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Inviting Students to Use their L1 in the EFL Classroom

Paul Joyce
Alison von Dietze
Hans von Dietze

What is the role of the first language (L1) in the second language (L2) classroom? Until recently,
many teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) had assumed that the English-only approach
was the ideal language-learning environment. Current research, however, is finding significant
benefits to judicious use of the L1 in the L2 classroom, particularly at lower levels of L2 proficiency
(Tang, 2002; Schweers, 1999). This research addresses how teachers can promote L2 learning by
“inviting” their students to use the L1. The focus is on the amount of time teachers give students for
L1-use, the frequency of functions of L1-use and whether teacher invited student use of the L1 relates
to student L2 proficiency. Results indicate that teachers are inviting or encouraging L1-use in certain
instances and that teachers choose when and where to allow student use of the L1, depending on L2
proficiency levels. This study supports the notion that in a modern, student-centred EFL classroom,
teachers should allow some L1-use.

Keywords: L1, L2, EFL, proficiency, functions


概要 最近まで、多くの EFL 教師は、英語のみで授業を行うことこそが言語学習にとって

語(L1)の正しい使用が、有益であると証明されつつある (Tang, 2002, Schweers, 1999)。本研
究では、教師が生徒の L1 使用を「促す」ことによってどのように L2 学習を促進できるかと
いうことに着目した。中でも、教師が L1 をどの程度の時間生徒に使用させるか、機能とし
ての L1 使用の頻度、及び教師が生徒に L1 の使用を促すことが生徒の L2 習得と関係してい
は、L1 の使用を奨励あるいは許可していること、そして、教師がいつ・どの場面で生徒の
L1 使用を許可するかは生徒の L2 のレベルによるということである。

キーワード: 第一言語(L1)、第二言語(L2)、熟達、機能

The notion of L1 in the L2 classroom has recently received much attention. Supporters of the
English-only approach argue that the use of the L1 makes students become dependent on it and allows
them to avoid using the L2. Moreover, valuable class time is lost if time is given to the L1. Advocates
of including some L1 however, are seeking a balance between using English and the L1 and are
finding instances where the L1 can be a positive and valuable addition to the L2 classroom. In the field
of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) this has been particularly so, given the fact that students in a
class share a common language. Thus, more and more research is being conducted into how to harness
this linguistic resource for the common goal of learning English.
Historically, the English-only approach was seen as the best way to lead students to the L2. In
the 20th century, through events such as world wars and growth on a global scale in areas such as
industry, technology and trade, the English language took the mantle of the “international language
par excellence” (Phillipson, 1992, p. 6). This dominance of English is reflected in language teaching
methodologies, which “do not so much forbid the L1 as ignore its existence altogether” (Cook, 2001,
p. 410).
Initial discussions challenging an English-only classroom generated support for the inclusion
of the L1, particularly at lower proficiency levels (Atkinson, 1987; Auerbach, 1993). These
researchers are not recommending that the L1 become the dominant language in the classroom, but
rather that the L1 be used judiciously in particular instances to promote language learning.
Further research then provided practical approaches to using the student L1 in the classroom.
This often took the form of lists. Gill (2005) presents “appropriate times and appropriate places”
where teachers and students might find some L1-use beneficial, whilst Cook (2001) lists several ways
of using the L1 positively in teaching. Other researchers conducted surveys to determine student and
teacher attitudes and beliefs (e.g. Critchley, 1999; Schweers, 1999).
More recently, some of the items on these lists have been researched in isolation. McDowell
(2009), for example, focusses on L1-use in instructions for low-level learners. Stapa & Majid (2009)
study the effectiveness of the use of the L1 for brainstorming to generate ideas for second language
writing among low proficiency learners in Malaysia.
This growing body of research provides further proof of the validity of L1-use in the EFL
classroom, and gives teachers more guidance on in-class application. Yet, in most instances, more
research is required. Gill cites as an example Widdowson (2003) who has made a call for an explicitly
bilingual approach, although “he has little to offer in the way of practical guidance” (Gill, 2005, p. 1).
Similarly, while Hadley notes that the “judicious use of the native language is acceptable where
feasible” (2001, p. 117), there is no further explanation of how to implement this in the classroom.

Studies have been conducted in EFL settings in countries such as China (Tang, 2002), Puerto
Rico (Schweers, 1999), Indonesia (Zacharias, 2003), Croatia (Dumovic, 2007) and Japan (Burden,
2001). In each of these cases, research was undertaken to study specific learning contexts and the
results shed light on local needs.
The issue of L1 in the EFL classroom is extremely complex. In addition to the lack of any
methodology, overcoming long held teacher beliefs also poses an obstacle. Thus Auerbach (1993, p.
13) observed that, “the English-only axiom is so strong that…teachers assigned a negative value to
“lapses” into the L1, seeing them as failures or aberrations, a cause for guilt”. Expecting teachers to
“experiment” or “feel” their way through some of these issues adds to their sense of discomfort and a
lack of assuredness.

Recent Teacher & Student research of L1-use in the EFL classroom

Two recent studies in university settings in Japan highlight the complexities of the issue. Ford
(2009) conducted extensive interviews with teachers to try to determine how they approach the use of
Japanese in the EFL classroom. Ford indicates that, “policies ranged from those requiring strict L2-
only classrooms to those allowing students to use the L1 whenever they needed” (Ford, 2009, p. 63).
He goes on to say that 9 of the 10 interviewees tended to follow an English-only approach concerning
their own language use in the classroom (Ford, 2009, p. 77).
In another university in Japan, teachers were asked about the frequency of use of functions in
L1 in classes of differing proficiency levels. From the data a pattern emerged that the L1 is indeed
present in the majority of classrooms and that teachers are making professional decisions in the
interests of their students as to when and how much to use (von Dietze et al., 2009, p. 45).
Thus on the one hand, some teachers are still adhering to an English-only policy, whilst on the
other hand, other teachers are purposefully including a small proportion of class time to L1-use. Until
clearer guidelines are available, “teachers must do their best to balance language choice through a
combination of experience, instinct and negotiation with learners” (Critchley 2002, p. 124).
In terms of research of student opinions of their own L1, many studies use surveys to assess
whether students want their teachers to use the L1, whether they prefer an English-only approach or
whether they want to use L1 themselves. An extensive study by Norman (2007) in a Japanese
university setting concludes that, “a large majority of Japanese students have a desire for the NEST
(Native English Speaking Teacher) to speak Japanese in the EFL classroom” (2007, p. 697). The
results of a similar study, conducted in a university setting in Iran found contradictory results. Nazary
(2008, p. 147) reported that Iranian students are reluctant to use the L1 in the EFL classroom.
Whilst the results of these studies seem contradictory, both authors agree that students with

lower levels of L2 proficiency wanted more L1 support, whilst students with higher L2 proficiency
wanted less L1 in class. These conclusions confirm the findings of a study conducted in China (Tang,
2002). In concluding the study, the researcher noted, “I agree with the majority of student participants
that no more than 10% of class time should be spent using Chinese (L1). In my experience, this
percentage decreases as the students’ English proficiency increases” (p. 41).
Tang’s quotation highlights again how the onus is on the teacher to find the best balance for
each class. The conclusions that are being drawn from research, “should provide teachers with a
pedagogical basis to help them understand the role of L1 in the classroom, and to help them make
decisions on their own use of students’ L1” (von Dietze et al., 2009, p. 48).

A new distinction: Teacher-invited student use of L1

This paper will report the findings of research conducted into how teachers use student L1 in
the EFL classroom. However, unlike previous research, a new distinction is being made: Teacher-
invited student use of the L1.
This distinction needs some clarification. Teachers, for various reasons, may feel there are
times when student L1 in the classroom is beneficial. When this means that the teacher themself is
speaking the student L1, it requires a degree of proficiency on the part of the teacher. Previous studies
have highlighted various instances where teachers feel the need to include some student L1,
particularly in classes of lower L2 proficiency (e.g. Nation, 2003; Bateman, 2008). However there
have been no studies to date that explore when teachers explicitly “direct” or “invite” students to use
their L1 for specific tasks. In this case the teacher does not necessarily need any student L1
proficiency. Moreover the teacher may not actually use any student L1. Thus, whilst the teacher is not
actually speaking the students’ L1 per se, the teacher is making use of student L1 as a linguistic tool to
be used in the classroom to promote L2 learning.
Some examples of this might be when teachers ask students to translate passages out loud with
a partner, when students are offered the chance to brainstorm in their L1 before moving into L2, or
when a teacher asks one student to act as a “dictionary” to provide L1 translations of difficult
vocabulary. For the purposes of consistency, we are referring to this as “teacher-invited” student use
of L1. However, “teacher-directed” or “teacher-encouraged” could also be used.
Given the lack of knowledge in teacher-invited student L1-use, it was decided to include
questions addressing this issue through a teacher survey in a university setting in Tokyo, Japan. The
research questions were:
1. How much class time is given to the teacher-invited student use of Japanese?
2. How frequently are certain L1 functions employed?

3. Is teacher-invited student use of the L1 related to the L2 proficiency level of the students?
4. Is teacher-invited student use of Japanese treated differently in listening/speaking classes and
reading/writing classes?
5. Is the teacher’s L1 proficiency or the length of their teaching experience related to how much
Japanese use they invite students to employ?
A questionnaire (see Appendix) on how teachers invite or direct their students to use the L1 in
the L2 classroom was distributed to 60 university teachers, the vast majority of whom had a
qualification in EFL at the Masters Degree level or above. Twenty one anonymous questionnaires
were returned. With the exception of one Japanese teacher of English, who only fully completed the
second part of the survey, all of the data was collected from native English speakers from English
speaking countries. The length of the instructors’ teaching experience ranged from 1 to 28 years.

Data Collection
After some preliminary questions relating to each teacher’s background experience and
qualifications, the questionnaire focussed on teacher-invited student use of the L1. “Student use”
referred to times when students can speak the L1 with each other, as well as when the teacher invites
the students to speak Japanese to the teacher (this does necessarily assume some degree of proficiency
in the students’ L1 by the teacher, but does not involve the teacher actually speaking the students’ L1
themselves). The questionnaire firstly asked teachers about how much time they typically invited
students to speak L1 in class. This question was sub-divided by the proficiency level of the class and
the lesson content. Therefore, data was collected on teacher-invited student L1-use in beginner, pre-
intermediate, and intermediate level classes for both listening/speaking and reading/writing lessons.
Next, respondents were asked to report both on the purpose and frequency of teacher-invited
student L1-use. Participants were presented with a list of functions and a six-point scale to report how
frequently the L1 was used to satisfy these functions. Many of the functions were drawn from previous
research (Auerbach, 1993; Cook, 2001; Nation, 2003) but also included some additional functions that
the researchers considered important. As this section of the questionnaire was comparatively lengthy,
to save the participants’ time, instructors were only asked about their use of the students’ L1 in
beginner and intermediate level classes. There was also space provided for teachers to record any
additional comments throughout the questionnaire. These comments gave a qualitative element to the
results and helped identify the reasons that teachers choose to do what they do.
Data Processing

After the questionnaires were returned, the data was placed into digital format. For the
purposes of the statistical analyses, the frequency with which the teachers’ reported inviting student
use of the L1 was transferred onto an interval scale. This was achieved by converting the six available
frequency choices (see Appendix) into numbers from one to six with a high score representing
frequent teacher-invited L1 usage. The data was compiled and prepared using Excel, and the statistical
analyses were performed using SPSS for Windows, Version 18.

In total the survey was completed by 21 instructors. However, not all of the participants
completed all of the survey items. In particular, a large number of responses to questions regarding the
proportion of class time that teachers invited the use of Japanese were found to be missing. It was
important to ensure that the missing answers were not simply intended to denote that the respondent
did not invite any Japanese in their classroom. Therefore, when there was missing time related
responses, the instructor’s answers to the purpose and frequency section of the questionnaire were also
checked. Through checking the later section of the questionnaire, it was found that teachers who
omitted responses from the class time section, invited the use of Japanese within the corresponding
part of the purpose and frequency section of the survey. Therefore, it was concluded that the missing
responses did not indicate that the teachers did not use Japanese. Rather, given the difficulty in
providing accurate answers to the class time section of the questionnaire, it was surmised that the
teachers simply missed out questions that they had trouble answering. To ensure that the results were
not biased by the missing data, it was determined that if an instructor had not provided a full data-set
for either part of the survey, none of the data for that part of the questionnaire would be included in the
later analyses. After the list-wise deletion of data, the results from nine respondents were used to
explore the proportion of class time that teachers allocated to the student-invited use of Japanese.
Regarding the purpose of the teacher-invited L1 usage, a sample size of 21 was used. While statistical
analysis is frequently conducted with small samples of data, it is worth noting that the small
population sample reduces the statistical power of the analyses and thereby increases the chance of
type II errors. For this reason, as will be discussed below, a Bonferroni correction was bit applied to
the results.

Research question one: Teacher invited L1 talk time

In regard to the first research question, the mean average time that students were invited to
speak Japanese was reported to be 2.4%. However, as suggested by the standard deviation (SD) value
(3.1), there was a large degree of variability in how much Japanese was invited by different teachers.

While the teacher who invited students to use the most Japanese devoted 8% of the class to the student
use of the L1, there were also teachers who reported not inviting any Japanese usage at all.

Research question two: The frequency that L1 functions are employed

The second research question sought to explore the purpose for which teachers invite learners
to use their L1. In Table 1, there is a list of the various functions of L1 usage and their reported
frequency. As was the case with the time data, when considering the average purpose and frequency
values, it is also worth considering how widely dispersed the results are around this figure. The most
common teacher-invited L1 functions was found to be for the translation of words and phrases,
specifically for the “use of a dictionary” (M = 3.33, SD = 2.18) and to “translate key words” (M =
2.74, SD = 1.84). Following the translation of key lexis, the next most common purposes for student
L1-use were to “confirm instructions” (M = 2.29, SD = 1.53), “compare L1 & L2” (M = 2.29, SD =
1.45), and “confirm grammar understanding” (M = 2.24, SD = 1.62). These functions were followed
by the invited use of the L1 to “discuss challenging concepts” (M = 2.02, SD = 1.32) and to discuss
reading (M = 1.81, SD = 1.45) and listening (M = 1.74, SD = 1.45) content. Lastly, to “talk to the
teacher”, “translate sentences”, “write notes”, “test each other”, “translate reading content” and to
“elaborate in conversation” had a range of mean total use from 1.69 to 1.29.

Table 1: The purpose and frequency of teacher instructed student L1-usage (n = 21)
Mean (SD)
Overall Beginner Intermediate z p r
Mean Average 1.98 (1.51) 2.28 (1.71) 1.68 (1.21) -3.10 .002 -.15
Use a dictionary 3.33 (2.18) 3.52 (2.20) 3.14 (2.20) -2.06 .039 -.07
Translate key words 2.74 (1.84) 3.14 (1.98) 2.33 (1.62) -2.36 .018 -.08
Confirm instructions (1.53) 2.29 2.90 (1.70) 1.67 (1.06) -2.83 .005 -.10
Compare L1 & L2 2.29 (1.45) 2.61 (1.72) 1.95 (1.07) -1.81 .071 -.06
Confirm grammatical 2.24 (1.62) 2.67 (1.74) 1.81 (1.40) -2.49 .013 -.09

Discuss challenging concepts 2.02 (1.32) 2.10 (1.51) 1.95 (1.12) -.54 .587 -.02
Discuss reading content 1.81 (1.45) 2.24(1.87) 1.38 (.67) -2.32 .020 -.08
Discuss listening content 1.74 (1.45) 2.14 (1.88) 1.33 (.66) -2.21 .027 -.08
Talk to the teacher 1.69 (1.15) 2.00 (1.38) 1.38 (.80) -2.59 .010 -.09
Translate sentences 1.67 (1.20) 2.00 (1.45) 1.33 (.80) -1.83 .067 -.07
Write notes 1.64 (1.12) 1.81 (1.33) 1.48 (.87) -1.93 .053 -.07
Test each other 1.57 (1.33) 1.76 (1.48) 1.38 (1.16) -1.84 .066 -.07
Translate reading content 1.45 (1.04) 1.62 (1.36) 1.29 (.56) -1.22 .223 -.04
Elaborate in conversation 1.29 (.74) 1.42 (.98) 1.14 (.36) -1.86 .063 -.07

Research question three: The relationship between the teacher-invited use of the L1 and the L2
proficiency level of the students
As can be seen in Table 2, the descriptive results suggest that the teacher-invited L1 talk time
varied according to the students’ proficiency level. For beginner classes, teacher-invited L1-use
comprised 3.3% (SD = 5.0) of class time, while it was 2.8% for pre-intermediate groups (SD = 3.6),
and 1.2% (SD = 2.2) for intermediate level students.

Table 2: Teacher-instructed student L1 talk time (n=9)
     Mean (SD)
Beg. (%) Pre-Intermediate (%) Intermediate (%)
3.30 (5.03) 2.80 (3.61) 1.21 (2.20)

To explore this research question further, the data was examined to determine whether there
was a statistical difference in the distributions of the results. Since the time data was not normally
distributed, a non-parametric test, the Friedman’s ANOVA was applied. The results showed that the
time that teachers allocated to invited L1-use was not significantly affected by the proficiency level of
the class (X2(2) = 3.714, p > .05). However, using a larger sample size (n = 21), the frequency with
which the teachers invited the students to use the L1 was also explored using the function data. In
order to discern whether there was a meaningful difference in the results between the two groups, the
data was subjected to a Wilcoxian signed-rank test, the non-parametric equivalent of the repeated
measures t-test. Given the limited sample size and the consequential reduction in statistical power, it
was determined that the application of a Bonferroni correction would greatly increase the likelihood of
Type II errors (see Nakagawa, 2004; Garamszegi, 2006). Therefore, for the purposes of this
exploratory study, the threshold for statistical significance was set at < .05. After conducting a
Wilcoxian signed-rank test, there was found to be a statistically significant difference in the overall
average use of the various functions in low proiciency classes compared to the higher proficiency
classes (T = 5, z = -3.10, p < .01, r = -.15). In addition, for each of the language purposes, there was
also found to be a statistically significant difference between the reported behavior of teachers in
beginner and intermediate classes for the majority of functions surveyed. As can be seen in Table 1,
the differences were for dictionary use (T = 0, z = -2.06, p < .05, r = -.07), the translation of key words
(T = 1, z = -2.36, p < .05, r = -.08), confirming instructions (T = 0, z = -2.83, p < .01, r = -.10),
confirming grammar understanding (T = 2, z = -2.49, p < .05, r = -.09), discussing reading content (T
= 1, z = -2.32, p < .05, r = -.08), and talking to the teacher (T = 0, z = -2.49, p < .05, r = -.09). Thus,
for a wide range of teacher-invited L1-uses, it is tentatively posited that the proficiency level of the
class makes a difference to how much teacher-invited student use of Japanese occurs.

Research question four: The teacher-invited student use of Japanese in listening/speaking and
reading/writing classes
In order to address research question four, data was collected from instructors on the
proportion of class time that learners are invited to speak Japanese in their reading/writing and

listening/speaking classes. As can be seen in Table 3, the descriptive results indicated that there was
no difference in how teachers employed the L1 in listening/speaking (M = 2.4%, SD = 3.1) and
reading/writing classes (M = 2.4%, SD = 3.1).

Table 3: Teacher-instructed student L1 talk time (n = 9)

Mean (SD)
Listening/Speaking (%) Reading/Writing (%)
2.40 (3.10) (3.10) 2.40

To more thoroughly explore whether the subject matter of the lesson influenced the teacher-
invited student L1 usage, the data was subjected to a Wilcoxian signed-rank test. However, since each
of the instructors’ responses for each type of class was identical, a difference was not calculable.
Nevertheless, through comparing the functions “discuss reading content” and “discuss listening
content”, it was possible to gain a further perspective on the influence of the lesson content on the
frequency of teacher-invited L1 usage. When the data for the beginner level students was submitted to
a Wilcoxian signed-rank test, there was found to be no significant difference between the two groups
(T = 0, z = -1.00, p < .05, r = .04). Likewise, for intermediate level learners, there also was not found
to be a statistically significant difference in the reported usage of the “discuss reading content” and the
“discuss listening content” functions (T = 0, z = -1.00, p < .05, r = .04). Thus, on the basis of these
limited results, it is tentatively posited that lesson content has little bearing on teacher-invited L1-

Research question five: The relationship between teacher invited L1 use, the teacher’s L1 proficiency
and teaching experience
As explained in the Introduction, owing to the lack of knowledge on the subject, one of the
main purposes of this study was to better understand the factors that contribute to an instructor’s
willingness to invite students to use their L1 in class. To address research question five, data was
collected on the instructors’ Japanese proficiency level and the length of their teaching experience.
Regarding the frequency that instructors invite students to use the L1, since there was a larger dataset
available on the functions of teacher-invited L1-use compared to teacher-instructed talk time, the
function data was used. To do this, the frequency that the teachers reported inviting the beginner and
intermediate students to conduct functions in Japanese were each separately aggregated and averaged.
The resulting values (Functions: Beginner and Functions: Intermediate) were correlated against the

data on teachers’ Japanese proficiency level and teaching experience. However, as the data was not
normally distributed, Kendall’s tau, a non-parametric equivalent of the Spearman correlation
coefficient was used. As can be seen in Table 4, there wasn’t found to be a statistically significant
relationship between Japanese proficiency and the teacher-invited use of L1 functions, or between
teaching experience and the functions.

Table 4: Kendall’s Tau correlations (n = 21)

1. 2. 3. 4.
1. Japanese Level - -.00 .11 .06
2. Teaching Experience - .01 .09
3. Functions: Beginner - .56***
4. Functions: Intermediate -
Note: ***p < .001, **p < .01, *p < .05 (two-tailed)

However, there was found to be a high Pearson correlation coefficient between “Functions:
Beginner” and “Functions: Intermediate” of   .56 (p < .001). Therefore, a teacher’s relative
willingness and unwillingness to invite the students to use Japanese in lower level classes is a very
good guide to their willingness or unwillingness to do the same in higher level classes (R2 = .32).
Nevertheless, as earlier results indicate, there is a statistically significant difference in the way
teachers approach high and low level classes.

How much class time does the teacher allocate to teacher-invited student use of Japanese?
The results of this section of the survey, presented in Table 2, are tentative as there were only
nine completed responses. However, they show that the percentage of time allocated to teacher-invited
student use of Japanese is a small proportion of the class, with a mean of 2.4% of total class time. At
the university where the research was conducted, this represents approximately 3-4 minutes of a
typical 90 minute class. This estimate falls below earlier studies by Tang (2002) and Dujmovic (2007),
which advocated approximately 10% and 10% - 20% respectively of class time be allocated to L1-use
(although these studies referred to both teacher and student L1-use). As the standard deviation figure
for this data shows (SD = 3.1), there is still a divide between those teachers who choose to use
English-only, and those who invite students to use L1 in their classes.
Moreover, teachers invite students to use Japanese in class less as the L2 proficiency increases
with the mean percentage of time decreasing from 3.3% at beginner level, 2.8% at pre-intermediate
level to 1.2% at intermediate level. This pattern supports earlier studies on the general use of L1 in the

L2 classroom whereby L1-use decreases as L2 proficiency increases (von Dietze et al., 2009; Norman,

How frequently are certain L1 functions employed?

From the data we can establish that teachers are encouraging students to use their L1 in a
variety of ways at both beginner and intermediate levels. Table 1 lists functions that have been drawn
from previous research (von Dietze et al., 2009).
It is interesting to note that the two most common functions “to use a dictionary” and “to
translate key words” are both related to understanding vocabulary items. Nation (2003) cites several
authors who indicate the effectiveness of an L1 translation as being “clear, short and familiar” (2003,
p. 3). English-only advocates often reason that any use of the L1 takes away L2 time. However
allowing students to quickly and precisely translate may instead be a more efficient use of limited
class time.
The third most commonly used function was allowing students to confirm understanding of
instructions with each other. Previous research has focussed on how teachers themselves can support
comprehension of difficult instructions by using both the L1 and L2, especially at lower levels.
McDowell (2009) reports that students, “receiving L1 support in instructions performed significantly
better than those who received all English instructions” (2009, p. 6). This research item introduces the
idea that teachers can help students comprehend instructions by inviting them to confirm meaning
with each other. A teacher with little or no Japanese can easily make use of this strategy, saving time
and assisting those students who may otherwise be left behind.
The function “comparing L1 & L2” is used almost equally to the above function “confirm
instructions”. When learning a second language, there is no escaping the fact that, especially at low
levels, learners will consistently compare the L2 with their existing L1 to make sense of the new
language. An English-only approach could, therefore, counterproductively fight this natural tendency.
The next function is “to confirm grammar understanding”. In a communicative classroom,
where students are used to working together, this Vygotskian-based method allows those students who
do understand a grammar point, to explain it to their peers in Japanese. Grammar can be difficult for a
teacher to explain clearly in the L2 and an explanation in the students’ L1 requires a moderate
proficiency of Japanese for the teacher. This method is, therefore, an idea that teachers with no
Japanese themselves can adopt.
There are several studies that refer to using the L1 “to discuss challenging concepts”, so it is
not surprising that teachers in this study indicated accessing student L1 for this purpose. The
researchers felt that brainstorming or mind-mapping fell into this category. Thus two teachers

1. Sometimes in lower levels the students can only translate. I might ask them to write out their
presentation in Japanese first to aid planning. This is mainly because they usually do so anyway.
2. With high level (in terms of concept and context) tasks, Japanese can be useful in helping students
decide topics and elaborate before actually doing the task.
Research conducted in Malaysia supports student L1-use in this situation, indicating that
students given the opportunity to use the L1 to generate ideas before essay writing produced a higher
quality of ideas as opposed to students who only used L2 (Stapa and Majid, 2009).
The next items refer to using student L1 “to discuss reading content” and “to discuss listening
content”. Of interest is the fact that these functions are used predominantly in lower level classes.
Perhaps there is an assumption on the part of the teacher that intermediate students have the ability to
draw meaning from content without using their L1, or perhaps at higher levels, teachers are actively
challenging their students L2 ability. Overall there is a lack of literature in these areas. One teacher
commented, “My students are aware that I can communicate in Japanese but that the class will be in
English. However, if really necessary, they can ask a question in Japanese if needed to clarify a point.”
Previous research has noted the need for L1 in low proficiency L2 classes to be allowed when
speaking to the teacher. It allows students to express who they are instead of being restricted by their
limited L2. Burden (2000, p. 4) refers to feeling “remote from the students as individuals” owing to
enforcing an English-only approach. He addressed this problem by including student L1 and
concluded “a more humanistic approach is needed that values the students, their culture and their
language” (Burden, 2000, p. 4). Since the item “talking with the teacher” is in direct conflict with the
English-only approach, it is perhaps not surprising that it ranks relatively low in the functions in Table
1. Teachers may still be concerned how they are “perceived” by their peers if seen allowing students
to speak in Japanese with them. Teachers’ comments on this issue varied. Some comments
highlighting the advantages of inviting students to talk to the teacher in their L1 were:
1. Students can easily explain a problem they are having (in or out of class)
2. Using Japanese can help the teacher get to know the students better
3. It makes the teacher more accessible
Comments highlighting the disadvantages of inviting students to talk in L1 with the teacher were:
1. I think it can get out of control, and they may expect that then they can use Japanese
any time
2. Japanese seeps into other areas of the classroom
3. It provides students with a rationale for NOT using L2
A final point of interest in the functions list is the very low ranking of “to translate reading

content”. Teachers obviously see this as a different type of issue to “translating key words” or “using a
dictionary”. The notion that this reflects back on the grammar translation method may have made
teachers indicate that, whilst individual vocabulary items are acceptable to translate, longer sentences,
or indeed whole paragraphs, are not.

Is teacher L1- usage of specific functions related to the L2 proficiency level of the students
One of the findings of this research is that teachers are making in-class decisions about student
L1-usage based on the L2 proficiency of the students. For each of the language functions listed in
Table 1, teachers are making use of them more frequently at beginner level than at intermediate level,
with the mean average being twice as great with beginner groups.
Whilst the teachers in this study are adopting the “judicious use” of L1, and are inviting their
students to engage in meaningful L2 language learning activities through L1, there is still no clear
understanding of two questions:
1. How do teachers make their decisions on L1-use in the classroom?
2. Why do teachers use L1 in the way that they do?
Further research into these two questions would undoubtedly shed more light onto this complex issue.

Is teacher-invited student use of Japanese treated differently in listening/speaking classes and

reading/writing classes?
Somewhat surprisingly, the data for this question suggests that teacher-invited student use of
the L1 was exactly the same in both listening/speaking classes and reading/writing classes at a mean
of 2.4% in each class type. At this university, the two types of lessons are given an equal amount of
time per week and teachers are encouraged to use the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and
writing in both subject areas. This could be a reason for a lack of variation between the two class
The lack of apparent difference though, raises a few questions. A reading/writing class is
typically more vocabulary heavy than a listening/speaking class. Students are also given more time to
process meaning than in a typical real-time speaking/listening activity. Would it not be reasonable to
assume that students would, for example, be invited to use bilingual dictionaries more in a
reading/writing class than in a listening/speaking class? Or, perhaps students would be given the
opportunity to check the meaning of a written text with a partner in L1 to ensure understanding? The
questionnaire asked teachers to specify the percentage of class time allocated to inviting the students
to use L1 as a whole, without clarifying the instances of how L1 is being used. One weakness of this
type of item is that it is very difficult to provide an accurate assessment of one’s own time allocation

in class.
The comments section, where teachers gave reasons for asking the students to use the L1 in
one class type and not the other, seem to contradict the idea that listening/speaking and
reading/writing classes are treated in the same way. There were more comments supporting teacher-
invited student use of Japanese in reading/writing classes than in listening/speaking classes. There
were also more disadvantages listed for student use of Japanese in listening/speaking classes than in
reading/writing classes. Some examples of comments supporting student use of Japanese in
reading/writing classes indicate that L1:
1. can be used to brainstorm ideas more effectively for writing when doing group work
2. can be useful in clarifying points of L1 interference in writing with other students
3. can quickly clarify the meaning of sections of novels/texts the students are reading in
Some disadvantages listed for students using L1 in listening/speaking classes indicate that:
1. teachers should be maximizing time for English speaking – students may feel that
there is no need to communicate in English
2. if students are allowed to speak Japanese, they will use it when they are asked to speak
in the L2
There also seems to be more research conducted specifically into the benefits of student use of
L1 in reading/writing than in listening/speaking contexts. Stapa and Majid (2009) supported using L1
in L2 writing, particularly at low levels of proficiency because “it can trigger background knowledge
among the learners” (2009, p. 11). And a study by Mason (2003) highlights the benefits of allowing
students to use L1 in Extensive Reading:
Three groups of adult EFL students participated in an extensive English reading program for
three semesters. One group wrote summaries of what they read in Japanese, another wrote
their summaries in English and a third wrote summaries in English that were corrected and
they then rewrote the summaries… Mason concluded that the group that wrote summaries in
Japanese was the most efficient, in terms of amount of English acquired and total time
devoted to English (Mason, 2003).
Detailed research, including in-class observations, and more specific surveys targeting how
student use of the L1 differs in listening/speaking classes and reading/writing classes, would shed
more light on this issue.

Are the teacher’s L1 proficiency and teaching experiences related to teacher-invited student use of

The hypothesis for this research question was that teachers with a lower level of Japanese
proficiency would be less likely to allow Japanese in class. However this does not seem to be the case.
According to data collected for this research question, a teacher’s L1 proficiency had no relation to
whether or not they chose to invite students to use Japanese in class or not. Similarly, there was no
correlation between the number of years of teaching experience and student L1-use.

When learning a new language, particularly at low proficiency levels, it is natural for students
to make use of the L1 in a variety of ways. Teachers can respond to this “natural process” by
selectively including small amounts of L1 to support their students. Moreover, recent surveys in a
variety of EFL settings have indicated that students wish for some L1 support in their classes (Tang,
2002; Dujmović, 2007).
The results of this study indicate that student L1 is not only present in the EFL classroom, but
also that teachers are making use of it as a linguistic tool. Teachers are actively choosing to use the L1
for certain functions, and are varying this usage depending on the proficiency level of their classes.
The addition of a new definition: Teacher-invited student use of L1, should provide some guidance
even to those teachers who either lack student L1 ability, or who lack confidence in using it. Similarly
institutions that maintain an English-only policy may want to reconsider their position given the
wealth of data that is now available portraying positive aspects of the role of the L1 in the EFL

The authors are grateful to the many teachers in the ELP (English Language Program) at J. F.
Oberlin University for their comments and assistance. We would also like to thank our research
assistants, Tagayasu Yoneyama and Mina Onuma, for all of their contributions.

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Abbreviated Teacher-Invited L1 Usage Questionnaire
General Information

What is your approximate level of proficiency in spoken Japanese?

← No Japanese

← Beginner (some basic language ability)

← Pre-Intermediate (about level 4 of Japanese proficiency test)

← Intermediate (about level 3 of Japanese proficiency test)

← Upper-Intermediate (about level 2 of Japanese proficiency test)

← Advanced (about level 1 of Japanese proficiency test)

← Native Speaker

Approximately how many years have you been a language teacher? _______ years

Student Use of Japanese

Do you explicitly invite your students (i.e. as part of your teaching) to use any Japanese? If so,
what approximate percentage of actual class time would your students be speaking Japanese after
having been invited to do so?

Level Listening/Speaking Reading/Writing Class


← Beginner class (e.g. FE Level 1) ← % ← %

← Pre-intermediate class (e.g. FE Level 2) % %

← Intermediate class (e.g. FE Level 3) % %

Do you sometimes explicitly invite (i.e. as part of your teaching) students to use Japanese in the
following situations? Feel free to add any other situations in the space provided.

← In Lower Level English Language classes e.g. FE Level 1

Situation Invite

← Almost Most, but Every About every About Almost

always / not every two or fourth class once or never /
every class class three twice a never
classes semester

← To
translate key words

← To translate sentences

← To confirm
understanding of

← To test each other

← To
understanding of
grammar points

← To translate reading

← To elaborate in
Japanese during

← To write notes in

← To
discuss cognitively
challenging topics
before moving into

← To
use a dictionary
(NOT English/

← To
talk with you in

Situation Invite

← To compare
Japanese language with
English (eg, error
analysis, pronunciation)

← To discuss content
of reading passages

← To discuss content
of listening passages

← Oth

Do you sometimes explicitly invite (i.e. as part of your teaching) students to use Japanese in the
following situations? Feel free to add any other situations in the space provided.

← In Higher Level English Language classes e.g. FE Level 3

Situation Invite

← Almost Most, Every two About About Almost

always / but not or three every once or never /
every class every classes fourth class twice a never
class semester

← To
translate key words

← To translate

← To
understanding of

← To test each other

← To
understanding of
grammar points

← To translate reading

Situation Invite

← To
elaborate in
Japanese during

← To write notes in

← To
discuss cognitively
challenging topics
before moving into

← To
use a dictionary
(NOT English/

← To talk with you in


← To compare
Japanese language with
English (eg, error
analysis, pronunciation)

← To discuss content
of reading passages

← To
discuss content of
listening passages

← Oth

What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of instructing students to use Japanese in the
Notes and additional comments



Thank you very much for participating in this research.