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★ Use of L1 in EMI: Understanding why and moving to how

There is a growing and vocal debate about the usefulness or desirability of using students’ L1 in language learning situations. Past language teaching methods, from immersion to foreign‐language teaching, have placed a strong emphasis on “target language only” in the classroom. There has never been any consistent research to indicate that this rule is beneficial, but the intuitive nature of the argument – to learn the language use only the language – is hard to overcome. Recent findings from research has begun shifting discussion, with more scholars and educators becoming interested in investigating the potential role of L1 in supporting various aspects of learning, in EMI (English medium instruction) contexts as well as EFL (English as a foreign language) contexts. 

Educational organisations have been researching the issue of students schooled in a language other than their first/dominant language (L1) for many years, and have consistently found that students benefit from access to their L1 in the classroom.  However, the results of that research have been more or less neglected in discussions about EMI. Why this is case is unclear, but the results have been the same. Despite concerted efforts to bring about awareness of the myriad issues caused by learning in a second or additional language by organisations such as UNESCO¹, EMI schools have often continued to maintain the monolingual habitus² of ‘English only’. In international, immersion, and bilingual schools, this is often caused by the real or perceived prestige of having the ‘opportunity’ to study in English. When we talk about something as being a privilege we tend not to see the possible negative aspects. Regardless of the prestige of an English‐language education, and regardless of the educational situation, whether state or private, all children benefit from accessing education at least partly in their own language. This conviction underpins the recently‐launched paper from Oxford University Press, The Role of the First Language in English Medium instruction (EMI)

Understanding Why

So what do we know about the impact of using the L1 in EMI education? The answer is, quite a lot!   There are three areas which have consistent research support when discussing L1 in education:

  1. Having access to learning in the stronger language is better for academic outcomes. This point is the easiest to understand; it’s harder to learn something in a language you don’t master, as your attention is dividing between learning language and learning content.
  2. Use of L1 in EMI is associated with better outcomes in English proficiency. This seems counter‐ intuitive, as more English would seem to develop English better. But again, accessing learning through the stronger language ensures content mastery, which then leaves students time to attend to developing language. The L1 is also tied to cognitive development, and the better a student develops in terms of cognition, the better a learner they become, which enhances language acquisition as well³.
  3. Access to L1 in learning is associated with higher proficiency levels in the L1. Many schools don’t consider the development of students’ L1 as their job, but students should never lose a language in the quest for acquiring English; bilingualism should be the goal for all students who arrive in an EMI situation with another language. The school supporting their L1 is a powerful message about the value of their other language and bilingualism.

There are other areas of a student’s school experience that can be positively influenced by the presence of their L1 as well. Students who are able to use all of their linguistic resources for learning are more likely to be engaged in learning and motivated. Students who feel that their “whole self” is seen and valued at school will have a more positive attitude towards school and be more involved socially. This impacts on student well‐being and agency, and can have positive consequences across all aspects of teaching and learning.  

Moving from Why to How

What are ways schools can make a difference for their students by supporting their learning in and through the L1? The easiest answer, which could also be considered the most difficult answer, is through bilingual education. Where the student body is homogenous enough to allow for a strong bilingual programme, this is the route that will be most successful. Bilingual programmes that support the continued growth of the L1 alongside the acquisition of English have the strongest results in terms of academic success, as well as success in learning English and in maintaining the L1⁴. Programmes that are “two‐way” entail roughly equal numbers of speakers of the L1 and English, and these are particularly successful, in part due to the equal power relationships; both groups of students master one of the target languages and are learning the other, so they can develop strong collaborative relationships. In EMI situations where the students all, or mainly, speak the same L1, there is no reason to not develop a bilingual programme that will ensure L1 development, English development, and academic development.

Bilingual programmes are not always possible, for reasons ranging from the extent of language diversity to resourcing and staffing. In cases where the student body is too linguistically diverse to be served by a bilingual programme, there are still many ways to bring all students’ first languages into the classroom. An area that is currently the focus of much development in terms of research and practice is translanguaging. There are two types of translanguaging that we can develop in the classroom. The first, and simplest, is serendipitous translanguaging. This involves allowing and encouraging students to use their languages to help scaffold learning, to translate when they don’t understand, to share their languages with their friends, and to consider how their languages work as compared to English. All of these goals can be achieved through simple but meaningful teaching moments: asking a student to translate instructions for a new‐to‐English students, using Google translate to ask a student why they are upset, encouraging students to explain to each other how to say hello in their languages, or how verbs work! A language‐inclusive environment will allow for the development of all of these classrooms moments that will support learning, support identity and support both L1 and English development.

The second type is planned translanguaging. This form of translanguaging is an extension of language into the curriculum, to support both learning and language development. Teachers who plan for language integration consider the context and content to find areas where learning would be enhanced through L1 access. This may mean having students do initial research on a topic in their own languages to build knowledge, or having students work in same‐language groups to discuss and debate what they are learning. It can also mean integrating L1 into writing, by having students do initial planning in their L1 and then write in English. All of these examples provide support for content‐learning, support for English learning, and support for the continued growth in L1.

There is also a growing body of evidence to support the inclusion of L1 in foreign‐language classrooms as
well⁵. Although the use of the target language is certainly critical in language classrooms, it is important
to remember that cognition and prior knowledge are both accessed through the L1. Providing scaffolds
from the L1 to the L2 allows for students to access prior knowledge and process more deeply. In
addition, the presence of the L1 in L2 classrooms provides fertile ground for developing language
awareness strategies. The use of contrastive analysis, and the basis of knowledge of language in the L1
can provide a scaffold to improving understanding of, and performance in, the L2⁶.

Given what we now know conclusively about the importance for all students of having their first languages involved in their learning experiences, now is the time to ensure this happens. There are many ways to make this possible, from developing bilingual programmes in place of monolingual to using the L1 as a functional scaffold in the foreign‐language classrooms. Whatever the context, institutions involved in language‐based education should investigate their student populations and determine the best way forward to support the language and learning development of all their students.

All of these issues can be explored further in the recently‐launched paper from Oxford University Press, The Role of the First Language in English Medium instruction (EMI). This is available as a free download from

¹UNESCO. (2016). If you don’t understand, how can you learn? United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. New York: UNESCO. Retrieved December 12, 2016
²Gogolin, I. (1997). The “monolingual habitus” as the common feature in teaching in the language of the majority in different countries. Per Linguam, 13(2), 38‐49. doi:‐2‐187
³Cummins, J. (1981). The Role of Primary Language Development in Promoting Educational Success for Language Minority Students. In C. s. Education (Ed.), Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (pp. 3‐49). Los Angeles: California state Department of Education.
⁴Collier, V., & Thomas, W. (2012). Dual Language Education For a Transformed World. Albuquerque: Fuente Press.
⁵Turnbull, M., & Dailey‐O’Cain, J. (Eds.). (2009). First Language Use in Second and Foreign Language Learning. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
⁶Ammar, A., Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. (2010). Awareness of L1/L2 differences: Does it matter? Language Awareness, 19(2), 129‐146
The Author
Eowyn Crisfield is a Canadian‐educated specialist in languages across the curriculum, including EAL/ELL, home languages, bilingual and immersion education, super‐diverse schools and translanguaging. Her focus is on equal access to learning and language development for all students, and on appropriate and effective professional development for teachers working with language learners. She maintains a popular blog for parents and teachers (, a blog for teachers ( and writes regularly for other publications. She is co‐author of the recent book “Linguistic and Cultural Innovation in Schools: The Languages Challenge” (Palgrave‐ Macmillan, 2018, with Jane Spiro, co‐author). She is also a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University, in the Department of Education.
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