To begin with, this is strictly about “English only” in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. It is not about “English-only” laws. It is not a commentary on bilingual education or language immersion programs overall.
Some six years ago, when I was taking education courses in preparation for teaching, I learned (or re-learned) about the abuse that many immigrants and Native Americans had suffered–how they were shamed and humiliated in school for speaking their own language, and how this affected their lives. These were serious stories, and I took them seriously.
We were told, over and over, that it was good to celebrate everyone’s language and that there was room for the native language in the ESL classroom.
Because I enjoy languages and speak Russian and Spanish fairly well, I did not mind this suggestion at first. Over time, I came to see it as bad advice–particularly in situations where students speak English in ESL class and nowhere else.
My school had a mixture of situations. The regular ESL classes had students from countries around the world. You could seat them with students who spoke a different language. They would make friends with each other and speak English with each other (and sometimes teach each other their native languages outside of class). In these classes, you could work in a Russian or Bengali phrase now and then without risking anything. The kids were immersed in English and learning it.
We also had two bilingual programs, for Spanish- and Chinese-speaking students. They were bilingual in name only, for the most part; the students generally spoke and read in their native languages except when they came to ESL class.
This was a much tougher situation. Here, the students spoke their native languages at home, with their friends, and at school. The only time when they had to speak English was in ESL class. Yes, the bilingual classes in the other subjects included some English, but not a whole lot. (These bilingual programs, which have since been abandoned, had some wonderful aspects, but English was not one of them.)
In such situations, an “English only” rule in ESL class was essential. Without it, students would rely on their Spanish or Chinese, would speak it to each other, and would not push themselves to learn English.
I see nothing disrespectful about “English only” rules in an ESL class. I see no reason for confusion over the matter. Such rules should really be the default. There are certain exceptions, of course. If a student arrives in the middle of the year and doesn’t speak a word of English, then it makes sense to have another student explain things to him or her at the outset. But only for a little while.
It’s great to enjoy other people’s languages; it’s great to show appreciation of them. But in ESL class, the students should be learning English. A teacher may make a reference to another language when explaining a grammatical or idiomatic point (especially with older students). But it gets slippery if the students realize the teacher speaks their language, and the teacher starts answering their questions in their language. Unless the teacher is very clear about when and when not to depart from English, it’s best to stick to English across the board.