Use of L1 in the L2 Classroom

Vygotsky and the Use of L1 in the L2 Classroom

One of the greatest disagreements that I have encountered among foreign language teachers is the use of the native language in a classroom attempting to teach a second foreign language. Some schools of thought advocate the sole use of the target foreign language (L2) such as the Berlitz Method. The idea is that the learner will learn to associate foreign words directly with mental or pictorial images and will skip the intermediate step of internal translation. There is, however, a lot of disagreement on the use of the native language in the classroom. The use of the native language in the class in light of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theories is worthy of discussion in reconciling this long-standing dispute among instructors.

I am especially fond of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theories because language involves people, the need and wish to interact, and the culture of the participants. Vygotsky proposes that “…learning precedes and contributes to development, and the learner’s language performance with others exceeds what the learner is able to do alone” (Shrum & Glisan, 2005, p. 21). I have found that being able to ask questions in my native language (L1) increases my understanding of the L2 language and the quickness with which I learn it. In his sociocultural theory, the use of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), scaffolding, and collaborative work greatly contribute to the learning experience.

Escandn and Sanz (2011) discuss how their study used the sociocultural collaborative method with organizers and scaffolding and allowed the students to work together to figure out and discuss the homework assignments. Initially, their Japanese students were not allowed to use their native language in the Spanish courses and therefore could not discuss the grammar points on number and gender. Japanese and Spanish are from two very different language groups and the article discusses the problem of fossilization found in Japanese students when the top-down instructional methods are used. According to Vygotsky, the students use their native language to discuss the concrete and explicit information presented in the grammar points before they can internalize it. They can only do that in their native language among themselves. “The development of logic and abstract thought is a function of language used to represent or refer to referential aspects of language use” (Escandn & Sanz, 2012, p. 347). The authors found that the students made fewer errors and showed a greater understanding of these two grammar points after using the collaborative bottom-up activities and being able to discuss the information in their native language. “Although paradoxical, the externalization of speech as part of the process of internalization of rules and concepts implies that L2 acquirers may need to rely on speech externalization in their L1 in order to achieve L2 internalization…” (Escandn & Sanz, 2012, p. 353).

Thoms, Liao, and Szustak (2005) found that students used their L1 language to establish task management strategies in collaborative pair work tasks which effectively reduced the amount of L1 used in the overall task. Their study suggests that instructors should not view L1 use as counter-productive or unacceptable in the foreign language classroom. Leeming (2011) also found that the use of Japanese, the L1 language, in her English as a Foreign Language class had “…an important role to play, both in assisting students as they work on task, and in creating a collaborative environment crucial to the success of interaction” (p. 375). The study found that the students used less of their native language as they became more familiar with the tasks assigned to them. Tognini and Oliver (2012) found that “in peer interaction students were often able to use L1 effectively to scaffold each other’s production and to manage and expedite the completion of tasks” (p. 75). It would seem that lack of proficiency in the beginning levels of learning a language can hamper the collaborative and social interactive nature of language learning. Allowing the limited use of the native language in such situations can improve the atmosphere of the classroom and the ability to learn new concepts. Tognini and Oliver (2012) state that “L1 was also used as a tool for reflecting on and resolving language difficulties and, importantly, in order to solve problems with L2 form” (p. 75).

Colombo’s (2012) research argues that the use of L1 in the classroom can be seen as a tool-mediated action when viewed through the sociocultural theory of Vygotsky. One of the uses of L1 is in the online forum/discussion boards where the students discuss the differences between cultures and their social identities. They are allowed to use their native language (L1) because at the beginning level of learning a foreign language, students do not have the vocabulary or command of grammar necessary to express complex ideas. Comparing cultural differences is one o the goals of language learning.

Code-switching involves the use of the L1 language in an foreign language class. There have been several studies in Europe about its occurrence due to the large number of bilingual and multilingual people. Falomir and Laguna (2012) found that “the main reasons for code-switching are: (a) for ease of expression and economy of speech, (b) owing to the learners’ limited competence and insecurity and (c) for translation” (p. 308). Their research suggests that the code-switching happens because students simply do not know enough of the foreign language yet to express themselves. The teacher also code-switched in order to check for comprehension and to provide direct translation. The study found that “…code-switching is a useful strategy in the EFL classroom interaction for reducing the overall comprehension burden” (Falomir & Laguna, 2012, p. 310).

In other instances, code-switching is used when the student has a gap in their L2 knowledge and they are trying to negotiate meaning by substituting an L1 word in sentence constructed in the L2 language. Often, the listener will help out the speaker by supplying the translation of the L1 word to the L2 language. This can be regarded as a type of negotiation of meaning and a collaborative effort in learning. The use of the native language as a learning tool can be successfully defended when one regards it as a learning tool when trying to acquire a second language.


Colombo, L. (2012). The role of the first language in hybrid Spanish as a foreign language classes: A sin or a tool? Ikala, Revista de Lenguaje y Cultura, 17(3), 244-262. Retrieved from retrieved from

Escandn, A. & Sanz, M. (2011). The bottom-up move within Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: A pedagogical application for teaching agreement in Spanish as a foreign language. RELC Journal, 42(3), 345-361. doi: 10.1177/0033688211421662

Falomir, L. P., & Laguna, S. M. (2012). Code switching in classroom discourse: A multilingual approach. Utrecht Studies in Language and Communication, 24, 295-319. Retrieved from

Leeming, P. (2011). Japanese high school students’ use of L1 during pair-work. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 21(3), 360-382. Retrieved from

Shrum, J. L., & Glisan, E. W. (2005). Teacher’s handbook: Contextualized language instruction (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Thomson Heinle.

Thoms, J., Liao, J., & Szustak, A. (2005). The use of L1 in an L2 on-line chat activity. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 62(1), 161-182. Retrieved from

Tognini, R., & Oliver, R. (2012). L1 use in primary and secondary foreign language classrooms and its contribution to learning. Utrecht Studies in Language and Communication,(24), 53-77. Retrieved from



Author: foggydreamer

Foggy indulges her life-long passion for languages while working and having fun. Runescape has provided an immersive world for exploring personal and professional activities.

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