The Efficacy of the Incorporation of First Language in ESL English Grammar Learning

English is a language possessing 1.75 billion speakers, including 375 million English-as-a-second-language (ESL) learners across the globe, according to the British Council

Learners are dissuaded from incorporating their first language (L1) while learning English due to the belief that the best means to acquire a new language is to learn it monolingually, which has been proposed since the late nineteenth century (Hall & Cook, 2012). However, this assumption has been in dispute by numerous scholars who identify the efficacy of the incorporation of L1 in English learning (e.g. Brooks-Lewis, 2009; Wach, 2016). Schwarzer and Luke (2001) listed the various roles of L1, encompassing “L1 as a collaborative tool, L1 as a scaffolding tool, L1 as a vehicle for establishing intersubjectivity, and L1 as a psychological tool for regulation and task orientation” (p. 93). Being a multifunctional tool, L1 can be applied as an English learning strategy, which is defined as a goal-oriented action employed by learners both psychologically and physically to regulate their learning (Ortega, 2013).

Chamot and O’Malley (1990) classify language learning strategies into three categories: cognitive strategies, metacognitive strategies and social-affective strategies, which will be explained in the following paragraphs, and the inclusion of L1 falls into all the categories. The focus of this essay will be English grammar learning since apprehending grammar of the second language is challenging but essential as it plays a pivotal role in effective communication (Mart, 2013). It is necessary to explore learning strategies to facilitate English grammar learning. Reports and data from the literature regarding language learning and teaching will be adopted as examples in this essay, although the language background of the participants in these studies is diverse. This essay will argue for the effectiveness of the incorporation of L1 in ESL learners’ grammar learning by examining the roles of L1 play in developing cognitive, metacognitive, social and affective strategies.

L1 is beneficial to ESL learners in grasping and memorizing the syntactic patterns in English structures by allowing them to transfer their prior language knowledge to L2 grammar learning through comparison and translation, which are cognitive strategies in language learning. Cognitive strategies are tactics involve “direct manipulation or transformation of the learning materials” (Chamot & O’Malley, 1990, p. 8). A study regarding the attitudes of English learners speaking Spanish as their first language towards the inclusion of L1 in English learning by Brooks-Lewis (2009) shows that the use of L1 allows learners to ascertain the similarities and differences between their previous language knowledge and English, and boosts their English grammar learning. Participants in the study extolled the incorporation of L1 in their English grammar learning. It is explained that the practice of comparing two languages expedites learners’ use of prior knowledge to understand English grammar. Wach (2016) investigated the behaviour and perceptions of Polish ESL learners on involving L1 to their English grammar learning.

There are 85 respondents and virtually half of them conveyed that they often or sometimes render sentences from English to Polish to identify the correlation between the two languages. Eight out of nine interviewees in the follow-up interview expressed that rendering sentences from their native language to English and vice versa benefits their English grammar learning, and one of them demonstrated that translation facilitates her English grammar learning by helping her pay attention to and memorize all the grammatical rules accurately. The study of Brooks-Lewis and Wach have given evidence that L1 plays a role in helping ESL learners to develop cognitive strategies to facilitate English grammar learning.

Furthermore, the incorporation of L1 can assist ESL learners in the development of various metacognitive strategies to facilitate their English grammar learning. According to the definition presented by Chamot and O’Malley (1990), metacognitive strategies are actions done after the learning activity has been finished such as considering the learning process, supervision on production or understanding, and self-evaluation. In Wach’s (2016) investigation, 73 out of 85 surveyed learners indicated that they would perform mental translation from their L1, Polish to English while involving in Polish conversations, explicating that ESL learners often merge L1 and L2 to monitor their production of English grammatical sentences to consolidate the knowledge gained in preceding learning events. There is also a tendency among learners to incorporate English into their L1 after formal classes to supervise their comprehension of English grammar.

Approximately 75% of 85 respondents in the study of Wach expressed their attempts to render the complicated English grammatical structure they listened to their L1 outside the classroom. In addition to offering assistance in monitoring English grammar learning, L1 encourages self-evaluation. For example, one of the participants in Brooks-Lewis’s (2009) study discovered that she started to evaluate her language learning in the past after the failure of remembering English grammatical rules, revealing that incorporating L1 in English grammar learning instigates positive self-evaluation. The results from the investigation of Wach and Brooks-Lewis verify the positive relationship between the incorporation of L1 and the establishment of metacognitive learning strategies.

Not only does L1 benefit ESL learners in the cognitive and metacognitive aspects, but also plays a significant role in helping the development of social strategies, especially in the group learning context. “Social strategies” in this paper refers to the term “social-affective strategies” meaning collaborative learning including peer interaction to accomplish a collective purpose in learning proposed by Chamot and O’Malley (1990). The study of McMillan and Rivers (2011) searches for the views of teachers working at a Japanese university on the monolingual approach in English learning. In the study, more than 65% among 29 interviewed teachers approved the incorporation of L1 in English learning, and over a third of them believed that L1 can function as a collaborative tool stimulating peer assistance and learner-learner interaction. It is explained that learners are more willing to discuss their learning with peers in their native language.

During the discussion, learners often examine their apprehension of English grammar knowledge together and help each other to comprehend the content that confuses them in the lessons. Since limitations are absent in first language conversations, discussion in L1 leads to effective communication. In Storch and Wigglesworth’s (2003) study, Chinese native speakers praised the inclusion of L1 in a small group discussion on English grammar as L1 allowed them to clarify English grammatical rules when they did not grasp the related metalanguage in English, and it was more manageable for them to negotiate and justify grammatical options. Both research of McMillan and Rivers and Storch and Wigglesworth reveal that L1 assists ESL learners in the aspect of the development of social strategies by facilitating peer cooperation and effective communication.

In the affective aspect, L1 is useful for ESL learners to develop affective strategies to regulate their emotions and attitudes as it offers learners psychological reassurance in the process of English grammar learning. The term “affective strategies” in this paragraph is adopted to refer to the identical term suggested by Oxford (1990). Affective strategies are actions aiming to “regulate emotions, motivations, and attitudes” (Oxford, 1990, p. 135). The study of Wach (2016) shows that the majority of 85 Polish interviewees indicated that they felt securer and more relaxed when their native language was included in the description of English grammar, demonstrating that L1 provides mental reassurance for learners while learning English grammar.

Participants in Brooks-Lewis’s (2009) investigation also conveyed that the incorporation of L1 could diminish their anxiety about English grammar learning and provided them with learning motivation since they believed that understanding the similarities between L1 and L2 through comparison gave them a concept that mastering a new language is not demanding as they have gained some of the knowledge already. In addition to offering mental support and learning motivation, the inclusion of L1 strengthens learner’s confidence in learning English grammar. Several English learners felt more confident about their learning after being aware of the interrelationship between their L1 and English, as revealed in Brooks-Lewis’s research. The data in both the study of Wach and Brooks-Lewis proves that L1 is beneficial to ESL learners in terms of developing affective strategies.

To some extent, the incorporation of L1 in English grammar learning is advantageous to ESL learners by helping the development of cognitive, metacognitive, social and affective strategies. The Spanish participants in Brooks-Lewis’s (2009) investigation pointed out that L1 enabled them to learn effectively by comparison, which is a cognitive strategy, while it also stimulated metacognitive strategies like self-evaluation and affective strategies, giving learners confidence in learning English grammar. Polish ESL learners studied by Wach (2016) expressed that the inclusion of L1 in English grammar learning not only allowed them to acquire English grammatical rules correctly by establishing cognitive strategies like translation but also to develop metacognitive strategies to monitor their production and comprehension of English grammar. Wach’s study also reveals that L1 can help develop affective strategies lowering learning anxiety.

The study of McMillan and Rivers (2011) and Storch and Wigglesworth (2003) found that the incorporation of L1 in English grammar learning can help develop social strategies to facilitate communication and peer support in the group learning setting. However, this essay is limited by the diverse background of the participants and the lack of information on the relationship between the effectiveness of including L1 in English grammar learning and other aspects of ESL learners such as age, gender and English proficiency. The efficacy of the incorporation of L1 in English grammar learning may not apply to all ESL learners. Perhaps a future study of the effectiveness of the incorporation of L1 in ESL learners’ English grammar learning might comprise all the different aspects.

By Hiu Man Ho, currently pursuing a Bachelors degree in Chinese and Bilingual Studies at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, China. First published on January 12, 2021