The Pros and Cons of English Only in the Classroom

There has been much debate over the use of the English only policy in the classroom. There seems to be an equal divide in opinion. Maybe you only allow your students to use English in your lessons.

Let us take a look at the pros and cons of English only in the classroom and see what we can find.

 

 

English Only in the ESL/EFL classroom is an immersion method.

It is designed so the student only speaks English in the classroom. Many schools encourage this and promote it via advertising to potential students.

No doubt you have used this method yourself – especially if you are an English teacher in a country like China or Korea.

It is believed this is a highly effective way for students to learn the English language. After all, the student is only allowed to use English. They have to do everything in English.

But this policy also comes under some criticism. While there are schools and teachers who practice this method in all their classes there are many that do not.

Some of the criticisms aimed towards the English Only policy include the idea that it removes any sense of fun in the classroom and it makes the teacher too much of an authority figure.

Criticism towards a bilingual program – where the classes are held in both English and the native language of the student – is that it is costly and has a high failure rate of the students.

First, let’s take a look at the advantages of the English Only policy and what benefits it can offer.

History

There is a long history of encouraging an English Only policy in education.

The idea stems back as far as the First World War. Immigrants arriving in America from Europe – few able to speak much English but all looking to integrate.

The people governing America at the time suggested rather strongly that they should all speak English and English only and thus the concept was born.

Teach them all English and everyone can communicate.

That was the general idea.

Since then the concept has become somewhat politically charged.

Forty plus years later and the English Only policy became a global policy.

In 1961, the Commonwealth Conference on the Teaching of English as a Second Language was held at Makerere College, Uganda.

 

 

People at the conference drew up clear outlines on how to teach English in schools and classrooms.

The teacher should be a native English speaker from an English speaking country. And thus it is today English schools in China, Mexico, Tunisia and Hungary all require a native speaker. Ideally from the UK, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.

English Only Classes

Each class should have only one language and that language must be English. As soon as the student enters the class he or she is forbidden from uttering one word of their own language and only speaks English. The classroom becomes a completely English-speaking environment.

No L1 – or Standards will drop

The student is forbidden to speak or use his own language. If he does, his English level will drop. Exam rates will go down and the general ability of the student in his English studies will diminish.

Better Results all round!

The Commonwealth Conference agreed that the more English was used in the classroom the better the results would be. English Only from the time the student first sets foot in the class – and all the time in every class.

Surely the results would go through the roof?

From this, new standards evolved.

Firstly that the teacher must be a native English speaker. No doubt if you are teaching anywhere in Asia or South America, one of the requirements of your job is that you need to be a native English speaker. In the class you only use English because quite often that is the only language the teacher knows.

Even for English teachers teaching in an English-speaking country – it is widely regarded that the best fit for this job is a native speaker.

In the classroom the only language used is English. In China or Korea for example, many schools prefer this method. They blast this idea via advertising.

All our teachers are native English speakers! You can only use English in the classroom! Imagine how fluent you will be in six months!

For any teachers based in the UK or America, it makes perfect sense to have an English Only policy in the class as it is the one language that unifies everyone. There could be a dozen different nationalities in the class.

This sounds all well and good in theory but there are a great many teachers who do not use the English Only policy. Many English teachers have found it simply does not work.

In order to understand both sides, we need to examine the pros and cons of each side.

First, let’s look at the advantages.

Advantages

The Right Environment

The student is submerged into an environment where he can only use English. It is the only language he is allowed to use.

 

If you attend a karate class, chances are you will only practice karate for the whole lesson. You don’t go to the karate lesson and deviate halfway through and look at judo. It’s karate for the whole two hours.

The student leaves having acquired karate skills by being in an environment of karate alone.

Of course, karate and English use totally different skills but the premise is basically the same.

  • Enter the class.
  • Only speak English.
  • Leave the class with a slight improvement in English skills.

By doing this the student learns faster.

He learns quickly out of survival alone. Anything and everything he has to say he must use English.

Need to ask the teacher for a pencil? Ask him in English.

Forgot what page you’re on? Ask in English.

Need to go to the bathroom? In English!

Effectively whatever the student has to say – a question he needs to ask, a reply to something another student asked, a comment – anything at all, he must use English.

He is deep in a world of using only English and he must learn to use the language or drown.

Essentially that is the reasoning behind English Only in the class.

No Disruptions

How many times have you been in class and had the whole thing disrupted by a student yelling out something in their own language?

You might be focusing on one student in the class, or maybe a small group, going over an exercise you have given the whole class. But there’s always that one student who needs to know the answer to something quickly so he yells out something to his friend using L1.

 

The other student responds – also in L1 – and before you know it the whole class is disrupted. Everyone talking altogether as it is now regarded as a mini break from class.

And you standing in the middle of the room wondering what happened to all those classroom management skills you learned before.

Any other English teacher will tell you as soon as one student starts talking in their own language, everyone is doing it. A few seconds later and it descends into chaos.

This is especially true in classes where the students all share the same language. English teachers in Korea and China experience this all the time.

By enforcing the English Only policy these disruptions are less likely. The students know not to use any other language but English and it creates a better sense of order in the class.

You are in control and you are exercising great skills in classroom management. All via an English Only ruling.

Less Chatter

In a continuation of the above point, there is much less chatter.

If the students understand that you only want them to speak English AS SOON AS THEY ENTER THE CLASS then it reduces any chit-chat in their own language.

You enter the classroom – or stand at the front to begin the class – but the students are huddled into small groups of two’s, three’s or four’s all discussing with great passion something of great importance in their own language.

You clear your throat to begin the class and one or two students look up. You clear your throat again.

“Okay, everyone. I think it’s time to begin.”

Finally, all the students are looking at you and you can begin your class.

But if there is an English Only policy the students are more attentive. You are in control.

Class Management

Every teacher wants to excel in classroom management. You want to be seen as in control, encouraging the students to do exactly what you want without being seen as the tyrant.

The English Only policy wraps a boundary around the classroom. One that says: Only speak English here.

Once the rules are established then all good.

The trick is to ensure that this happens from Day One. You cannot implement this ruling halfway through the semester as the rules have already been established by then.

Also, you have to be seen as the agent of this ruling. You must set the appropriate example. You use one word outside of the English language and the students will jump all over you. From that moment it’s game over.

Real-Life English

The students are using real-life English. They are using English to ask for things they need, state something, clarify something all within the context of their real lives.

This might be met with frustration at first but if the rule is held down it soon becomes clear to the student that if he really needs to borrow a dictionary he better find out how to ask for it in English.

The same with anything else.

Need to borrow a pencil? Ask for it in English.

Bathroom break?  You know what to do.

 

Equally the students are using terms such as Good morning, Good afternoon, please, thank you, see you next class. They start to use these with ease and the habits become so embedded they don’t even have to think about it.

Better Engagement

The students become more engaged. Rather than idly wasting time talking to their friend in their own language, now they are concentrating on the class and what is taking place. Because there is no endless chatter, all of the students are focused on the activity taking place.

One student is talking in English and the other students are listening.

Students have to express their feelings, their desires, what they think — all in English. As it is their second language it becomes a fun thing to do to talk about their inner thoughts in English. There is more openness, more connection, due to all the students sharing stories in English.

Raises Confidence

And the best thing is that it raises the confidence levels of the students. They leave the class buzzing as they find they can ask for things in English, answer simple questions in English. They can describe what they want, the process of something. They can debate and have conversations. They can joke with each other; even get angry with each other — all in English.

Their confidence levels shoot through the roof as they realise the potential they have in front of them. Gone are the fear and any reluctance to open their mouth and speak.

Now they see they can do it and it is very encouraging.

Maximum Exposure

After a while, they have such a maximum exposure to English that the teacher can correct their exercises all in English. Everything they hear in the class is in English and it becomes easier and easier for the students to isolate all these strange sounds into words and sentences.

Improve Speaking Skills

An English Only policy encourages the students to work on the skill of speaking. This is often neglected.

In many Asian countries, the students may work on English skills such as reading, writing, listening — even vocabulary. Entire classes devoted to one of these skills sets.

The students find they can write a short article or read a passage and make sense of it. They are able to reel off lists of words. But when it comes to having a simple conversation in English they are lost.

 

In an English Only class, they are now speaking in English. They are opening their mouths and talking. Whereas before it may have been terrifying now it is fun. They laugh and enjoy the feeling in the class as they try to engage with each other and the teacher in English.

English Only for Advanced Students

For more advanced English students, every class should be English Only.

At this level, there is no excuse whatsoever to not have an English Only class. They are perfectly capable of asking the right question should there be any misunderstanding and in discussions, it will help them to reach a higher level of fluency and proficiency.

As the student becomes more advanced they start to deal with more difficult subjects. Many of these subjects have an obscure or intangible element to them. Topics such as love, dreams or philosophy. Talking about poetry or art or music.

These topics can be more esoteric or vague in their meaning. The discussion of these topics could easily become subjective. There are no defined lines where we can place ideas; the boundaries become more blurred so they become more difficult to talk about if English is your second language.

But by only talking about these topics in English the student is challenging himself and pushing his own boundaries of fluency and ability. At this level, he should be able to ‘talk around’ something in order to explain what he means without resorting to his own language.

For this level of student, a class where only English is spoken is best.

English Only for Young Learners

Then there are very young learners.

As a child how did you learn English yourself?

Through games, songs, rhymes. These things stuck in your memory and then you learned useful vocabulary for objects. Verbs, numbers, the names of animals and all kinds of other things.

You picked this up easily through playing.

This is how young children can learn English as a second language too. Absorbing the English language like the proverbial sponge.

It is hard to dispute the benefits of the English Only classroom. The students can take advantage of an environment where English is the only language spoken. Being immersed in the language, they can engage more readily and start using the language in their own lives.

The teacher also has more control over the class and the students are focused on what is going on in the class.

But many teachers find the English Only method problematic. They prefer the Bilingual Method.

This is where students are allowed to use their own native language in class. The teachers who practice this method see many disadvantages in the English Only policy.

Let’s take a look.

Disadvantages

English Teacher as Classroom Cop

You are in your class. You are halfway through an exercise. It is going well. Really well.

Then a student at the back yells out something in his native language.

You remind him: English, please.

The student nods an apology in your direction but you have had to say the same thing to him more than ten times.

On the very first day, you told all the students this is an English Only class. They all agreed. They have heard of this concept and they think it will help them.

You even made a small joke out of it.

“Anyone who speaks English has to put a dollar in the jar.” And you tap the glass jar on your desk.

It was funny on the first day. Funny when you caught the first student out and they paid the small fine.

But now the joke is getting old. Now the students are tired of you acting like classroom cop.

 

And it is always the same two or three students who break the English Only rule. They are starting to feel ostracised. Now there is a divide in the class and you never intended for that to happen.

No one likes a strict overbearing teacher.

Teachers don’t like to be like this. If you have ever tried doing this for longer than five or ten minutes in class you will know how tough it can be. It creates a tense atmosphere. One that is unwelcoming and unfriendly.

This is one of the reasons against an English Only class. That it makes the teacher act as classroom cop.

And especially for beginners — who often feel nervous and lack confidence — they may feel more inclined to join in the class with the other students. They are not going to feel nervous — or even afraid — of the teacher.

Without the English Only ruling, the students feel more relaxed and the atmosphere is one of fun and engagement.

Which is exactly what it should be.

Time Efficiency

A big problem when using English Only in the classroom is the economy of time.

If you have had an English Only class how many times have you tried to explain a minor grammar point ALL IN ENGLISH and it taking fifteen minutes or more?

You get to the end of your perfect explanation about the difference between past simple and past continuous only to be met by blank faces. Meanwhile, the students who do get it are huffing and puffing and rolling their eyes in sheer frustration at their less capable classmates.

This is where English Only can be a real roadblock in the learning process and in the general mood of the class.

By allowing students to use their own language this problem can be bypassed easily.

All you need to do is find that one star student and ask them if they understand what you are trying to explain. If they say yes, get them to explain to you in English. You can assess if they understand or not then simply ask them to act as teacher and explain to the other students in their own language.

The benefits of this are that you are not stalling the entire class just to deal with one or two students. Plus you keep the energy levels of the class high. And there is the added bonus of getting one of the students to be the teacher.

If this student can explain it to others you can bet that she really understands it herself.

How long is an English class anyway? Certainly no more than two hours.

 

If you keep stopping to explain grammar or vocabulary to one or two students every five minutes you will lose the rest of the class. They get tired of watching their teacher doing a mime show at the front of the class to indicate the difference between ‘climb up’ and ‘walk down’.

Of course, this exercise only works where all the students share the same language.

Also, students are given the basic tenets of English in the classroom. The teacher explains a grammar point or some vocabulary. They understand what the words mean, how to structure sentences, how to use the grammar.

Now it is the students’ responsibility to reinforce this into their memory by going over these points at home through the judicious application of homework.

No Noticeable Difference

There are arguments that say there is no noticeable difference in development between students from an English Only class and those from not. Students have said they have learned at the same pace with no noticeable differences.

And for students in many countries in Asia — China and Korea most noticeably — they study English for many years and often cannot speak a simple sentence.

Would an English Only environment be of any benefit to them? It could hinder them even more.

These kinds of students need clear explanations of grammar points or vocabulary. They don’t want to spend fifteen minutes staring at the teacher as he drones on and on in English trying to clarify any issues in their understanding.

In this situation, you either need to find that one student who always understands – or make use of the TA sitting at the back of the class. That is her job after all.

Conflict

By not allowing students to use their own language in the class may cause feelings of resentment and frustration. The teacher removes their ability to communicate and the student is unable to express their thoughts. This is especially true for adult students. They start to feel like children, unable to express or say anything at all.

 

There is even the idea that an English Only environment can have psychological or social problems. And that it creates conflict for the students in terms of their own identity and culture.

Temporary and Artificial

If you are a teacher in a country such as China or Korea, you are probably encouraged to practice an English Only ruling in your class.

However, the students only have a class with you once a week for 45 minutes.

What use is having an English Only environment to these students if it only happens for 45 minutes out of their entire week?

For students in a country where English is not widely spoken having an English Only environment in class is only temporary. The environment may only last for an hour or two maximum so it becomes an artificial area of English.  As soon as they leave the class they revert back to their own language and don’t speak English at all until the next class.

And if the class only takes place once a week, an English Only environment is merely fleeting. It serves little to no purpose.

Osmosis

The argument for English Only is that the student learns by osmosis. Just by sitting in the class he is absorbing the English language along with all of its strange grammar rules and other idiosyncrasies.

The student leaves the class a little more fluent each time!

But not so. How can he understand a word he has never heard before? Recite phrases that have no meaning to him?

Writing becomes problematic. Reading too.

In order for the understanding of English to take place, the teacher has to place fragments of the language in front of the student where he places equal fragments of his own language to reinforce understanding.

The fragments stack up until he reaches a point where he is able to speak out loud phrases and sentences he is confident to say and of which he has a total understanding.

He can read and get near to full meaning of the passage.

He is able to write with intent and purpose.

The argument then is how could this be achieved with English Only?

Increased Failure Rate?

Another criticism in the English Only policy is a higher failure rate in exams.

No Fun!

But one of the most defining arguments against English Only is that the class is no longer any fun.

If a strict rule is imposed the students become too nervous to speak and the atmosphere is one of strictness and seriousness rather than fun.

It is the teacher’s job to create an air of play in the English class to encourage the students to speak out loud and have fun with English.

In an English Only class, this is removed.

So if there is this much criticism against an English Only policy, why not allow the students to use their own language?

Because there is the risk they start to use their own language as frequently as English. Later their own language takes precedence and then it is no longer an English class at all.

There has to be something between the two ideas. If the English class cannot be English Only, neither can it be half English and half L1.

For example, in a class where all the students share the same language and there is a TA present to help the native English speaker. If all that happens is the English teacher recites words or grammar points and the TA just translates verboten exactly what the teacher says then this also has issues.

The students are just getting a direct translation. They do not have to process anything at all and they sit there passively listening to first the English teacher and then the translation from the TA.

They are not being active in their English learning.

99% Rule

For many teachers now, instead of using an English Only rule, they have what may be called a 99% Rule.

This means the students should speak mostly English. But they are allowed to use their own language when they get stuck.

Of course, it doesn’t mean the class has exactly 99% English and 1% L1.

But for the class to be in mostly English but with L1 used to explain any difficult points or to translate cumbersome words for speed and efficiency.

Meaning is established and the class can move on without leaving students behind who cannot keep up. Everyone is learning at the same pace and if not then meaning is provided to reassure the student using their own language.

The idea is that the teacher tries to hold the class mostly in English.

 

If the teacher uses the 99% rule then his students should be speaking English for the majority of the class. There is no need for him to be a tyrant and lay down the rules. He can also relax too. The class becomes more fun for everyone.

The main thought should be: Are the students speaking English? If so, all good.

With older students, the teacher can allow other students to drip-feed L1 into the class so that the English point he is trying to clarify is understood by everyone. All he has to do is monitor this carefully.

For example, he makes a grammar point and sees that half the class understand what he is saying, but the other half are scratching their heads. He can confirm this easily by asking the right questions to the class.

Then he finds the star student who always understands everything and asks her to explain the grammar point to him using English. Once she can do that the teacher can then ask this student to explain in L1 to the other students who missed the point.

Usually, the teacher will find there is a collective Ahhh from these students once the star student has finished explaining in L1.

Then the teacher can move on to the next point in the exercise. He has achieved his objective, everyone is on the same bus and the teacher has also saved a lot of time.

For multinational classes, the 99% rule would not work. The teacher must have an English Only policy as there is no choice.

That said, he may find there is more than one Chinese student in his class, more than one Russian, French, Italian. He can still use 99% rules in some circumstances. But for most of the time, he is using English Only.

However, the students are usually in an English Only environment outside the class as multinational classes are invariably in an English-speaking country. They are immersed in a world of only speaking English so they have to learn or improve their English skills through survival alone.

Conclusion

The English Only rule sounds fine in theory. But once the teacher is in the real world of teaching it becomes problematic to maintain it.

This is especially true for teachers working in a country that all share the same language. A teacher in Korea for example or in Mexico.

Quite often these students may only meet once or twice a week for an hour or so. The classes may be large — forty plus students.

These circumstances make the English Only rule much a waste of time. Better to allow the TA to help with translation. This has to be monitored in case the class becomes:

English Teacher talking -> TA translating -> Students nodding their heads.

The students are not doing any work; they are not involved in the class. They are merely sitting there passively taking in what is happening in front of them.

The teacher needs to engineer the class so that the TA translates what is necessary and involve the class so the students are working.

For more advanced students who may have a firmer grasp of English, the teacher may be able to dispense with the TA altogether. He then uses the star student — or any other students — to translate what is needed in L1 before moving on in the exercise.

The teacher does not want the students to blindly copy what he is saying in English but to understand it. That may only be possible using a 99% rule.

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