IATEFL 2018 Graham Hall: Own-language use in the language classroom

IATEFL 2018 Conference Reports

IATEFL 2018 Conference Reports

IATEFL Presentation Weds, 11th April, 2018

Graham Hall: Own-language use in the language classroom - why?, when? and how?

Graham Hall is Associate Professor in the department of Humanities at Northumbria University, UK. He was editor of the ELT Journal from 2013-2017. Recently published titles include: Exploring English Language Teaching: Language in Action (Routledge, 2nd Edition, 2017) and, as editor, The Routledge Handbook of ELT (2016).


In her opening plenary at the IATEFL conference, 2018 (see summary here), Lourdes Ortega used the example of bi- / multilingualism to argue that research in SLA can sometimes challenge and disprove widely accepted assumptions about the practice of learning and teaching languages. She illustrated this by referring to the common belief that the learner’s first language (L1) can interfere with and inhibit the development of the Target Language (TL). Research has shown that policies such as imposing a TL-only rule in class can actually be detrimental to learning. At the end of her plenary, she highlighted talks on the programme that attempted to address this misconception, one of which was Graham’s talk on own-language use.

‘Own-language use’: Definition and brief background

Graham started the talk by clarifying a point of terminology. He considers that using the expression ‘L1’ is problematic, as the language that our students use in the community or in the classroom might not actually be their L1. The world is changing and learners may actually be multiple-language users. He therefore uses the term ‘own-language’ rather than ‘L1’.

Graham pointed out that there has been a ‘monolingual assumption’ in mainstream theory and practice since the 19th century, which foregrounds TL use and immersion for language learning. The slide below summarises some of the arguments in favour of excluding the learners’ L1(s) in class.

Arguments against use of L1 in class

Reasons to encourage ‘own-language use’

However, there is actually no evidence to support the arguments against own-language use in the classroom and, in fact, research seems to indicate that the opposite may be true. Current literature is reassessing the role of the learner’s existing languages in the acquisition of an additional language.

The situation in real classrooms is that..

- learners switch between languages in a way that is natural and spontaneous and meets their communicative needs (code-switching, translanguaging).
- learning another language is building onto existing knowledge (adding rather than taking away),
- use of the learner’s exisiting language is inevitable

‘While … the learners in their minds keep the two [languages] in contact, …. in the classroom the teachers try to keep the two languages separate. (Widdowson, 2003: 150).

Hence the increasing arguments to support own-language use in the classroom:

Arguments in favour

Own-language use is also supported from a theoretical perspective:

- Socio-cultural theory advocates scaffolding new learning onto existing knowledge.
- Cognitive approaches contend that languages co-exist in the same mind, e.g. ‘multicompetence’ (Cook, 1991). Common underlying proficiency: ‘the transfer of cognitive / academic or literacy-related proficiency from one language to another’. Therefore, the two languages actually support, rather than compete with each other.
- ‘Traditional SLA’ theories such as ‘noticing’, ‘focus on form and forms’ and research into language and vocabulary learning strategies seem to support the interaction and analysis of the two languages.

Practical Applications

Own-language use in the classroom can have a number of pedagogical functions, which Graham elaborated as a set of goals (see below).

Practical Applications

Participants were invited to reflect on the ways we as teachers might use the learners’ own language(s) to do the following:

- Explain vocabulary
- Give instructions
- Explain grammar
- Develop rapport and good classroom atmosphere
- Correct spoken errors
- Explain when meanings in English are unclear
- Give feedback on written work
- Test and assess learners
- Maintain discipline
- Other?

Subsequently, we discussed the ways our learners typically use their own language in class, based on these ideas:

Own-language use: A learner's perspective

Graham pointed out that while the use of learners’ own-language is becoming more widely integrated into classroom practice, teachers are still unsure about how much L1 use is considered ‘acceptable’. We often hear the adjectives ‘judicious’, ‘appropriate’ or ‘optimal’ used to describe own-language use in the classroom, but without any clear guidelines as to what that might be. As a result, teachers might be making up arbitrary rules. Yet again, as in the case of error correction, the argument seems to be that teachers are best placed to decide for their own classrooms (Macmillan & Rivers, 2011).

Even in multilingual classrooms, where learners do not share any of their languages other than the TL, there is probably still own-language use, as in the following cases:

Own-language use in multilingual classrooms

In conclusion, Graham suggested some practical techniques for exploiting the learners’ own-language in class:

- Sandwiching: Inserting brief own-language translation into the discourse, followed by English-language translation.
- Own-language moments: task preparation; individual (and peer) help, etc. before, during and after:
   -   speaking activities
   -   working with texts
   -   language focus
   -   talking about learning
   -   developing intercultural awareness


Brooks-Lewis, K. A (2009) Adult Learners’ Perceptions of the Incorporation of their L1 in Foreign Language Teaching and Learning. Applied Linguistics, 30 (2), 216–235.

Cook, V. J. (1991). The poverty-of-the-stimulus argument and multi-competence. Second Language Research, 7, 2, 103-117. 

Cook, V. J. (2008). Second Language learning and teaching, 4th ed. London. Hodder Education.

Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms.
Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics (CJAL) / Revue canadienne de linguistique appliquée (RCLA). Vol 10 (2).

Long, M. H. (1990). The Least a Second Language Acquisition Thoery Needs to Explain. Tesol Quarterly, 24 (4), 649-666.

Macmillan, B. A. & Rivers, D. J. (2011). The practice of policy: Teacher attitudes toward “English only” System, 39, 251-263.

Norton, B. Identity and Language Learning. Harlow, Longman.

Oxford, R.L. (1996). Language learning strategies around the world: Cross-cultural Perspectives. Manoa: University of Hawai’i Press.

Widdowson, H. G. (2003). Defining issues in English language teaching. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.



Popular Posts