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Is There a Role for the

Use of the L1 in an L2 Setting?

University of Melbourne
Parkville, Victoria, Australia

The use of learners L1 is a controversial issue in L2 education.

Language learners are usually discouraged from using their shared L1 in
L2 classroom activities. Brooks and Donato (1994) note that teachers are
sometimes reluctant to use group work because they feel that students
will use their L1 in group situations. A major motivation for this
reluctance has been the widespread adoption of communicative ap-
proaches to language teaching in which classroom activities are designed
to maximize learners use of the target language.

Recent ndings (e.g., Anton & DiCamilla, 1998; Brooks & Donato,
1994) suggest that the L1 may be a useful tool for learning the L2. These
empirical investigations have studied L2 learning processes within a
sociocultural framework, examining L1 interactions used by learners as
they participate in cognitively demanding L2 activities. Within this
framework, it is argued that an L1 shared by learners is able to function
as a psychological tool. In other words, the use of the L1 may provide
learners with additional cognitive support that allows them to analyse
language and work at a higher level than would be possible were they
restricted to sole use of their L2.
The L1 use has been shown to have this function both in foreign
language classrooms (e.g., Anton & DiCamilla, 1998; Brooks & Donato,
1994) and in immersion classrooms (Swain & Lapkin, 2000). Anton and
DiCamillas study of ve pairs of adult learners of Spanish as a foreign
language showed that learners used their L1 (English) to scaffold
assistance. These studies have demonstrated that the L1 can serve a
number of functions, including enlisting and maintaining interest in the
task as well as developing strategies and approaches to make a difcult
task more manageable. These functions are similar to those identied by
Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976) in studies of childrens L1 acquisition.
The L1 also allowed learners to focus on the goals of the task and work
out ways to address specic problems. Wood et al. propose that the L1
not only assists learners in the process and completion of the task but
also creates a social and cognitive space in which learners are able to
provide each other and themselves with help throughout the task (p.


338). Villamil and de Guerrero (1996) report similar uses in the pair talk
of Spanish learners of English working on a peer revision task.
Brooks and Donato (1994), investigating the dialogue of eight pairs of
3rd-year high school learners of Spanish, observed that the L1 was used
for three functions. The rst function was metatalk: The learners used
their L1 to comment on their L2 use. The authors argue that this
enabled the participants to take control of the task discourse and thus
initiate and sustain verbal interaction. The other two functions served by
the L1 were to establish a joint understanding of the task and to
formulate the learners goals.
In an immersion context, Swain and Lapkin (2000) investigated the
use of the L1 (English) by two eighth-grade French classes. One class
worked in pairs on a dictogloss task, the other in pairs on a jigsaw task.
The researchers found that the L1 served three main functions. First, it
was used to move the task along by establishing a joint understanding of
the text or picture and to manage the task. Second, it allowed the
learners to focus attention on vocabulary and grammatical items (e.g.,
searching for vocabulary items or providing information and explana-
tion about grammatical rules and conventions). Third, but unrelated to
the task, it enhanced their interpersonal interaction. The most frequent
function was moving the task along. Swain and Lapkin argue that in this
way, the L1 may facilitate L2 classroom activities, particularly for low-
prociency students and on complex tasks such as the dictogloss task.
This research on learners use of the L1 in completing L2 tasks has
been carried out primarily in foreign language and immersion class-
rooms, where students share the L1. However, for L2 learners in
Australia and other English-speaking countries, the L2 classroom situa-
tion is different because students do not necessarily share the same L1.
Even in situations where there is a shared L1, the status of the L1 is quite
different from those where the learners L1 is the dominant language of
the community and spoken by all participants in the classroom. In the
ESL setting, learners in the language classroom will generally share an
L1 only by chance. The research discussed above suggests that in certain
situations in the L2 classroom, the use of the L1 may be benecial to the
learners if its use is carefully managed. This report examines our
attempts to encourage ESL students to consider using their L1 when
completing demanding pair-work activities in English and the students

The study was conceptualised within a sociocultural framework to
investigate whether learners in an ESL context would use their L1 as a
mediating tool in performing complex tasks and, if so, what cognitive


functions the L1 would serve. Three research questions guided the
1. How much L1 was used?
2. What functions did the L1 serve?
3. What were the students attitudes toward the use of their L1 in
completing tasks in the L2 setting?

Twenty-four university ESL students volunteered to participate in the
study, forming 12 pairs: 6 with a shared L1 and 6 with different L1s. The
students were of similar ages, educational backgrounds, and ESL pro-
ciency levels (considered intermediate in this context). We focus our
report only on the data of the 6 pairs with the shared L1. Three of these
pairs (3, 8, and 10) spoke Indonesian as their L1 and 3 pairs (5, 6, and 9)
spoke Mandarin Chinese as their L1.

The participants were asked to complete two tasks together: a text
reconstruction task and a short joint composition task (see the Appen-
dix) using a graphic prompt (a task developed by Wigglesworth; see
OLoughlin & Wigglesworth, 2003). As the learners completed the tasks,
their talk was audiotaped.
Following the collection of data from the rst three pairs (3, 5, and 8)
with a shared L1, we noted that despite the shared L1, learners rarely
used it when completing the task. Therefore, the next three pairs (6, 9,
and 10) were given slightly different instructions. They were told that if
they felt their L1 would be helpful to them in completing the tasks, they
should feel free to use it. Unlike other studies on the use of L1, which
relied only on recorded pair talk, we also interviewed our participants
individually after they had completed the two tasks to elicit their
attitudes toward the use of their L1. All interviews were recorded.

Data Analysis
The recorded pair talk was transcribed and, where the L1 was used,
translated by a native speaker of the language. We then analysed the talk
and calculated the quantity of L1 use as a percentage of the total use.
The L1 use of the students was then segmented into episodes that varied
in length from a single word to several turns. Each episode was then
coded for its function. To check for interrater reliability, we indepen-
dently coded one complete transcript for episodes. The interrater
reliability was 84%. Disagreements were resolved through discussion.


The coding revealed four functions that were similar, but not identi-
cal, to those found by Swain and Lapkin (2000):
1. task management: discussion about how the task should be completed
or how the written text should be structured
2. task clarification: discussion about the meaning of the task prompt
and instructions
3. vocabulary and meaning: discussions about lexical choice and deni-
tions of words
4. grammar: deliberations about grammatical points
These last two functions are equivalent to what Swain (2000) calls
language-related episodes (LREs); that is, episodes in which learners focus
attention on some aspect of the language itself. These functions are
clearly related to the use of language as a mediating tool that facilitates
task completion.
The interviews were transcribed and analysed for students attitudes
toward the use of their L1, the functions they felt it supported, and their
attitudes in general toward the use of the L1 in completing tasks in an L2

How Much L1 Was Used?
All but two pairs, both made up of speakers of Chinese, made minimal
use of the shared L1. Note that these pairs were among those who were
specically encouraged to use their L1. Pair 9 used the L1 extensively,
approximately 50% of the time in the joint composition task and
approximately 30% of the time in the text reconstruction task. Pair 6
used the L1 approximately 25% of the time in the joint composition task,
mainly toward the end of the task, and approximately 50% of the time in
the text reconstruction task. This task included a long session, constitut-
ing approximately 15% of the total turns in the task, of personal chat in
Chinese that was not related to the task activity. The remaining four
pairs, including Pair 10, who were also actively encouraged to use their
L1, used the L1 only for odd words and occasional phrases.

What Functions Did the L1 Serve?

The L1 episodes served different functions in the two tasks (see Table
1). In the joint composition task, the pairs used their L1s mainly for task
management and task clarication. Pair 9, for example, began the joint
composition task with a long discussion in their L1 (Chinese) about the
requirements of the task and clarication of the information included in


the graphs. In a few instances they discussed the content of the task, but
most of the discussion specically related to task activity (i.e., the writing
of the composition) was in the L2. They reverted to their L1 when they
had different interpretations of the information provided in the graphs.
The following example illustrates the use of their L1 for task clarication.

Student 1:
Chose a few that are special, this one, this one
Student 2:
Right, this small one, . . . 1985 . . . let me rst choose
Student 1:
We just need to pick 2 points, this one . . .
Student 2:
What about this, . . . should we rst group which subject that have
most women and which has most men according to its tendency?
Then compare the two groups, which will give us 3 paragraphs
Student 1: Right, . . . this one increased, this one also increased
Student 2: Right, and this one has been increasing continuously
Student 1: This one is also continuously increasing (Pair 9, joint composition
task; translated from Chinese)

Although Pair 6 used their L1 (Chinese) only minimally initially in the

joint composition task, they increasingly used it in the second half of the
task for management, which included making decisions about the
division of labour (e.g., who would do the writing, who would make the

Functions of L1 Episodes During the Two Tasks

Pair Task Task Meaning/

and task management clarication vocabulary Grammar

Pair 3: Indonesian
Joint composition 1 0 0 0
Reconstruction 0 1 0 0
Pair 5: Chinese
Joint composition 0 0 1 0
Reconstruction 1 0 0 0
Pair 6: Chinesea
Joint composition 10 7 1 0
Reconstruction 4 1 15 11
Pair 8: Indonesian
Joint composition 0 0 0 0
Reconstruction 0 1 0 3
Pair 9: Chinesea
Joint composition 13 14 4 4
Reconstruction 3 6 12 18
Pair 10: Indonesiana
Joint composition 2 0 0 0
Reconstruction 1 3 5 2
Pair was instructed to use the L1.


nal copy), as in the example below, and the content and structure of
their composition. Occasional discussions in Chinese related to clarica-
tion of vocabulary items.

Student 1: You want to write it?

Student 2: You know my handwriting is not good (Pair 6, joint composition
task; translated from Chinese)

In the reconstruction task, on the other hand, the students used their
L1s mainly to clarify issues of meaning and vocabulary, as shown in the
example below:

Student 1: You know, this sentence is wrong. The meaning of this sentence is
that the least amount of Asian students came to Australia was in
1949. Asian students, what does the word minimal mean?
Student 2: It means the least (Pair 9, reconstruction task; translated from

Students also used their L1s in the reconstruction task to discuss

grammatical structures, as in the following example.

Student 1: Australia is drawn Australia is drawn Australia it should be passive

voice currently . . .
Student 2: Mhm (Pair 8, reconstruction task; translated from Indonesian)

What Were the Students Attitudes Toward the

Use of Their L1 in Completing Tasks in the L2 Setting?
In the interviews, students reported that their L1 enabled them to
provide each other with denitions of difcult vocabulary and explana-
tions of grammar, particularly when they did not have the required

Just like I forgot how to call the . . . past tense . . . I dont know how to call this
tense, so I will speak in Chinese. (Xiao,1 Pair 9)

Only one word he cannot understand, so I say its the, tell him, yeah
(inaudible) . . . yeah involve he cannot understand, just say very . . . whisper!
(Quan, Pair 5; translated from Chinese)

The students also found their L1 useful in arguing a point. For

example, in the reconstruction task, using the L1 made it easier for them
to negotiate and provide justications for grammatical choices. The
participants reported frequent disagreements about these grammatical

All students names are pseudonyms.


choices, and the L1 helped them argue their case more quickly and

Because it is difcult for me to say in English word, you know, a English word,
international students, maybe it, it can show my idea very clear and in my rst
language, maybe one word can show what I mean, but in English, I, in can
several sentence, maybe several sentences she can understand. (Linda, Pair 6)

Another student noted that, in arguing, one slips into the use of the L1
almost without noticing it:

For example, in particular in a small area we . . . the arguments, so if you . . .

suddenly . . . whoosh! Use the Chinese, Im trying to use . . . talking with my
partner in English, but still forgot . . . in Chinese. (Peter, Pair 9)

Two students reported using their L1 in inner speech (Lantolf,

2000, p. 15), or subvocal speech. One student (Liu, Pair 5) said that she
at times composed part of the text for Task 1 in her head in the L1 and
then verbalised her thoughts aloud in the L2. Another student admitted
using the L1 to silently calculate percentage increases and decreases
related to the graphic information in Task 1.

In number, I have to translate rst in my mind. (Yussef, Pair 10)

Our nding of minimal use of the L1 is related to the students

attitudes toward using it in L2 activities. The interview data show that
students were reluctant to use their shared L1s. The two most commonly
reported reasons for this reluctance were (a) that the use of the L1
would slow down the activity and (b) that they believed that they should
use their L2 (English) as much as possible in an ESL setting.
Five students felt that using their L1 would slow down task completion
because it would necessitate an additional translation stage:

If I use Indonesian I have to translate to English, but if I use English I can

quickly write down the sentence, so it make easier for me to do the task . . . .
I think if I use Indonesian we have to work twice, to translate to English.
(Yussef, Pair 10)

Students also clearly felt that in an ESL setting, they should maximize
the use of the target language as a means of improving their English
speaking skills.

If you want to increase your skill, especially in speaking, we have to speak in

English. (Aida, Pair 10)


One student was concerned that using his L1 would adversely affect his

If you talking with a partner . . . with the same native language, so not good
for writing the English. (Peter, Pair 9)

Other reasons given for reluctance to use the L1 related to the setting of
the activity. One student noted that he used his L1 at home whereas in
class he was expected to speak in English. Another noted that it never
occurred to him to speak in his L1 in the classroom, as speaking in the
L2 in class was automatic:

Maybe, so it is automatically, maybe, because, in my, my course if we have test

in group we should talk in English! (Andy, Pair 3)

Interestingly, in one pair (Pair 5), the single provision of a denition of

a word in the L1 was whispered, suggesting that the student perceived
that use of the L1 is not allowed when completing tasks in an L2 setting.
One student commented that the pair did not use their L1 in
deference to the researcher, that is, because the researcher would not
However, despite students reluctance to use their L1s, when asked
whether using them would have been benecial in any way, 8 of the 12
students noted that the L1 would have helped them complete the tasks
more efciently, particularly the joint composition task. For that task,
students felt that use of their L1s would have assisted them in interpret-
ing and reaching a shared understanding of the graphic prompt.

Maybe by using my own language, maybe, it is easier to understand the

graphs. (Andy, Pair 3)

Another student pointed out that the L1 would have facilitated greater
depth of discussion:

If we have different idea we have to discuss more intense, more seriously.

(Rose, Pair 8)


The learners reluctance to use their L1s explains the low use of them
when completing the tasks. However, even the learners who did not use
their L1s reported in the interviews that the L1 could be a useful tool,
especially in more meaning-focused activities, such as the joint composi-
tion task. They noted that the shared L1 could enable them to discuss
the prompt and structure of the composition in more depth and thus


complete the task more easily. They felt that the L1 would be less useful
in the text reconstruction task, which was the more grammar-focused
Our data suggest that some use of the L1, even in an L2 setting, could
be useful. Use of the L1 may assist learners to gain control of the task
(Brooks & Donato, 1994, p. 271) and work with the task at a higher
cognitive level than might have been possible had they been working
individually. Thus, in Vygotskian terms, we postulate that the learners
may have been extending their zone of proximal development (Lantolf,
2000). Only when learners gain a shared understanding of what they
need to do can they proceed with the task. The use of the L1 could also
help learners provide each other with denitions of unknown words
more directly and perhaps more successfully. The results suggest that L2
teachers may need to reevaluate views concerning the use of the L1 in L2
group and pair work.
Perhaps in this ESL setting we did not need to pair students with
different L1s for fear that they would use their shared L1. Students
seemed highly reluctant to use their L1s even when allowed to do so.
However, we do not mean to suggest that learners should be encouraged
to use their L1s in place of the L2 when working on tasks in an L2 class.
Rather, we suggest that teachers should not prohibit the use of some L1
altogether in group and pair work but should acknowledge that the use
of the L1 may be a normal psychological process that allows learners to
initiate and sustain verbal interaction.
The fact that there was a turnaround in the learners behaviour when
they received explicit instructions to use their L1s suggests that their
behaviour may have been strongly inuenced by the context in which
they were working. These students were all adults studying a language in
an academic context where the stakes were high. In other contexts, the
ndings might be quite different.
A useful follow-up to this small pilot study would be to examine this
question in the real classroom context rather than in the laboratory
context used here. Furthermore, our study has not demonstrated that
the L1 was more useful than the L2we leave this for further research.
The fact that the participants in our study perceived their L1s to be
useful, regardless of whether they actually made use of them, suggests
that the topic warrants further investigation.
Students always approach learning an L2 with expertise in their L1,
and this expertise remains a somewhat underexplored resource. Further
research in foreign language, EFL, and ESL settings may shed further
light on the potentially valuable role of the L1.


This research was supported by a University of Melbourne School of Languages
Grant-in-Aid. We are very grateful to the participants for their time, to Sally OHagan
for assistance with the data collection, and to Kevin Yang and Yudi Cahyono for their
translation of the L1 excerpts. We would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers
for their constructive and insightful comments.

Neomy Storch is a senior lecturer in ESL and an adjunct lecturer in applied
linguistics in the Department of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics at the University
of Melbourne. Her research interests are in ESL pedagogy, particularly the teaching
of writing and the nature of pair interaction in L2 classrooms.

Gillian Wigglesworth is associate professor and head of the Department of Linguis-

tics and Applied Linguistics at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests
include rst and second language acquisition, language testing, and bilingualism.
She is currently researching the effects of mixed language input on Australian
Aboriginal childrens language development.

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Two Tasks Used in the Study for
Student Pairs With Shared L1s
Text Reconstruction Task
Instructions: Reconstruct the following text, inserting all the necessary grammatical words (e.g.,
articles, prepositions, linking words, etc.) and changing word forms where necessary to produce
a meaningful and grammatically correct text.
Major study carry out recent Bureau of Immigration and Population Research. Study nd
almost 1.5 million people leave Australia since 1947.
Reconstructed Text
A major study was carried out recently by the Bureau of Immigration and Population Research.
The study found that almost 1.5 million people have left Australia since 1947.
Before 1949 Australia minimum involve education Asia students. Australia current draw
international student over 80 countries major come Asia. Research ndings present recent
conference University of Melbourne show number international students slow down past twelve
months. Decrease occur main rst six months 1997. Students countries Korea, Singapore Hong
Kong now choose United States. US attract destination particular post graduates. Indonesia one
few countries continue send many student Australia.
Joint Composition Task (OLoughlin & Wigglesworth, 2003, p. 123; used with permission)
Instructions: The graphs below show the numbers of women and men studying postgraduate
courses in an Australian university between 1985 and 2000. Write a report for a university
lecturer describing the information shown below. You should write at least 150 words.

Women in Postgraduate Study, 19852000

Number of Students

1400 Doctorate
1000 Research Masters
600 Coursework Masters
200 Postgraduate Diploma
1985 1990 1995 2000

Men in Postgraduate Study, 19852000

Number of Students

1400 Doctorate
1000 Research Masters
600 Coursework Masters
200 Postgraduate Diploma
1985 1990 1995 2000