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Review of The L1 in L2 Learning – Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices
AUTHORS: Yanan Song & Stephen Andrews TITLE: The L1 in L2 Learning - Teachers' Beliefs and Practices SERIES TITLE: LINCOM Studies in Language Acquisition 24 PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbH YEAR: 2008
Elke Stracke, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra
Song & Andrews' title, The L1 in L2 Learning - Teachers' Beliefs and Practices, offers an account of teachers' beliefs and practices from the perspective of EFL practitioners in China. The book focuses on the cases of four EFL teachers and ''investigates in depth the attitudes these four teachers hold towards the L1 in their L2 teaching, the extent to which their attitudes are reflected in their L1-related behaviors in class, and the factors they perceive as influences on their beliefs and behaviours'' (p. 1). The authors' aim is to contribute to our understanding of how teachers perceive the role of L1 as a medium of instruction (MoI) in L2 teaching.
In addition to the short foreword by Vivian Cook (Newcastle University), the volume contains seven chapters, four of which are dedicated to a comprehensive study of four Chinese EFL teachers' beliefs and practices of using L1 in their teaching. The book also includes a copy of one of the research instruments (questionnaire) in the appendix and both an author and subject index. The book can be divided into three parts. Part 1 consists of the introduction (chapter 1) and a literature survey (chapter 2). Part 2 presents the four case studies (chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6), whereas Part 3 sums up and discusses the findings in the broader context of the study (chapter 7).
CHAPTER ONE (INTRODUCTION) takes its lead from the observation that even though there has been a strong tendency to recommend L2 usage in the foreign language classroom due to a perceived negative influence of L1, practice has often been in conflict with these theoretical postulations.
In the general field of education, research into teachers' beliefs and practices started more that three decades ago. In the area of language teacher cognition, the work of Borg (2006) and Andrews (2007), for instance, has contributed to our understanding of language teachers' beliefs and practices. In this study, Song & Andrews stress the importance of contextual factors and the teachers' own perceptions. They see the significance of their study as a contribution to the research literature that lacks studies showing how teachers perceive the use of L1 and L2 as the MoI. The authors also point out the need to explore and understand how teachers' beliefs about L1 influence their practice and the importance of teachers' awareness of this issue.
In this introductory chapter, the authors sketch the background for their study, namely a number of teachers who teach English as a foreign language at a tertiary institution in China. Their L1 is defined as Mandarin, but the authors acknowledge that some teachers might have learnt another variety of Chinese before they learnt Mandarin. However, Mandarin is described as their lingua franca both in and out of class. The authors then outline the research design of the study, a questionnaire survey (phase 1) followed by an in-depth study of four selected teachers (phases 2 and 3). Phase 2 consisted of individual interviews with the teachers, classroom observation of one lesson, followed by stimulated recall interviews. Phase 3 of the data collection was conducted one year after phase 2. The same methods as in phase 2 were used with two important modifications. First, the data observation was expanded and now included a complete unit of lessons as compared to the single lesson in phase 2. Second, the authors this time also conducted student interviews. The authors also include a short section about ethical issues and discuss, in particular, the potentially sensitive nature of the teachers' use of L1 and L2, and how this was addressed in their study. Chapter 1 also provides an overview of the book.
CHAPTER TWO (THE ROLE OF THE L1 IN L2 EDUCATION) explores some of the controversies around the issue of L1 in L2 education further. The first section of this chapter deals with the role of L1 in L2 learning. The authors start their review in the late nineteenth century when the Grammar-Translation Method and the use of L1 as the MoI prevailed in the teaching of second languages. They show how various methods and theories in second language acquisition research contributed to a changed attitude towards the usefulness of both L1 and L2 as the MoI. The Grammar-Translation Method, often also called the ''traditional method,'' focused, as its name suggests, on translation and grammar learning. Since this method, derived from the teaching of classical languages, teaches students grammar and vocabulary through direct translations and thus focuses on written language, the L1 is the main MoI. The Direct Method was an answer to the dissatisfaction with the Grammar-Translation Method. It refrains from using the learners' L1 and uses only the L2 as MoI (see Larsen-Freeman 2000; Richard & Rodgers, 2001 for more detailed descriptions and discussion of these and other methods). The authors conclude that since the development of the Direct Method, and despite the various advantages that have been pointed out in using L1 (e.g. the importance of L1 during collaborative work in the classroom), there still seems to be a bias to perceive L1 as a hindrance to L2 learning.
Subsequently, section two in this chapter focuses on the role of L1 in L2 teaching and illustrates further the conflicting perspectives that various methods and approaches have adopted over time when advocating for or against L1 usage. Song & Andrews conclude, ''the principles of the primacy of the spoken language and the monolingual approach [using L2] are still widely held. Indeed, they could be said to dominate contemporary language teaching'' (p. 36). As for China, the authors show that GTM co-exists with other methods, which leads to an eclectic approach of teaching English in China. In the following sections, the authors further examine the issue of L1 in L2 education by looking at the relationship between L1 and L2 in the learners' minds and emphasize the potentially valuable resource of L1 in the process of L2 learning.
The authors conclude their literature survey by pointing to classroom-based research that has explored code switching and the nature and functions of L1 and L2 use in L2 classrooms. Typical functions of L1 use are the conveyance of meaning, classroom management, and students' group work. Some of the studies mentioned in Macaro's (2000) overview of studies on teachers' perceptions of their own use of L1 included classroom observation as their research methods, but Song & Andrews claim that most studies ''only show what functions teachers think the L1 can play'' (p. 59) and have not explored in depth ''how teachers think the L1 can play these functions in their L2 teaching'' (p. 61). Teachers may have their own set of values to maintain L1 use, and the exploration of this subjective set of values is the topic of the following four chapters.
CHAPTERS THREE, FOUR, FIVE, and SIX form the heart of the study. Each of them presents a case study of one English teacher at a tertiary institution in China. We learn about the teachers' beliefs as they transpire from their own statements, their practices, and about the influence of context on the teachers' beliefs and teaching. All four cases are presented in depth. Quotes from the interviews and stimulated recall sessions as well as transcripts from the classroom observations allow for a first-hand insight into the belief systems and classroom reality of these four EFL practitioners in China.
CHAPTER THREE (THE L1 AS A CRUTCH - THE CASE OF ALICE) portrays the case of a 35-year old senior language teacher who has a genuine interest in the MoI issue and a 'pro-L1' attitude. For her, L1 is an asset that can help her in the knowledge transmission process. This belief is firmly rooted in Alice's personal experience and understanding rather than in theoretical knowledge.
Vivian's case, described in CHAPTER FOUR (THINKING IN THE L2 - THE CASE OF VIVIAN) is quite different from that of Alice. Vivian is a 24-year old novice teacher. She holds 'anti-L1' attitudes that are more or less prominent in her actual teaching practice, depending on the content of her lessons. For instance, when teaching vocabulary, she provides an English-rich context to help students think in the L2, whereas during phases when the class has to do exercises from the textbook, her L1 usage is higher to support students' memorization of language points.
CHAPTER FIVE (DEVELOPING L2 ABILITIES - THE CASE OF MANDY) depicts Mandy, a 29-year old teacher with five years of teaching experience, who also reveals an 'anti-L1' attitude. Mandy tends to base her attitudes towards L1 on her perceptions of the students she is teaching. She believes she takes the students' level of English proficiency and their receptivity into consideration in order to help them develop their skills. However, her teaching practice does not always reflect such differentiated practice.
Finally, CHAPTER SIX (L1/L2 JUST A TOOL - THE CASE OF PETER) is again different form the three described above, since Peter (age 31), a teacher of Chinese English majors for several years (the other teachers have often taught lower levels), focuses more on the knowledge of ideas and concepts that the language expresses than the language itself. This is without doubt related to his students' higher level of English proficiency. He has an overall 'pro-L1' attitude but, more importantly, for him, both L1 and L2 are tools to achieve the more important goal of developing students' knowledge of new concepts, ideas, and so forth.
In CHAPTER SEVEN (REFLECTIONS ON TEACHERS' BELIEFS ABOUT THE L1) Song & Andrews compare the findings of the individual cases. They provide a useful table (p. 189) allowing for a convenient overview of the four cases. One central theme in this last chapter is the discussion of the teachers' beliefs of their teaching objectives. Song & Andrews point to the potential influence of the syllabi for English teaching in China and show that teachers vary in their perceptions of the purpose of language teaching because of their varying beliefs about the MoI in English teaching. They conclude cautiously that the ''nature of the content prescribed by a particular syllabus may have some relationship with teachers' L1 use. The syllabi of language, culture and general language education appear more likely to allow room for L1 use in L2 teaching, and for the L1 to play a potentially facilitative role'' (p. 192).
In the preceding chapters, the authors had already highlighted the individual teachers' need for more knowledge and awareness of the potential use of L1 in L2 teaching, which might allow for a more effective use of L1. The teachers in this study seem to have formulated their beliefs primarily through experience, as learners and teachers, and it is noteworthy that even though all four teachers had either completed or were enrolled in a Masters degree when this study was conducted, the MoI issues had not yet figured in their studies.
Song & Andrews also draw the readers' attention to contextual factors that seem to form an important part of the teachers' beliefs about the MoI and their practices. Student ability could potentially affect each teacher's attitudes. Teacher ability (particularly English proficiency) was another decisive factor. The additional factor of fatigue, when the teacher simply felt tired, might also motivate the switch to the more easily produced L1. Another factor that all teachers mentioned allows for yet another insight into the teachers' reality: the observation by an 'expert' as part of their performance review would always trigger a reduction of L1 use. This reminds the reader of the underlying bias that the authors took as their starting point, i.e. the belief hat L1 use is often perceived as negative in the L2 classroom. It seems remarkable that these teachers responded to the evaluation of their teaching by increasing their use of L2 in the actual evaluated lesson compared to their day-to-day teaching reality. Song & Andrews observe rightly that beliefs, like the ones under investigation in this study about the MoI, ''cannot be changed by coercion, whatever form that takes: regulations by the authorities, official inspection, or simply the expectation of conformity with influential theories'' (pp. 201 - 202). Time pressure was another decisive factor to affect a higher use of L1.
This chapter also summarizes student perceptions of the MoI issue. Students seemed to accept their teachers' practices. This result might be influenced by cultural factors that could make these students reluctant to criticize their teachers. Since student responses were not a focus of this study, the further exploration of learner perspectives might be a fruitful avenue for future research.
More generally, this chapter argues for raising teacher interest in the MoI issue, thereby allowing for situations in which teachers can examine and understand their own beliefs. Teachers need opportunities to reflect on their beliefs and practices. This links the findings of this study with Andrews' (2007) earlier argument that teacher language awareness is a crucial factor in student learning. The authors make a case that teacher language awareness should include awareness of the MoI in the classroom. The implications for teacher education are clearly stated. Teacher education should include an awareness-raising program relating to the MoI issue; and place an emphasis on teacher reflections. It could also benefit from such in-depth descriptions as those offered in this study by allowing teachers to further reflect on their own teaching.
This study contributes to our understanding of teachers' perceptions and practices with regard to L1 as a MoI in English teaching in China's tertiary education. With its rich description of the four English teachers, the book is a valuable resource for anyone seeking an understanding of teacher thinking in this particular context. The book examines the potential implications of such enhanced understanding of teacher education and makes a valuable suggestion for further research in this area, namely the inclusion of student perspectives.
The book is carefully written and edited and allows for enjoyable reading. However, I believe that the book would have gained from a more thorough description of the research design employed in this study. The authors briefly describe the study context and ethical issues as part of their introduction (pp. 13 - 19). I believe that a qualitative study requires a more in-depth, step-by-step account of the data collection procedure, management and analysis. The reader does not gain an accurate picture of how, for instance, the findings were analyzed, how the categories were formulated, or how the findings from the various sources were combined. The questionnaire data analysis could have been presented more systematically and in more detail. It remains unclear why the student perspectives were added in phase 3 of the research, given the fact that they were not the focus of the study. Expanding the research design is permissible and, indeed, often desirable in qualitative research that is open and process-oriented by definition. Unfortunately, the authors do not include any such methodological considerations that could have shed some light on their choice of methodology and the course of the research as it developed over time.
I consider the provision of rich data in the four case study chapters to be a particular strength of the book, despite finding the authors' tendency to focus on the teacher's lack of knowledge of second language acquisition literature and awareness of the L1/L2 issue in their summarizing comments at the end of each case study (p. 95, p. 127, p. 161, p. 187) unconvincing. I agree that teachers can benefit from a sound grasp of knowledge of important issues in language learning and teaching (and the authors develop this idea further in chapter 7), but I felt that here the focus could have been more appropriately placed on the appreciation of the teachers' theories than on a comparison of their theories with research-based theories.
Finally, it seems noteworthy that one of the authors, Yanan Song, has recently (2009) published an article in which she presents important aspects of this study (and a more detailed description of the questionnaire survey) in article-length format. Readers who do not have much time might prefer to read this article. However, the article cannot convey the day-to-day experience of the four English teachers as described in great depth in the four case study chapters in this book. Without doubt, these chapters provide a rich source of information about the beliefs and practices of Chinese teachers of English. I believe that herein lies the main contribution of The L1 in L2 Learning - Teachers' Beliefs and Practices.
Andrews, Stephen (2007). Teacher language awareness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Borg, Simon (2006). Teacher cognition and language education. London: Continuum.
Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and principles in language teaching. (2nd ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Macaro, Ernesto (2000). ''Issues in target language teaching.'' In K. Field (ed.) Issues in modern foreign language teaching (pp. 171-89). New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
Richards, J.C. & Rodgers, T.S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching. (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Song, Yanan (2009). ''An investigation into L2 teachers' beliefs about L1 in China.'' Prospect, 24: 1, 30-39. Retrieved on 15 July 2009 from http://www.ameprc.mq.edu.au/resources/prospect
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Elke Stracke is a Senior Lecturer in TESOL/Foreign Language
Teaching/Applied Linguistics in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the
University of Canberra. She has held university teaching and research
positions in Germany (University of Münster), New Zealand (University of
Otago) and in Australia (Australian National University) before joining the
University of Canberra in 2007.
Her current teaching responsibilities in the TESOL/Foreign Language
Teaching Program are in the area of language teaching methodology,
sociolinguistics, and language acquisition. Her current research interests
are blended language learning, independent learning and learner autonomy,
the use of computer technology in language learning, student and teacher
beliefs, language teacher education, and, more recently, post-graduate