English-Only Classrooms: Effective or a Burden?

Matador Network recently published an article framing ESL teaching as neocolonialism. It’s worth a read and I certainly agree with a lot of it. There are many power imbalances when an American goes to Asia to teach, both inside and outside the classroom. The article hints at some of them, including one that I have always found particularly glaring: though I am barely qualified to teach (two years of experience has helped) and still very young, as soon as it gets out that I was a lecturer at a fairly prestigious university, the amount of respect that I receive—in any situation—rises considerably. Considering my (lack of) qualifications, that respect is undeserved, which is why I usually try to downplay my lecturer status. The fact remains, though, that I can pull it out of reserve when I need to—and that smacks of privilege.

But I’m not here to talk about that. The article also took issue with the policy of having an English-only classroom, saying, for example, that it made the classroom inherently unsafe if students were not allowed to ask questions in their native language.

This is an interesting argument and something I admit to not having considered before. However, I think there are situations where an English-only policy is very appropriate and perhaps even crucial. I would argue that my English-only rule, a rule that held true through all of my university classes, undergrad and graduate alike, is very necessary given my true role in the departments where I taught.

The article raises the point that a native speaker is usually seen as inherently more qualified teacher, even up against others who have been teaching for ten or twenty years. This is unfortunately true—I still run into people who think I would be a better teacher of the ToEFL test for them than an Indonesian who got a high score. What the article fails to mention, and what I think is more important, is that after acknowledging this, the TEFL teacher abroad should then take some time to consider what their true purpose is in their students’ education. In most cases, this is to provide an example of how English is used in a country where English is the first language. This means giving the students plenty of access to a foreigner’s accent and, depending on the students’ level, to to an authentic rate of speech. Speaking the students’ first language in the classroom is not going to accomplish this.

Now, I do not advocate an only-English policy in all situations. I once volunteer taught a class consisting of students whose English levels ranged from practically fluent to being virtually illiterate—in Indonesian. That class would probably have been impossible without the aid of Indonesian, on my part and on the students’ parts. I have also co-taught some classes with an Indonesian friend of mine in which I fall into the English role while he occasionally speaks Indonesian.

Even in my university classes, I tolerated some Indonesian. I allowed my undergraduate students to speak Indonesian to each other at times. This was tricky to manage, because I’ve found that some of the best language learning I had in school was during side conversations in forced French. However, once I started understanding my students’ Indonesian, I was usually happy to let them ask questions in Indonesian to each other about the material. Also, if a game had terribly complicated rules (such as Werewolves) I would explain them in English and then have someone re-explain the rules in Indonesian, just to make sure everyone was on the same page.

However, overall I think an only-English policy, or at least a very close to only-English policy is necessary for most classes taught by native speakers. This, after all, is the point of having a native speaker. Students are able to use their first language with their other teachers. Their class with the native speakers is their one opportunity to practice their skills in a structured simulation of actually having to use English to communicate. Being under-qualified means that this is often the best service that a native speaker can provide for his or her students.

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