1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Discuss in my forum

Kenneth Beare

English only in the classroom?

By February 6, 2013

Follow me on:

Does your school, teaching or learning situation enforce a strict "English only" rule? Is that the best way to get English learning results? These are both interesting questions to consider when thinking about your approach to teaching English in an ESL or EFL environment. After a long discussion with a student today, I've decided to post some my own thoughts on the thorny issue of English only in the classroom. I'd certainly like to hear your opinion as well. Feel free to contribute to the conversation by replying to this blog post.


February 7, 2013 at 9:36 am
(1) kashphi says:

thanx for help

February 7, 2013 at 2:14 pm
(2) alexcuetodo says:

Indeed it’s a thorny feature… but just as you are, i’ve spent some time teaching also and it’s quite more efficient to explain grammar in L1. I’ve seen cases of students coming from lower levels where I have to spend lots of time explaining old concepts just becasue they were presented to them in L2. You can find advanced students who have never well understood simple present tense just because they didnt get it when first introduced in lower levels. English only teachers go over and over the same material and students nod as if they get ot, when they actually don’t.

February 9, 2013 at 10:35 am
(3) Roberta says:

I think it’s not necessary to be so strict about it… but it’s important to speak English most of the time in class because some students don’t have so many opportunities to do it on their daily routines…

February 11, 2013 at 3:59 am
(4) Sebastian says:

It is definitely important to speak english only. In my opinion the human brain needs to really emerge with the language for at least 45 minutes in order to learn the language. In our language school in germany we use the “progressive submersion” with great success. for german speakers :

Best Regards!

February 12, 2013 at 8:12 am
(5) Mark Brown says:

Dear Sir / Madam,

I have taught English for 15 years in Japan. SADLY, the focus is on GRAMMAR and Japanese teachers only know how to teach that in their first language. Japan spends a HUGE amount of money employing native English speaking ALT`s but the end result is no improvement in communication because they aren`t taught that language is a communicative tool and NOT just an academic field of study.

I have taught at companies for the past 13 years and encourage English only as mixing languages doesn`t improve any 2nd language acquisition and is a lazy form to cheat rather than try and learn. I adopt the approach of a swimmer learning to swim – “jump in, learn to survive and with lots of hard work you can improve”. I have applied this same philosophy in learning Japanese after coming here with absolutely no exposure to the language.

Here the main challenge is a severe lack of self-confidence, no English use in daily life,a severe lack of motivated study and a culture where meeting new people doesn`t come easily and simply.

February 12, 2013 at 8:22 am
(6) Carl says:

I teach at a school where at the lower levels both languages are used in the classroom but advanced levels are English only. This combination seems to work well as long as students are not passed to upper levels prematurely. At upper levels I think English only makes a lot of sense for students to continue to ad to and retain vocabulary.

February 12, 2013 at 8:25 am
(7) savita madival says:

Tq for help

February 12, 2013 at 9:04 am
(8) Zeinellule says:

English only in the classroom is the best way to learn foreign language.

imagine you are in germany and you do not speak it,you will be forced to
learn it day by day…

February 12, 2013 at 9:07 am
(9) Chaya says:

I make an effort to use only English even with a Beginner’s group; but what I usually do is ask my students what the word is in Hebrew (I live in Israel).

February 12, 2013 at 9:49 am
(10) Selma Bastos says:

I know that to use the target language only in the classroom is the best way to learn a foreign language, but “sometimes” I have to use the mother tongue and I can’t see problem with it.

February 12, 2013 at 9:56 am
(11) Orlando Carranza says:

We teach English as a foreign language in Peru, and as you know the students “study” how to speak the language in the classroom. I´m sure you have heard about Stephen Krashen´s theory of acquisition and learning. Well, in my opinion, we should try to comply with both theories in the classroom; that is, the students learn the language but at the same time they are going to have the chance to use and acquire the language if the idea is to speak only English in the classroom

February 12, 2013 at 10:20 am
(12) carole says:

I teach English in France to adult business students and also provide private tuition for teenagers. I seem to spend a lot of time explaining grammar points, in French, to students who are falling behind in school because the grammar is explained in English and they just don’t get it. And my adult students muddle along in English, making grammatical mistakes which they are so used to making that I can’t find a way to change their habits. I fully agree with the immersion theory (that’s how I learned French) but one hour a week is not immersion…..

February 12, 2013 at 10:36 am
(13) cindy says:

Knowing they have to speak only English keeps students focussed. Also, when discussing a particular problem among themselves, in English, they solve this by being on the same wave-length. I intervene and assist to encourage them to continue and not give up. Thanks Kenneth.

February 12, 2013 at 10:46 am
(14) Cindy Gerstl says:

I’ve taught French, Spanish, and English in public schools in the U.S. and am now teaching English to French and Spanish speaking adults. For the most part, I use the L2 (English in this case) with all of my students the overwhelming majority of time. However, I will explain something briefly in the native language when it appears that students are either not clear about a particular point or usage or ask specific points they want clarified. I understand the theory behind speaking English all the time, but I don’t see any reason to frustrate students –and especially adult students– when a brief explanation in their language will help them understand something. Once the explanation is given in their native language, I continue in English, giving my students as much practice as possible. If necessary, I will work with an individual student to further clarify what was concerning that student.

February 12, 2013 at 10:49 am
(15) Henry says:

while I agree that English Only is best it is not always possible to communicate complex ideas so I speak some broken Chinese. I also use Chinese idioms to bring humor to the class and let them know I understand what they are talking about in class so they do not chat so much about non-class related things.

February 12, 2013 at 11:02 am
(16) Antonio says:

Compared linguistics is sometimes not only necessary but also vital, depending on the topic which is being taught. Using students’ L1 can save us a lot of time and avoid misunderstandings. 

February 12, 2013 at 11:12 am
(17) Laura says:

I think that using L2 only is partly a function (at least in our multi-lingual American classrooms) of the teacher not knowing everyone’s L1. When you’ve got a class of 15 students who speak 18 languages, there’s no way you can use everyone’s L1, so it hardly seems fair to use it with only a few (e.g., if you happen to know Spanish and you can explain things for the 3 Spanish speakers, but not for those who speak Chinese, Somali, Haitian Kreole, Amharic, Arabic, Russian, etc.)

I did once do a great multi-lesson activity with intermediate Spanish speakers that involved translating a Spanish newspaper article into English. It was a great opportunity to work in pairs with a dictionary, but it only worked out because I knew enough Spanish and the learners were all Spanish-speaking.

February 12, 2013 at 11:49 am
(18) Taieby says:

I’ve taught English in Iran more than 15 years ,I think The main factor in teaching lge is the matter of communication so that we can transfer our intention to the addressee.It’s so much beneficial to speak English in class but some times in class we must use learners’ First lge because the cultural differences make us to elaborate the topic in Ss’ First Lge(cross cultural differences) .

February 12, 2013 at 12:05 pm
(19) Subash Roy says:

I have been teaching English at college in Bangladesh for about six years. In class it is seen that students prefer speaking their mother tongue. It rarely happens that teachers here use English all the time except the tests or examinations. I think it could be more helpful if the use of English at class could be as maximized as possible.

February 12, 2013 at 12:44 pm
(20) Lois says:

I agree with Carl, Cindy, Henry, and Antonio! It just makes common sense to support with L-1 while sticking to as much spoken English as possible, especially in a beginners class. How can we attach meaning to words or sounds without the L-1 comparison? I teach an adult ESL class of 15 basic beginners with 7 different languages. I use every translation in the picture dictionaries I have and the students seem to be able to move ahead faster when they’re allowed time for their own translations in basic vocabulary/short sentences/phrases learned. I can’t find any Dinka or Burmese picture dictionaries,(any ideas?) so a high beginner English student of the same language is paired with the basic beginner to pull each further along in their L-2. This works great for me: not to be so strict about “English only”, but to use L-1 as support when profitable for a student.

February 12, 2013 at 1:30 pm
(21) Anne Semple says:

Hi everyone,
As a volunteer tutor in a Church Group with various levels of students I find it very difficult to teach in English only. This is especially the case where the students may have no formal schooling in their own language nor any English other than ‘Hello’. As the tutors do not speak Arabic, the most common language, we need to rely on the more advanced students coming to the beginners group in order for the lesson to progress at all. Another problem is that common ideas in teaching in UK are not known in other parts of the world so trying to get students to take part in a conversation with text in different colours can to lead to problems. Any idea gratefully received.

February 12, 2013 at 1:45 pm
(22) Waconda says:

I agree with Cindy..I too have taught for a long time
in Japan…and I think that immersion gives a certain
amount of fluency..and for the most part in Japan
I remember English only in the classroom..luckily or
unluckily did not have L1 proficiency there…so wondered
at non-stop Nihongo..

But with Spanish speakers, when a boss or co-worker actually qualified
and actually a tutor or teacher, would follow an English
only policy… with my tutees…I did a gradual segue to
English from Spanish…And found this was linguistically
successful…the problem with English only is that
it is misused….and polite stares may simply be that and
not comprehension….

When a fellow instructor insists on a lot of L1 as happened
with me the first volunteer class I did in Texas, it took longer
for students to realize it was to their advantage to speak
English only..but it was also a good idea for a mixed language
level…when a program has beginning, intermediate and
advanced levels, student may have more of a chance
to express themselves and to feel good about language

As an EFL/ESL professional, I am not totally against those
without credentials..ask students who have had very
good parents tutor them…but one is validated as a learning
person and has an understanding of the learning process
if well trained, educated and interested in how students
actually learn…


February 12, 2013 at 2:04 pm
(23) chiara says:

CLT communicative Language Technique is the best teacher I have used consistently, full immersion into the language and culture.
English only , even in multicultural classes is best.. The sts may whisper a translation to a fellow countryman or they may peek at their bilingual dictionary on their own from time to time. I dont encourage, but rather pretend I don’t see it if it only occasional.

February 12, 2013 at 5:05 pm
(24) Dorota says:

According to me the ‘English only’ rule would be perfect at teaching this language. Of course there are situations when a teacher has to explain something in native language, for example grammar, but usually it causes a chain reaction, that is every student starts switching into native language. This situation makes me angry, because I’m not attending to private English lessons in order to speak in my mother tounge.

February 12, 2013 at 9:09 pm
(25) Jeremy says:

The interesting thing here is that most people dont really study this idea or think about it with any logic. Even on this thread, you can quickly see the thinkers/drivers.

Clearly, this depends upon the language level and on the aim of a class. The best way is t take an ideamto the extremes and see where it breaks. If i can only say “apple”, then it is absurd to make me just communicate with this one word.

The age of the students is important, as is the skill of the teacher to mantain desired behaviours. An untrained , inexperienced teacher may need to follow simple rules, but trying to force experienced teachers into one method is crude and quite stupid. We should all do it the same way. We should all become equally bad teachers.

I have seen teachers waste hapf of a lesson and completely ruin the atmosphere and interest of the class following this stupid rule. They could have just had the t.a. Explain it and then used the rest of the hour for repetition of speaking and listening around this grammar and vocabulary.

There is a massive body of teachig theory that new and 6 week trained teachers completely lack.

February 13, 2013 at 12:24 am
(26) K Rajasekharan says:

‘English only’ is a good mechanism to force lazy learners to turn to speaking English which otherwise they would not do. Speaking so frequently is the essence of learning to speak English well. So whatever that motivates the students to engage in speaking English is a worthy strategy. But ensure that enforcing ‘English only’ so strictly is bad and will not do much good.Students will have the freedom to break the rule at times.

February 13, 2013 at 12:53 am
(27) Jeremy says:

To me, it is the same with any issue – if you just say, “guns are bad”, and more -or-less assume this position as natural and irrefutable, to a thinking person, you just become a bit of an idiot. This applies to both ends of any spectrum. If you are not discussing towards and around the middle, then you are just a simple stick in the mud.

If someone doesnt know how to say something, then they cant just think their way to it. Generally speaking, these problems arise most with lower level students who really just dont have the confidence to venture some half-assed, faulty English that they know is completely wrong.

It follows that you need a balance – formal training with repetition of key- grammar points, and then some natural and purposeful use of language wherever possible, and conditional upon the competency of the students. If you have one and not the other, you either end up with unusable academic knowledge or a messy pile of half-language that can no longer be easily shaped and moulded into something more recognisable.

The balanceof these things also depends upon the motivation and needs of the student. Will they be taking a test? How much error is acceptable for their requirements.

February 13, 2013 at 1:37 am
(28) Arfeen Addahia says:

Dear Mr. Kenneth Beare / Dear All Memebers,

Really, this is most important topic. For us ” Arab People” in particular is difficult to use the English Language instantly inside the classroom for obvious reasons: English is as FL where real English environment not found. Pupils and also teachers ability come with limitation. Therefore, teachers use some Arabic! but the most problem is that teachers not really encourage pupils and students to use English in class discussion. I think better for most students here in Yemen and other countries to find another environment to study English Language, for-example private lessons or go to some Institutes concern in English after school. Other reasons, also Arab students face! the traditional teaching/courses of English, which focusing on Grammar and structures only. This also keeps English use far away inside the classroom. As we all know that English Language is how well we and students can use it, not how much we know about. Unfortunately, many people here still away from this understanding …. thank you!

February 13, 2013 at 7:16 am
(29) Heather says:

I allow mother tongue use in my classroom to explain things. I do not speak Zulu so when we hit on a problem I let a learner translate. One of the advantages is that it shows you respect the mother tongue of the learners, another advantage is that it gives confidence to the learner who translates. I generally find that if the learners want to learn the language they will stick to English in discussions and so on. I think you produce a rod for your own back when you deny any presence of the mother tongue which is such a huge part of the learners’ lives. I believe the important thing is that the teacher should maintain control over the use of mother tounge and the learners should be aware of that.

February 13, 2013 at 7:49 am
(30) Fernando says:

I’m so thankful for about.com.
In fact, a must use L1 to make sure students are understanding. I can spend a whole years listening to a Chinese speaker, but if I have no clue what does that mean in L1, I would never be able to understand the most important part of Language… Grammar. And… if don’t know grammar, I just can speak. But if a do speak, I’m sure I’ll end up saying anything else but the right word and don’t even mention grammar structure. I will be a complete failure.
Thank you again Mr Beare. You are just rigth person en the rigth moment.

February 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm
(31) kou says:

I think esl teachers should ease up on english only policy.
Not everyone will understand the concepts of english.
If they speak in their native language(minus idle chat)they can relay the idea effectively.
ESL teachers can tell when someone is going off topic.
That is the appropiate time when teachers step in.
So, my point is, to be gentle on the english only policy.

February 13, 2013 at 10:20 pm
(32) Olivia Ndimufitu says:

Hello Sir?

I am very proud of this quistion, i think to speak english in the class room is good a idea because it improve our vocabulary as well as our gramma. I am at higher institute doing my BTech but still ,i am struggle with gramma at the academic level. I do not differentiate the tense for instance, i can say if i was you,instead of if i were………….therefore i believe practice make perfect.

February 14, 2013 at 12:50 am
(33) Tatiana says:

I am Russian, I’ve been teaching English for more than 20 years. I am 100% sure that the first touch of grammar should be in a native language. But only at the first stage. After that – no native language, if you can’t say it in English – show with gestures. It works!

February 14, 2013 at 2:46 am
(34) Habib says:

I think , in lower levels we should use more gestures , mimes , and pictures . We should try our best to eliminate extra pressures on students and sometimes use native language as well. But in advanced levels , it is vital just speak English and when there is a question we can encourage them to check out their dictionary or other sources.

February 14, 2013 at 7:43 pm
(35) Deedub says:

Speaking in L1 in the company of others excludes those who do not understand that language. It is human nature to be suspicious about what the others might be talking about. This causes alienation within the group.

February 15, 2013 at 5:21 am
(36) Aman Obse says:

It is true if you want to learn any language to the best level, it is good not to mix with other languages.

February 16, 2013 at 3:32 pm
(37) samira says:

Hello. I remember my russian lessons after 20 years. do you know how ? the secret is when the paragraphs were explained word by word and pictures … , I repeted the short text by heart , It was a good experience . I was in a group where the students did not speak the same language ( they were from different countries) . I think that is available for english language .

February 17, 2013 at 12:45 am
(38) Dal says:

Hello, I think from past experience that using English only works well for the teacher who has no language skills in their students 1L. I have taught English language in Australia, PNG and China.

For me I believe that you should use any tools that are available ( the S’s 1L) to help enforce understanding and develop deeper language skills that will be easily recalled at times of stress.

I encourage my S’s to use as much English as possible, but enforcing an English only policy is not necessarily in the best interest of the S’s. Which afterall is my main reason for being involved in teaching English.

February 17, 2013 at 9:03 pm
(39) Nigel Young says:

I teach English in Thailand and find that speaking only English in the class is a benefit as long as you are prepared to spend the extra time required making sure that the student understands.
Very occasionally I’ll use a translator but that is a rare event.

February 18, 2013 at 3:07 am
(40) anasclass says:

1) It depends on the students: their age, if their L1 is the same or not, their drives to learn the language (is it just a school subject? do they badly need it for a job?…)
2) Brief explanation in L1 (usually grammar structures, or abstract vocabulary) if their faces show they do not understand. This allows for more time to practice that same structure/vocabulary knowing that they have understood it and can internally compare with what they know (sometimes they do not know the grammar in L1).
3) Speak English and encourage them to do the same. Say in English what they cannot express and make them repeat the expression/word/sentence.

February 19, 2013 at 12:38 pm
(41) shirin says:

From my point of view as an english teacher, being in the L2 invironment is the best way to learn english . they can learn how to use it not just learn it . Even if at first it will be so difficult for teacher .

February 21, 2013 at 8:22 am
(42) Ilona Terts says:

It was liberating to read your view on English only vs. L1. As a young, enthusiastic but less experienced teacher in the early 70s, I tried to enforce the English only rule, but later realised that a lot depends on the level, the aims, etc. It may be surprising, but I find explaining vocabulary relatively easy using synonyms/antonyms, pics and signs or sample sentences early on.

February 23, 2013 at 10:27 am
(43) milad nouri simani says:

that depends! you will need student’s mother tongue if they’re attending in STARTER LEVEL classes (as a share of 50%). the higher their levels are, the less non-English languages should be used.

February 24, 2013 at 5:50 pm
(44) Karen says:


Just curious, but how many languages other than English should be allowed in the classroom? SPANISH IS NOT THE ONLY OTHER LANGUAGE ON THIS PLANET. How many languages is the instructor expected to deal with? Two? Three? Five? Ten?! Come on. If the students want to learn English, I suggest that that is what they hear, read, speak.

April 30, 2013 at 8:24 am
(45) rey penera says:

i’d like to say that english speaking rule is the best way to improve english….

June 4, 2013 at 4:38 am
(46) anwar says:

It is definitely important to speak english most of the time in the class because the students need that. As well as they need to take thier own turn in practicing speaking and sharing each other .

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.