Reconciling what you believe in and what you have to do: English-only policies in language schools (by Grace Labreche)

This week’s guest blogger is Grace Labreche, a PhD Student at McGill University. She is interested in accent bias towards second language speakers, specifically in shifting the focus off of accent reduction practices and towards addressing accent bias among native speakers. In her research, Grace asks: How can we mitigate the bias in listeners instead of asking speakers to reduce their accent? How does a listener’s language attitudes and ideologies impact their listening bias? As an applied sociolinguist, she hopes to use her research to inform educational policy in language learning institutions. When she is not working or in school, Grace loves to paint and cross stitch. She also enjoys gardening while listening to horror podcasts, much to the dismay of her neighbours.

It is a little over a year today that I began the exciting new chapter in my life as a language school administrator in a private language school. This language school, like many others in Montreal, is a boutique language school, whose main clientele are wealthy international students and tourists looking to take some language courses while visiting abroad. The courses are costly compared to government funded language programs and the school’s main source of student recruitment is international language tourism agencies and advisors. 

Coming from a teaching background, being a language school director was a position I had never envisaged myself in, but one I was nonetheless looking forward to taking on. I was optimistic that I could use my educational and professional background to make a difference and to provide a fresh perspective to what was historically a contentious position in the field of second language (L2) learning. I thought that my previous experience as a second language learner, L2 teacher, and sociolinguist would give me an advantage and set me apart from other administrators. Little did I realize it would do more than set me apart, it would play a key part in creating what often feels like an almost insurmountable chasm between myself and my peers.

In my role as a language school director, I quickly realized that I had inherited a set of problematic practices and policies that I was required to implement and enforce. These policies that I vehemently disagreed with, had no grounding in research and held no merit in the  L2 learning research community, but they were standard practice in the realm of language schools and I was expected to enforce them. 

One such policy commonly called “English Only” requires that language students speak only the language of instruction or face severe punitive consequences.

Not only are reminders of the policy and the punishments for rule breaking posted all over the school, but language teachers are required to out students violating the rules to the administration. When I saw these posters it reminded me of when I was a substitute teacher in another language school and there were signs in the hallways, corridors, and even bathrooms to speak only English. Teachers would regularly go into the bathrooms to catch students speaking their mother tongues and reprimand them. I had hoped it was an institution specific policy, but it became clear once I started in my new position that it is standard practice in language schools. 

So much so that is often the most popular topic at administration conferences. I have been at meetings with other admin where themes are entirely focused on tricks and tips to enforce monolingual policies; how to frame it, so that students are encouraged to follow along. This policy has been gamified using red and yellow cards, much like a soccer match.

One panel discussion was even centered around how to incentivize our teachers to report any breaking of the rules: effectively turning our educators into hall monitors and prefects, hoping to gain favor by ratting out the students.

I felt and still feel so out of place at these gatherings, and it often feels like no matter how much I try to challenge the idea of these policies, I cannot win. Explaining the detrimental ramifications of shaming a student for speaking their L1, or that there is little scientific support for these policies falls on deaf ears. These strict policies that are sold under the idea of “Full language immersion” are often viewed as tantamount to the success of students and are an important selling point for language schools. When the average student (with no promotions applied) pays $19,700 for a year of courses, it is clear why these schools will do what attracts the most students.

 I was faced with the difficult decision of carrying out my responsibilities or enforcing something I was deeply opposed to. If I chose to abolish the policy completely, it would impact student enrollment, with agencies choosing to sell schools that have this policy over ones without, as it helps sell the idea of “fluency through immersion”. I did not know what to do, so I chose to do nothing; the posters stayed up on the wall, but I chose not to enforce the rules. This worked well for a few months until I received complaints from other students. It turns out that the idea of these policies is so deeply ingrained in the language school culture that some students were mad that the policy was not being enforced, so they had complained to the agencies that sold them courses that students were not being suspended for speaking their first language (L1) on their breaks. 

I do not encourage students to talk in their L1 while in the classroom, there is a time and a place for L1 conversations (even though there is ample research showing that highlighting commonalities in structure and vocabulary between a learned L1 and L2 can be helpful in learning). But why do we demand total, rigid assimilation? Why not embrace the multiculturalism of the classroom? We should be encouraging students to talk about their countries and their languages. 

I am now at a loss as to how to go forward. I believe, and research supports the idea, that punitive measures against someone’s L1 can lead to identity issues, can impact learning motivation and students’ success, and their overall well-being. These policies come from a place of privilege and ignorance with many administrators likely never having been in situations where they knew no-one and didn’t speak the local language. Many of the students in these institutions are away from home for the first time, in a new country on their own. Who are we to deny them a chance to interact with someone sharing a common language, thereby discouraging them from making friends, and easing their transition? 

When I think of the challenges I anticipated when I first took this job, the reconciliation of my core beliefs with my professional obligations was not one that I was expecting. I hope I can use my experience and knowledge to start a conversation amongst my peers about the legitimacy of these types of policies, but the reality is that language schools are far more related to businesses than educational institutions, and I am trepidatious of what my professional future holds.

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