English-only policies and teacher identity

For the past few months I’ve been attempting some research into the effects of English-only policies on the identity of non-native speaker teachers. I’ve got a couple of interviews to go and haven’t got any clear conclusions yet, but I thought I’d share my thoughts on it anyway.

English-only policies in EFL/ESL classrooms can be seen as a direct by-product of the CLT revolution and the ‘natural’ and ‘direct’ approaches that took hold of language teaching in the 1970s and 80s and haven’t let go since. In fact, in places like Japan, where I teach, it is only now just being officially implemented. The Japanese government requires all high school (aged 15-18) English lessons to be taught “principally” in English and from 2020 all middle school (aged12-15) classes too. This belief (and that’s just what it is, a ‘belief’) in the superiority of English-only has become firmly entrenched and enthusiastically taken up in a wide variety of linguistic and cultural settings with absolutely no empirical evidence that it is effective. In fact, a number of recent studies have found that use of the L1 in class can improve comprehension and production of the L2 and more importantly that allowing access to the L1 has positive effects in terms of cognition and social interaction.

For non-non-native speaker (NNNS – yes, I know the joke should have worn off by now – sorry!) teachers working in an EFL environment, until around the mid-1980s it was expected that they have some knowledge of the L1 where they were teaching. This was reflected in training programmes at the time and in methodological approaches such as Community Language Learning (CLL), which presumed that language teachers had some knowledge of their students L1. By the 1990s, this language knowledge was no longer required, and by the 2000s it was not only not desirable, but explicitly forbidden. I remember one incident when I was teaching a class at Lehman Brothers, Tokyo in 2008 just before the crash, (I don’t think there was any correlation between my teaching there and the biggest collapse of global markets in almost a century, but I can’t be sure!), which was being monitored by the HR rep. as it was the first class of the course. About halfway through the class it was unbearably hot in the room as there were about 8 or 9 of us stuffed into a small conference room more suitable for 4 people, so I turned to the HR person and asked, in Japanese (I had no reason to presume that she could speak English, so I thought I would play it safe and be polite), whether there were any other rooms available. She was extremely angry and requested that I don’t use Japanese in the presence of the students again – the NNNS bubble had been broken and I was forced back into pretending that I didn’t possess this very valuable skill that I had studied hard to acquire. In any other sphere of work, having an additional language would be seen as a useful skill that might even give the employee higher pay or a promotion, but in in the ELT world, where you would think it would be even more important, this additional skill is being repressed and denied. In many workplaces, such as universities, this is true not only inside the classroom, but outside of it too.

For non-native English speaker (NNS) teachers, it is often cited that one of the reasons why they may be seen as more suitable teachers when teaching students that share their L1 is precisely because they are guaranteed to have this shared linguistic knowledge and can thus better understand, empathise and communicate with their students. But when forced to adopt an English-only policy in their professional life, I would argue that this not only deprives them of a valuable skill and teaching tool, as it also does with NNNS, but in the case of NNS it deprives them of their identity too.

Our own language is so bound up with our sense of who we are as a person, that to deny someone access to it is almost akin to taking away a basic human right. That may sound a bit over-dramatic and it probably is, but the principal of restricting the cultural identity of a teacher in order to create a fictitious atmosphere of monolingualism and advance an outdated and unempirical ideology just seems to me to be unnecessary, misguided and yet another way to deliver the message to NNS teachers that their own culture and identity are worthless and that they should surrender themselves to the NNNS norm.

Hopefully, emerging movements like the Bi/Multilingual Turn will start to overturn these kinds of policies and allow NNS teachers to reclaim their own languages and identities.


7 thoughts on “English-only policies and teacher identity”

  1. “pretending that I didn’t possess this very valuable skill that I had studied hard to acquire” this is a big shock for people who studied Japanese in order to more successfully fit in here. Contrary to expectations of both society as a whole and our ELT classrooms in particular, it becomes a liability. Not to constantly link to myself, but here’s a link to myself: https://futurealisreal.wordpress.com/2016/05/10/the-l2-uncanny-valley/


  2. An interesting read – thanks for the link (the whole blog looked great, I tried to “follow” but am having a bit of WordPress trouble!). Yep – it definitely does rather inexplicably seem to be a liability rather than an asset.

    But as I said in the post, I think the stakes are higher for NNS teachers where a whole part of their identity is closed off.


  3. Good post, although I’d like to point out that L2-only massively predates the communicative approach. But essentially it’s a bi-product of British and American approaches being exported around the world. And these approaches make sense in the UK or USA, because you can’t expect any teacher to know the language of every student they might teach in a multi-lingual context. In my experience, the banning of the L1 comes from the idea that people learn a language quicker if they’re placed in a situation where they have to use it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot more English is spoken multilingual classrooms than monolingual ones, but I don’t know if this is backed up by research. But logic would suggest that a classroom in which English is the lingua franca would result in more genuine communication in English. And therefore it’s not surprising that teachers would try and recreate that in a monolingual environment. Anecdotal evidence would also suggest that getting students to actually speak the L2 in a monolingual classroom is a constant battle, particularly with approaches such as task-based learning. It’s quite telling that as soon as students have something they genuinely want to communicate, they will often switch to L1, even when it’s something they are perfectly capable of communicating in English. Whether or not banning the L1 or hiring a teacher that doesn’t speak it is an effective way of getting them to do so is another question. I’ve taught in monolingual classes where I don’t speak the students’ language, and it doesn’t stop the students speaking it to each other.

    Can you link to the studies you mention?


    1. Hi Joe,
      Thanks for commenting. Yeah, I think it definitely makes a difference if it is an ESL or an EFL context, although even in this situation, there are effective ways to utilise the L1 using peer support, rather than teacher support.

      I suppose I just object to the outright dogmatism of banning the L1 completely and the idea of a skill as a liability. Not to mention the restrictions on identity and ability to make a deep human connection with students.

      Some studies that mention the effective of using L1 are famous ones like:
      Cook, V. J. (2001). Using the first language in the classroom. The Canadian Modern Language Review/La Revue Canadienne des Langues Vivantes, 57 (3), 403-420.
      Macaro, E. (2005) “Codeswitching in the L2 Classroom: A Communication and Learning Strategy” in Non-Native Language Teachers: Perceptions, Challenge sand Contributions to the Profession. Ed. Llurda, E , 63-84.

      and some more recent ones like:

      McMillan, B., & Rivers, D. (2011). The practice of policy: Teacher attitudes towards “English only.” System, 39, 251-263. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2011.04.011
      Turnbull, M., Dailey-O’Cain, J., 2009. First Language Use in Second and Foreign Language Learning. Multilingual Matters, Bristol.
      Butzkamm, W., Caldwell, J.A.W., 2009. The Bilingual Reform: a Paradigm Shift in Foreign Language Teaching. Narr, Tubingen.
      Hawkins, S.J. (2015). “Guilt, Missed Opportunities, and False Role Models: A Look at Perceptions and Use of the First Language in English Teaching in Japan” Jalt Journal

      And if you are interested in the Multilingual Turn which focuses more on ESL there are a few books now, but the only one I’ve read is:
      Conteh J, Meier GS (Ed.) The Multilingual Turn in Languages Education: Opportunities and Challenges. New Perspectives on Language and Education, Bristol: Multi;lingual Matters

      There are a lot more out there, that’s just what was on my desktop/bookshelf!


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