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Culture Focus

In English or 用普通話? Exploring How English Is Best Taught Around the World

Written by: Michelle Ferguson, Yijin Chen, Gianna DeSimone

Illustration credit: Peter Naktin


Around the globe, English is widely regarded as one of the most ubiquitous languages and one of the most important to know, according to Mackenzie’s book, ELF, bilingualism and multicompetence. Today, there are an estimated 1.75 billion users of English worldwide, according to the British Council. However, the best method for teaching English has yet to be agreed upon. There is an ongoing debate as to whether English should be taught strictly in English-only classrooms, in which students cannot revert back into their first languages when they need help, or if this first language assistance should be allowed. In this article, we will use L1 to refer to a speakers’ first language or mother tongue, and L2 as an abbreviation for someone’s second language. 

In the United States, strong feelings about English-only education have prevailed for decades. Many factors have caused these attitudes to prevail, which we will discuss later. Additionally, the passing of the 2001 law, No Child Left Behind, added to the negative attitudes towards English language learners because the policy required all tests to be administered in English (Hernandez, 2016). 

To gain perspective on different language learning styles, we will examine the experiences of Yijin Chen, an international student at Temple University and Francia Hernández, an undergraduate student at Unicolumbo, Columbia, two students who have participated in the Temple-Unicolumbos Culture Exchange Program. Their experiences will show us how different it is to learn English through English and to learn English through L1.

Learning English Through English

English language instruction given solely in English has become a controversial topic among English language teachers. There are many people who believe that English-only education is beneficial for multiple reasons. In the U.S., English is perceived to be superior in order to excel in the job market, so the focus has remained on English-only education, according to the book Crossing Borders, Drawing Boundaries. 

However, this is not the whole story. There are some downsides to English-only education as well. Students who are labeled as English language learners or English learners might be treated as if they have a deficit in some way. In addition, due to limited ability in the students’ native languages, teachers will not be able to include as much in each lesson. According to a 2000 report, the lessons may become less challenging and stimulating for students, which may lead to a lack of growth. Even more, the teachers have less resources available to them for connecting with the students. Crossing Borders, Drawing Boundaries also suggests that since teachers can only speak with students in the target language, they are not able to connect to background knowledge via cognates and other similarities in the way a more bilingual approach can.

Learning English through English in Columbia

  Hernández learned English through English starting in high school and continuing in college. She formally started learning English in Columbia when she was 16 years old. From high school to college, she has learned English in English because of the curriculum requirements. In her high school, teachers had an English-only policy to ensure students communicated with others in English, but Spanish use was allowed at times when it was difficult to communicate. In college, she majored in English education. Because of the specialty of her major, her classes were given all in English for five semesters, but in the first semester, her textbooks and the language instruction were in Spanish. Most of her teachers are second language speakers.

  Hernández likes the English-only classes because they push her to speak English throughout the class and improve her pronunciation. Because there are plenty of chances to communicate in English, she does not fear speaking English in public. Learning English in English and English-only policies are also essential to her pronunciation. As she listens to teachers, communicates with peers, and gets pronunciation instruction and feedback from teachers, a lot of language exposure and pronunciation learning happen. She values the importance of grammar, but she states that she did not always understand the grammar taught in English in high school, and she had to do a lot of research on grammar outside of class. 

Teaching English Through Students’ First Language

The norm in the United States is the English-only approach in ESL classrooms, but the popularity of this approach is based more on bias than evidence. Due to a rise in xenophobia in the United States against Germans during World War I, increased immigration from Europe, and the large role immigrants played in the labor movement in the 20th century, speaking English became synonymous with being a good American, according to Elsa Roberts Auerbach’s article, “Reexamining English Only in the ESL Classroom.” Language education in America has not recovered since. In addition to the often politically-motivated reasons for English-only instruction, there is a wide range of research that supports bilingual education. Many immersion programs allow students to use their L1 in the classroom in early levels, and one study found that this approach greatly aided students’ later acquisition of English, according to Auerbach. 

Outright banning students’ L1 can seriously hurt their language-learning process. Auerbach argues, “Prohibiting the native language within the context of ESL instruction may impede language acquisition precisely because it mirrors dis-empowering relations.” For this reason, students who speak a minority language–a language not spoken by most of a given society–greatly benefit from bilingual ESL education.

One of the upsides of programs using L1-instruction is that they attract students who had limited L1 literacy and schooling, and thus had difficulties in English-only ESL classrooms. L1-instruction also facilitates quicker English acquisition. An example of this in action was a study by Hemmindinger (1987), reported inAuerbach’s article, which found that an English-only approach yielded no progress from Hmong refugees in 2-3 years, but the students made rapid progress once their L1 was used in classroom instruction. Similarly, when an L1 approach was used at the non-profit organization Centro Presente, teachers asserted that since students think in their L1 during the early stages of language acquisition, allowing them to use their mother tongue creates a gradual process in which they use their L1 less and less as their English skills increase.

There is the idea that allowing L1-use will lead to interference in student acquisition of English because they will depend on their mother tongue too much, but evidence disputes this misconception. One study by Osburne and Harss-Covaleski compared student writing done in English, and then originally in the L1 and translated. The quality of the students’ work was the same regardless of the technique, showing that using the L1 does not negatively impact their overall English writing skills.

That being said, there are disadvantages to L1 use in the classroom. Kaneko (1992) reported that while using a mix of the L1 and L2 in a Japanese ESL classroom had a positive effect on vocabulary acquisition, researchers Lee and Macaro found it negatively affected students’ English pronunciation skills in their article, “Investigating Age in the Use of L1 or English-Only Instruction: Vocabulary Acquisition by Korean EFL Learners.” Lee and Macaro’s 2013 study comparing 12 year-old and college freshmen Korean ESL learners discovered that code-switching between Korean and English was beneficial for young learners’ vocabulary acquisition, but not for the adult learners in terms of retention. Additionally, the majority of adult learners believed more English in the classroom meant the better they would become at communicating,  English-only instruction would give them the opportunity to be exposed to English, and English-only learning was preferred for learning vocabulary. It should be noted that the majority of young learners did not prefer English-only instruction, and Lee and Macaro’s results supported L1 use in the classroom overall. So, even though there are some potential downsides to teaching English in the students’ mother tongue, evidence suggests the pros outweigh the cons.

Learning English through L1 in China

      Chen was taught English through Mandarin from elementary school to college in China, but she believes her spoken English is worse than her listening, reading, and writing skills. She began learning English when she was in 3rd grade in elementary school in China and has continued to learn English until now.  English is a main subject from middle school to college in China, and in most of the schools in China, students are taught English through their mother language. Chen remembers that most of her English classes were so teacher-centered that students did not have many chances to communicate with peers or teachers in English. Instead, teachers assigned a lot of exercises focused on listening, reading, and writing. Chen performed well on these exercises and tests, and she used to be very proud of her English until she spoke with an international Pakistani student at her college in China. She describes: “He tried to encourage me to start a conversation with him. I had a lot of great ideas in my brain, but I just couldn’t turn my thoughts into words. I felt regret, embarrassed, and complicated.” She also mentions that she used to have a native English teacher in her high school for a year. However, compared to 50 students in a class, only a few students dared to and had the chance to talk to the native English teacher, which was not helpful for her spoken English.

   Chen thinks learning English through her L1 helped her fully understand the English language, and she learned faster and more thoroughly than in the L2 when she learned English in China. She was proud of her English listening, reading, and writing abilities, but her speaking skills were always her point of weakness. Her oral English had no significant improvement until she came to study in the United States, where she has learned from and communicated with English speakers.

Conclusion and Implications

   Comparing Hernández and Chen’s English learning experiences and their opinions about teaching English through English and L1, both methods of instruction have benefits and limitations. English pronunciation exposure is the niche advantage of teaching English through English. It is suggested that schools have a standard and choose qualified non-native English teachers or train them in pronunciation so that their English will be a good model for students. However, choosing which language to use in English class has no direct relationship with the chance to practice spoken English. For example, Chen had a native English teacher use English to teach them, but she had few chances to communicate with her. It is possible that if teachers aim to improve students’ oral English or schools value the speaking English ability and include them on tests, an L1-taught English class can also enable students to practice and speak English. 

As to the effectiveness of the two methods, teaching English through L1 helps students better understand language components than teaching English through English as Chen and Hernández’s statements confirm. Therefore, for the sake of better understanding, it is beneficial to not always require students to speak English in the classroom, and whenever possible, teachers should use students’ L2 to help them comprehend.