Why, When and How to Use L1 in the Classroom

Your students’ first language is a valuable teaching tool.

David Weller
6 min readDec 17, 2022


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On my initial TEFL training course in 2003, we weren’t allowed to use L1 (the students’ first language) in the classroom.

If you did, the tutors would lower your mark for that lesson, and stern feedback would be given. It seemed that the rule was there so the tutors could check that you could deliver a lesson without using the students’ L1.

Strangely though, that’s as far as the discussion on L1 went — there was no further information on how to best use L1. So when I started my first teaching position, I had an ingrained habit of only using L1 and prejudice against using L2. I’m sure this has been the same for thousands (tens of thousands?) of TEFL teachers worldwide.

In reality, L1 can be a powerful teaching aid.

7 Reasons to use L1

1. To check understanding

After you’ve given students complex instructions, checking that they understand what they need to do is a good idea. Rather than ask students to repeat back to you (which can be unreliable) or ask them to tell you in their own words (which they might not be able to do), a quick translation can confirm they understand. Either you can translate the instructions or ask a student to tell you what they heard you say in their L1.

2. To teach meaning in some vocabulary

Translation is a quick and efficient way to convey the meaning of abstract concepts.

While concrete nouns can be conveyed easily, more abstract vocabulary can be difficult to explain in L2. When observing a class, I remember seeing a teacher start to sweat when their class had no idea what ‘honour’ meant, and they became hopelessly lost trying to get its meaning across.

Alternatively, a quick translation into L2 would have saved time and heartache.

3. To teach meaning in some grammar



David Weller

Lessons, stories and visuals to develop your language teaching and learning. 20 years in education, 3 books, and a twice-monthly newsletter.