Entisar Elsherif comes from Libya. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the Composition and TESOL program at the University of Indiana of Pennsylvania. She has been teaching English since 1989. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The paper discusses how L2 writers use their L1 while writing in L2. It investigates L1 use in L2 by exploring the results of ten studies that examined it from different perspectives and in different contexts. By introducing the results of L1 use by L2 writers, ESL/EFL teachers will play a great role by helping students use their L1 positively and avoid the negative impacts of L1 use. This kind of research is of significance because the studied research results showed that further research is needed in this area. This review will provide a basis for ideas to investigate L1 use in L2 writing.
The paper focuses on an important skill in English language teaching which is writing. The focus of the paper is L1 use which has been considered as taboo. This would target the interest of most of HLT audience, especially writing teachers. The main mission is to introduce the role of L1 use in L2 writing. This paper reviews the second language (L2) writers’ use of the first language (L1) while composing in the second language (L2) in ten studies. Those studies looked at three proficiency groups that included adult high-proficient, intermediate, and low-proficient writer’s use of L1. The results indicated that L1 is used frequently while writing in L2 by translating, language-switching, and backtracking. It was also noticed that L1 use had positive effects on L2 text.
For nearly three decades, research on second language writing increased and focused on different aspects regarding first language (L1) and second language (L2) writing (Wang, 2003; Wang & Wen, 2002). Several studies compared L1 and L2 processes, whereas others looked at the use of L1 in L2 writing. L2 writing is different than L1 writing because L2 writers have two languages that they can use “for cognitive operations” (Wang & Wen, 2002, p. 225). This difference attracted many researchers, who then looked at their use of L1 in writing, the frequency of using L1, and the effects of using L1 on the quality of L2 written text.
Many researchers and teachers discouraged L1 use in the L2 classroom. Cook (2001) summarized these calls into two groups, a group rejected using L1 in the classroom and the other group called for minimizing L1 use in the language classroom. The dominant idea was that L1 has negative effects on L2 learners. Cook, however, called for considering L1 as a “classroom resource” (p. 402), which opened the “firmly shut” doors to use L1 in the language classroom (p. 403). Similarly, one of Akbari’s (2008, 279) ways of transforming ELT classrooms through the implementation of critical pedagogy was “by using L1 as a resource to be utilized.”
Cook (2001) specified three reasons for rejecting L1 use in L2 classroom. The first reason was derived from the argument that says L2 learners should not depend on their L1 because monolinguals use only their L1. The second was a result of the idea that L1 and L2 should be separated to facilitate L2 learning. Thirdly, it is believed that students will be given more chances to practice using L2 by avoiding L1. Since there was no convincing evidence to avoiding using L1 in the L2 classroom, Cook introduced ways by which L1 can be used positively. Teachers can use L1 to “convey meaning,” “explain grammar,” organize class tasks,” for testing, and “maintain discipline” whereas students can use L1 as “part of the main learning activity” and “classroom activities” (Cook, 2001, p. 213 – 215). Therefore, this review will support either of the arguments raised for or against using L1 in L2 classroom.
The review covers only the studies that were published between the years 1998 – 2011, which looked at adult high proficient and low proficient writers’ L2 writing. The reason behind this focus is to look at more up-to-date relevant data. Most of the studies used think-aloud protocols to analyze the retrieval of L1 while writing in L2. These studies revealed that L2 writers relied on their L1 through translation, language-switching, and backtracking for different purposes during the writing process. This will provide teachers and researchers with insight on the topic and ways to utilize and implement the results. Based on the findings from these studies, suggestions for future research will be presented.
The aim of this review is to investigate L2 writers’ use of their L1 while composing written work. Therefore, how do L2 writers use their L1 while composing? Looking at the strategies they depend on to overcome the difficulties, they encounter to produce a written text will be the main concern to this paper. This investigation will provide teachers, like myself, with a thorough understanding of L2 writers’ use of L1 to help retrieve L1 in a positive way that does not affect their written text negatively.
To answer this question, I explored the published studies from 1998 to 2011 and concentrated on ten accurate and reliable sources. The studies were published in peer-reviewed journals such as Journal of Second language Writing or TESL-EJ. The studies that were published before 1998 were excluded those that were included in the study supported their findings and were regarded as the most up-to-date. Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) Libraries’ Serials Department, IUP E-Journals portal, and IUP online search engines were the main sources that were used to locate studies. EBSCOHOST was used to search the database for related articles. The key words that guided the search were ‘L1 use during L2 writing’, ‘multilingual writers’ use of L1’, and ‘composing in L2.’ After locating studies, they were thoroughly read, focusing on finding the results that provided answers to the question. Those studies that dealt with the same topic from a different perspective would not provide answers to the question, so these were excluded as well. Moreover, some of the studies provided answers to my questions but raised other questions that were not related to this paper. Data with these results were included without mentioning the results of the unrelated questions.
Summary of findings
Exploring L2 writers’ use of L1 to produce a written text was the main purpose of this review; therefore, a variety of studies were explored. The results revealed that adult L2 students with high and/or low proficiency used translation, language-switching, or backtracking when they used their L2. Proficiency varied their use of these strategies. The factors that affected the studies show the necessity of further research. In this section, a summary of ten studies will be presented, starting from the previous ones to the latest.
The first study in this section was conducted by Qi (1998) who studied the conditions that would make high proficient writer switch languages while writing in L2. She also looked at how language-switching affected L2 composing. One Chinese female participant, who lived in Canada for three years, was her only participant. The participant learned English for 10 years. Qi collected data from three writing tasks in which the student was asked to compose in English, translate from Chinese to English, and problem-solve in English. Qi considered “two different levels of knowledge demands” (p. 419). The letter-writing task was considered as the low-level knowledge demand and the expository task as the high-level demand. Qi used think aloud-protocols and asked her participant to write by hand while doing the tasks. The writing sessions were recorded and decoded. The participant was interviewed after each writing task. The results revealed that the participant did the letter writing nearly without planning as she developed her ideas while writing whereas, in the expository task, she spent “about a quarter of the time” (p. 422) in planning and replanning for the task. The participant thought, wrote, and revised frequently during the writing process. During the less demanding translation task, the participant read aloud and translated without switching. On the contrary, she switched to her L1 to deal with high-level knowledge demanding tasks. This showed that high knowledge demands were the main factors for language-switching. When Qi looked at the reasons for language switching, the results showed that the participant retrieved her L1 to generate ideas, encode a meaning quickly, check the appropriateness of a word or phrase, and to minimize the overload of working memory. The main concern that yielded from this study is that the researcher relied on only one participant to look at what makes L2 writer resort to his/her L1 while writing in L2. This leads to an important issue which is generalizability. Results that derive from only one participant cannot be generalized to the whole ESL/EFL population.
The second study in this review is different from the previous study in that Machon, Roca & Murphy (2000) investigated backtracking behaviors. The researchers looked at the types of backtracking L2 writers use and the effects of this method. The study included three intermediate level informants. These informants were second-year students in a teacher-training course of English at the University of Murcia in Spain. They had been studying English for eight years. Data was collected through think-aloud protocols during two different writing tasks: narrative and argumentative. The results showed that the subjects rescanned “their [already-written texts], the prompt and their notes/outlines using their L2 and their L1” (p. 24). Because of this, the researchers distinguished between two types of backtracking, which are backtracking through L1 and backtracking through L2. In this review, only the results related to backtracking through L1 will be included. After observations, the results showed that L1 backtracking included direct translation, translation with omissions, and paraphrasing. There were different behaviors students exhibited during direct translation. Two out of three of the subjects only translated segments of the already-written text, whereas the third subject translated the whole text for revision. It was noticed that the subject who translated the already-written text, omitted part of the original text. This helped the writer to “decompose” the text in relation to the developed ideas (p. 26). Participants used paraphrasing of L1 to get “a mental picture of [the already-written text] in the writer’s L1” (26). The study also revealed that direct translation is more frequently used when backtracking occurs through L1, and it is used in the narrative more than the argumentative. There are a number of concerns that are raised about this study. Firstly, the researchers used already-written texts to investigate backtracking behaviors. It is believed that asking students to write their own text then observe their backtracking behaviors would reveal more valuable results. Another point to consider is the limited number of participants in this study. Results that come from only three participants are not generalizable to ESL or EFL population. Another point is raised regarding data collecting method. Relying only on think-aloud protocols that are criticized by many researchers would question the reliability of the results.
The third study is titled, Research on direct versus translated writing: students’ strategies and their results, conducted by Cohen & Brooks-Carson (2001). Thirty-nine intermediate students, in a third-semester French course at the University of Miami, participated in the study. First, students were asked to complete a background questionnaire. Then, they were asked to write three writing tasks. Two topics were chosen to elicit personal opinion essays in French and another one in their L1. As a final step, students were asked to report on their performance on the Strategies Checklist and Evaluative Feedback. All students showed better performance in the direct method than the translated method. The “vast majority” of English L1 students reported thinking in English “often” or “always” while writing their essays in French. This meant they used L1 while writing. Furthermore, students reported word-for-word translation in the second method of writing. What made this study differ from the other studies is that they did not rely on think-aloud, but used questionnaires and performance reports to gather their data. It is worth mentioning that their sample if larger than the other studies which enhance the reliability of their findings.
In the fourth study in this review, Woodall (2002) studied whether L2 proficiency, task difficulty, and the language group affected L1 use while writing in L2, which they termed as language-switching. This study is different from the others in that L2 in varied. The study included twenty-eight participants who were studying ESL, Japanese, and Spanish in an American university. Their levels of language proficiency were intermediate and advanced. They were asked to write two writing tasks of different difficulty levels. Students were asked to write a letter and an essay, and think-aloud during the writing process. Writing sessions were observed, video-taped and coded. Results showed that there was respectful frequency and duration of language-switching. Students of the intermediate level retrieved to their first language more than the advanced students. Non-cognate students’ frequency of language switching was varied. It was significant that the frequency of language-switching was not affected by the writing task difficulty, whereas the duration of language-switching showed that L2 writers tend to use their L1 for a longer period of time. Woodall saw that periods of using L1 is affected by L2 writers’ proficiency, whereas the length/duration of using L1 is affected by the task difficulty. It was also observed that language-switching affected the length and quality of the written texts. Students resorted to their L1 for planning, revising, and editing. Language-switching seemed to affect the text quality effectively. Although this study had a reasonable sample, the researchers relied on only think-aloud protocols to gather their data, which raises questions about the results’ reliability.
With the same interest, Wang & Wen (2002) studied ESL/EFL writers’ use of L1 while composing in L2 and its effects. Participants were sixteen female Chinese students who were studying English at Nanjing University in China. All of these had different language proficiency. Students were asked to write two writing tasks. The least demanding was a narrative task whereas the most demanding was the argumentative task. Students were asked to think aloud while writing. Writing sessions were observed, video-taped and coded. Results showed that thirty-one of the think-aloud protocols were in Chinese and English, except for one that was “completely in English” (p. 233). There were variations in the use of L1. Wang & Wen categorized five forms of language switching: text-generation, idea-generation, task-examining, idea-organizing, and process-controlling. The results showed that L2 writers tend to use L1 for text-generation and idea-generation more than the other categories. The results also showed the tendency of L2 writers to think in their L1 during the writing process. Students used their L2 more than L1 during the construction of sentences and response to the writing tasks. Students used L1 in task-examining and ideas-generating more in the narrative task than in the argumentative task. Wang and Wen revealed that “the type of writing prompt seemed to have an influence on the language that was used in idea-generating. Finally, results showed that language proficiency affected the use of L1. The more the L2 writers proficient are, the less they use their L1. As with the other studies in this review, this study raises two concerns. Firstly, it raises concerns about the sample size. Studies with mall samples cannot be generalized. Secondly, from a reader perspective, there are issues about the reliability of the results on the study when data are gathered only through think-aloud protocols.
Wang conducted another language switching study (2003). It examined the frequency of language switching, purposes of switching, and the qualitative differences in language-switching processes. The study included eight, recently emigrated, Chinese learners who were studying in an ESL school in Toronto with different levels of English proficiency. Four of the participants were high proficient learners, whereas the other four were low proficient learners. The researchers used pre-writing and post-writing questionnaires. The former was used to gather background information about the participants such as “age, gender, and educational background” and “the students’ English study background, self-evaluations of their level of English proficiency, and Chinese and English writing expertise” (p. 353). The latter produced the writers’ self-reports about language-switching during the process of writing. The participants also were involved in two writing tasks. In the first writing session, they were asked to write an informal letter. In the second one, they were asked to write an argumentative essay. The researchers asked their participants to use pens when writing in order to be able to “trace” and “examine” the writers switch and how it helped them to compose the written text (p. 355). After each writing session, retrospective interviews were conducted in the participants’ first language. Each interview had its purpose. The first interview that was conducted immediately after the first writing task was concerned about the students’ ways of planning, the changes they made, their reasons for those changes, and their thoughts during each time they stopped writing. However, the second interview was concerned with language-switching during the writing process. Results showed that students used their first language frequently. They also noticed that language switching varied “according to [the participants’] L2 proficiency” (p. 359). Language-switching was noticed to be more frequent by students with high proficiency than those with low proficiency. The purposes for switching were mainly for three reasons: the “idea generation, lexical searching and metacomments” (p. 360). The researcher used questionnaires and interviews to gather data. However, this study raises concerns about the sample size. Studies with small samples cannot be generalized. Since this study’s sample was eight students, the results cannot be generalized.
Furthermore, in Wolfersberger’s study (2003), the process of composing and using strategies of writing were studied. Participants were three low-proficient, Japanese females, who were studying English in the US. They were asked to think aloud while writing an essay in Japanese and another one in English. The results showed that low proficient students tend to write in their first language and then translate it into English. They used their L1 while generating and organizing ideas. Students tended to use their dictionaries to deal with L2 vocabulary and spelling. They also forced the instructor to ask for translation. Wolfersberger suggested helping low proficient students to deal with L1 using strategies and dealing with issues related to the L2 writing. As with the other studies in this review, this study raises two concerns. Firstly, sample size raises concerns about generalizability. Since the study’s sample was small, the findings cannot be generalized to ESL/EFL population. Secondly, the researcher’s reliance on only think-aloud protocols make the results doubtful.
Similar to other studies but with a specific concern, Beare&Bourdages (2007) explored generating strategies used in L1 and L2 writing. The participants were “eight skilled bilingual writers (English/Spanish)” (p.155). There were four native speakers of English and four native speakers of Spanish. Participants were interviewed before the study. During the study, they were asked to write two essays: one was in English and the other was in Spanish. The students were asked to think-aloud while writing. Writing sessions were “audio-taped and subsequently transcribed” (p. 156). Think-aloud protocols that were in Spanish were translated by the students and then checked by a “professional Spanish/English translator” (p. 156). Three participants only used their L1 during L2 writing. There was a frequent switching of “words or short expressions” (p. 178) that was then translated by only one participant. The frequency of using L1 was because of the unfamiliarity of the topic. The similarities that were noticed between English writers were in using generating and rereading strategies, and the Spanish writers’ similarities were in idea-generating strategies. Beare&Bourdages found that high proficient bilingual writers’ language-switching is not frequent. This study had concerns similar to previously mentioned studies. Small sample size minimized the significance of the results and doubted generalizability.
An additional study conducted by Weijen, Bergh, Rijlaarsdam, and Sanders (2009) studied the second language writers’ use of their first language using think-aloud protocols. The participants were twenty first-year BA English majors, who were also Dutch students. Weijen, et al. analyzed the students’ four short argumentative essays that were written in Dutch and another four that were in English. Their analysis looked at “whether L1 use varied between writers and tasks, and whether it was related to general writing proficiency, L2 proficiency, and L2 text quality” (p. 235). Data included “seventy-nine L2 think-aloud protocols” that were coded by “six different coders." The results revealed that L1 was used by all the participants during their L2 writing process, but there was variation in the frequency of using L1 during self-instructions, goal-setting, structuring, generating-ideas, and metacomments. It was noticed that L2 writers might retrieve to their L1 when they experience cognitive overload. Although the sample size seems reasonable, relying only on think-aloud protocols limit the results and reduce their reliability.
The final study in this review examined the “strategic use of the L1” and the effect of task difficulty of lexical problems (Murphy & Roca, 2010, p. 61). Informants were six women and one man who graduated from the English Department of the University of Marcia. They wrote narrative and argumentative essays while using thinking-aloud methods. The results showed that advanced writers do not find it easy to express their ideas. The lexical search was greater in the argumentative task than the narrative. Although there were “individual differences," all the subjects used their L1 “to express their meanings” (p. 69). Murphy & Roca (2010) noticed that L1 use depended on the tasks’ demands. Besides, L1 was used to evaluate whether the words “sounded odd” or were not “formal or sophisticated enough” (p. 73). It was also used to check the appropriateness of their word choice in the text. In addition, participants used their L1 to ask themselves questions that would help them “search their long-term memory" and indicate uncertainty regarding the accuracy and suitability of words. Finally, metalinguistic and metacomments were among the uses of L1 during L2 writing. Two issues limited the reliability of this study’s results. Firstly, the small sample size prevented generalizability. Secondly, researchers’ reliance on think-aloud protocols only questioned the validity of the results.
In brief, most of the studies had a small number of participants and used think-aloud protocols. Researchers ensured that the think-aloud writing sessions were observed, video-taped, and coded. Students were asked to write two writing tasks that were personal letters, argumentative tasks or narrative tasks.
Review of ten studies revealed that L2 writers tended to use their L1 while writing by relying on certain compensating strategies. Compensating strategies include “any strategy that breaks the writing task down to allow the L2 writer to focus on smaller chunks of the task at one time and thus reduce the cognitive load” (Wolfersberger, 2003, p.9). The results of this review show that translation, language switching, and back-tracking are the strategies that L2 writers use while using their L1.
According to Wolfersberger (2003), translation is a strategy that is generally used by L2 low proficient writers. L2 low proficient writers tend to write their first drafts in their L1 and then translate it to their L2 “to solidify content and organization before dealing with the L2 issues of translation and rhetorical style” (Wolfersberger, 2003, p. 9).
Wolfersberger’s (2003) study confirmed L2 lower proficient writers wrote in their L1, firstly, then translated the text into English. Similarly, Wen and Wang (2002) found that students with lower proficiency tended to translate. They specified that low proficient writers tend to translate directly from L1 to L2 during their process of composing. However, high proficient writers tended to use L2 while composing for generating ideas and lexical search. These results agree with the findings of Cohen & Brooks-Carson (2001), Qi, (1998), Roca de Larios, and Whalen and Menard (1995). Cohen & Brooks-Carson (2001) revealed that word-for-word translation was the strategy students used to translate the given texts. Whalen and Menard found that low proficient writers “sought to translate, word by word, the first idea that came to [their minds] in their first language," whereas high proficient writers formulated “precise lexical and syntagmatic choices” by translation to make sure of the “readability of the written text” (p. 407). Correspondingly, Roca de Larios, et al. (1999) showed that high proficient L2 writers were engaged in restructuring to follow their goals for ideational and textual purposes. L2 low proficient writers, on the other hand, relied on one of the compensatory devices known as reconstruction to overcome their lexical and morphosyntactic problems to express meaningful ideas. Relying on translation seemed to help the low proficient writers gain their ideas and organize their texts.
Woodall (2002, p.8) defines language-switching as “any non-instructed use of the first language writing during the second language writing process.” Qi (1998, p. 414) defined language-switching as “a cognitive phenonmenon” in which L1 students switch from L2 to L1 “as the language of thinking in the cognitive process” while engaged in L2 writing.
Several studies looked at L2 writers’ language switching. Beare&Bourdages (2007), Murphy & Roca, (2010), Qi (1998), Wang (2003), Wang & Wen (2002), Weing (2009), Wolfersberger (2003), and Woodall (2002). All the studies confirmed L1 use during L2 writing in spite of the differences in purposes and frequencies of using L1. Moreover, amongst the studies, it was confirmed that L2 writers retrieve their L1 to meet the writing demands. The task difficulty was among the reasons behind the L2 writer’s tendency to retrieve their L1 while writing in L2.
L2 writers switched from L2 to L1 for different purposes. They can be categorized as generating ideas, goal-settings, structuring, self-instruction, text-organization, text-evaluation, for metalinguistic purposes and metacomments. There were variations in the duration and frequency of language-switching between studies as well as the participants in studies.
The inconsistency of the specific level of proficiency in which L2 writers tend to frequently resort to their L1 to overcome their task difficulties was found through these results. Qi (1998) revealed that high-level proficient students switched to face their high-knowledge demands. Similarly, Wang (2003) revealed that students with high proficiency levels switched to their L1 more frequently than students with low proficiency levels. On the contrary, Woodall (2002) found that intermediate students used their L1 more than advanced students. Also, Beare&Bourdages (2007) confirmed that high proficient writers do not switch frequently to their L1. One possible explanation for this inconsistency in the results is that the participants where different nationalities, therefore, their different first languages would provide different results. Also, not all the studies had participants with different levels of proficiency, eliminating the chances for better contrasting results.
Backtracking During the writing process, L2 writers move “backwards and forwards between the already produced and the emerging text” (Manchon, Roca de Larios, & Murphy, 2000, p. 14), which is known as backtracking. To be more specific, backtracking includes writers’ actions regarding the produced text. This ranged from “a reconsideration of what one has already been written with the aim of getting a mental picture, evaluating or changing it, to familiarizing oneself with the text written thus far as a way of moving forward in the composing process” (Manchon, et al. 2000, p. 14). Thus, L2 writers backtrack for more text generation or check the success of expression and the intended meaning.
The aim of the study was to explore the ways in which second language writers use their first language while composing. The findings from ten studies revealed that second language writers use their first language to face the challenges of the writing tasks by translating texts that are first written in their L1 into the L2, language-switching during the writing process, and backtracking their written texts. Evidence shows that translation is mostly used by low proficient writers. Language-switching, however, was used by three proficiency groups, high, intermediate, and low proficiency students. The purposes of using L1 ranged from generating ideas and planning the text to producing and evaluating the already- written text. Backtracking was used by the two groups to produce more text, check accuracy, and evaluate the used expressions compared to the intended meaning.
The frequency of using language-switching among high, intermediate, and low proficient writers was the inconsistency within this study. Some studies revealed that second language writers with high language proficiency tended to use language-switching more than low proficient writers. Others reported low proficient writers’ tendency to retrieve their L1. This inconsistency of the results may have occurred due to the fact that the researchers relied only on think-aloud protocols to investigate the use of first language during second language composing, the differences between the participants L1s, and the tendency of the researchers to rely on small-scale sampling.
Consequently, the results revealed that L2 writers used L1 positively while setting their goals, generating their ideas, and structuring, which supports Cook’s call for using L1 as a resource. In other words, L1 can be used as a learning activity and classroom activity. Thus, this review’s findings can be used to call for using L1 in the classroom during writing activities. Teachers should take into account these results, and help students rely on more positive strategies. Students’ reliance on translation can be replaced by showing the students what strategies they can use. Training them on language-switching and backtracking would eliminate any problems because research has proven positive effects versus translating from L1 to L2, which probed to have negative effects on the produced written texts.
However, the reliability of the results was affected by different issues. One of these is that most of the studies relied on a small number of participants. Small samples have sampling errors and therefore, lower the reliability of the results (Alreck& Settle, 1995). This would question the results and their generalizability. Although those studies contributed to the field with significant findings, the results are inconsistent and further research is needed with large-scale options to ensure the validity and reliability of the results. Randomization and larger sampling will reveal more reliable results that could be generalized. Another factor that affected the consistency of the results is the variation of the subjects’ first language. Concentrating on varied L1s would not facilitate generalizability. A study that looked at Spanish as L2 and English as L1 would not have similar results as another that had English as L2 and Chinese as L1, for instance. Finally, other factors such as context, time, gender, students’ level, affected the reliability of the results. Since each study was conducted in a different context, time, gender, and level, there was inconsistency in the results.
In brief, further research is still needed to investigate how L2 writers use L1 and whether this use has negative or positive effects on the writers and their produced texts. Further research should take into account the inconsistency in the conducted studies and avoid what caused them. Attention to backtracking through L1 is “scant," therefore, further research will enrich the area that might support the results of Manchonet al (2000).
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