Lifting the L1 taboo: using the student's mother tongue as a valuable classroom resource

In my early teaching days, I was offered a job at a language school in Indonesia. I knew virtually nothing about the country or the language, but saw the opportunity as a challenge not to be missed and so accepted without hesitation. The fact that I didn't speak a single word of Bahasa didn't bother me at all: I'd only ever worked in Britain, teaching multi-lingual groups where students' L1 was, for obvious reasons, not used and I firmly believed that the English-only approach was the best way to do things. However, almost twenty years on, and with over thirteen years' experience working in Brazil as a teacher and writer, I can now look back and see how naïve I was. Today I am convinced that there are times when the use of L1 can be very beneficial in the classroom, even with higher-level students, and in this short article I intend to explore this topic further and give some examples of how I believe the use of L1 can enrich the classroom experience.

A very brief look at how teaching trends have influenced views on L1 use in the classroom can show how it is hardly surprising that I used to favour the English-only approach. When I did my first EFL training course, the use of L1 in the classroom was practically a taboo. This belief had much of its origins in the fact that the use of students' mother tongue was associated with Grammar Translation, a method which was frowned upon because L1 was used so much at the expense of target language practice. With the rise of the Communicative Approach the use of L1 was avoided completely, and in the eighties, there were plenty of articles to be found encouraging teachers (even those of monolingual groups) to use only L2. The high status of international materials and native-speaker teachers no doubt helped keep L1 use out of favour and it was only really in the nineties when people started openly questioning this idea. Michael Lewis, who popularized the Lexical Approach, said: “With the idea of pedagogical chunking in mind, we need to reconsider the role the earners L1 should play in the classroom” (Michael Lewis, 1997).

Today we can find increasing conviction that the use of students' mother tongue does in fact have its place in the EFL classroom. We are not talking about a random use of L1, but a careful use of the mother tongue at appropriate moments and with a clear purpose. Unfortunately, with so many factors at play (age, level, past learning experiences, expectations etc), it is impossible to give a recipe to teachers telling them when these appropriate moments are. However, what I set out to do in the rest of this article is illustrate some cases when I recognize that L1 can be a very useful tool when teaching speakers of Portuguese.

As all non-native speakers are aware, the use of students' mothertongue (particularly at beginner and elementary level) can be an extremely useful resource to help with classroom management, ensuring that students get maximum benefit from the activities they are going to do in class. Examples given by Atkinson (1993) and Prodromou (2001) of moments during a lesson where the use of L1 might be justified are: setting up pair and group work; sorting out an activity which is clearly not working; discussing with students the reasons for doing an activity; explaining the context of a level. However, it is important to stress that both these writers also make it very clear that teachers should always bear in mind that “Every second spent using the L1 is a second not spent using English.” (Atkinson, 1993). Procedural language in the classroom is an excellent opportunity to expose students to natural English and to encourage real communication, so the use of L1 must be limited and judicious. For example, if the teacher needs all the time left in a lesson to do a speaking activity which practises the target language and is aware that too much time spent on setting up the activity may jeopardize the aim of the lesson, it is quite justifiable to resort to L1 as a useful timesaving device.

As I mentioned above, this use of L1 when dealing with classroom management is obviously much more common with lower-level students. In my experience of working with students at intermediate level and above, I rarely found it necessary to resort to L1 for this purpose. (Probably just as well, since for many years my students' English was probably considerably better than my Portuguese!!) However, there are other important moments when L1 can be an extremely valuable tool for higher level students, helping them to learn not only more quickly, but also more effectively:

Translation of words

At times, translation can be the most effective way of explaining the meaning of a word. Take for example, the word sparrow. In an attempt to define what it is without using L1, a teacher may say “It's a type of bird...a small grey-brown bird...They're very common in Britain.” And even then he/she will have no idea if the students have actually understood exactly what type of bird you are talking about. A more inquisitive student may want to check by asking ‘Is it pardal in Portuguese?' and the teacher, disappointed at his or her failure to come up with an adequate definition, will nod in agreement, still determined not to break the L1 taboo! This happened to me on many occasions until I started to question things: Why waste precious lesson time, struggling to come up with a definition when simple translation provides the clearest answer? A lot of time and anguish can be saved. It is important to add, however, that translation of this type must be limited to those words that are hard to define and that the benefits of paraphrasing cannot be undervalued. The ability to define words is a very useful skill for students to learn, especially if we consider that it's highly unlikely that they will be able to fall back on L1 when using English in the real world.

A further argument in defense of the translation of words is that no matter how hard you try to convince students to do otherwise, in my experience, students are bound to use L1 when noting down new vocabulary. The danger of this is that very often they note down words with no context, which is not necessarily very helpful for future reference, so, as teachers, let's help them record vocabulary properly. When teaching a word like fair for example, encourage them to write the word with a collocation, so that they remember the right meaning. Is it fair hair (cabelo louro), fair weather (tempo bom) or fair test (prova justa)? And, if you feel the students are ready for it, discuss with them the different meanings to make them aware of the different meanings and potential traps.

Translation of expressions

Translation can also be helpful when teaching expressions to students in order to check meaning and help fix the expressions in their minds. This can be especially useful when dealing with expressions that may be quite hard to actually define. For example, when teaching the expression Suit yourself! I believe it can be more helpful to elicit the L1 equivalent “Você que sabe!” rather than making attempts at defining the expression or giving endless situations when it could be used. By finding the equivalent in their mother tongue, students are doing more than simply learning the meaning, but they are finding the place for that expression in their own reality and realizing exactly when and how they would use it. This is particularly effective when the teacher manages to select expressions that really belong to the group. If teaching a class of Brazilian teenagers, you may elicit from them a variety of expressions that they use in Portuguese and then teach them their English equivalents or near equivalents. You can guarantee they are likely to remember them!

Discussing L1 equivalents of expressions may also help students avoid future errors due to L1 interference. For example, after teaching the expression “Help yourself!”, you may ask students how they would say the same expression in Portuguese, drawing attention to the fact “Serve yourself!” is not the ideal translation as many Portuguese speakers may think.


I also feel that L1 can be used to make students more aware of the appropriacy of certain words or expressions for certain situations. For example, when dealing with expressions for making requests, long (and often rather futile) explanations about level of politeness and tentativeness are often given. These can be avoided by eliciting close equivalents in L1:

  • Can you help me? - Pode me ajudar?
  • Could you help me? - Poderia me ajudar?
  • Would you mind helping me?  - Será que você poderia me ajudar?
  • I was wondering if you could help me? - Será que você poderia me ajudar?

Finding L1 equivalents here also helps learners realize that although the expression I was wondering if you could help me? may sound a bit over-the-top to Brazilians, (as if they were saying Eu queria saber se você poderia me ajudar?) this is not the case in English and that it is something native speakers really use in the same situations Brazilians would use Será que você poderia me ajudar? Only comparison to L1 can really make this clear to students.


Reference to L1 when teaching idioms and proverbs can be useful to help students work out or guess meaning and when students find equivalents or similarities in their mother tongue, these expressions become more memorable. I have also found it can often add an element of fun to the classroom and occasionally some cultural discussion too. Consider, for example, the following idioms:

  • he's a fish out of water = ele é um peixe fora d'água
  • turn over a new leaf = virar a página

When idioms are the same or similar, they are much easier for students to memorize.

  • create a storm in a tea cup = criar uma tempestade num copo d'água

Similar makes it easy to remember, but we also have an interesting cultural reference: typically British do it in a tea cup!

  • it's raining cats and dogs = está chovendo canivetes

Interesting for some fun discussion. Why cats and dogs? Why penknives? Discussion will then help students remember the expression.

  • kick the bucket = bater as botas (not chutar o balde!)

Always raises a laugh.

  • to go Dutch = ?

Another interesting cultural reference: I haven't been able to find a translation for this expression, probably because this habit (which is so common in the UK) is not so common in Brazil.


The benefits of contrasting L1 and L2 when dealing with grammar cannot be disregarded. Having a good knowledge of the grammar of your students' L1 can be a huge asset. By encouraging students to find parallels in their mother tongue, long, complex explanations can be avoided. For example, the past continuous is a very simple concept for Brazilians to grasp once they have learned the past of to be and the present participle. Similarly the passive should present no difficulties once students have mastered the verb to be and past participles; it's very similar to Portuguese. Mixed conditionals are often made out to seem terribly complicated, but it's not nearly so bad if you make students aware that they often use them in Portuguese too. The use of definite/indefinite and zero articles can also be made to seem extremely complex with long lists of the different uses. However, if you stop and think, you will actually find that the majority of these uses are similar to Portuguese. By drawing students' attention to this and concentrating on those uses that are different from L1 (see page 35 of Connexion Three Student's Book), potential problems due to L1 interference can be reduced. Finally, another moment when I have found L1 useful is when teaching linkers. Often although, however and but are taught/reviewed together as linkers for contrast. Teachers may struggle to explain the differences between them in English, but probably only manage to confuse learners more. In my experience, eliciting their Portuguese equivalents (embora, no entanto e mas) can be the most effective way and a lot of time is most certainly saved.


“It is inevitable that language learners use L1 as a resource, and that they make both helpful and unhelpful assumptions on the basis of their experience of L1. Sound pedagogy should exploit rather than try to deny this.” (Michael Lewis)

Taking this advice from Michael Lewis, I have illustrated how L1 can be used in the classroom as a very useful pedagogical tool, helping clarify meaning, register and concepts, facilitating memory and reducing errors due to L1 interference. What you read here were just a few ideas from a non-Brazilian teacher, whose growing knowledge of Portuguese has made her become increasingly aware of how L1 knowledge of our students' mother tongue is a wonderful resource that cannot be disregarded. I still recognise that I have a lot of Portuguese to learn before being able to use this resource to its full, but those of you who have had this valuable resource since childhood, please take my advice and use it!


LEWIS, M. (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach, LTP.

GABRIELATOS, C. (2001). L1 use in ELT: Not a skeleton, but a bone of contention. Bridges, 6, 33-35.

PRODROMOU, L. (2001). ‘From Mother Tongue to Other Tongue.' Bridges 5.

ATKINSON, D. (1993) Teaching Monolingual Classes. Longman.

Paula Boyce
Paula Boyce is from Scotland and has 20 years' EFL experience working in Britain, Indonesia and Latin America. She's lived in Brazil since 1993 when she came to work at Cultura Inglesa as a teacher and teacher trainer. She now works at Learning Factory, Cultura Inglesa's publishing house, as author of the Connexion Series.