What Works Better: Teachers’ L1 Use or L2‐Only Explanations?

Starting out as a teacher 15 years ago, we were very much encouraged to avoid any use of the students’ L1 in the classroom (which, to be fair, suited nicely as we knew none of them). More recently, the tide seems to be turning with a lot more research into the benefits of L1 use for language acquisition. The study below aims to contribute to the debate with some quantitative data – looking at whether L1 or L2 explanations of vocabulary lead to better learning of the target items.


Zhao, T., & Macaro, E. (2014). What works better for the learning of concrete and abstract words: teachers’ L1 use or L2‐only explanations?. International Journal of Applied Linguistics. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ijal.12080/full.


This article offers a nice overview of the main arguments in favour of L2 only instruction (i.e. English only use in my context). We get a bit of Krashen’s input hypothesis, the L1 = L2 acquisition hypothesis, and Long’s interaction hypothesis. I was less familiar with the arguments in favour of some degree of L1 use. Kroll and Stewart’s hierarchical model was mentioned. As I understand it, the idea is that you look at learning vocabulary as a process. In your mother language, there is a link between the word and the concept it represents (e.g. the word breakfast links to the concept of the food you eat in the morning). When you learn the word breakfast in a new language (L2), you map the L2 word onto its L1 equivalent. So for example: in Polish, breakfast = śniadanie. When I learn śniadanie first, the link is not to the concept, it is to my L1 word (breakfast), and from there I get to the concept (śniadanie -> breakfast -> concept). So at this early stage, the L1 is really involved – it is the channel through which I get from the L2 word to the concept. As I progress, the conceptual link between my new L2 word gets stronger so ultimately, I’ll be able to jump straight from śniadanie to the concept.

The study

Zhao and Macro wanted to explore further the best way to teach L2 vocabulary. Their research was carried out in China. There were 148 Chinese undergrads (a significant majority being male) in the main study following on from a pilot study of 56. The idea was that during reading class, there would be target vocabulary. The 148 students were divided into 3 groups – L1 use, L2 only and no vocabulary focus. In the L1 group, the target vocabulary (chosen by using the Compleat Lexical Tutor website) was taught through the L1 (I’m assuming Chinese in this case). In the L2 group, the target vocabulary was taught only through English. In the 3rd group, (control group) there was no vocabulary intervention.

After this, using RVKS tests, they then measured the students’ knowledge of the target vocabulary over three points in time.


The students in the control group who got no specific focus on the target vocabulary underperformed in the test. This was interesting as it suggests some form of lexical focus (whether in L1 or L2) is helpful to students. Comparing the L1 and L2, the students who received explanations in English only, didn’t do as well as the students who were taught the vocabulary through their L1.

They argue that the reasons for better acquisition through L1 may be because of its straightforwardness. They can attach the new L2 word to the L1 equivalent and the concept to which it corresponds. Listening to an explanation in the L2 is far trickier. The teacher may explain using ideas outside the experience of the student so the student cannot make a strong link between word and concept, the student may match the word to the wrong concept (for instance, they may choose a word that is close in meaning but not quite the same, missing out on subtle differences).

Some takeaways

  1. The study suggests that some focus on vocabulary teaching (whether in L1 or L2) is a good thing.
  2. Some use of L1 in the classroom can help students – in this case, by explaining vocabulary.
  3. I teach in mixed language classrooms and I don’t speak any of their languages so is this relevant for me? Zhao and Macaro offer suggestions for improving L2 explanations of vocabulary. Try to explain subtle differences so the student has best chance of making the appropriate link. Give them a bit of time – there is a lot going on when they are processing your explanation. Try to take a learner centred approach – bear their age and range of experience in mind when explaining terms.
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Stephen Bruce
Pre-Masters Course Leader at Dublin International Foundation College
Stephen works as an EAP tutor in Ireland for Dublin International Foundation College. He is a member of ELT Ireland and blogs at eaping.blogspot.com and tweets @EAPSteve.

6 thoughts on “What Works Better: Teachers’ L1 Use or L2‐Only Explanations?”

  1. Hi, Stephen,

    My name is Robert Taylor. I’m an MA ELT student and I’m currently conducting research into people’s attitudes towards L1 and target language use in the EFL/ESOL classroom and would like to invite you to participate. I have posted full details via the link, below, but I will say for now that participation is entirely voluntary, and that any data you choose to provide will remain anonymous and confidential.

    Data collection is to take place via questionnaires, with a view to interviews being conducted at a later stage.


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