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This research attempted to explore the language patterns of teachers of varying linguistic backgrounds teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) to young learners. In particular it examined the teachers' use of the students' first language (L1). The sample included six teachers teaching EFL to young learners in Hebrew and Arabic medium schools. Results reveal diverse use patterns, some of which differ from those previously found in older learner populations, and can be attributed to the teachers' personal pedagogical beliefs and assumptions regarding the goals of young learner programs and the role of L1 use.
L1 in language teaching
EFL teachers' beliefs
young EFL learners
young language learners
Foreign language teaching and learning environments are potentially multilingual, for in addition to the target language they can also include the linguistic repertoire of both the learners and teacher (Blyth, 2003). The question is whether this linguistic potential, particularly the learners' first language (LI), should be legitimized as one of the tools for teaching the new language, and if so, to what extent and for what purpose. Language teaching pedagogy has tended to ignore or even suppress bilingual or multilingual options endorsing a predominantly monolingual policy, one which equates 'good teaching' with exclusive or nearly exclusive target language use. Recently, however, this assumption and ensuing methodology are being contested.
Issues concerning mother-tongue use are pertinent to teaching young language learners (YLLs) who are in the initial stages of being introduced to a new language of which they have minimal knowledge. Little is known about the linguistic practices of teachers in YLL programs, and how these practices compare with those of teachers of older and/or more proficient learners. Since YLL programs are becoming increasingly common world wide, issues concerning teachers' beliefs about and implementations of L1 use are becoming more and more relevant in terms of curriculum planning and on-going decision-making (Raschka, Sercombe, & Chi-Ling, 2009).
The research reported herewith attempted to shed some light on the instructional linguistic choices of language teachers in young learner programs and the reasons that motivate them, by examining EFL teachers in Israel teaching young children (6- to 8-year-olds). In order to investigate whether the teachers' choices are affected by the students' first language, the study looked at two linguistic learner populations studying English as a foreign language (EFL): speakers of Arabic and speakers of Hebrew.
The article will first survey research on using first language versus the target language (TL) in the language classroom, and the arguments brought forth to support or counter this phenomenon. It will then introduce this dilemma within the framework of teaching languages to young learners and present the findings and implications of the research study.
2 The first language versus the target language debate
Perceptions as to the role of the learners' L1 in the second and foreign language class have undergone significant changes over the years in accordance with the premises underlying dominant language teaching approaches in different periods (Cook, 2001; Crawford, 2004). Consequently these perceptions range from using the students' L1 as a medium of instruction in the Grammar Translation Approach, to a total rejection of L1 use as in the Direct, Natural and Audio-lingual approaches, to yet a somewhat more moderate view which advocates target language (TL) dominance yet allows for some restricted L1 concessions in the present era (Celce-Murcia, 2001; Richards & Rodgers, 2007).
The discussion as to the extent of L1 use is not merely pedagogical, for it reflects and touches upon major concepts and current beliefs in language learning and teaching, specifically the nature of language knowledge in global multilingual societies, learning as a sociocultural phenomenon, and the significance of native or non-native background in language learning and teaching (Anton & DiCamilla, 1998; Belz, 2003; Chavez, 2003; Cook, 2001; Medgyes, 1994).
Proponents for maximizing TL use emphasize the benefits of language exposure, which, it is maintained, can bring about language learning gains in the form of effective and confident language use, as well as intercultural competence (Duff & Polio, 1990; Turnbull, 2001; Turnbull & Arnett, 2002). The overriding policy in many contexts has therefore been to strive to maximize TL use, especially in situations where the teacher constitutes the only model for language exposure (Crawford, 2004; Turnbull, 2001). Though concessions towards mother-tongue use can be found in some teaching manuals and course books, the basically monolingual TL approach is still largely understood to be axiomatic, and as such, has a major impact on teaching beliefs, teaching methods and teacher training programs (Macaro, 2001, 2005).
The last two decades have sparked renewed interest in the L1 versus TL debate with a new approach emerging, one which views the students' L1 as a meaningful component in the learning process, and calls for hybridity rather than monolingual exclusivity (Canagarajah, 2007). This approach perceives L1 as a resource, an asset rather than an impediment, an invaluable knowledge base that learners bring to the language- learning experience, which should be utilized rather than ignored. Cook (2001, 2005) critically appraises the 'monolingual myth' and its underlying assumptions, calling for recognition of the concept of multicompetence, 'the knowledge of two or more languages in one mind' (Cook, 2005: 48). Cook further argues that language learning approaches need to abide by norms that acknowledge the learners' existing knowledge in the first language, thereby creating an authentic interactive L1 and TL teaching mode using code-switching strategies. Language knowledge standards and teaching and learning assumptions, therefore, need to be reconsidered in light of multilingual constructs, rather than according to native speaker norms (Cook, 2001). Similarly, Blyth (1995) and Chavez (2003) emphasize that the 'no first language policy' contradicts and ignores the realities of the Foreign Language classroom as a diglossic speech community, where each of the languages--the TL and L1--serves a different function and needs to be recognized as such.
Cummins (2008: 72) likewise contests what he refers to as 'the uncritical acceptance of monolingual instructional assumptions'. Specifically he makes the point that despite its prevalence, there is no empirical basis that can back up the supposition that exclusive TL use correlates with improved learning gains. Cummins provides two main arguments in favor of L1 use. The first is the contribution of prior knowledge to learning, which in the case of language learning refers to the activation of the first language in the learning process. The second is the interdependence across languages hypothesis, according to which underlying academic abilities in the first language, such as conceptual elements, metacognitive and metalinguistic strategies, pragmatic aspects, specific linguistic elements and phonological awareness, can be transferred to the second language, provided that the learner's knowledge is at the threshold level. The learners' first language plays a major role in facilitating this transfer and instead of being silenced needs a method that can activate and capitalize on it (Cummins, 2008).
Analysis conducted from a sociocultural perspective demonstrates that activating the students' former knowledge allows for active student involvement in the learning process and for using the L1 as a means to scaffold learning and co-construct knowledge (Anton & DiCamilla, 1999; Storch & Wigglesworth, 2003; Swain & Lapkin, 2000). The vetoing of L1 use is applied to identity issues, for since language acts as a marker of identity, denial of first language use also denies students part of their identity and demeans the value of their language in comparison with the TL (Belz, 2003). From a critical pedagogy perspective, monolingual teaching policies are perceived as instituting power relations that uphold the native-speaker teacher while suppressing the non- proficient non-native-speaking students (Auerbach, 1993), or conversely, the non-native …