L1 in the EFL Classroom? Part 2 – The EFL Literature

This post continues my review of the literature surrounding the issue of how the L1 should or shouldn’t be used in the classroom, and is the second in a series on the subject. If you haven’t read the previous blog post, which serves as an introduction to the topic, this post may not make so much sense.

What the EFL Literature Says

A large proportion of EFL classrooms utilize Codeswitching (CS), even as educational policies denounce it. In fact, the only time when CS is not used appears to be in classrooms where the L1 is not shared (Littlewood & Yu, 2009). However, although reported justifications for CS are varied, the actual extent of L1 use is not disciplined, with the proportion of L1 use in some teachers reported be less than 10%, while others use over 90% L1 instruction. Littlewood & Yu call for structured and planned (strategic) use of the L1 – alongside maximized L2 use – to facilitate L2 acquisition, and suggest that it could be an important pedagogical tool for language teachers.

A host of literature investigating CS in EFL contexts echoes Littlewood & Yu’s call for strategic use of L1 in the classroom, a trend which has caused Tian & Macaro (2012) to push for a move from the term “teacher use of L1” to “teacher CS”. They posit that the first implies unstructured, unplanned use such as that described by Littlewood & Yu (2009) and Timor (2012). Teacher CS, on the other hand, denotes the intentional and strategic use of CS aimed at promoting language acquisition, and is therefore much more helpful in identifying the pedagogical uses of L1 in the classroom.

Codeswitching CommunityKamwangamalu (2010) gives a good summary of studies which investigate the pedagogical benefits of teacher CS. He states that benefits include building classroom rapport, compensating for a lack of comprehension, classroom management, and expressing solidarity with students, to name but a few. He also points to a study in Singapore by Rudby (2007) as a particularly good case study. In Singapore the use of Singlish in the English classroom is easily observable but strongly discouraged as an obstacle to English literacy. Rudby sets out to examine the extent of these adverse effects of teacher CS, but instead finds that it “empowers [teachers] to explain difficult points or concepts, to inject humor, to establish a warmer, friendlier atmosphere in the classroom, to encourage greater student involvement” (Kamwangamalu, 2010, p.128).

As if these pedagogical advantages weren’t enough, He (2012) points to the value of studying specific language settings and identifying how unique relationships between two languages can be exploited through CS to increase language acquisition. She finds that both the differences and similarities between the languages are useful in teaching Chinese learners of English, but more importantly that Chinese (L1) is an important mediatory tool in their second language learning. Referencing Vygotsky (1978), she states that “L1 is not only a medium for communication, but also the most powerful mediating tool for thinking” (He, 2012, p. 3, original emphasis). This is an extremely important consideration when thinking about the place of codeswitching in pedagogy, as a monolingual approach which doesn’t allow CS will constrict the role of the L1 in mediating SLA.

Lee (2012) notes that the potential benefits of teacher CS have been explored extensively, and so attempts to construct a model of the effectiveness of CS in order to facilitate future investigation into its actual value as a pedagogical tool. In reviewing the literature, he praises the move away from a monolingual approach towards a bilingual one, but suggests that this could be improved further by adopting a sociolinguistic view of bilingualism in EFL. A sociolinguistic approach discusses whether we can view the EFL classroom as a kind of bilingual community; after all, L2 learners are to a greater or lesser extent developing bilinguals.

EFL Classrooms as Bilingual Communities

The idea of treating the EFL classroom as a bilingual community is central to Vivian Cook’s (2010) theory of multi-competence, which he defines as ‘the knowledge of more than one language in the same mind or the same community’ (p. 1). Multi-competence presents a view of SLA as based on the “L2 user”, who, due to their knowledge of two or more languages, should be considered as substantially different from a monolingual speaker. The L1 is always present and active in the L2 user’s mind, leading multi-competence to state that both should be used actively in the classroom. Multi-competence doesn’t just suggest that CS could be useful in the EFL classroom, but by viewing L2 users as bilinguals it requires pedagogical applications of both languages through strategic CS.

Wei (2011a) takes multi-competence and its implications for CS and tries to extend a theory of CS by redefining it as “translanguaging”. This is based on a linguistic idea of languaging, a term which implies the use of the noun “language” as a verb. By rebranding CS as translanguaging Wei highlights its use by L2 users as a communicative tool for interaction and learning, rather than as a description of the way bilinguals mix codes. Indeed, by taking a holistic view of CS Wei conceptualizes a bilingual’s translanguaging as including “all the languages he or she knows as well as knowledge of the norms for use of the languages in context and of how the different languages may interact in producing well-formed, contextually appropriate mixed-code utterances.” (Wei, 2011b, p. 374)

Such considerations begin to bring us towards a pedagogical view of CS as central to EFL teaching, as it forms a portion of the L2 user’s identity both within and without the classroom. Wei’s proposal of translanguaging with a multi-competence framework not only affects the way L2 users learn languages, but also begins to consider ideological issues of L2 user identity and sociolinguistic context.

These ideas draw a picture of where EFL education could be headed given the gradual acceptance of CS as a pedagogical tool. However, a look at how research into bilingual education has developed theories of CS may be of even more benefit in the EFL classroom. This will be the focus of Part 3.


Cook, V. J. (2010). Who is the L2 user? Multi-competence and foreign language learning/teaching. Proceedings of the Shiko Language Education Society, 30(11), 1-19.

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.

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.

Rubdy, R. (2007). Singlish in the school: An impediment or a resource? Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 28(4), 308–317.

Tian, L., & Macaro, E. (2012). Comparing the effect of teacher codeswitching with English-only explanations on the vocabulary acquisition of Chinese vocabulary students: A lexical Focus-on-Form study. Language Teaching Research, 16(3), 367-391.

Timor, T. (2012). Use of the mother tongue in teaching a foreign language. Language Education in Asia, 3(1), 7-17.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds. and trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wei, L. (2011a). Multilinguality, multimodality, and multicompetence: Code- and mode-switching by minority ethnic children in complementary schools. The Modern Language Journal, 95, 370-383.

Wei, L. (2011b). Moment Analysis and translanguaging space: Discursive construction of identities by multilingual Chinese youth in Britain. Journal of Pragmatics, 43, 1222–1235.


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