The use of L1 in teaching literature in the TEFL context: The teacher’s handicap, the learners’ advantage [Archives:2006/910/Education]

January 9 2006

Dr. Aruna Chalam Angappan
HOD of English
Faculty OF Education
Hadhramout University, Seiyun
[email protected]

The use of vernacular in the teaching of English and non-British English literatures to the EFL learners, though not discouraged by researchers, experts and practitioners, in most contexts tends to become vernacular teaching of such literatures. By a natural sliding effect over a period the teaching degenerates into a literal translation of English literature (hereafter will refer to all literatures written in any variety of English) into L1, and a poor one at that. For, the teacher once into that groove finds it difficult to retract as his learners look for more and more of this method and he also finds it easier and quicker to finish the portion.

As a teacher with thirty years of experience in teaching ESL in India and considerable experience in TEFL, I have come across in both Indian and Yemeni contexts many an English teacher getting habituated to this method and giving the impression to a passerby that some vernacular teacher is using a somewhat impressive amount of English in his lecture. This tendency will in the long run, apart from depriving the learners of achieving their goal, will render the teachers unfit for the task of guiding his learners to the target. It is a big challenge before the teachers and administrators which must be addressed, and addressed immediately, and addressed by none but them only.

In the Yemeni context of TEFL (or ELF?), this problem is to a large extent squared up by appointing Indians as the Indians are handicapped to resort to vernacular because of their lack of knowledge of Arabic. This handicap of theirs is their strength. Handicapped by an inadequate knowledge of L1 and local culture, the non-Arab teacher of English becomes highly innovative.

Thus the non-Arab teacher of TEFL faced with a challenge– the challenge of stabilizing certain concepts that are Euro-centric, culture-specific, and unfamiliar to Yemeni students)but equipped with a cutting-edge English proficiency transforms his handicap into certain techniques the effective and imaginative use of which to a large extent help save the situation.

“To illustrate what we mean by the intangible quality of 'meaning',” Todd (1987) quotes words like 'beauty', 'goodness', 'love' and claims that it would be difficult to find two people who agree absolutely on what each of these words implies” (79). In spite of our familiarity with 'words' and using them in different contexts on innumerable occasions, it is not always easy to explain to others/learners what a word means, especially to learners of English who are culturally and linguistically different.

The vocabulary even in the case of students opting for a degree in Education with English Language Teaching as the major component is woefully low. Vocabulary being the major component of and foremost tool to enter the exotic world of a non-vernacular and unauthentic literature, it poses a great challenge. As Lyons (1981) says, ” here is clearly some kind of connection between the discovery or formation of concepts and learning the meaning of words” (244). It envisages that EFL learners of English literature shall be enabled to discover the concepts and correlate them to the relevant vocabulary items.

In the face of a situation like this, the non-Arab teacher of English may find his job quite frustrating if only he does not love the job, is not committed to the profession. By and large, every non-Arab teacher in the Yemeni context is highly motivated, committed and in love with his job.

Agreeing that the non-Arab teachers are committed, motivated, love their job and all that, let us now look at how they tackle the above situation that of teaching English as a foreign language (or ELF?) without recourse to L1.

I'll try to explain the case taking me as a representative of this clan of teachers. A teacher, that is, a non-Arab teacher who teaches English as a Foreign Language to Yemeni students in a Yemeni university, with knack and tact has stored up a number of arsenals in his pedagogic armoury to surmount this problem. The arsenals include eye movements, facial expressions, bodily gestures, sketches and line drawings, board and chalk, clippings from the print media, clippings downloaded from the internet, looking for parallels and contrasts, and so on.

If the problem persists even beyond the use of these arsenals, he resorts to the intervention of some bright and smart students in the class. They are invariably there, at least one or two, sometimes even more. The teacher encourages such students to come out with vernacular/cultural equivalents to the Gordian knot that he tried but failed to cut with all his arsenals. This strategy is adopted sparingly and rarely only.

There are certain difficulties and pitfalls in adopting this strategy. Sometimes those bright and smart students may be shy and not forthcoming. The teacher has to employ a good amount of goading and cajoling to make them come out. He tells them that they may be the future teachers of English in Yemeni universities and that they should be participative in the class which will provide them with the necessary preparation to meet the professional challenges. Okay, he got them to come forth. What about the veracity of their contribution to the situation in question? Sometimes their understanding of the situation may be in the wrong.

It is normally easy to find out. If the intervention is apt, facilitating and explicatory, the whole class will beam in the thrill of having made a great discovery. Contrarily, if the intervention is misleading or wrong, the whole class will still continue to blink or there will be a sudden outburst of clashing points from other interventionist students and from the whole class as well. Though they lack the competence to comprehend by themselves the knot in question which the teacher, in spite of all his arsenals, finds not feasible to untie, they are alert enough not to be led into an altogether wrong pasture by their fellow sheep at the head of the class.

The teacher moderates the situation till the target is reached. Sometimes the target is reached by sheer labour)technically, strategically, methodically; sometimes serendipitously when the teacher or the learners clutch at an unexpected straw with the potential to cut the knot. May be, it takes a lot of time at times. There is a pedagogic hiatus testing the patience of the teacher. He may feel a vacuum descending on him, enclosing him and engulfing him, the earth under his feet caving in. But, the method is quite rewarding to both the learners and the teacher when, at the end of all these, his learners succeed to comprehend the point.

Another method is encouraging the learners to bring their English-Arabic dictionaries into the class. This will help save a lot of trouble and time. If a student is looking up his dictionary during the lecture, the teacher need not feel put out. Rather he must be professional and humane enough to understand that the learner is experiencing a difficulty and that he is full of initiative and that he is helping not only himself but others and the teacher as well. The activity of a student looking up his dictionary shall be considered as a signal to the teacher that there is a grey area in his lecture and that he must be alert enough to bring it to light. Perhaps many other students in the class have a similar problem but not initiative enough.

No teacher can afford to leave any point not well driven home however difficult and frustrating. The tenacity of the teacher and the motivation of the learners fuelled by the knot ultimately lend them some technique, some strategy, some method of cutting it. The most important pedagogic dharma that should guide the teacher in such a situation is that he should not hastily jump to the conclusion that his learners are unfit, dull, stupid, lacking in motivation, can never be made to learn and so on. Imagine the calamity with the consequent cascading damages that will drown both sides in mutual acrimony and animosity: the learners murmuring, murmuring deliberately loudly enough for the teacher to hear, that he is not competent for the job, and the teacher cursing the students as unfit even for menial jobs, all this ultimately undermining and vitiating the academic atmosphere. Such a culture should never be allowed to rear its ugly head. Whether we like it or not, English has over the years gained an enviable place in international communication and been instrumental for the vertical and horizontal spread of knowledge in every conceivable sphere of human pursuits. And it is now spoken by a large number of native and a larger number of non-native speakers. According to Trudgill and Hannah (1982), the geographic and demographic expansion of English has led to a situation in which it finds itself today “with more non-native speakers than any other language in the world, and more native speakers than any other language except Chinese” (4). And remember even Chinese have started to teach and learn English on a massive scale.

Abundant patience, devotion to the profession, conviction about his own abilities and a faith in the hidden, untapped abilities of his learners help the non-Arab English language teacher enable him to untiringly chase the elusive Godot and drag him in by his mane. Truly, the handicaps (like the limited vocabulary, even more limited structures, absence of receptive and productive skills, unauthentic culturality of the literary masterpiece that he is grappling with)all these on the part of the learner, and the lack of knowledge of the learners' L1, the unfamiliar cultural context in which he is trying to get a foothold, the overriding fear of causing any religious or cultural hurt)all these on the part of the non-Arab English teacher) prove ultimately to be the stepping stones to a rewarding pedagogic experience.

A word about English teaching-learning in the Yemeni or any other context before winding up. Is it TEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) or ELF (teaching of English as a Lingua Franca)? The “goal of EFL learning is to be able to interact with native speakers of English, and whose norms are therefore those of English as a Native Language” (Jenkins 9). If the objective is TEFL, it is still a distant dream. What in my opinion weighs strong is that the focus of ELT in countries like India and Yemen should be on ELF which is often used interchangeably with English as an International Language the objective of which is facilitating interaction through a mutually intelligible, non-native variety of English. The aim of non-native speakers need not be solely facilitating the native speakers. The natives and the non-natives shall meet halfway, making sacrifices. The natives also must make a little sacrifice, as they can be proud of the whole world speaking in their tongue, in differing varieties though. This question of variety of English also poses a challenge to the non-Arab teacher of English in the Yemeni context. There are students who are avid listeners of CNN / BBC World and also interacting with tourists who are either native or non-native speakers of English

— all these being taught by Asian teachers, taught both English and Non-British Literature. The problem arising out of this situation can easily be solved by a careful selection of vocabulary items, syntactical structures and by neutralizing the accent so as to make it near native.


1. Jenkins, Jennifer. “The ABC of ELT 'ELF'”. IATEFL: Issues. 182 Dec 2004.

2. Lyons, John. Language and Linguistics: An Introduction. Cambridge: CUP, 1981.

3. Todd, Loreto. An Introduction to Linguistics. Beirut: Longman York Press, 1987.

4. Trudgill, Peter and Jean Hannah. International English. London: Arnold, 1982.