The use of first language(s) (Ll) in the language classroom has often been at the centre of methodological debate, giving rise to a number of differing views. To date, this discussion has been focused largely on the aspect of teacher language choice, with only limited studies concerning the student's use of Ll. The research project aims to explore the learner's representations of strategic Ll use in the foreign language classroom. This study seeks to understand whether learners attribute positive or negative roles to the Ll in the language learning process, and investigates this within two language populations (French and Australian), across two language levels (beginner and intermediate).
This study uses both qualitative and quantitative data to explore the learner's representations, and is carried out in two parts. The first is a questionnaire-based study (survey study), which investigates students (N=286) and their teachers (N=9) in an Australian context, and explores advantages and disadvantages allocated to the Ll in the language classroom. The second (main study} explores the strategic uses of Ll in the areas highlighted in the survey study, using both questionnaires and interviews, and surveys French (N=24) and Australian (N=18) students at beginning and intermediate levels, to account for similarities and differences in the use of Ll.
Analysis of the data collected revealed four key areas in which learners considered the strategic use of Ll to be helpful. Interviews revealed that learners saw assistance in the areas of vocabulary and grammar acquisition, classroom administration, and in the regulation of social and affective factors. Learners in both the French and Australian contexts appear to hold generally positive representations regarding the Ll. The importance they apportion to its use for language learning, however, is weighed against the necessity of using the foreign language (L2).
While students in both groups demonstrate a balanced view of the use of Ll, differences do emerge between the two with respect to prior language learning experiences. French learners appear more at ease with the use of the Ll as a contrastive element and seem more adept at drawing on skills from other languages learnt. On the contrary, Australian learners tend to work more closely with the L2, given that the metalinguistic aspects of the Ll seem less developed. These results highlight the plurilingual aspect of language learning that takes place in the language classroom, and demonstrate the existence of the important role played by previous languages in acquiring additional languages (Moore, 1995a, 1995b, 1996, Cenoz & Jessner, 2000).
Overall this study indicates that learners are able to differentiate between the help that the Ll provides in comprehending aspects of the foreign language, and the hindrance that it causes to L2 exposure. These results suggest that learners are indeed more conscious of the benefits and pitfalls of L1 use in the language classroom than as portrayed through previous studies. From these findings, discussion into the future is opened, and it is suggested that representations of learners regarding strategic Ll use should become a legitimate topic for further research.