IEPIS Newsletter - August 2014 (Plain Text Version)

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In this issue:
Leadership Updates
Community News



IEPs in the United States attract thousands of international students each year (Institute of International Education, 2011). While many of these students have previously learned English in contexts in which the use of their first language is tolerated or encouraged, many IEPs in the United States have policies requiring teaching and learning to take place entirely in English. Program faculty and administrators may argue that English-only is the most effective way to learn English, and that it creates a comfortable classroom environment for everyone (e.g., Missouri State University, English Language Institute, 2012), but in reality many teachers struggle to maintain English-only in their classrooms. In particular, some students speak to each other in their first language or use bilingual resources and translation to help them learn English, against their teacher’s wishes. At the recent international TESOL convention, one teacher commented that his program is constantly “fighting” with students over English-only.

I conducted in-depth interviews with several IEP students in order to try and understand how they experienced English-only. I found that while most students accepted the approach in principle, they also struggled with it in practice. In this article, I describe the experiences and reflections of a student for whom English-only has been successful, and argue that the factors contributing to her success with this approach may not be typical for many IEP students.


Valeria is in her late twenties and from Venezuela. She began learning English in the Venezuelan public school system at the age of 12, and went on to study for a bachelor’s degree in dentistry. Aspiring to continue her dentistry studies at the master’s level in the United States, she decided to come to an IEP in the United States to work on her English before applying to master’s degree programs.

Initial Experiences With English Immersion

Valeria recalls that when she arrived in the United States from Venezuela 2 years ago, her high school grammar-focused English had not prepared her to communicate in English, and as a result she could barely express herself. She stayed with a host family, where she could understand virtually nothing of what was said to her. Her lack of ability to communicate led to a sense of isolation, and it was a difficult time for her emotionally:

I felt terrible. Sometimes I felt frustrated and then I wanted to go home and forget everything about English because it was a really hard time for me. Because…I couldn’t understand anything and also I couldn’t communicate very well, so it’s terrible. It’s terrible feeling, you know, when you cannot communicate with the people that are around you.

Valeria’s recollections of this time create an image of a person reduced at times to an infant-like state. Unable to explain to the host family what she liked to eat, Valeria simply ate what she was given, and left what she did not like. She could not be herself, and was incapable of successful adult social interaction. Valeria recalls that she would sometimes cry all night and get up in the morning with swollen eyes from crying, but continued to attend school and work hard. Eventually, through her own perseverance and with help from her supportive host family, Valeria was able to overcome her difficulties and thrive in an English language environment.

Thinking and Learning in Spanish and English

For Valeria, learning English involves a conscious effort—she calls it a strategy—to think in English. In writing, she has learned that if she translates her thoughts from Spanish to English, the results are not successful, because, she says, the meaning changes or she does not express herself in a satisfactory way. On the other hand, when she speaks English, she says that most of the time she thinks in English, but when she cannot find a way to say something—“maybe I don’t know how to make the sentence or I don’t remember the specific word in English”—she mentally translates from Spanish into English. This helps her to express herself.

Valeria makes every effort to exclude Spanish from her learning, consistent with her commitment to think in English. She uses an English-only dictionary, because she believes it will help her to learn more vocabulary. If she does not understand an English word in a definition, she looks that word up, too, and this means that she is constantly learning “one more word, one more word.”

In spite of a strong determination not to mix with Spanish speakers or use Spanish in class, Valeria will still speak Spanish when she meets Spanish speakers outside the classroom. She explains:

Because I feel strange if I speak with the person in English. I don’t know. I feel that I will not communicate the same how I will do in Spanish, so I feel more confident, and I prefer to speak Spanish…Sometimes I feel ridiculous if I’m speaking in English with a Spanish speaker.

However, she attempts to avoid Spanish speakers whenever possible, and, in class, if she is placed into a discussion group that has another Spanish speaker, she will try to change groups. She has also agreed with the one other Spanish speaker in her class that they will not speak Spanish with each other.

Valeria is motivated by, even fixated on, the goal of earning her master’s degree in dentistry in the United States:

I have a very clear goal, so I’m a person that I don’t like to give up very easily. If I have a dream and I can do it, so I try to do it and I try to do my best. I don’t like to give up easily, because this is life, you know.

Consistent with her positive attitude, Valeria learns English with a passion in order to get closer to her goal. She continues to live with an English-speaking family, and welcomes their corrections of her English; she studies independently, far beyond what is required by her classes; and she makes a conscious effort to exclude Spanish from her thoughts. She keeps her goal in mind, even on days when she feels like giving up.

Valeria undertook her English studies in the United States with the expectation that everybody would speak English, that she would have no choice but to do the same, and that she would not have the opportunity to speak in Spanish. She believes her teachers are right to ask students to use only English, because this is the best way to practice and learn. Consistent with this belief, Valeria has arranged her entire lifestyle around immersion in English, by living with a host family, listening to English language music on her music player and researching the lyrics when she doesn’t understand them, and above all avoiding speaking Spanish. Her overall assessment of English-only:

Yes, it’s good because you are in an atmosphere where you…everybody speak in English, so you can learn how they…the way how they speak, and also their intonation and their pronunciation.


Readers might consider Valeria to be a model student. She has a high level of motivation and “a very clear goal.” These factors appear to be significant in the enormous effort she is making to improve her English inside and outside the classroom, her willingness to endure great discomfort in her first months in the United States, and her embrace of using English-only in the classroom. It is easy for her to buy into an institutional or classroom English-only rule, because she sees this as the fastest way to her goal.

Contrast Valeria with many of the students we are seeing in IEPs today. They may be younger, less mature, and less clear about their goals. They may have come to the United States not because of a longstanding life plan they developed themselves, but because the opportunity arose through the granting of a generous government scholarship, or through some other means that facilitated their coming to an IEP to study. Many of these students may lack Valeria’s level of intrinsic motivation and clarity of goal. They may remain strongly connected to their country and culture, and may have little motivation to immerse themselves in the local culture. They may choose (or have no other option than) to live in off-campus apartments with other students from their country. They may not be willing to make the emotional sacrifice required to invest in a relationship with English native speakers such as a host family.

For such students, simply imposing an English-only rule may be insufficient to have them buy into English-only, and may even create resistance, leading to programs “fighting” with students over English-only. Faculty and administrators may therefore need to be ready to open a discussion with students at the start of the semester about the in-class language policy and its effects on the class atmosphere and student learning, and they may need to exercise greater flexibility on first language use in order to accommodate students whose previous experience has not prepared them for the commitment and sacrifice that English-only learning requires.


Institute of International Education. (2011). Open doors data: Intensive English programs. Retrieved from

Missouri State University, English Language Institute. (2012, June). Student policy handbook. Retrieved from

Alan Broomhead is associate director at the Center for English Language and Orientation Programs, Boston University. He has taught in the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, and Switzerland, and has directed English language programs since 1999. He earned his MA TESOL from the Institute of Education, London University in 1997, and his EdD from Northeastern University in 2013.