emotions. Attitudes govern how one approaches learning, which in the case of language requires exposure to a different culture and also to the difficult task of mastering a second language. Attitudes begin developing early and are influenced by many things, including parents, peers, and interactions with people who have social and cultural differences. Therefore, attitudes "form a part of one's perception of self, of others, and of the culture in which one is living".

It is well known that negative attitudes towards the foreign language and group, which often comes from stereotypes and superficial contact with the target culture, can obstruct the learning of that language. Conversely, positive attitudes towards the foreign language and group increase language learning success. When students with positive attitudes experience success, the attitudes are reinforced, whereas students with negative attitudes may fail to progress and become even more negative in their language learning attitudes. Because attitudes can be modified by experience, effective language teaching strategies can encourage students to be more positive towards the language they are learning.

Attitudes and motivation

According to Gardner attitudes are a component of motivation, which "refers to the combination of effort plus desire to achieve the goal of learning plus favorable attitudes towards learning the language." Deci and Ryan identify motivation as intrinsic or extrinsic. Students are intrinsically motivated when they are interested in learning tasks and outcomes for their own sake, and that results in internal feelings of self-determination and competence. On the other hand, students are extrinsically motivated if they carry out some actions to achieve some instrumental end, such as earning a reward or avoiding a punishment. Whatever motivates students, it seems clear that a positive attitude towards the target language and group is important.

Two related types of motivation are identified, which are called instrumental and integrative. Students with instrumental motivation acquire a language for such reasons as to get a better job, to read technical material, or to study in the country where the language is spoken. Integrative motivation is held by students who want to join with the culture of the second language group and become involved in social interchange in that group.

Motivation is regarded "as a key component of a model of language learning". Because of its importance to language learning, there is growing interest in the creation of a motivation model that can help develop methodological applications to improve the teaching and learning of a second language. Spolsky presents several second language learner case histories that illustrate the "complex motivational and identity, patterns" among different individuals. Because language knowledge is so dynamic and contextualized, Spolsky is distrustful of using questionnaires as the sole method to collect data on motivation, and he stresses how important it is to supplement them with observation, interviews, and focused conversations to obtain "hard sociolinguistic data and personal statements of second language learners". As with the research that finds a correlation between positive attitudes and successful language learning it’s found that motivated students have greater self-confidence in their second language, resulting in a greater willingness to communicate. Although there is contrasting evidence as to whether instrumental or integrative orientation is better, both types have been shown to lead to successful language learning. What is clear is that second language learners benefit from positive attitudes and that negative attitudes may lead to decreased motivation and, in all likelihood because of decreased input and interaction, to unsuccessful attainment of proficiency.

A classroom action research project

Classroom action research occurs when teachers reflect critically about the teaching situation, identify learning or instructional problems, and institute methods to solve them. The basic steps include exploring and identifying a problem in the classroom, collecting data and reflecting on the problem, thinking about something that will possibly fix the problem, developing and instituting a plan of intervention, and reporting on the final results. Classroom action research is productive because teachers are so close to students on a daily basis, their own inquiry from their unique perspectives can make an important contribution to knowledge about teaching and learning. In addition to improving the current teaching situation, action research can boost teachers' professional development, can be used for teacher training, and can present to an institution evidence of the need for change.

Now, we’re going to talk about the main issue of our article: the usage of L1 in the classroom activities. Throughout decades of foreign language (L2) teaching, a recurring issue has been the role of the first language (LI) in the classroom. A long-term and wide-ranging debate persists regarding practical and theoretical questions about the significance of the LI's obvious influence on the L2 being learned. Although many feel that the LI should not be used in the classroom, other researchers, teachers, and learners do see a role for the LI and support its use as a communication strategy and instructional tool. A specific explanation will be given about the benefits of using translation for assessing reading comprehension, one of which is the collection of language items for test development.

Historical use of the LI in L2 instruction

For more than a century, most approaches to L2 instruction recognized the Ll's role in L2 language pedagogy, but most methods dictated that it should be prohibited in the classroom. Only the Grammar Translation Method of the early 20th century fully embraced the use of the LI in the L2 classroom; in addition to the intense study of vocabulary and grammatical rules, this method required the laborious translation of L2 texts into the LI. Eventually, this method was challenged for doing “virtually nothing to enhance a student's communicative ability in the language” (Brown). Subsequent methods that appeared around the mid-20th century obligated the near total use of the L2 to teach the L2, including the influential Audiolingual Method, which took its cue from behaviorism and treated LI interference errors (also called negative language transfer) as bad habits that were to be eradicated though drills, memorization, and a strict limitation on the use of the L1. The procedure of contrastive analysis was employed to identify the Ll structures that interfered with L2 production so that errors could be eliminated through practice.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, new approaches to language learning also considered the use of the Ll as undesirable. When cognitive psychology theorized that people acquire their L2 in a manner similar to the way they acquired their LI as a child, new approaches were developed that proposed a L2 learning environment complete with social and communicative aspects of language use. The Ll was rarely used in these methods.

Language learners and interlanguage

As research continued, the contrastive analysis position offered more sophisticated descriptions of the connections between the Ll and the L2 and what it meant for language learners developing their communication skills. Studies indicated that in addition to negative language transfer, positive transfer between the Ll and L2 was also important, suggesting that L2 learners could benefit from being exposed to the structural similarities of both languages. Research also showed that aspects of the L2 itself could explain many errors, such as when a learner over generalizes L2 forms, a regular process that happens with most developing English speakers when they apply a regular conjugation to an irregular verb (e.g., "He goed").

These research results softened the absolute contrastive analysis position and led to a broader study of error analysis. At this point even avoidance errors were described; these are errors a learner makes when avoiding a difficult L2 sound, word, or grammatical feature, thereby masking a lack of proficiency. A new term—interlanguage—was coined to define the complex developing system of the learners' L2 that was influenced by positive and negative transfer from the L1, in conjunction with their developing knowledge of the L2 itself.

An eclectic approach

By the end of the 1980s, teachers began to borrow elements from various methods to develop an eclectic approach to language learning. Many of these elements come together in Communicative Language Teaching, an approach that incorporates effective L2 communication, meaningful activities, and high motivation achieved through attention to learners' needs and preferences.

Many teachers recognize that the Ll in the classroom is a positive representation of interlingua; additionally, they know it is often a student preference because the natural desire to communicate impels learners to use their Ll to fill in gaps in communication, a strategy that successfully moves their acquisition of the L2 forward. Nevertheless, many in the language teaching community still have reservations about using the Ll in the L2 classroom, objecting to it on the grounds that it limits exposure to the target language, and keeps students thinking in their LI. However, as the data on interlanguage and language transfer show, it is highly probable that L2 learners will always think most often in their L1, even at the advanced level.

Today the taboo against using the Ll in the classroom is breaking down, as it is recognized that some learners use the L1, as a communication strategy to successfully learn and use the L2.

Current use of the Ll in the L2 classroom

L2 pedagogy has advanced beyond the days when students were passive participants and teachers the sole directors of the language learning process. Teaching methods today consider materials and activities that are relevant to students and take their needs and learning styles into account in order to achieve higher motivation. Therefore, regarding the use of the Ll in the L2 classroom, it is important to find out how students themselves feel about it. Our teachers conducted research into this question and found that most students from two English classes felt that the Ll should be used in the classroom, while all 4 of the teachers reported using the Ll in class on limited occasions. Both students and teachers chose "Explaining difficult concepts" as the main reason to use the Ll. Other instances when the use of the Ll may be useful include:

1) explaining the meanings of unfamiliar words and expressions,

2) clearing up difficult grammatical issues,

3) teaching pronunciation,

4) explaining reading strategies,

5) giving instructions for tasks.

These examples reveal the L1's potential to strengthen L2 acquisition by making it more meaningful and communicative. For example, definition of a word or an explanation of task that is given in the LI might be more effective than a L2 definition or explanation, reducing the waste of precious class time and ensuring that everyone understands, especially lower-level students.

Periodically, a problem arises when a student is not able to formulate an answer in the L2. To solve this problem it’s suggested that teachers should accept answers in the LI. In my own classes, I have observed many cases of code-switching when I asked students to give short answers orally, and I have also observed that students performed better when they were asked to use their L1 to summarize a L2 text. Because so many learners successfully use the Ll to avoid communication breakdowns, we would do well to remember that the first language can be a facilitating factor and not just an interfering factor.

Translation in the L2 classroom

A special classroom use of the Ll is the translation of L2 texts into the LI, a procedure that has been neglected, possibly because of its association with the old Grammar Translation Method. However, current research reveals that today's translation activities have little to do with the previous method, which occurred in a non-interactive teacher-centered classroom with few activities aside from the translation of difficult, non-relevant, and often boring texts.

Indicating the lack of correspondence between LI and L2 forms can enhance understanding of the language being learned. It is a natural linguistic phenomenon for a learner to display positive and negative language transfer of the LI through interlanguage, and translation offers one way to highlight these similarities and differences.

Translation can also be used as a productive means to learn new L2 vocabulary. And translation can draw the teacher's attention to the words and structures that need to be practiced. For something different, translation from L1 TO L2 is used as a guided writing exercise for beginners, using process approach activities such as writing practice, dictionary work, and peer-correction opportunities. There are many other activities to use with translation that successfully raise consciousness about the L2. As with other theoretically sound methods, the following principles support the use of translation for L2 acquisition:

Translation uses authentic materials. Students respond to relevant materials from the real world, and with translation teachers have an opportunity to select the most appropriate types of texts.

Translation is interactive. Translation does not have to be a solitary activity. It can promote communication through classroom discussions with the teacher and among students through group work and peer correction.

Translation is learner-centered. The learner-centered classroom is essential to effective teaching. Motivated students have input into the selection of materials and the design of activities. The teacher allows for questions and feedback as students negotiate the meaning of language.

Translation promotes learner autonomy. Translation can motivate students as they gain an understanding of the particulars of the L2, including different communication and learning strategies. They also discover their own learning styles and become adept at using dictionaries and electronic resources. All of this instills confidence in their own abilities and, most importantly, provides them with skills they can use outside of the classroom. For these reasons and more, translation is now considered an acceptable procedure for the Communicative Approach to language teaching.

Important guidelines for using translation

The following guidelines are important for teachers who plan to use translation in the classroom:

Understand that multilingual classrooms are not ideal. Translation is most sufficient when the whole class speaks the same language. In a multilingual classroom with many different native languages, the teacher may have a case for not using translation.

Plan for revision. Students will often make mistakes when writing in their LI, and to be sure it is an LI mistake, it is imperative that they revise their translations carefully to give them the chance to correct any mistakes that are not actually attributable to comprehension problems.

Learn error analysis. As is clear from the study of interlanguage, errors can derive from negative language transfer, the L2, avoidance, and other sources. Since there is a risk of misidentifying errors, teachers should become familiar with the field.

Limit error correction. Too much concentration on errors may have a negative effect on learners' motivation. Teachers must remember to acknowledge what students get correct.

Use translation judiciously. Translation should be just one part of a teacher's methodological list. For reading comprehension assessment, translation should be combined with multiple-choice, true/false, short answer, and other test techniques. Other reading strategies should also be included, especially scanning a text for specific details and skimming for main ideas, which are essential skills for students who will study overseas, where they will be expected to read extensively in very limited periods of time.

Give positive backwash. It is essential to strive for positive backwash in all testing, which occurs when students are given appropriate and well-explained tasks for their age, level, and interests, and when they are able to use the testing results to increase their understanding of the target language. Reading comprehension questions, regardless of their type, should be carefully developed and used for teaching as well as testing.


L2 learners customarily rely on their Ll, especially in acquisition-poor environments where exposure to the L2 is confined to a few hours per week of formal classroom instruction. For many teachers and students, the use of L1 is a learning and communication strategy that can be used in the classroom for various purposes, such as to explain difficult concepts. I support L2 to Ll written translation in particular not only because of its benefits as a post-reading task, but also because the incorrect translations can be back-translated into the L2 and used as a source of information to be fed into other testing techniques. Translation is also useful because it draws the students' attention to the entire reading passage at the word, sentence, and text level. Because translation does not require students to respond in the L2, it focuses on comprehension, the skill it purports to develop.

Although correcting students' translations is time-consuming, the task is worth doing because translation gives a representation of the students' comprehension ability and inter-language development. If texts are selected carefully so that the difficulty levels are appropriate for the target age and language level, if the procedure is used in moderation and with other techniques, and if attention is given to positive backwash and the development of autonomy, translation takes its place alongside other theoretically sound methods of language teaching.

In conclusion I want to tell that it’s simply a historical fact that English now is lingua franca and widely used for communication. It belongs to all of us who use it to communicate with one another, whether we teach it, learn it, or just use it for practical reasons.


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4. Hughes, A. 2003.Testing for language teachers. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5. Tang,J. 2002. Using L1 in the English classroom. English Teaching Forum 40.

6. Van Els, T.T. Bongaerts,G. Extra, C. Van Os, and A.Janssen-van Dieten.1984. Applied linguistics and the learning and teaching of foreign languages. London:

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2009

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