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.