English only please!

At a school where I used to work some years ago, we had an English only policy. It wasn’t just English only in the lessons, which is one thing, but it was a 100% English only in the building policy. And the students were in that building from 9 until 5, five days a week. This meant that the students were expected to abandon their own language, which they all shared, for 40 hours a week, including breaks.

At the time, I agreed with the policy. This course was the students one chance to enter a truly immersive environment, surrounding themselves with English for months in a way that would truly benefit them. It made sense to me, as at the time I thought that the best way to go and learn a language is to go and live in the country, like many people do.

But now, on reflection, I think that the policy was flawed and if I still worked there, I would try to persuade them to change their minds. Firstly, I think language learning with such intensity is a tiring thing to do. All that thinking, trying to figure out what word to put where and trying not to mess up you prepositions and your verb conjugations, as the rest of your classmates and teacher look on. (Can you tell that sentence was written from bitter experience?) It’s stressful, no matter how hard we try to create a pleasant environment. Despite what we tell them, our students can often have unrealistically high ambitions for themselves.

Added to the stress, there are the sheer number of hours involved. My students would have around five to six hours of lessons a day, for 5 months, 100% in English. Is that not enough?! If they can’t make significant improvements in that amount of time, then something is going wrong with either the teaching, the student or both.

And then there’s the idea of a break. What is the purpose of a break beside stocking up on tea, coffee and food? The clue should be in the name. As I said, learning a language can be tiring, so the break should be a welcome moment where the students can take a moment for themselves and recharge their batteries. They should be able to relax and prepare themselves to come back anew. Forcing them to speak in the language that they are studying is like teaching physics but demanding that the students discuss the Higgs Boson in break time.

Obviously we want to encourage our students to use English as much as possible but we have to recognise that rest and recuperation is a crucial part of the learning process. If we are not careful, the students may not benefit from the policy, but start to resent it.


23 thoughts on “English only please!

  1. Thanks for this, James. I agree with what you said. I would also add that the situation you describe reflects the monolingual mindset prominent in teaching foreign languages. In other words, we seem to be pretending that the students’ L1 or other foreign languages they know are a hindrance to learning and functioning in the target language. However, any multilingual will tell you that switching in between languages is precisely the natural and common thing to do. So perhaps we should be showing students also how to use their multilingual resources rather than completely forcing them to pretend they are monolingual?

        1. You’re probably right Marek. I sometimes get the impression that EOPs exist to make the teachers – often native speakers of English who don’t share or understand the learners’ L1 – feel more comfortable.

    1. Thank you Marek for sharing your thoughts. I am currently teaching EFL to fifth graders who only have 45 minutes of English lessons a day. How can I expect their language skills to improve on such limited time? I know you disagree about English being spoken all day long, even outside of the classroom, but would you agree that during English lesson time, only English should be spoken? I know the students would be confused, and even lost at first, but in time , they will learn the language. What do you think?

      Can you tell I am a new teacher?

      1. Thanks for your comment Steve, it’s a really important question. My position on this has changed over time. I used to strictly believe in 100% English in the classroom, and I can understand why, with only 45 minutes, you might have the same idea. But I think that carefully used translation at the right time can be very effective and time saving. I highly recommend you look at the work of Philip Kerr on this subject, it has really changed my thinking on this topic.

  2. Totally concur and for all the reasons mentioned and many more … there are so many reasons this is plainly stupid (save for a few exceptional circumstances). I’ll add too that I feel the same about using English names.

  3. Good blog post on an important issue James, I agree with you (and with Marek).

    I work for an organisation that actually uses its English-Only Policy as part of its marketing strategy for recruiting new students; when the EOP is ‘front and centre’, it’s arguable that the learners know what they’re signing up for and are making a deliberate decision to follow that policy. It doesn’t always work like that once they’re on the course though; from what I’ve seen, imposing full-time EOPs on learners can be counterproductive, as they begin to see the school or college environment as a place associated with hard work, errors and mistakes, harsh teachers and loss of face and status.

    I also dislike how we sometimes have to ‘play cop’, delivering admonishment or even punishment to students overheard using their native language in the corridors. I doubt that’s what any of us signed up for when we became teachers.

    In Asia, courses that employ EOPs are often presented as a more practical, less expensive alternative to studying the language in the UK or USA, so I guess that has to be considered. However, I don’t think EOPs prepare learners for the ‘real world’ that they’ll live and work in after they complete their studies – unless they emigrate overseas, very few of them will only be using English in their future jobs.

    1. Thanks Martin, I appreciate your perspective from ‘the inside’! As Marek says above, the problem with this kind of practice, even when it’s a well-intentioned alternative to immersion programmes in native-speaker environments, is that it completely ignores the important role that the learners L1 plays in language acquisition. And I also never enjoyed playing L1 police either!

  4. Hi James. I really enjoyed your blog. I agree that this policy is not the most educationally sound. We, all but ignore the L1 learner’s, culture and language and what this can “bring to the table” in learning English. We have to be culturally sensitive and, as you mentioned “give the students a real break” by letting them be comfortable and stress free for a bit while learning this new and difficult language, called English.

  5. Growing up in South Africa and having to learn Afrikaans in order to receive a complete matriculation exemption, meant Tuesday evenings around the dinner table were reserved for “Afrikaans Only please!”. Needless to say, these were quite quiet affairs! Learning a language should be pleasurable and never taught in a stressful environment.

  6. Hi there! I must say, I totally agree! As a bilingual individual, fluent in both languages that I speak, learner and teacher of both these languages, from my experience, the best way to get an L2 speaker to understand the concepts I’m trying to teach them is in their own language. For the high level students, we are told to speak only in English to them. But I’m a bit out of ideas when i get to that point where I’ve tried explaining something the student didn’t understand – in English – and they still don’t understand. I feel like ONLY English frustrates the students even more.

  7. Thank you for thoughts! I think we learn best when we feel safe and relaxed, especially when we learn a foreign language. Therefore, enforcing EOP can be frightening for some students and think that there is a time and place for allowing L1 to be spoken to not completely turn off students who struggle. I think that the instructor needs assess the students and accommodate according to what is necessary. Teaching is never black or white.

  8. I think there is a beauty in frequently using a language one is trying to learn. My Jewish high school (in Brooklyn, NY) had all its Judaic studies taught in Hebrew, and while we were encouraged to speak in Hebrew, we were allowed to speak in English. I think one of the coolest things the school did was “Hebrew Play” in which we put on a performance (such as “Les Miz” and “The Lion King” 99+% in Hebrew). Still, I do agree with you that it can go overboard (and I’m usually not the kind of person to think there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing). Yes, I think if the target language gets forced too much, the user can come to resent it.

    1. Thanks David, that’s a great example. I completely agree, and more to the point, the students will be using their mother tongue to try and figure out what’s going on for a long time while learning the language, whether we like it or not!

  9. Thank you for your interesting ideas. I agree that while it seems like you are helping the students by making them speak only in English letting them go back to their own language once in a while during the studying process will let them come back and learn with renewed energy and enthusiasm. I think too for younger students and students just starting to learn English some explanation in their own language is very important for their understanding especially when explaining grammar rules.

    1. Absolutely Lynn, it can be helpful, although as a caveat, I think it’s good for a teacher to know how to teach without needing to use L1. That doesn’t mean that you can’t use L1, but it’s a useful part of the teacher’s toolkit as at some point you will need to challenge your students. Knowing when to is the skill of teaching.

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