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The Role of the L1 in EFL Classes – Teaching and Learning
Gicele Vergine Vieira

1. Introduction

Translation as a learning/teaching technique in second/ foreign language classrooms has a long history, since its value to the process of acquisition has been discussed for many years. According to Lado (1964 in Malmkjaer, 1997, p. 59), translation is seen as an artificial and complex process, which cannot be achieved without mastery of the second language. On the contrary, many teachers and students believe that the process of learning a second/foreign language is not effective if it does not take into account the learner’s first language. For these professionals, translating is a tool used to help students to perform well a second language, by basing themselves in some kind of input in their own language system.
However, there are still some constraints to the use of the mother tongue (L1) in the classroom. According to Newson (1998, p. 64), the use of L1 translation cannot be expected to produce good results in second language learning, due to its unnatural characteristics. The author emphasizes that translation may lead students to believe that it is impossible to understand something in a second language without translating it, in other words, it misleads learners into believing that expressions in L1 and L2 correspond word-to word.
Thus, dealing with translation in the classroom is not so easy as it seems to be. One way to investigate the use of the L1 in the foreign language classroom is to take into account learners’ and teachers’ perceptions of the learning process, so that it is possible to determine how and when they resort to the mother tongue.
The purpose of this small-scale study was to investigate how learners and teachers deal with translation from L1 to L2 (and vice-versa) in the classroom. Data was collected through the application of two questionnaires – one designed for teachers and the other for learners. The questionnaires assessed students’ and teachers’ beliefs about the use and the role of the L1 in class. Eight teachers and eight students from a language school were interviewed. Students ranged from 14 to 40 years old and comprised several levels of L2 proficiency.

2. Data Analysis

2.1 Students’ Questionnaires

In order to analyze learners’ beliefs about the role of the mother tongue in the learning process, data was organized into three categories:

- Category “S1”: (nonusefullness)
This category comprises students who believe that English is a little difficult to learn. They justify they are studying it mostly because of their occupation. These learners feel they have some problems with grammar rules, memorization of new vocabulary and the listening skill. They also believe that Portuguese and English are very different; therefore they do not see the use of the mother tongue as a valid instrument for learning the L2. Most of the time, they try to understand what is taught through the context, without asking for instruction. But when they feel it is necessary, they prefer it in English at the first moment. This first category represents 49 percent of the interviewed students.

- Category “S2”: (questionable usefulness)
These learners feel that they have great difficulties in the speaking ability. They are also concerned with learning how to read efficiently and also how to take advantages of the use of Portuguese while learning English. Even though they agree that there are some differences between the two languages, they believe that depending on the approach used by the teacher in the classroom, L1 may contribute positively to L2 learning. All of the students from this category, that is 38 percent, prefer to receive formal instruction in English and struggle for translation, in most of the cases, to understand meaning, not form.

- Category “S3”: (usefulness)
It was found only one student in this category (which represents 13 percent of all learners). This learner does not show any difficulty in learning English. She claims that she appreciates learning the language because she feels motivated by her capacity of learning. The learner argues that the L1 can help in the process of learning the L2 in the sense that when a student knows his/her own language it is easier to learn another one. However, the learner thinks that both the structure of her L1 and the L2 are very dense. The student tries, whenever possible, not to ask the teacher to translate, unless it is the last resource.

2.2 Teachers’ Questionnaires

The data collected through the teachers’ questionnaires was organized into four categories:

- Category “T1”: (L1 may be a negative tool)
Teachers included in this category use L1 in class whenever necessary. They believe that beginners need much more translation than intermediate and advanced students. When students ask them about new vocabulary or grammar instruction, they always prefer to explain, at first, in English. However, if they notice that learners still have doubts, they resort to the L1. Teachers are sure that reading, writing and speaking are the least developed skills when there is an excessive use of translation. They do not feel very comfortable when they need to use Portuguese in the classroom, because they claim that it may be a negative influence for learners if it becomes a habit. This category represents 49 percent of the teachers who answered to the questionnaires.

- Category “T2”: (L1 provides linguistic background)
This teacher (representing 13 percent of all teachers) believes that the more advanced the learners are, the more they ask for translation, although they use the L1 only if the instruction in the L2 does not bring a positive effect. On the other hand, she points out that in many cases, the use of the mother tongue can be helpful to the process of L2 learning/acquisition, since it is better for learners to have a good linguistic background upon which they can base themselves. In other words, the teacher seems to assume that students do not learn English because they do not know Portuguese. For her, the speaking ability is seriously injured when translation is widely used in the classroom.

- Category “T3”: (L1 is fundamental)
This category includes only one teacher (representing 13 percent of the total number of teachers who participated in the study) who works specifically with beginner students of English. For her, L1 is a very helpful and important tool, since students still cannot understand many instructions and commands without translating them. They believe it is impossible for beginners not use the native language (L1) while learning the target one (L2). Thus, as learners do not have so much contact with the L2, the teacher claims that the listening skill is much more affected by the use of L1 than the other abilities.
- Category “T4”: (L1 does not affect L2 learning)
This group of teachers believes that L1 translation can be a very good instrument if it is used with caution and in a very sensitive way, regarding students’ levels of proficiency. They also assert that none of the communicative skills (writing, reading, listening and speaking) are affected by the mother tongue. In their opinion, the important goal is to solve students’ doubts, thus translation is not seen as a problem. Teachers from this category correspond to 25 percent of total of the sample.

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