Teaching Tips: Reducing Language 1 Interference

Language 1 (L1) basically means your first language or mother tongue. When students are nattering away in their first language, it makes it difficult for them (and their classmates!) to concentrate on learning English. This isn’t such a problem if you teach in a cosmopolitan language school which has a mix of nationalities in every class – I’ve heard of some popular schools that have such an awesome mix that they can arrange to have no more than two students of each nationality in each class, wow!

However, for most of us teachers we don’t have that luxury – chances are that most (if not all) of your students will speak the same mother tongue, and so being able to get them to zip it and concentrate on ‘English Only’ is of vital importance. Take a look at our top tips on how to reduce L1 interference in your classroom.

Split Friendship Groups

You’re more likely to have a gossip with your best buddy than you are to be chatting away to someone you’re not close to (or perhaps don’t even like). One of the first things you can do to stop L1 interference is to split up people who are likely to chat together. Teenage girls are probably the biggest problem – they love talking with their friends, and the fact that they are sitting in a language class isn’t likely to put a stopper on it! Split up tight-knit friendship groups and the chatting will soon stop, especially if you mix the boys and girls together.

If you’re worried about complaints from the students, try one of these methods to leave it a bit more to chance. You could pick their names out of a hat to dictate the seating order or have students pick playing cards or numbered slips of paper to see where they’ll sit.

The No _____ Rule

Split your class into teams and tell them that they can speak English only, no ____ (insert their L1.) If you hear a student speaking L1, their team loses a point. You could also encourage other students to let you know when they hear someone else speaking it, though be careful with this if your students are too competitive. At the end of the class, see which team has the most points. You could award a prize (stickers or a sweetie) to students from the winning team, or perhaps a penalty (staying behind after class or having extra homework) to the team who spoke the most L1. Putting the students into groups like this is great for developing a class mentality – a ‘naughty’ student might not mind punishment for speaking L1, but once their teammates realise that they’ll be getting punished too, it won’t be long before they’re encouraging their classmate to tow the line.

If you’re looking for other group activities, check this out:  6 Favourite ESL Games and Activities to Use in Your Classroom

Pick Your Battles

With low-level learners, or perhaps students that are particularly difficult to control, completely cutting out L1 can be a big task! If it seems impossible, try instead to have ‘English Only’ activities or certain times of the class when students know there is a zero-tolerance policy on speaking L1. For example, in a free practice activity where students are going out on a limb and trying to be creative, it is probably much harder for them to control their L1 usage. However, during a controlled practice (such as reading dialogues from a script in pairs) there is no excuse at all for speaking in their mother tongue. Make these activities L1 red flags, but be more lenient during freer practice.

Teach Useful Phrases

With low-level students, it may be all well and good for them to point at a flashcard and say ‘Monkey! Banana!’ but are they able to ask to go to the toilet in English? One of the most common reasons for L1 usage in the classroom, particularly with younger students, is simply that they just don’t know how to say it in English. Teaching useful stock phrases like ‘raise your hand’, ‘can I borrow a pencil’ and ‘please may I go to the toilet?’ may seem like a waste of time with young learners – after all, a four-year-old won’t necessarily know and understand every word in that sentence, even if they can say it beautifully. However, even if they don’t understand it all, getting them to repeat these phrases will help to keep them in English, and will also give them a great prompt in the future for when they do come on to studying those grammatical structures.

No Easy Answers

Rather than allowing students to be overly reliant on dictionaries and translation tools (something particularly hard with Japanese students!) encourage your students to find other ways of finding out what they need to know. Rather than immediately trying to translate something, encourage them to explain what they mean using useful English phrases, such as ‘it looks like a…’, ‘you use it for…’, or ‘you can buy it in…’. Also, encourage students to ask ‘how do you spell…’ rather than immediately looking it up – if another student knows how to spell it, this will give them a chance to use their English too. Also, have a notebook handy so students can draw a picture to elicit what they mean. It’s far more creative and keeps L1 out of the classroom!

Want more like this? Visit our Teaching Tips blog. Or get some learning tips for your students here.

About the Author

Celia Jenkins is a freelance writer and TEFL-trained English teacher who spent five years teaching in Asia. She specialises in travel writing and writing for children, and has a penchant for knitting. Celia is the author of Knitted Sushi (easy knitting patterns for beginners) and Ben and Maki – Let’s be Friends (an English/Japanese bilingual picture book). To contact Celia about freelancing work, check out her Upwork profile or contact Celia through her website.