The prickly topic of “English only”

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.


  1. I took a Spanish immersion class in Spain. The students were from various countries but most spoke English. The teachers NEVER spoke English. If a teacher could not get her point across after many tries, she would ask in Spanish for another student to explain the situation to the student struggling (in what ever language necessary). No talking in any other language was allowed (a little lenient on this) without teacher permission.

    I don’t think the class would have been as effective any other way.

  2. dangermom says:

    I would agree that English-only needs to be the rule. I was an exchange student myself and learned the language through immersion. By chance (and because I was 15 instead of 17), I was assigned to a school with no other exchange students, where most of the students didn’t speak terribly good English. By the end of the year, it was obvious that I had benefited from being there. Many other exchange students had tended to band together at their schools and default to English. They were not very fluent, but I and a few others who were similarly situated had become completely fluent in the language.

    It is hard to force yourself to speak in a difficult language you don’t know well. An environment that makes you do it is helpful in the long run.

  3. In the French classes I took in high school, my teachers enforced a “policie de francais seulement” after the first year.