First Language Use in Second Language Education

 Classroom Language Use

First Language Use

Instructors and students occasionally avail of the first language (L1) in second language (L2) contexts. The rate at which both use the L1 however varies. The range of instructor use of the L1 is recorded between 10% and 100% (Duff & Polio, 1990), whereas the range of student use of the L1 is between 0% and 100% (Swain & Lapkin, 2000). Clearly, the decision to use the L1 in the L2 classroom is a personal decision that is motivated by a variety of factors.

Research shows that instructors are more likely to use the L1 in several different instances. Providing instructions and explanations of complex concepts and grammar is a common reason given by instructors to justify their use of the L1 (Duff & Polio, 1990; Kim & Elder, 2008; Macaro, 2001; Rolin-Ianziti & Brownlie, 2002). Also, instructors seem to prefer to perform classroom management duties in the first language to avoid any confusion and to get their point across effectively (Duff & Polio, 1990; Kim & Elder, 2008; Macaro, 2001; Rolin-Ianziti & Brownlie, 2002). Other reasons instructors are recorded to use the L1 include explaining concepts that do not exist in the L2 (Duff & Polio, 1990; Kim & Elder, 2008), accommodating the needs of students with low levels of proficiency in the L2 (Chavez, 2006), and conserving time (Cook, 2001b; Duff & Polio, 1990).

Students use the L1 for different purposes. The L1 is more likely to surface when students are interacting and working in pairs or small groups (Lucas & Katz, 1994; Swain & Lapkin, 2000; Thoms, Liao, & Szustak, 2005), and throughout long periods of instruction (Macaro, 2001). Within collaborative frameworks, students are documented to avail of the L1 as a means of managing tasks (Swain & Lapkin, 2000) and negotiating meaning (Alegria de la Colina & Del Pilar Garcia Mayo, 2009; Anton & DiCamilla, 1998; Lucas & Katz, 1994; Storch & Wigglesworth, 2003; Thoms et al., 2005). 

Second Language Use

Instructor use of the L2 also varies, but not within the same range as their use of the L1. Various studies have recorded percentages of instructor L2 use as low as 23% and as high as 100% (Duff & Polio, 1990; Kim & Elder, 2008; Levine, 2003; Lucas & Katz, 1994). Higher levels of L2 teacher talk are most often correlated with higher grade and proficiency levels of L2 students (Lucas & Katz, 1994).

Conversely, students appear to make less use of the L2 in comparison with their use of the L1. A study conducted by Levine (2003), shows a mere 17% of students reporting use of the L2 in conversations with their instructors. Percentages of student L2 talk are also lower when working collaboratively or interacting with peers. Students typically use the L2 more often when tasks are at lower cognitive levels (Anton & DiCamilla, 1998). And, while students who are more experienced and have higher proficiency levels are more likely to use the L2 than their counterparts (Levine, 2003), a study by Lucas and Katz (1994) shows this is not always the case. In fact, they have noted students in lower grades making more use of the L2 than those in higher grade levels.