How should teachers use students’ first language and why does it matter? – Lessons from gr. 8 EFL science classes where students had elementary English proficiency

English is the home language of only 1 in 10 people in South Africa, but it is widely used as a medium of instruction from grade 4 onward, regardless of how little students understand. What, then, is the role of students’ L1(s) in this situation? Prof. Margie Probyn video-recorded a series of 5 lessons from the classrooms of eight gr. 8 science teachers in South Africa and documented (1) word count/percentage of English versus isiXhosa use by each teacher and by their students, and (2) how the languages were being used in classroom dialogues. She also interviewed the teachers on their language attitudes and practices based on the videos. She found that one teacher, Teacher B, demonstrated a skilled “bridging” pedagogy to bridge everyday and scientific knowledge, everyday and scientific language, and isiXhosa and English. Interestingly, it was also this teacher who used by far the most isiXhosa, and also used it in different ways from the others.

Probyn, M. (2015). Pedagogical translanguaging: Bridging discourses in South African science classrooms. Language and Education29(3), 218-234.

The scenario is familiar to teachers in many EFL contexts: international standardized tests results come out; the country supposedly does badly; the newspapers publish articles with titles like “Hobbled by Inadequate English” (Sunday Times, 3 August 2014, as cited in Probyn, 2015, p. 218). The test assessed students on academic subjects in English, which is the first language (L1) of a small minority of the population; 9.6% or 7% in South Africa depending on the census, yet it is the language of instruction for 81% of learners from grade 4 onwards (p. 218, 233). 

For many African learners outside of urban areas, such as in township and rural schools, “exposure to spoken and written English outside of the classroom is limited and the historic legacy of apartheid means that few such schools have libraries and the necessary resources to support English learning” (p. 219). Ironically, it is the disadvantaged majority of the general public—the very families disadvantaged by English-medium education—that want free, universal English-medium instruction (EMI) so badly, and to keep things the way they are (Pluddemann, 2015).

Having EMI for general science, which is the most common subject for EMI in K-12 EFL contexts due to international economic competition, poses the following dilemma:

In addition to the challenges of learning through an additional language, the discourse of science poses particular challenges for learners in that it is lexically dense; it contains many unfamiliar technical words; everyday words have specialized scientific meanings (e.g. table, current, force); the passive voice and nominalization are frequently used; and there are a range of written and visual genres (e.g. tables, diagrams, procedures, information reports, explanations, etc.) that learners need to master. Learning science also involves a cognitive shift from everyday, common sense understandings of how the world works to a scientific view of the world. … [T]hese challenges concerning the discourse of science tend to be somewhat overshadowed by the more readily obvious challenge of the language medium. (p. 219)

Previous research has suggested that teachers feel at least some guilt about using L1 in English-medium K-12 classes in South Africa (Probyn, 2009; Setati, Adler, Reed, & Bapoo, 2002), and much complementary research has shown this is true for all other EFL/ESL contexts (e.g., Hall & Cook, 2013). The instinctive thing for teachers to do tends to be to help learners through oral translation only when learners struggle or express non-comprehension, which makes teacher translanguaging an unsystematic coping strategy in both ESL (Godina, 2004) and EFL (Sah & Li, 2018) classrooms.

Probyn (pp. 220-221) brings us back to Baker’s (2011, p. 288) definition of translanguaging: “the process of making meaning, shaping experiences, understandings and knowledge through two languages. Both languages are used in an integrated and coherent way to organize and mediate mental processes in learning.” Probyn further writes: “Whereas code-switching and translation [in the coping strategies] reflect a temporary (and sometimes illicit) deviation from a monolingual ideal, the notion of translanguaging reflects acceptance of a heteroglossic/bilingual reality and a more comprehensive and flexible use of the classroom language resources to mediate learning” (p. 221).

Drawing on scholarship about teaching science, which also deeply informs the work of translanguaging-in-education scholar Angel Lin, Probyn says the secret is “bridging discourses” (Gibbons, 2006). Gibbons’ science education scholarship is from Australia—and in it he referred to not only ESL students but also native English speakers who struggled to learn academic science discourse, because academic language is a second language for everybody. To help students with this second language, Gibbons suggested that teachers need to do bridging pedagogy. This means:

  • We bridge everyday understandings of the world and subject-specific understandings of the world,
  • and bridge everyday and subject-specific academic language,
  • through collaborative, cooperative talk that takes students from (1) coming to understanding of content in a fluid mix of registers/dialects/languages to (2) expressing this new knowledge in (mostly) academic target language; first in oral, then written, form.

To see how effectively teachers did this, Probyn video-recorded 5 consecutive lessons each from eight teachers of gr. 8 science in townships and rural areas where students and teachers shared isiXhosa as a first language (L1). (The multilingual students likely spoke other L1s at home in addition to isiXhosa, but isiXhosa was the dominant language in the region.) This meant that even though class materials and tests were all in English, outside of class people had conversations in isiXhosa. In addition to analyzing the video-recordings in the eight classes (taught by Teachers A through H) in detailed ways, Probyn also interviewed the teachers about their classroom language practices based on the video data, and about their feelings and attitudes towards isiXhosa in EMI.

Findings across the teachers

Probyn looked at teachers’ language attitudes first. She found that:

– All the teachers reported that learners were not proficient enough in English, and so they and the other teachers switched to isiXhosa at times, when they realized the students did not fully understand.

– However, teachers saw such practices as a “necessary evil” rather than a pedagogical resource.

Probyn next did a quantitative analysis of English and isiXhosa use by teachers and students. First, she looked at how much the eight teachers (Teacher A through Teacher H) used isiXhosa:

Probyn (2015), p. 223

Next, she looked at how much students in each teacher’s class used isiXhosa versus English.

Probyn (2015), p. 223

In both graphs, Teacher B’s class stands out. Teacher B was the only teacher who used isiXhosa in a comparable amount to English (other teachers used it little or not at all). Teacher B’s students also used a good amount of both isiXhosa and English, while other teachers’ students also used little isiXhosa in class. However, this did not necessarily compromise English practice in Teacher B’s class: in terms of amount of English use, Teacher B’s class was above average (#4 out of #8). [Note that classes B, C, and G used English seemingly frequently enough, while class E used it a lot, and only Teacher E taught exclusively in English. If the class is very proficient in English, this may not be surprising, though translanguaging may still be useful. (Probyn did not discuss the linguistic composition of the classes, but the township and rural demographics suggest that many classes have students whose English is limited.) When the class’ English is limited, translanguaging is an indispensable tool for ensuring that both content and language learning happens.]

Next, Probyn looked at the question, “What effect might the bilingual language practices of teachers have on the learners’ opportunities to learn science?” (p. 224; italics in original). It is not just how much L1 is used, but in what ways. She found that all the teachers used isiXhosa mainly for classroom management and to explain science content, and (in the case of a few teachers) a little bit for interpersonal relations.

Probyn (2015), p. 225

But considering how little isiXhosa was used to teach and explain in all the classrooms except Teacher B’s, whatever glimmer of understanding students in the other classrooms got through isiXhosa was likely minimal:

Probyn (2015). p. 225

Teacher B was unique not only in his proportions of English and isiXhosa, but in the ways in which he used them. Probyn (p. 226) reminds us that Gibbons (2006) describes the teacher’s role of taking the class from “exploratory talk” (let’s figure things out) to “presentational talk” (let’s express our understanding formally), and eventually to “presentational writing.” Science lessons are typically structured in terms of review, introduction of new ideas (often through practical activities and experiments), discussion and making sense of the practical work in light of science theory, and then consolidation of ideas in an oral summary, then in writing.

The teacher uses the learners’ first language for exploratory talk, both in group work and in teacher-led whole class discussion, and when the teacher sees that the learners get the content conceptually, the teacher slowly and clearly guides learners to express the content in the target language: generally, first in oral everyday English, then in oral academic English, then in written academic English. This is a systematic use of students’ languages, in contrast to the other teachers who translated a word or gave a brief explanation only when they saw students did not understand, but otherwise taught (nearly) entirely in English. The problem with such monolingual English discourse is that the students, given their low English proficiency, cannot play any large part in it—thus, it is the teacher doing most of the conceptual “talking things through,” with students not understanding or learning much. Moreover,

[Due to] the fact that the teachers appeared to wait for a cue from learners that they did not understand before switching to isiXhosa, it seems likely that the learners might be left with misconceptions and gaps in their understanding of the science content that the reactive and relatively brief code-switching seemed unlikely to fully resolve. (p. 227)

Therefore, even if the teacher switched to isiXhosa, what the teacher said would be so brief and decontextualized that what the students “understood” from the isiXhosa might be a misunderstanding.

So what did Teacher B do that was special?

Teacher B, on the other hand, used (1) far more isiXhosa (32% of words spoken), and (2) worked with English and isiXhosa in a more structured way. During the interview, he said that he taught a concept first in isiXhosa, then in English. Even though this is an oversimplification, it does generally reflect what he did in class. Exploratory talk in three group activities was mainly in isiXhosa: 73%, 64%, and 95% by Teacher B, and 59%, 92%, and 80% by the learners. During review and reporting back activities—presentational talk—both teacher and students used more English than isiXhosa: 66% by the teacher and 100% by learners during review; 66%, 60%, and 61% by the teacher and 67%, 81%, and 100% by learners during reporting back. Exact figures may vary from lesson to lesson, but general trends are the same.

Probyn (2015), p. 228 – “Translanguaging Across the Stages of a Lesson”

Because of this structure, which pragmatically makes sense, students are likely to “get” what languages are appropriate at different stages of a lesson without much explicit guidance. I also noticed (but did not document) similar patterns in my linguistic ethnography of a “sheltered” English 9 class in the United States, with the exception of teacher talk during the exploratory stage: here, the teacher had to use English because the class did not share an L1, and he did not speak all students’ L1s, but translanguaging was used extensively in small group exploratory work.

Below is a dialogue from Teacher B’s class (pp. 230-231) that shows how the teacher scaffolded, or supported, acquisition of target academic language.

One important takeaway from the above dialogue is for curriculum designers to appreciate just how much scaffolding, and talk/time, is required to get students to understand a single key word, “attract”—not to mention use it in a sentence, discuss what other scientific phenomena it might be used to explain, etc. [The wider applications of such TL pedagogy, beyond learning key words, is discussed in another post.] One cannot pack a curriculum with too much content and expect teachers and learners to move through it at a rapid pace, especially in an additional language. The result is certainly to be disaster. To summarize what goes on in this dialogue, in which Teacher B wants to teach the scientific term “attract,” he first elicits what happens to the magnetic objects. A student says, “combine” in isiXhosa, but this is too general. The teacher pushes for a more specific answer, and a more accurate one is given: “pull” in isiXhosa. Next, the teacher wants this answer in English, so he keeps asking until a student says, “Pull.” Finally, Teacher B tries to elicit the scientific English word for a magnetic pull, and keeps asking (giving students a clue: “It begins with A”) until he gets them to remember the word they learned, “Attract.” This, he accepts with praise, repeating the term and writing it on the chalkboard. He also says: “It attracts them; it is that pulling we were referring to” in isiXhosa, making it clear that “attract” is the scientific term for “pull.” Probyn explains:

Teacher B shuttled between languages in eliciting from learners the key ideas, first in everyday language in isiXhosa, then in everyday language in English, then in scientific language in English—supporting learners’ understanding in isiXhosa; then transferring that understanding to English; and at the same time, moving from everyday language to the language of science. This demonstrates a possible route on the ‘journey’ between isiXhosa and English; and between everyday language and the discourse of science. (p. 232)


Contrary to vague societal accusations, EMI teachers in EFL contexts do not use “too much” of students’ first language in class. What this study has found is that most teachers use too little, and not systematically enough, to be of any help to students.

Probyn acknowledges that maybe all the other teachers would have used more isiXhosa if she had not been studying them—but this would only mean that they thought “English only” was a good thing. Two teachers did not use isiXhosa at all, and five more did relatively short code-switches (using isiXhosa for 1% to 10% of classroom talk); this was “unplanned and reactive, rather than systematic and purposeful” (p. 232). By contrast, Teacher B:

– Used more isiXhosa (32% of classroom talk) to communicate science content

– Taught in cycles, with each cycle going from exploratory talk (more isiXhosa/less English) to presentational talk (more English/less isiXhosa)

– Used the presentational talk as a rehearsal for writing in English

In other words, he was “using both languages in ‘an integrated and coherent way to organize and mediate mental processes in learning’” (Baker, as cited in Probyn, 2015, pp. 232-233), building bridges between scientific and everyday understandings of the world, between scientific and everyday language, and between English and students’ L1.


Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (5th ed.). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Department of Basic Education. (2010). The status of language of learning and teaching (LoLT) in South African public schools: A quantitative overview. Pretoria, South Africa: Department of Basic Education.

Gibbons, P. (2006). Bridging discourses in the ESL classroom: Students, teachers, and researchers. London, UK: Continuum.

Godina, H. (2004). Contradictory literacy practices of Mexican-background students: An ethnography from the rural midwest. Bilingual Research Journal, 28(2), 153-180.

Pluddemann, P. (2015). Unlocking the grid: Language-in-education policy realization in post-Apartheid South Africa. Language and Education, 29(3), 186-199.

Probyn, M. (2009). Smuggling the vernacular into the classroom: Conflicts and tensions in classroom codeswitching in township/rural schools in South Africa. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 12(2), 123-136.

Sah, P. K., & Li, G. (2018). English medium instruction (EMI) as linguistic capital in Nepal: Promises and realities. International Multilingual Research Journal12(2), 109-123.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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