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In many research on second language classroom, the role and influences of mother tongue or first language (L1) on second language (L2) learning has always been a hotly debated issue. There have always been contradicting views about whether to use L1 of the students in the second language classroom. However, in the past decade of study, linguistic researchers could not reach a common ground on whether the use of L1 is considered as a facilitator or barrier in the acquisition of second language. Different existing theories have controversial opinions about the role of L1 influences on L2 learning (Yan, 2010). Based on the literature gathered, this paper is going to address two research questions drawn from the collection of views on L1 use in L2 learning classroom. Despite the many arguments on the use of L1 in the L2 classroom, little research was carried out to measure the effects of L1 use in the classroom. Thus, the first research question in this paper is to study what are the effects of using L1 in L2 learning classroom. Upon gathering the effect, this paper is also interested to measure to what extend does the use of L1 increase the performances of L2 learning. Therefore, four related articles will be reviewed in order to address these two research questions.
According to Nation (2003), the use of L2 in a foreign language classroom needs to be maximized wherever possible. Though L2 should be the core language used in classroom management and learning, the use of L1 should not be abandoned too as it has a small but significant role to play in communicating meaning and content. This role is important across all language skills be it in reading, writing or vocabulary learning. In a rather straightforward but comprehensive research done by Liu in 2008 by the title ‘L1 use in L2 vocabulary learning: Facilitator or barrier’, the effects of L1 use on L2 vocabulary teaching is explored. Liu found that many modern teaching methods treat L2 in isolation from L1. Therefore, in her study, she proved that bilingual vocabulary teaching method is actually suitable to Chinese EFL learners (Liu, 2008). An empirical research has been done and it is confirmed that proper application of L1 can effectively assist the memorization of new words during L2 vocabulary teaching process. Liu (2008) used the fact that L1 is present in L2 learners’ mind, therefore, whether the teacher uses L1 or not, the L2 knowledge that is being created in their mind and is connected in all sorts of ways with their L1 knowledge. This observation is supported from the sociocultural theory perspective that L1 meanings continue to have a persistent effect in the L2 learning (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006).
The research done by Liu (2008) is an apt study which confirmed the role of L1 in L2 learning classroom as a facilitator. An experimental approach was chosen by her in this study as the methodology. The reason for applying experimental research is that this study involves the effect of the systematic manipulation of one variable(s) on another variable (Ary, Jacobs, Sorensen, 2010). In the experiment, Liu (2008) manipulated the variable of teaching approach, which is the use of language during vocabulary teaching. Through the experimental research, the researcher managed to prove that different teaching approach does make significant differences in the subjects’ performances in remembering new words and expressions learned. However, the study might have been more persuasive if the researcher had considered the vocabulary size and the frequency count of the vocabulary items chose, whether the words are high-frequency words or low-frequency words (Nation, 2001). The vocabulary size of 60 words might be too much for the Chinese EFL learners. Moreover, learners should be given considerable time to understand and memorize the new words. It would be more proficient if the researcher could analyze the basis of the word frequency and quantity of these words so as to avoid being over ambitious.
In reviewing the results gathered, Liu (2008) in her study, made a comparison between the two groups using t-tests. For every test, the raw scores were carefully entered into the SPSS data table in order to gain the desired data for comparison. From here, we know that the researcher was very cautious in preparing thorough data analysis. To avoid any biasness in the study, the researcher had analyzed the result of the pre-test for both the experimental and control group before proceeding to confirm the validity of the final results. There was no great significant difference between the P values for both groups although the control group scored a little lower than the experimental group. It can be said that both groups of subjects started the experiment at the similar vocabulary level. What is interesting in this data is that the results of post-test carried by the researcher after the interval of 3 weeks from the pre-test showed that the subjects in the experimental group who received treatment in both L1 and L2 acquired new words and expressions better than those in the control group who received treatment in L2 only. What then do you think is the cause for the difference in performances of both groups in the post-test? Certainly is the factor of language use. Therefore, strong evidence that supports the use of L1 in L2 vocabulary learning is presented in her findings. Taken together, the results of this study support the idea that L1 facilitates the L2 vocabulary learning. The effect that L1 brings about in L2 classroom learning is that it enhances the understanding of new words.
On top of the study conducted by Liu (2008), Bouangeune in 2009 also conducted a similar study on the use of L1 in teaching vocabulary. The add-on of Bouangeune’s study is that he concentrated on low L2 proficiency students; the L2 in this study is English. Bouangeune (2009) aimed to address the problem of low achievement in his institution which is the National University of Laos. Again, the researcher also seeks to investigate the effectiveness of using L1 in teaching vocabulary. The research question that he posted in the study is whether L1 helps increase students’ achievement in vocabulary. Previous studies have reported that teachers tend to fine students for using their L1 in English language classroom (Weinberg, 1990). If the students speak their L1 (Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Russian or Farsi) in the English language classroom, they will be fined 25 cents. This phenomenon reminds me of my primary schooling days where we made compulsory to communicate using English during the English Week and if we fail to do so, we will be fined 10 cents for each words that we speak in our mother tongue. As a result of this rule in the school, many students dared not speak much or speak out loud during that week because they could not converse in English language fluently. Considering the attempt to make the L2 learners speak only L2, is it effective? Or can this approach contribute to the faster learning of L2?
The fifth hypothesis of Krashen’s Monitor Model, the affective filter hypothesis says that learners of a language will filter or block out the target language if they become tense, angry or bored (Lightbown & Spada, 1999). This clearly explains the situation faced by the L2 learners as their teacher fined them for using their L1 or mother tongue. Learners who are confused will become frustrated, upset, angry and resentful at the environment of the language classroom and when this happens, learning stops. Therefore, it is critical for educators to consider the barriers faced by the L2 learners especially lower proficiency learners. In the study presented by Bouangeune (2009), the researcher highlighted several reasons why L1 should be used as a tool in the language classroom. In order to prove his stand, the researcher conducted a pre-test and port-test on vocabulary in four classes of first year English majors attending a university in Laos. Two classes were assigned as an experimental group and the other two classes were assigned as a control group. If we were to compare, Bouangeune (2009) conducted a larger scale experiment than Liu (2008) as Bouangeune (2009) used a total of 169 subjects. He also used more instruments to conduct the study, namely, testing materials (pre-test and post-test), teaching instrumentations and teaching techniques.
Apart from the approach of using a larger scale of experiment, Bouangeune (2009) observed the guidelines set by Nation (2001) in testing learners’ vocabulary knowledge. The researcher designed multiple choice test with four alternative answers for the pre-test and post-test. The design of the tests is very appropriate and suitable for students as well as teachers because it is quick to take, easy to mark and easy to interpret (Nation, 2001). It serves the purpose to help teachers quickly find out how much work needs to be done on these words before giving them any treatments. The tests were also designed in a very practical way whereby the number of new words tested is only 15 as opposed to Liu’s 60 new words at one time. However, there arises a question regarding validity of test. In the post-test, the researcher used words taken from the teaching materials in the Language Practice (LP) classes, which both groups had learned before (Bouangeune, 2009). This idea seems to put me in doubt if the words are still new to the students. Perhaps they have already acquired the meanings as they have come across the teaching materials before. Moreover, what would be the reason for the researcher to use different sets of pre-test and post-test on the students? Had the researcher consider about consistency? It is suggested that the researcher should use the same questions for pre-test and post-test so that the measurement of improvement can be ascertained.
Despite the less persuasive instrumentation, this study managed to provide reliable data analysis. The researcher used the Cronbach’s alpha to measure the reliability of both tests. It was proved that both tests were reliable in the level of .86 and .80, respectively (Bouangeune, 2009). The scores of each part of the test were investigated by comparing the mean scores of the two groups by using MANOVA. Taken together, the findings showed that students in the experimental group which applied L1 in teaching new words outperformed those in the control group. The reason for the students in the experimental group to perform better than the control group is because they were given enough comprehensive input. They were taught repeatedly the sentence pattern and functions of new words from the beginning. This had made them familiar with the sentence structure and word meaning. Again, this observation is explained in the fourth hypothesis of Krashen’s Monitor Model, the input hypothesis. Students are able still to reach the optimal acquisition level even being challenged by some new vocabulary if they understand most of the input either through reading or listening (Lightbown & Spada, 1999). Hence, this study had made an important contribution to English Foreign Language Teaching, particularly in the area of vocabulary for students with a lower proficiency level as it shows the effectiveness of using L1 in teaching vocabulary.
Using L1 in the L2 learning classroom does not only help to boost the learning of vocabulary, it also helps to develop ideas in writing. A study conducted by Stapa and Abdul Majid (2009) dealt on the issue of investigating if students with lower proficiency are able to generate more ideas when they use L1 (in this context is BM) as opposed to English and produce a well-developed written product when ideas are generated in L1 instead of L2. Writing is one of the major strands in language learning. A successful L2 learning is also concerned with the acquisition of writing in L2. Getting students to write in the L2 classroom can be discouraging sometimes as this problem is caused by several factors. This situation is somewhat similar to getting students to speak the L2 when they are poor in the L2. Students developed fear in them when they are required to write in L2 simply because they cannot think or relate things in L2. Generating ideas in the L2 writing can be a very complex activity due to the reasons mentioned above. If language is a great hindrance for L2 students to write, then this great hindrance should be removed so that they can start to write. The solution to removing this hindrance is to channel their thinking to L1 to develop ideas first before delivering them in L2. Therefore, Stapa and Abdul Majid (2009) adapted the ideas generation process in L1 and L2 by Scott (1996) in their study to address the problem statements.
According to Scott (1996), there must be always the possibility of allowing students to generate ideas in their L1 and help to identify the linguistic structures that will transfer their ideas into the L2. By doing so, students may be able to come up with more ideas as they are not swamped by the confusion between linguistic information and ideas on the topic (Scott, 1996). Literature also reviewed that writers with differing L2 proficiency switch from L2 to their L1 during their writing process (Wang, 2003). Meanwhile, Lucas and Katz (1994) claim that students with low proficiency in English will only have their native language as effective means for providing access to content development in essay writing. Therefore, Stapa and Abdul Majid (2009) have come out with an experimental study to investigate the use of L1 in L2 composing. In the study, the subjects are divided into two groups, namely the experimental and the control group. The subjects were given a training session in the beginning to familiarize them with the procedures. Then they were given passage for reading in English related to the essay topic a day beforehand so that they could gather some ideas on the topic. On the first day of the treatment, the experimental group is allowed to generate ideas using their L1 while the control group can only generate ideas in L2. From here, we can see that the design of this study is very detailed and properly planned as the researcher even thought of giving a training session beforehand to make sure that the experiment can be carried out according to the procedures.
Data management and analysis of this study was performed using t-tests. The means and standard variation of the overall score was carefully plotted into tables. Furthermore, the researcher also presented a descriptive analysis in terms of overall score, content, organization, vocabulary, language and mechanics of the writing process (Stapa & Abdul Majid, 2009). The results of the study show that the students in the experimental group have outperformed those in the control group. This concludes that the use of L1 in L2 writing classroom with low proficiency students produce better quality essays. Therefore, it is by no means harmful to use L1 in teaching L2 writing among the low proficiency students. From this conclusion, we are able to the positive transfer of L1 in terms of strategy (Yan, 2010). The correlations of L1 and L2 can be drawn as conceptual activities occurred in L1 during writing in L2. The concepts of word functions and sentence structures are transferred from the platform of L1 into the platform of L2. The researcher in this study therefore recommends the use of L1 for L2 writing classroom as it can trigger background knowledge among the learners.
Last but not least is the reading skill acquisition in L2 learning classroom. The use of L1 does not only constrain to the area of vocabulary learning and ideas developing in writing, it also encompasses the area of reading. Reading in L2 is not a monolingual event; L2 readers have access to their L1 as they read, and many use it as a strategy to help comprehend an L2 text (Upton & Li-Chun, 2001). Little research has been conducted to determine what role the L2 plays in the reading strategies of L2 readers. However, several studies have revealed that many variables are involved in and influence the L2 reading process. Upton and Li-Chun (2001) in their study entitled ‘The role of the first language in second language reading’ seek to explore when L2 readers use their cognitive resources and how this cognitive use of the L1 helps them comprehend and L2 text. Furthermore, the researchers also want to investigate how L1 influences the reading and comprehension process of L2 readers. The study carried by the researchers adopted the qualitative methodology. The subjects were divided into three groups based on their scores on the Michigan Test of English Language Proficiency (MTELP) (Upton & Li-Chun, 2001). The subjects were tested on think-aloud verbal protocols and given retrospective interviews. These procedures are done to assess how students use their L1 and their L2 during the actual act of reading. The results show that the intermediate ESL students tended to think about and process the L2 reading task using their L1 more frequently than the advanced ESL students. Taken together, this study shows that L1 is certainly turned on and actively used by L2 readers as they seek to make sense of an L2 text. Overall, the researchers did a great job in drawing out the role of L1 in L2 reading comprehension and addressed the research questions aptly by showing that L1 plays a vital role in second language reading.
In conclusion, this paper has reviewed the research questions concerning the effects of using L1 in L2 learning classroom be it in vocabulary learning, ideas developing and reading comprehension. From the four related articles, we can summarize that L1 plays a vital role in the acquisition of L2 and the effects that it brings about are positive and constructive. Educators should consider using L1 especially when dealing with students with low proficiency in L2. Furthermore, the four related studies also set out to measure to what extent of the use of L1 increases the performances of L2 learning. From the findings gathered, it is proven that L1 stirs and triggers the conceptualization and idea formation of L2 learning. L1 facilitates the learning of L2 to the extent that it encourages low proficiency learners to block out their filter, frustration, and confusion towards the unfamiliar L2. It also promotes the performances of L2 learners in terms of vocabulary learning, idea developing in writing and reading comprehension. Further investigation and experimentation into the use of L1 in L2 learning is strongly recommended to draw more implications that can contribute to the field of second language acquisition and education as well. Future research on the role of L1 in L2 speaking classroom may be a great and interesting field to venture in.
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