“English Only”– a Great Way to Waste Time in Your ESL Class


Hey all.

I’m going to rant a bit about this “English ONLY” concept that crops up from time to time among ESL teachers. Why? Because I just saw someone on a social platform in an ESL group ask other teachers how they go about enforcing the English ONLY rule in their classroom. Perhaps it wasn’t so much the question that frustrated me as it was the same-old, same-old answers that I’ve read over and over when such comes up:

  • fine them if they speak their native language (argh!!!!!)
  • set down the English ONLY rule and be inflexible in its application
  • remove points from their scores for using the native language
  • and other really national socialistic party type answers

Languages of dominance

I don’t remember where I read the following. I do remember sharing it with adult students often. It’s a “history of linguistic world dominance” in three short acts. Enjoy.

Act I: The Spanish Conquistadores

When the Spanish set out to Dominate the World, they all jumped onto the Armada, sailed the deep blue, arrived at their destination, raped, robbed and killed (can you tell I studied history in the USA? ha!). They really didn’t care very much if the natives learned Spanish or not, their objective was not to make friends but to find the Fountain of Youth and El Dorado. Anyone who stood in their way was simply eliminated. Spanish grew in the New World, but was heavily seasoned with local spice.

Act II: The French

When the French set out, they weren’t looking to Dominate the World, they simply were not up to the challenge (that’s why they sold Louisiana at such a bargain price!). As far as linguistic dominance, well, only the French spoke French, and if you didn’t speak French then you couldn’t communicate with the French, the French weren’t going to speak to you anyway, since you didn’t really speak French,  and the French finally ended up packing up their toys and running back to France, where there were other French people who spoke and understood French. They really didn’t make much of an effort.

Act III: The Sun Never Sets on the English Empire (or was that the Spanish one? Does it matter?)

The English really managed to Dominate the World. They also bothered to use linguistics to make sure that they would be the Dominating People of that world. Even before colonization, within their own puny society on those islands, people were classified by the way in which they used English. There is a “Queen’s English” and there are the rest of the Englishes. No Dominated Native could ever hope to achieve the level of “Queen’s English” and so would always be part of that class that didn’t speak the revered English of the blue-blooded.

Now, these three stories are simplistic, stereotypical, not entirely true– except the part about English use being used to define class, even to structure class. From that, a notion of “English ONLY ” could naturally be preached for the ESL classroom.

Linguistic dominance of English

One need only look at the hysterical attitudes in the United States in the late 1990s or even the current linguistic paranoia in the Catalonian region of Spain to see that linguistic questions are dominated by politics and the manipulation of public opinion. Some Americans truly believe that if one in five Americans will be of Latin ancestry and speaks Spanish in their home, the entire American Empire will come crashing down around their ankles.

This then moves into the classroom. Do read the first article linked to above, it’s fascinating. Do do a search on English ONLY in the ESL classroom, you’ll find those who, like those in the English Only political movement, simply assert (with nearly no scientific / linguistic backing, or currently disproved findings) that English ONLY is the ONLY way (and they’re quite bold and insistent on the theme, kind of Ancient Roman if you ask me).

You’ll also find quite a few ESL teachers who describe English ONLY in the classroom as something imposed upon them by bosses or academic methods, that once they moved away from those restrictions they found that the use of the native language in the classroom could benefit the student.

Enforcing English ONLY wastes class time

Time in class is very, very valuable. Your students may only be with you for a couple of hours a week. If, in any of those few minutes, you, the teacher, are repeating “English ONLY, please”,you are robbing your students of their time in the class. When you spend two or ten or twenty minutes explaining a grammar point in English ONLY which you could have demonstrated in seconds in the native language, you are robbing your students of their time in the class.

Dedicate class time to helping students to understand, not to enforcing useless, dogmatic, unproven, fear-mongering rules like English ONLY. Once you give up the concept of English ONLY, you will have freed yourself from Linguistic Dominance. You will have become a more empathetic teacher, understanding and helping your students to understand.

ESL teachers are not members of some secret society with an agenda. English ONLY stinks of agenda. Let it go. Concentrate on what matters, English ONLY does not matter.
Thanks for listening to my rant. More can be listened to in this post.



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