Mother Tongue (L1) in an EFL classroom

I made a new friend at a Temple University Seminar featuring the charming, convincing and prolific vocabulary researcher Batia Laufer on 2/17/07.

His question:
[Batia Laufer said] … a language teacher must be proficient in the L1 in order to be an effective teacher. I was wondering what are your thoughts about that statement in regards to the seminar and your personal experience.

My thoughts:
I just wrote a 4500 word essay on the Use of the mother tongue (L1): Successfully negotiating the Slippery Slope in the classroom. I am sure that the mother tongue is just one more effective TOOL or RESOURCE, among many, that an effective teacher uses when necessary. Everyone, including Batia Laufer, uses the phrase, “a JUDICIOUS (sensible and careful) amount” to describe how much L1 to use in the classroom. Nation goes further by saying that the teacher should use no more than 10% of the L1. I think that is a good target depending on the class and level of students. I argued that low level students can benefit greatly from L1 support. I also believe that somewhere around the intermediate level, students begin to wean themselves of the L1 and want more English-only instruction.

So, if you plan to stay in Japan for a while, get your butt into a Japanese class as soon as you can. The deeper you go into learning Japanese, the better you will understand (in an eavesdropping kind of way) so many things about your students and classroom dynamics. This will lead you to being able to connect much better with your students and your school as well. Moreover, the benefits of studying a language (i.e. being a student yourself) are countless. Finally, knowing Japanese for your personal life will open more doors than you could imagine.

My own opinions, supplemented by reading about 32 published articles on the topic, go way beyond this short answer and I welcome further discussion on this topic.

Keep in touch. If you ever want to chat about the Birmingham program, try calling me through Skype (

7 thoughts on “Mother Tongue (L1) in an EFL classroom

  1. I totally agree that native speaking teachers should study the language!!! It’s crucial to be able to answer questions students have as well as be more involved in their lives! BUT, I kinda disagree that younger learners need more L1. I try not to use ANY L1 in my elementary classes…but I also try to absolutely LIMIT the amount of L1 I use. I think being an ‘active’ role model in the class is a great language lesson for the students–if you don’t know how to say it, start acting it out! There is a place for L1 in the classroom, but I’ve seen native English teachers get carried away with it. They like to show off their Japanese and impress their students! Careful boys and girls…who is this class for anyway?

  2. I’m doing a Trinity Dip this year and my Developmental Research Project is on L1 in the classroom. I liked this article. Has your essay been published? Can I have references for the other 35 articles you mentioned?

  3. Hi Darrell,

    Thanks for your comment. Sorry, I didn’t notice it for a while. Could you contact me directly

    steven.herder AT

    and I’ll send you the references that you have asked for. The essay is in the process of being published now.

    Good luck with your studies. I’d love to read what you come up with on your research project.



  4. I really need your research paper because I am conducting the same research in my home country, Indonesia. I am doing the research to the english lecturer in Aceh (Syiah Kuala University). My email is
    I really apreciate if you dont mind to send it. I am thinking of visiting Japan one day.

  5. These are good comments on using the mother tongue L1 in foreign language classes. Im doing a research on this respect and it’ll be useful in my investigation.

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