Digging into “English-only”: Writing, L1s, L2s, and Proficiency

I’ve spent most of my professional life as a teacher of writing. The first time that I was dropped into the classroom, it was an English as a second language (ESL) composition class. I was nervous. I felt underprepared, a familiar feeling for new college teachers. I mean, only the week earlier I had been handling merchandise flow at Wal-Mart as a merchandise supervisor—the only supervisory position I’ve held with no real supervision. Since I was such a new and untested teacher, I did what any worried young professional would do, I began to research best practices for what I was doing. This is how I kind of fell into second language (L2) writing research.

I ended up diving into the published research on L2 writing and even began carrying out some of my own—my master’s thesis was on idea generation in L2 writing. It was through this process that I began to find purchase for my first misgivings about English-only educational policies. It started when I found Lurong Wang’s article, “Switching to First Language Among Writers with Differing Second-Language Proficiencies.” In this paper, Wang looks 8 Chinese-speaking students studying in Canada; half of them are intermediate speakers of English, the other are advanced speakers. What he found was that those lower-proficiency speakers would use Chinese far more often while they were writing than their higher proficiency pairs. This, on the surface, appears to be a relatively intuitive finding. However, when other studies have dug deeper, like Wenyu Wang and Qiufang Wen or Daphne van Weijen and her colleagues have done, they found that the ways that these two proficiency groups use their L1s are very different. What seemingly remains constant across all skill levels, however, is that the L1 can offer a very powerful tool for coming up with ideas to write about, and to explore one’s thoughts about content.

There can be many reasons for this. For example, if a multilingual person is writing about an experience that they’ve only ever had in their home country—say bartering—they’ll more easily recall and parse that information in the L1. Meanwhile, experiences that they’ve only ever had in their L2 say planning the structure of an academic essay, will be more easily recalled in the L2. So, why take away this vital planning tool with English-only educational policies? It would be like requiring someone to push a wagon full of rocks up a hill in heeled dress shoes as opposed to sneakers. Sure, you can do it, but you’ll spend more valuable energy doing.

Also, we cannot deny that multilingual individuals—and I would argue here that includes highly proficient ESL students studying at English-medium colleges and university—regularly make use of all their linguistic tools when communicating. We expect and accept it when it comes to oral communication, so why should we exclude from the writing classroom? It’s denying them access to a very powerful cognitive resource. And, doing so can have negative academic impacts.

Now, the pushback here is often that allowing the L1 to creep in can lead to so-called “deficient” English because translations are not perfect. True, off-the-cuff translation can be problematic. I’ve made several translation errors in Chinese. However, if we teach students how to use their L1s as a resource and not to view them as a hindrance, we can work with them to improve their translation skill. Now, little can be done if the student isn’t motivated to learn. We can’t help them if they’re using Google or Baidu translate at 2:00 am the morning before an assignment is due. Also, we can’t deny that multilinguals bring with them a fresh approach to the English language and can introduce new expressions through the strategic use of their linguistic resources. Ha Jin talks about this in his chapter “In Defense of Foreignness.” Let me give you an example. I was once proctoring college writing placement exams for international students. One student, a young Chinese woman, was writing about whether young children should be given access to computers and the unfiltered internet. She felt that they should not and said that one reason very young children should not be given this degree of access is that they are like “fresh pieces of white paper.” Now, the equivalent English expression is to “be a blank slate.” But, that doesn’t have the connotation she was going for. To be a blank slate suggests you have no pre-existing knowledge or experiences, and anything that was there has been meticulously cleaned away. Her expression, “fresh pieces of white paper” carries with it a connotation of innocence that I don’t think we see with the blank slate. It’s also an expression that is heavily encoded in cultural significance for her as a Chinese speaker of English. To have comprehensive English-only educational policies strips away the ability to strategically deploy the L1 in ways that might enhance learning and communication. It also, in some respects, hobbles multilingual students. There are, of course, other issues like identity, but I’ll return to those tomorrow.

Source Articles

van Weijen, D., van den Bergh, H., Rijlaarsdam, G., & Sanders, T. (2009). L1 use during L2 writing: An empirical study of a complex phenomenon. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18(2), 235-250.

Wang, L. (2003). Switching to the first language among writers with differing second-language proficiency. Journal of Second Language Writing, 12(3), 347-375.

Wang, W., & Wen, Q. (2002). L1 use in the L2 composition process: An exploratory study of 16 Chinese EFL writers. Journal of Second Language Writing, 11(2), 225-246.

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.



The Purdue Languages and Cultures Conference

If you’re in the Midwest and you’re looking for a great professionalization opportunity, I’d encourage you to check out Purdue’s Languages and Cultures Conference. This conference evolved from two graduate conferences at Purdue, and I can say that it is a warm and welcoming weekend of excellent presentations by passionate professionals and professionalizing graduates. Also, they always put together some nice breakfast snacks and coffee! Check out the Facebook post linked below for more information.

Responding to Inside Higher Ed’s “Coming in 2017” Opinion Piece

A few days ago, L.M. Rudgers and J.A. Peterson released an opinion article in Inside Higher Ed entitled “Coming in 2017”. This piece offered a preview of seven trends in higher education that administrators, faculty, and staff should bear in mind as they prepare for the upcoming calendar year and a change in governmental administrations. In summary, they are:

  • Enrollment changes
  • Issues of cost and access
  • Questions over value
  • Focus shifts toward career/job preparedness
  • State financial support
  • Campus climates
  • Academic freedom

It should be noted that none of these are new trends, but are continuing trends from earlier years that colleges and universities are still struggling with.

However, as an applied linguist and a second language (L2) educational specialist, there are two of these that immediately struck me. Namely those of declining state financial support and issues of cost and access. As states continue to slash higher education budgets, universities and colleges have made several adjustments to make up the difference. One way that this is done is by increasing caps on international student enrollments. This is because international students often pay a premium tuition (out-of-state tuition + extra fees).  Starting in 2012 at Purdue University, many international students were charged an additional $2,000 fee. Coincidentally, the next year, Purdue announced that they would be raising caps on international enrollments. This strategy isn’t just limited to large, public, research universities like Purdue. When I was on the job market in 2015, a small, engineering college was in the middle of making the same move. Stats from the Institute for International Education’s Open Doors project shows that relatively rapid growth in international enrollments at US universities and colleges.

The problem in this strategy to overcome declining state educational budgets is that it’s simply not sustainable. The most immediate potential threat comes from uncertainty in how the incoming government administration will handle visas. During the campaign, there were many statements made about changes to how the US handles visas and immigrations that have made higher education institutions nervous. From negative rhetoric towards Muslim groups to an America First attitude, this could put downward pressure on available student visas and post-graduation employment opportunities through cuts to the H-1B visa program—a visa for foreign workers in “specialist” positions—as well as the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program.

Now, another issue with blindly using international student enrollments to bridge budget shortfalls relates directly to matters of cost and access. At some institutions, that extra fee for international students is supposed to cover the added costs that come with international students (e.g., visa paperwork processing, additional staff support, etc.). However, at some universities and colleges, the ways in which this extra fee is used to help international students is less than transparent. Leading to questions of whether there is any benefit to the students for this additional cost. For example, there are often different acculturational and linguistic needs for international students that are not being met, or that have programs that are not properly funded. This directly impacts the educational experience for international students, some of whom may be pushed towards profit-driven intensive English programs to address lacking linguistic skills. It also affects international students access to other university experiences that may be taken for granted by the domestic students. Beyond educational consequences, there are also issues related to costs for international students that may lead to quality of life issues. On Facebook, Sarah Goldrick-Rab (see below), a professor of Educational Policy and Sociology at Temple University, responded to the original Inside Higher Ed article by pointing out that one thing that is overlooked by these conversations about cost and access also touch on matters of food and housing security. These issues may also apply to some international students.

So, another concern that should be added to this list is how we’re going to continue to support international students in higher education, and how matters of affordability—food and housing security included—can be addressed. I can only hope that these concerns don’t get lost in larger issues of addressing perceptions of an increasingly xenophobic national climate. Additionally, we might also want to continue to consider ways in which we can increase access to our institutions for international students. This may include shifting the view of these students away from one of economic resource and towards one that seeks to more fully integrate their experiences and perspectives to also create new opportunities for a larger cross-section of domestic students as well.

The Passing of Linguist Zhou Youguang (周有光)

Today, I was sitting on the bed playing with the puppy and my spouse asks Alexa for his daily briefing. In it, NPR reported that Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang had passed away. At first, I was a bit surprised to hear that the passing of a linguist would garner attention on any major news outlet. Then, I listened in to the story. Not only did Mr. Zhou create pinyin (拼音), the system of presenting the sounds of the Chinese language in Roman letters, he also passed away at the age of 111 and a day. That’s a hell of an achievement. The pinyin system not only helped to facilitate sharp increases in literacy rates in China, but it also has promoted Chinese as a second language (CSL) learning for students around the globe, myself included. If it weren’t for pinyin, it would have been a much harder time getting started in the language—not to mention typing it, as I’ve never figured out any input system besides pinyin input. But to live to 111? That’s intense.

So, as with other great linguists that have passed in recent years, thanks for all you’ve done!