Teaching english as a Lingua Franca: How to use first language to facilitate communication

For a long time, there has been a rather negative view of using first language (L1) when communicating in English. It might sometimes be seen as:

  • an example of lower proficiency
  • or of not being fluent enough in English
  • or of not knowing the right word.

However, research clearly shows that multilingual individuals, which all learners of English are by definition, frequently use their L1 (or other languages they know) when communicating, in order to

  • facilitate understanding,
  • express finer shades of meaning
  • or assert their cultural identity.

Let me give you a personal example first of how this might happen.

At home, we predominantly use Spanish. But we also mix in quite a bit of Polish and English. So you might hear us say things like:

  • Estoy totally enkapustado – That would be said when you’ve just had enough kiszona kapusta (fermented cabbage), and you’d rather have something else. It takes a Polish word (kapusta) and uses Spanish morphology (en to create a verb and -ado to create a past participle) to coin a new word.
  • Estoy aprendiendo Dutch – I’m learning Dutch, rather than estoy aprendiendo holandes o nerlandes, or whatever. My hunch is that’s because Dutch is much shorter. So more efficient.
  • Messi scored an absolute golazo – There’s simply no good translation for golazo. A beautie, perhaps. But it just doesn’t have the same ring to it, at least for me.

Once you’re aware of it, you will start noticing this multilingual English use everywhere in ELF contexts.

The other day I was sitting in a car with four friends from different countries. And one of them was talking about their new job. And he said this: We sell to particulars.

Me being me, I obviously noticed something particular about his use of particulars.

Funnily enough, nobody else did. The conversation continued.

And even more interestingly, other people started using the word and talking about particulars.

You could take a traditional view and say that they didn’t know how to say individual clients. Or that it’s simply a false friend.

And that it was a mistake. Minus 1 point on the oral exam everyone!

Or, you could also acknowledge the fact that all the people in the car were multlingual users of English. And this is what multilinguals tend to do.

It didn’t cause communicative problems. Everyone knew exactly what he meant. Others continued using the word perhaps to show they’ve understood. Perhaps to maintain rapport and the flow of the conversation.

Other more research-based examples of using L1 are also abundant. For example:

  • Kankaanranta (2006) notes that in exchanges between Swedish and Finnish businesspeople, use is often made of the Swedish greeting ‘Hej’.
  • Japanese academics and foreign academics working in Japan make use of ‘honorifics’ such as -san or -sensei in the opening lines of their English emails, in order to show respect.

So I think it is vital I think that are students are made aware of the fact that:

  1. Their L1 (and other foreign languages they know) can be an asset, not a burden
  2. They’re very likely to hear other multlingual users of English use non-English words, so they need to be able to cope with this diversity

In short, what I think we need to do is to promote multilingual, not monolingual, English use.

In order to be able to do this effectively, students need to develop an awareness of how their multilingual repertoire can be used in ELF communication.

Of course, this is easier said than done, you might be thinking. That’s why I want to share with you an activity that will allow you to do exacty that which comes from my book I co-authored with Robert Lowe: Teaching English as a Lingua Franca: A Journey from EFL to ELF (available here on the publisher’s website and here on Amazon.com).


This activity is one out of 40+ activities we put together for you in the book spanning:

  • Raising awareness and developing an ELF mindset
  • Teaching listening and pronunciation
  • Teaching lexis and grammar
  • Teaching communication
  • Teaching Intercultural communicative skills

Here’s the front and back cover of the book with some more info about it:

And if you get to use the activity with your students, please do let us know. We’d love to hear how it goes.

Don’t forget to download the worksheet below:


And if you’re interested in buying the book, it’s available here on the publisher’s website and here on Amazon.com.

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