English Only?

Should students speak only English in class? - An opinion

Here is a seemingly easy question: Should a policy of English only be put into place in the English learning classroom? I imagine the gut answer is 'yes', English only is the only way students will learn English! However, I can think of some exceptions to this strict rule. To begin with, let's look at the pros of an English only policy in the classroom.

  • Students will learn to speak English only by speaking English.
  • Allowing students to speak other languages distract them from the task of learning English.
  • Students who don't speak English only soon become distracted by speaking their own language.
  • The only way to become fluent in a language is by being immersed in the language.
  • Forcing students to speak only English in class requires them to negotiate the learning process in English.
  • Students speaking another language distract other English learners.
  • English only is part of effective classroom management.

These are all valid arguments for an English only policy in the ESL / EFL classroom. However, there are certainly arguments to be made for allowing students to communicate in other languages besides English - especially if they are beginners.

  • Providing or allowing for explanations of grammar concepts in learners' L1 (first language) speeds up the learning process.
  • Communicating in another language during class allows students to fill in the gaps, especially if the class is large.
  • Allowing some communication in learners' L1 establishes a more relaxed atmosphere that is conducive to learning.
  • Translating vocabulary items is much easier and less time consuming when other languages are allowed.
  • Committing to an English only policy in class effectively turns the English teacher into a traffic cop.
  • Students are limited to learning important concepts by their English language skills.

These points are also equally valid reasons to perhaps allow some communication in learners' L1. I'll be honest, it's a thorny issue! Personally, I subscribe to an English only - but with exceptions - policy. There are two main reasons why I don't strictly enforce the English only policy in my classroom.

1. Allowing lower level students to explain difficult concepts in their native language is more efficient.

2. I'm an English teacher, not a language cop.

Clear Explanations in Learners' L1 Helps

Allowing more advanced learners to succinctly help other learners in their own language really moves the class along. It's purely a pragmatic question in this case. I feel it's more valuable for the class as a whole to take a five minute "English Only Break" rather than spend fifteen minutes repeating concepts for students whose current English language skills may not allow them to understand complicated structural, grammar or vocabulary issues. In a perfect world, I would hope that I could explain any grammar concept clearly enough that each student can understand. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.

Language Cop

If I am giving my attention to another student, it is almost impossible for me to make sure that others are not speaking in a language other than English. Admittedly, students speaking in other languages can be annoying, and it's important for a teacher to step in and discourage random conversations in other languages. However, as an English teacher I am - first and foremost - concerned with facilitating English language acquisition by helping people learn, rather than policing behavior.

Bottom Line: English Only in Theory

After much consideration and discussion with colleagues, I've come to the conclusion that the best policy is English only - but with a few caveats. Strictly insisting that no student speak a word of another language is a daunting task. Spending valuable teaching time making sure that students only speak English might take my attention away from helping them learn the language.