First Language Use in Second Language Education

Support for L1 Use

The role of the first language (L1) in second language (L2) education has recently received some attention in L2 research. Studies show that L2 learners may in fact benefit from an approach to L2 education that utilizes the learners’ L1 as an educational tool. The use of the L1 in L2 classes has been linked to serving several important functions. 

The social benefits of L1 use in the L2 setting are among the most prominent emerging from L2 research. Students working in pairs and small groups tend to experience higher levels of motivation and interest, collectively negotiate meaning, and employ the L1 as a mediating tool to collaboratively and successfully complete difficult tasks (Alegria de la Colina & Del Pilar Garcia Mayo, 2009; Storch & Wigglesworth, 2003).     

Cognitive, psychological and linguistic benefits have also been observed and documented in recent studies, with students accessing more L2 forms and meanings, retaining and creating meaning in the L2, and performing at higher cognitive levels than possible without the use of the L1. In fact, the L1 has been labelled a scaffolding tool in several studies (Alegria de la Colina & Del Pilar Garcia Mayo, 2009; Anton & DiCamilla, 1998)

Use of the L1 has demonstrated some value as a semantic tool in L2 education as well. Students have successfully gained access to L2 meanings through the use of exercises and strategies that employ the L1, such as translation and code-switching (Anton & DiCamilla, 1998; Harper, 1968).

Finally, affective factors that negatively impact L2 acquisition have been shown to significantly decrease with the use of the L1. Students experience higher levels of motivation and experience much less fear and anxiety when permitted to use the L1 (Auerbach, 1993).  

In addition to the benefits of L1 use cited in L2 literature, other research has insisted on allowing L1 use on the basis of it being a natural and necessary process (Storch & Wigglesworth, 2003; Brooks & Donato, 1994); that denying a learner’s L1 is denying a part of the learner’s consciousness that cannot simply be ignored (Cook, 2001a). Prohibiting the use of the L1 does not erase the language from the learner’s mind. Rather, proponents of L1 use maintain that errors still occur in the L2 and the learner is still very much aware of the existence of their L1 (Hammerly, 1994).