English Only?

An Opinion on Speaking Only English in Class?

Teacher and students in classroom during lesson
English Only in the Class?. Caiaimage/Chris Ryan/Getty Images

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 rule.

To begin with, let's look at some of the arguments made for an English only policy in the classroom:

  • Students will learn to speak English by speaking English.
  • Allowing students to speak other languages distract them from the task of learning English.
  • Students who don't speak only English are also not thinking in English. Speaking only in English helps students begin speaking English internally. 
  • The only way to become fluent in a language is by being immersed in the language.
  • An English only policy 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 that fosters learning and respect.

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, especially if they are beginners. Here are some of the better points made in support of allowing other languages to constructively be used in the classroom:

  • 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 difficult vocabulary items is much easier and less time consuming when other languages are allowed.
  • Committing to an English only policy in class might seem as if the English teacher has, at times, been turned into a traffic cop.
  • Students are limited in learning complex concepts through a lack of English vocabulary related to the grammar of English.

These points are also equally valid reasons to perhaps allow some communication in learners' L1. I'll be honest, it's a thorny issue! I subscribe to an English only - but with exceptions - policy. Pragmatically, there are some instances in which a few words of explanation in another language can do a world of good.

Exception 1: If, After Numerous Attempts ...

If, after numerous attempts to explain a concept in English, students still do not understand a given concept, it helps to give a short explanation in students' L1. Here are some suggestions on these short interruptions to explain.

  • If you can speak students' L1, explain the concept. Mistakes made in students' L1 can actually help build rapport. 
  • If you can't speak students' L1, ask a student who clearly understands the concept. Make sure to vary students who explain so as to not create a teacher's pet. 
  • If you can understand students' L1, ask students to explain the concept to you in their own language. This helps to check understanding and show students that you are also a language learner. 

Exception 2: Test Directions

If you teach in a situation that requires students to take comprehensive tests in English, make sure students understand the directions exactly. Unfortunately, students often do poorly on a test due to their lack of understanding the assessment's directions rather than linguistic abilities. In this case, it's a good idea to go over the directions in students' L1. Here are some suggestions on activities you can use to make sure students understand.

  • Have students translate the directions into their L1. Group students together and have them discuss differences in translation and understanding.
  • Copy directions onto separate strips of paper and distribute to the class. Each student is responsible for translating one strip. Ask students to read first the English and then the translation. Discuss as a class or in groups whether the translation is correct or incorrect.
  • Provide example questions for directions. First read the directions in English, then read them in students L1. Have students complete practice questions to check understanding.

Clear Explanations in Learners' L1 Helps

Allowing more advanced learners to help other learners in their own language really moves the class along. It's purely a pragmatic question in this case. Sometimes it is more valuable for the class to take a five minute break from English only rather than spend fifteen minutes repeating concepts that students can't understand. Some students' 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. However, especially in the case of beginners, students really need help from their own language.

Language Cop

I doubt any teacher really enjoys discipling the class. When a teacher pays attention to another student, it is almost impossible to make sure that others are not speaking in a language other than English. Admittedly, students speaking in other languages can disturb others. It is important for a teacher to step in and discourage conversations in other languages. However, disrupting a good conversation in English in order to tell others to speak English only can disrupt a good flow during the lesson.

 

Perhaps 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. Creating an English only atmosphere in class should be an important goal, but not the end of a friendly English learning environment.