“English Only” Only Hurts

Immigrant students carry a coffin full of college diplomas, transcripts, and awards to represent the death of their dreams and to encourage the passing of the DREAM ACT to help educate children of illegal immigrants.

I am an ESL (English as a Second Language – although I prefer the term ESOL – English to Speakers of Other Languages) teacher in an English Only state. And it makes me mad. Why? Because English-Only strategies rarely produce fully bilingual and bi-literate children. (English Only means that there is no bilingual education in this state.)

This article discusses some of the reasons why English Only is not the best answer when educating Latinos. The article is based on a poll, but there are other reasons why English Only is not the answer in educating ESOL students.

1. Research in second language acquisition tells us that having literacy and academic skills in the first language will greatly help in learning to read in a second language. When we shove kindergarten ESOL students into an all-English environment, they never get the chance to learn to read and write in their own language. This results in what’s called subtractive bilingualism (as opposed to additive bilingualism). As a child learns English, he begins to lose some of his native language. He never acquires academic skills in his native language. (I’ve had native Spanish-speaking high school students who struggled with high school Spanish 1 and 2 because they’d never studied Spanish phonics, spelling, or grammar.)

This, in turn, affects the social dynamics of child-friend, child-parent, and parent-school. The child gets used to speaking English with his friends and teachers at school, but then is expected to go home and speak Spanish. Some of these students begin speaking English to their parents, though their parents speak Spanish to them. Then their parents start to feel resentful toward the school for teaching English!

2. The type of ESOL programming that has produced the highest standardized test scores – scores that average higher than native speakers, actually – is called dual bilingual immersion (this is mentioned in the article.) This model is used in Canada with French and English. What happens is half the students in a class are native English speakers, and the other half are native – say, Spanish speakers. Instruction is in both languages. It can be structured in different ways, but often times part of the day will be in English and part of the day will be in Spanish (not a constant translation all day long). Both groups of students become fluent and literate in both languages. This model is an example of additive bilingualism. It allows the Spanish speakers to gain academic language and literacy skills in both their first and second languages.

The drawbacks of this model is that it is hard to do with smaller language groups – if you only have 2 Chinese speakers at a school, you can’t make much of a class from that. Also, staffing is a problem because you have to find bilingual teachers. (There are models in which there is a Spanish-speaking teacher and an English-speaking teacher, though.)

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in this country who are threatened by the idea of sharing our nation with people from other countries. Instead of seeing the ways that immigrants enrich our nation culturally and economically, they see outsiders coming in and trying to push their language on us, and often these attitudes work their way into political decisions regarding education.

However, if you look at both the educational research and the social implications relating to English-only education for ESOL students, it is clear that English Only is not the best choice.


  1. Carlos was educated in a dual-language environment in his primary school years at least – maybe further than that. Because of that, he is truly fluent in both English and Spanish, and his English vocabulary is MUCH larger than mine. Because of the many cognates in English and Spanish, he knows a lot more words than I do because they may be commonly used in Spanish, but not in English.

    If we have kids, I want them to go to a dual-language elementary school. At this point, my only choice is charter schools. There is ONE in the Atlanta area.

    • Fabio says:

      (Paperback) I used this book to study Portuguese before I went to Portugal last year and had no prlmeobs making myself understood on my trip. If you know Spanish fairly well, this is the book for you. Although the subject of the book is to teach you Portuguese as spoken in Brazil, I would think that people interested in learning Continental Portuguese could benefit from this book as well. I highly recommend buying the audio tapes that go with this book as you will almost certainly not get certain pronounciations correct without hearing them. One of the reviewers faulted this book for its grammatical and typographical errors, which is nonsense. The reason it’s in English is that it is aimed at native speakers of English who also happen to speak Spanish as a second language, such as college students who’ve had a couple of years of study in Spanish.

  2. kksorrell says:

    Court – I actually heard a speaker from the one in the Atlanta area, and it sounds great! Plus, GA is an English-Only state, but they got aroudn that because even though it’s dual-language, they do have ESL teachers on staff also to assist the Spanish-speakers. I wish someone in TN would do that! I would LOVE for my kids to do that do. Both of them will learn Spanish at Davidson Academy – even Ephraim’s K3 class will get Spanish
    once a week! But once a week is not the same as dual-language.

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