Digging Even Deeper into “English-only”: Impacts on Student Motivation

Today’s entry will be the last one looking at English-only institutional policies and my strong misgivings about them and their efficacy. So, today I’d like to talk briefly about student motivation. Today, I will not be speaking as a researcher, or a scholar, but rather as a boots-on-the-ground teacher. I will talk about some of the effects that I’ve seen English-only institutional policies have on students in intensive English programs and why I see this as an issue with these kinds of policies—even though some, like T. Leverett, feel that educators cannot really affect student motivation.

It becomes a very nasty negative feedback loop.

English-only institutional policies can impact student motivation in some ways. One of the first is by influencing motivation to take part in classroom interactions. In any given class, there is a broad range of proficiencies. When teaching in the American Language Institute (ALI), I would often teach a class called Intermediate 2 Reading and Writing, an upper-intermediate/pre-advanced literacy course. However, in that class, I would have students who actually ranged from upper-beginner to lower advanced. Often, lower-proficiency students face a certain trepidation to take part during in-class activities because of how they think they will be perceived because of their poor English. Limiting them to just the second language (L2), to English, also ties a hand behind their backs by limiting them to just one linguistic tool. It would need to start a fire, but not being allowed to use the starter log you brought with you—you can just use your cheap Bic lighter. By limiting them to just the L2, they may feel that they cannot even share their thoughts with a more English-proficient peer that shares their first language (L1). This has the impact of silencing the student. And, speaking from personal experiences, if you feel silenced, eventually your motivation to participate drops to nil and you end up sitting through lessons barely paying attention. You become identified as a weak learner, which feeds your actions in class, which reaffirms the identification. It becomes a very nasty negative feedback loop.

Another possible negative impact of this is that students that share and L1 cannot come to each other’s aid to clarify course instruction and important points in the language in which they are most proficient. Think of a time, or imagine, that you’ve been trying to explain something to a friend or classmate in your L2. Perhaps you lack the vocabulary (lexicon) to do so. Maybe, you don’t have the syntactic skill to address the topic in a thoughtful and educated way. Now, if you could switch to your shared L1, this would become instantly easier and may lead to increased understanding in of the L2. English-only institutional policies can remove this significant opportunity. For stricter teachers, students flaunting an English-only policy may be cast as disruptive and disobedient, which may have further adverse effects on motivation.

Finally, some institutions push the English-only policy out of the classroom and into the hallways and common areas. The rationale for this is to get students talking in English because using a language is a vital part of acquiring a language. And, on this I agree, using something—and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone—are important parts of language learning and acquisition. However, pushing this policy into student spaces, I would argue has an unforeseen impact on student motivation to take part in school social life. This regulation of language use in student spaces can leave students feeling stranded, limited in the identities that they can perform and the topics that they can competently discuss. This sense of otherness can lead to a withdrawal from the social spaces altogether, preferring to socialize with friends of their own language group off campus.

Certainly, there is a reason for English-only policies. They attempt to create spaces where students must use the language that they are learning. And, one cannot deny that increased use has positive effects on learning and acquiring a language. However, because of the issues that exist, the doors that they close, the tools that they remove for the learners, I have had and continue to have misgivings about strict versions of this policy in educational institutions.

Next week, I’ll move on to discussing my work at NYU Shanghai (上海纽约大学).  I’ll share some of the rewards and challenges that come with working for a start-up university and one of the world’s first Sino-American joint venture universities.

Source Articles

Gardner, R.C. (2010). Motivation and Second Language Acquisition: The Socio-educational Model. New York: Peter Lang

Leverett, T. (2012). Motivation and second language acquisition: The Socio-educational model. TESL-EJ, 16(2).

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