L1 in the EFL Classroom? Part 1 – The Bilingual Turn

This post is taken from my review of the literature surrounding the issue of how the L1 should or shouldn’t be used in the classroom, and is the first in a series on the subject.


In recent years, bilinguals have been recognised as sporting a number of advantages over monolinguals, including enhanced executive control, and higher levels of metalinguistic awareness, verbal creativity, and divergent thinking (Bialystok, 2011). Along with these cognitive advantages, one of the biggest the practical implications of a bilingual’s ability to speak more than one language is codeswitching (CS). Although being identified as a unique and highly developed skill (Tay, 1989) CS, or use of the L1, has been ideologically barred from the classroom due to monolingual notions that it is a hindrance to language learning (Lee, 2012).

More recently, however, there has been growing recognition that, despite theoretical and institutional condemnation, CS is a well-practiced phenomenon throughout classrooms worldwide (Littlewood & Yu, 2011), and that there may be potential benefits to utilizing CS as a pedagogic tool. The aim of this series is to research these potential benefits, and to detail recent developments in the use of CS as a pedagogical tool. In order to do this it is important to first define exactly what is meant by “codeswitching”.

Pollack (1980) defines CS as “the alternation of two languages within a single discourse, sentence or constituent” (p. 583). This definition recognizes both the use of CS for communication purposes and for compensating for low language skill in either language. Nicoladis (2002) attempts to refine this definition by distinguishing between CS and “code-mixing”, which she defines as a bilingual’s use of two or more languages inside a single unit of discourse. This has many uses within a linguistic framework, but as the focus of this paper is on pedagogy it will be more convenient to take CS as encompassing code-mixing. This reflects Kamwangamalu’s (2010) definition, which combines intra- and inter-sentential forms to create an umbrella term covering any use of more than one language within a bilingual interaction. This will be important when we begin discussing the range of pedagogical situations and uses that have arisen.

Two Approaches to CodeswitchingCodeswitching

There are two major views about the value of CS, described in the literature as the monolingual and the bilingual approach. The monolingual approach has dominated L2 classrooms for most of the 20th century, and is summarized well by Lee (2012) in his critical analysis of Guy Cook’s (2010) “four pillars of the monolingual approach”. The monolingual approach holds the native speaker as an ideal, and points to CS as evidence of negative transfer and linguistic confusion. Bilinguals are viewed as two monolingual speakers in one body, and therefore the presence of the L1 in L2 learning only hinders the language learning process. Education policy makers have taken to this idea, and it is particularly common to find that L1 is kept separate from the L2 in Asia and the USA (Kamwangamalu, 2010; Littlewood & Yu, 2009).

Research in the last decade, however, has rejected the monolingual approach, with advocates of a bilingual approach to language teaching and research forming a body of literature in its support (Cummins, 2007; Kamwangamalu, 2010; Lee, 2012; Ortega, 2013). The bilingual approach describes CS as the natural result of languages in contact, and that the use of the L1 is both beneficial and necessary to L2 learning (Kecskes & Papp, 2000). Timor (2012) claims that suppressing the L1 cannot be justified either theoretically or practically, using the Linguistic Interdependence Hypothesis to show that codeswitching cannot inhibit language learning. Butzkamm (2011) uses a cognitive view to go even further, explaining that the L1 forms the cognitive basis for all subsequent language learning; to ban L2 learners from using their L1 is to deprive them of the greatest tool they have (He, 2012).

The theoretical shift to a bilingual approach (known as the “bilingual turn”, Ortega, 2013) has gained traction in the literature, but it hasn’t yet been well reflected in a pedagogical shift. However, there has been a recent move in literature which supports the pedagogical use of CS. In Part 2 we will turn to examine how the bilingual turn has affected understanding of CS and its pedagogical uses within the EFL literature.

Go to Part 2!


Bialystok, E. (2011). Reshaping the mind: the benefits of bilingualism. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(4), 229–235.

Butzkamm, W. (2011). Why make them crawl if they can walk? Teaching with mother tongue support. RELC Journal, 42(3), 379–391.

Cook, G. (2010). Translation in language teaching: An argument for reassessment. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Cummins, J. (2007). Rethinking monolingual instructional strategies in multilingual classrooms. Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 10, 221–240.

He, A. E. (2012). Systematic use of mother tongue as learning/teaching resources in target language instruction. Multilingual Education, 2(1), 1-15.

Kamwangamalu, N. (2010). Multilingualism and codeswitching in education. In N. H. Hornberger & S. L. McKay (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and Language Education. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Kecskes, I., & Papp, T. (2011). Foreign Language and Mother Tongue. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Lee, J. H. (2012). Implications for language diversity in instruction in the context of target language classrooms: Development of a preliminary model of the effectiveness of teacher code-switching. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 11(4), 137-160.

Littlewood, W., & Yu, B. (2009). First language and target language in the foreign language classroom. Language Teaching, 44(1), 64-77.

Pollack, S. (1980). Sometimes I’ll start a conversation in Spanish Y TERMINO EN ESPANOL: Toward a typology of code-switching. Linguistics, 18, 581-616.

Tay, M. W. (1989). Code switching and code-mixing as a communicative strategy in multilingual discourse. World Englishes, 8, 407–417.


3 responses to “L1 in the EFL Classroom? Part 1 – The Bilingual Turn

  1. Thanks for gathering this together in one place. Retweeted, Google+ed, Facebooked and Diigoed!

  2. Pingback: The Direct Method | Clare's ELT Compendium·

  3. Pingback: L1 in the EFL Classroom? Part 2 – The EFL Literature | Reflections on English Language Teaching·

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