ESL Teaching Tip: Avoiding L1
I know this blog is normally a collection of teaching resources, but today I want to give you something just as valuable: a piece of advice that will help you produce better English learners.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but it really is important not to use L1 (the learner’s native language) in class. Many teachers attempt to do so, and they are proud of themselves if they succeed. However, it really is detrimental to the learning process, so please avoid doing it.
Almost ten years ago, when I was first teaching in South Korea, I learned to speak Korean and was eager to show that I knew how to do so. Almost every Korean I met just assumed I couldn’t speak the language, and I wanted to counteract that prejudice and put forth a good impression. Moreover, in class I was desperate to do a good job a teacher, and so I would occasionally use my Korean in spite of the fact that it was supposedly an “English immersion” environment.
I didn’t use much Korean, but you don’t need to in order to derail the language learning process. What I found was that as soon as the students knew I could speak their language – even a little bit – they would stop trying so hard to speak my language. At the time, I was teaching very young children and they were keen to tell me everything they did at the weekend, or all about their favourite TV show. But as soon as they thought I could speak a little Korean, they’d try using a Korean word for some difficult part of the communication process instead of searching for the English equivalent.
When I came to China, I found that the language here is far harder to learn, and it took me some time to get any level of Chinese proficiency. However, by this time I was a bit more savvy, and even when I learned Chinese I would avoid letting my students know that fact. Of course, it stings when you’re students think you can’t speak their language… it suggests that a) you’re too stupid to learn, or b) you don’t care enough to learn.
However, it really is important not to allow L1 interfere with communication. A few times in recent years my students have stumbled upon my Chinese social media profiles and seen that I can use Chinese, and immediately their efforts at communicating in English diminish as they start slipping words of Chinese into our conversations.
I try to put myself into my students’ shoes, and honestly, if I had Chinese lessons and knew my teacher spoke English, I would probably get frustrated with my lack of fluency and resort to using a few words of English here and there. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it would severely impact my language acquisition.
Sometimes people question the value of having native English teachers, but I believe that immersion learning is incredibly valuable. However, as soon as you allow the students to use L1 the benefits start to disappear.
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I'm the founder and editor of Beatdom Literary Journal, author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. I'm also a teacher and operate the popular website, TED-IELTS.

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