The judicial use of first language in second language writing? Maybe, not as bad as one would think.
- Volume 6 Issue 4
- April 2016
- Review by Kathy S Richards
For those who wish to delve into the murky waters of global English language learning, Theory and Practice in Language Studies (TPLS) will help clear the path. TPLS, a peer-reviewed international journal, promotes scholarly exchange among teachers and researchers in the area of English language learning [ELL]. The journal features full-length articles and research that reflect the latest developments and advances in both theory and practice (2016). According to the official website, Academy Publication.com, editors of the journal are particularly interested in articles that combine two or more academic disciplines in research that will not only challenge established parameters but also think across them to create something new. Dr. Catherine Wang, Senior Editor of TPLS, notes “ We are always looking for articles that bridge the gap between theory and practice, as well as for articles which explore new and emerging areas of research that reflect the challenges faced [in ELL] today”(Wang, 2015).
The journal’s April 2016 issues features an article that addresses such a gap in second language composition and challenges the longstanding theory and practice of banning native language in the target language classroom. The article, “Improving the Quality of Second Language Writing by First Language Use” (Ahmadian, Pouromid, & Nickkhah), investigates how English language learners can benefit from using their first language (L1) in second language (L2) writing. The authors also explore a second gap in existing research – questioning in which areas will the use of L1 benefit most. The authors note that research over the last several decades has overlooked a valuable aspect of how ELL writers compose. They claim that earlier research lacked an operational definition of what first language use is and merely compared how writing processes used in L1 and L2 are similar, rather than examining how the process used in each are different. Their research attempts to address these gaps.
Ahmadian et al. note that in recent research and pedagogical practices, the judicious use of L1 in the L2 classroom has become more accepted than in past decades. They cite Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural Theory of Learning which states, “learning is mediated by cultural artifacts such as language”(1978), and assume that if learning is mediated by language then “the extensive background knowledge that ELL writers possess in their first language will be a valuable resource for composing in the second language”; thus, they further assume the use of L1 could possibly result in better quality writing (2016). To test their hypothesis, Ahmadin et al. design a study to investigate which aspects of L2 Writing are improved when L1 is used.
The Study, Methodology, Results & Critique
In this statistical study, 12 groups of 3 Iranian single gender groups of L1 students (N=36) identified as intermediate level English proficient volunteered for the study. Six of the groups (N=18) were named as the control group. They were instructed to use English only in a collaborative discussion of the assigned writing task, then were to each compose an argumentative essay over a given prompt. The remaining half of the participants were named the experimental groups (N=18). These students were directed to use their first language to collaboratively discuss the writing task , then to complete the argumentative composition on the same topic as the other group. The compositions were then collected and errors examined to collect information on “ organization/unity, development, cohesion/coherence, structure, vocabulary, mechanics to determine an overall score”(Ahmudian, 2016).
After examining their findings, the authors suggest that the use of L1 does indeed facilitate higher quality writing in L2 learners by improving their overall writing scores in the areas of organization, development, cohesion, structure, and mechanics. However, the researchers did not reveal if the participants were randomly selected, the type of admission test that identified them as intermediate, the testing conditions, or its scoring procedure. This may or may not be significant. However, if participants’ ELL proficiency was measured using an instrument created by the Iranian university’s admissions office, or even by a teacher without qualifications in program and ELL test design, rather than a standardized test of English Proficiency such as the TOEFL or ILETS, the instrument may not have measured what it was intended to measure. Therefore, it may not have concurrent validity. Moreover, if the participants were not randomly selected, does this sample reflect the general population? In addition, do the ELL proficiency scores achieved by the students reflect the intermediate skill level in spoken, written, or reading ability, or all 3? These questions were not made clear by the authors.
Connections of this study to Previous and Current Research
As stated earlier, the questions regarding the effectiveness of the use of students’ L1 in the L2 classroom have been debated for many years. Linguist Steven Krashen developed the Natural Approach to language acquisition in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and argued, “Students best learn L2 through massive amounts of exposure to the language while avoiding the use of L1 (Tang, 2002). However, over the last two decades, focus has been shifting towards the use of L1 in the ELL classroom. Indeed, research has shown that the use of L1 by both students and teachers increases both comprehension and learning of L2 (Atkinson,1987;Tang, 2002). A number of researchers (Atkinson, 1993; Aurebach, 1993; Cook, 2014) have also suggested that L1 can be useful in a variety of functions in the language classroom, such as checking for comprehension, giving instructions, and explaining lexical items and grammatical concepts.
Moreover, the Ahmadian et al. study also supports recent (2015) research by Tamimi et al. who assert, “ a judicious, occasional and limited use of the L1 is a better approach to take in EFL classes than to include or exclude it totally”, as well as a quantitative and qualitative study by Yingqin and Zeng who suggest that the use of L1 in L2 writing promotes a positive outlook as well as forms “meaningful connections” between their L1 and L2, “especially in students understanding on tasks of L2 grammar, culture, and syntax (especially at the beginning level)”(2015).
Implications & Critique
Overall, the suggestions of Ahmadian et al. can be classified as positive. The findings of the original thesis were favorable and supportive that L1 use is beneficial to L2 Writing in organization, development, cohesion, structure, and mechanics. This implies that judicious use of L2 in the L1 classroom can be beneficial to students providing it is done so with limits and within specific parameters.