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How do I stop students from using their mother tongue?




Solutions Speaking ChallengeGareth Davies, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer gives his thoughts on the first of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: reducing the use of L1 in class.

In a recent survey on speaking challenges run by Oxford University Press, teachers were asked to vote on their top speaking challenge. The problem that received the most votes was ‘in group or pair speaking activities, my students chat in their mother tongue’.

I am not sure if this is good or bad news, in some ways it is comforting to know that teachers all around the world have similar problems to ones I am facing, but on the other hand I know that speaking is an important part of the learning process and the final exams, so I know my students need as much practise as possible. So how do I get my students to stop using the comfort blanket of their mother tongue and encourage them to speak in English?

Taking away the comfort blanket

My first answer to this question is don’t worry about it. This might sound controversial but in my experience the more you nag teenagers, the less likely they are to do what you ask them to do. There’s an old expression: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. So our job is to explain why it’s a good idea to use English and create the right environment but not to force the students to do it. So I suppose the question could be: how can I create the right environment to encourage my students to stop using the comfort blanket?

If we know what is stopping the students from using English then we might be closer to the answer. I think there are three main reasons why students don’t use English in pair work and group work.

1. They are scared to make mistakes

School culture often makes students scared to make mistakes; it might not be what we are doing in our English lessons but what is going on when they are not being taught languages. That means we need to work hard to overcome their resistance to error rather than highlight every error the students make. Often students are scared that if they make mistakes they will be marked down, so let’s let them know that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process.

To do this we could have ‘quantity not quality’ days where we tell the students they will be marked on how much they say not on how they say it. Also we could have a dice or spinning wheel with typical mistakes written on it. For each speaking activity we spin the wheel and whatever it lands on is the mistakes the teacher listens for and corrects. This shows students they can learn from their mistakes. Finally, as a teacher it is really important to respond to the content of what is being said. So if your student says “I went in Rome”, initially respond to the fact they were in Rome rather than the fact they have their preposition wrong.

2. They don’t have any ideas

An oft heard quote is that students don’t have any ideas, but in the feedback to the survey many teachers said the students were on task but just not using English. So can we use this to our advantage? Could we allow the preparation time to be in the students’ L1? Allow them time to come up with ideas and then translate them. Would this give them the tools to give more than just one- or two-word answers?

Whatever we do, I think for speaking activities to work, preparation time is a necessity not a luxury. I also think it is important to give students a chance to work in pairs to plan what they are going to say before changing pairs and asking them to do the activity. It is often a nice idea to repeat the activity with a new partner, the students will feel the first one was a rehearsal and they feel more relaxed second time around, (maybe even stealing some of their previous partner’s ideas.) Finally, you could give the students opinions; maybe students are too shy to say what they really feel for fear of being ridiculed, so if we tell them they have to argue against X or in favour of Y then they can hide behind the ‘role’ they have been given.

3. They don’t see the point

I often hear teachers say that students don’t see the point. Maybe a reason for this is that if they are in a class of twenty then they realise the teacher can’t listen to all of them at the same time, so they only feel they are learning when the teacher is listening. One thing we could try is to ask the students to record themselves using their phones or other recording devices. They could send us their recordings so we can use something from it in the next lesson and they can keep a record for themselves.

A lot of respondents to the survey said their students don’t listen to each other. This is a common problem, turning speaking into a series of monologues. One way to combat this is to have an activity within an activity. For example, ask your students to answer as a famous person or as another student in the class, or try to get random words into the speaking activity, or to slip in a lie. Their partner has to listen and guess who they are, or guess what the word was or what the lie was, training them to listen.

So throw away your ‘No L1’ signs, stop worrying when L1 pops up, and allow students to have their comfort blanket when they need it. But let them know why you want them to speak English, let them know that you actually welcome mistakes not frown on them, they are part of the process of learning, and encourage students to listen to each other by bringing fun to speaking activities and hopefully you’ll soon have them leaving their comfort blankets behind by themselves.


  1. This is a very interesting and well balanced post. I like the “Don’t worry about it” message. You might also think about creating situations where use of L1 is actually part of the lesson. At some stages this can be appropriate pedagogically; it also helps to break down the “us against them” barrier.

  2. Good ideas here. I noticed “A lot of respondents to the survey said their students don’t listen to each other. This is a common problem, turning speaking into a series of monologues.” One thing I do to help with this is that I get students to interview each other, but after the task I ask random students to tell the class 1 thing they learned about their classmates. This forces them to repeat back what they heard, and it also allows them to switch from using the first person to using the third person. Once they get the idea that I often do this, they focus more on what they hear.

  3. Teenage students sometimes lack the motivation to speak English. I’ve got one tip that I use with my students successfully and they enjoy it. As we (teachers) know, our teenage students like playing games – any games. The rule at the english lesson is “if you speak L1, you miss a turn!”

  4. ‘Don’t worry’ is excellent advice for teachers who understand the students’ L1. Indeed I agree with it – there’s even a fair argument that use of L1 suggests total engagement with the topic.

    But ‘don’t worry’ is a silly thing to say to say to the teacher who doesn’t understand the students’ L1. At our school, we have teachers (mostly from the US), who stay for a year and don’t learn Slovak. How are they supposed to know the students are on task if the students aren’t using target language – especially in September?

  5. I am one of the owners of a small school which also prepares students for the Cambridge exams. What we do as part of our pedagogical program is talk in English in and out of class, no matter what we are doing such as discussing everyday news, or simply having coffee. In the beginning the students just listen to but then, they start joining in the chat if not to talk just to give their opinions. The follow up in the classroom is a mere consequence of the chat that began earlier in an informal way.
    One important point though is correction, which made on spot hinders spontaneity and causes the shy student to retreat to its shelf.

  6. What about stopping learners using L1 for the simple reason of reducing complaints from more compliant learners? I frequently receive complaints about teachers not enforcing our ‘English Only’ rule. Some learners object to coming to the UK for a language course and hearing their mother tongue language as if back in their own country. Is having an English Only rule realistic?

  7. Has there been any research on the language learning success rate using L1 vs. avoiding it? Sure, everyone says how exposure to more L2 is beneficial and contributes to learning, but are we forgetting that learning is also an emotional experience? As the author of this article says, sometimes students really want to say something and be creative but the ‘L2 only’ rule seems only to limit their freedom which sometimes results in them giving up. I believe that preparation is the key, and if we provide our students with tailored support (e.g. speaking prompts) they will feel a lot more comfortable. In addition, it is good to assign different roles during group speaking activities and have mixed-ability groups where they can self-correct and encourage each other. This all takes plenty of time and planning and, above all, knowing our students’ abilities and needs well, but yields positive results and is worth it.

  8. That article provides main reason students use L1. I think the most important thing to aviod using L1 is to make our students feel confident in the classroom and speak in English all the time inside and outside the classroom. As an English teacher, if you have the opportunity, motivate them every moment you can. We should encourage our students to use their knowledge in order to improve their speaking. In addition litlle by little we will see the results.

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