English-only Language Classrooms

Speaking ‘good’ English was equated with being a ‘good’ American (Baron, 1990, p. 155). [And], Children were encouraged to profess language loyalty… E.R. Auerbach “Reexamining English Only in the ESL Classroom.”

English Only have been strikingly familiar in some of the intensive programs that I’ve worked in. With some even going so far as to put up signs in the hallway that said “SPEAK ENGLISH” in all capital letters. These signs always made me feel nervous as a young teacher—and I outright ignore them today. Proponents of English Only institutional policies will point to any number of reasons to justify the exclusionary policy. They’ll often say that the English Only environment facilitates uptake of language inputs; that it promotes language production and play; that it increases total hours of exposure. I think that it’s interesting that I haven’t found much in the mainstream professional journals supporting this stance. This could be, at least in part, because of how fraught this position is with ideological and political underpinnings.

In her 1993 TESOL Quarterly article E.R. Auerbach pointed out that English-Only policies are neither new nor are they necessarily the norm in the U.S. Rather, schools of waffled on this policy rather often since the 19th century. However, as schools began to offer English as a second language (ESL) instruction in the early 1900’s, English Only policies began to reemerge. They were often tied to moves to help immigrant students enculturate to American society through a process of Americanization. The problem with Americanization is made very clear in the epigraph above—good English means you’re a real American.

The implications of this are that if you speak with an accent, or if you don’t have full control of the linguistic system, you’re a bad American. You (the learner) should try harder. You (the learner) will never fit in. You (the learner) are less than, are deficient. There are a few problems with this. First, we’re often expecting a great deal from ESL students who have had a relatively short amount of time engaged in learning and acquiring English. In their review of first language (L1) acquisition, Behrens points out that children have thousands of hours of exposure to their natal language before they begin to actively produce even the simplest of things, like “mama” or “dada” or “up.” And, even these simple utterances are usually tied to their immediate surroundings and heavily scaffolded with things like body language and pantomime (paralinguistic information). However, some act surprised and put out when someone with only a few years of non-intensive English instruction speaks with a thick accent with bad grammar. The second issue with this approach and its ideological underpinnings are that it treats as less than and as suspect any linguistic resources that aren’t English. This has meant that bilingual and English-speaking learners of other languages are often viewed as suspect. Why would you ever want to learn something like Japanese or Brazilian Portuguese when you have command of one of the most dominant languages on the planet? Indeed, it can shut out the perceived need to learn other languages or to strive towards becoming bilingual. However, it can also discourage the use of the resources that our bilingual students bring with them.

Now, back to that sign “SPEAK ENGLISH.” After a few years in the profession, and a lot more time reading work related to language policy, English language teaching, language variation, and identity. I have a better sense of just why those signs used to make me feel uneasy. And, why I often ignore them today. For the rest of this week, I’ll dig into this a bit more by looking at it from a few different angles. So, check back soon!

Source Articles

Auerbach, E.R. (1993). Reexamining English Only in the ESL Classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 27(1), 9-32.

Behrens, H. (2006). The input-output relationship in first language acquisition. Language and Cognitive Processes, 21(1/2/3), 2-24.

Baron, D. (1990). The English only question: An official language for Americans? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.



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