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June 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Is English Only Comprehensible Input?

Brooks Slaybaugh is a university teacher in Japan. He has previously taught in Morocco, Poland and Russia. He is currently interested in assessment for discussions. Email:


More and more it seems, more universities in Japan want to have their students do better at English. One way to do that, in theory, is to have an English only policy. Although it appears that this policy is just for instructors, I know a university near Tokyo where the teachers try to have students using English in class as much as possible, and they discourage the use of Japanese in class. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, class can turn into a penalty English class, where participation points could be reduced, and students may become demotivated. In fact, by having an English only policy, some students may choose to be passive and to not speak English in class, which means they are not participating as teachers would like.

There are many reasons to have an English only policy in a classroom in a monolingual country like Japan. Only a couple will be mentioned. First, the use of classroom English should be encouraged. This is certainly understandable for all levels of students. Second, since students live in a monolingual country, English must be used in class, since outside of class students cannot be counted on to learn by themselves. If students are motivated, there are many opportunities for students to learn outside class, thanks to the Internet, or by watching movies, listening to English songs, using graded readers, or by other means. So it seems that an English only policy here is more for the benefit of lower level students.

The contrastive argument can be that when teaching lower level students, or multilevel classes with unmotivated students, the use of the L1 can be beneficial, such as when teaching grammar. As anyone who has learned Japanese as a foreign language knows, it is very hard to learn Japanese grammar in Japanese only. When I learn Japanese grammar, I want to understand what I am studying. A Japanese only policy does not help me understand Japanese grammar well. Likewise, when teaching lower level students when I use an English only policy I wonder, can all of my students understand what I am saying?

I can repeat what I say, repeat the target language, and I can try to use simpler vocabulary, but I find that teaching at the university level is challenging as many students have been taught in Japanese when they took English class in high school and if they come to a university with an English only policy, many lower level students are not prepared.

Again, in theory it may seem fine but perhaps English only may be mostly for the benefit of the native teacher who knows little or no Japanese. I remember being in this situation. I used to use English only in class as a high school teacher. However, after several years of teaching in Japan, one day I started to change my mind. I was working at a high school in Tokyo. I passed by the class of an Australian teacher. The class seemed to be fine with attentive students. The teacher did use a lot of Japanese, but what I noticed was that the teacher had a good rapport with the students. Later I decided to try for myself. I had previously used a little Japanese in class. For one class I tried using more Japanese. These particular students were learning grammar and vocabulary and low test scores were an issue. My job was to share the class with a Japanese teacher for 11th grade students. What I found was that students liked me using Japanese but then some wanted to chat in Japanese. I decided that I needed to draw the line with my use of Japanese. If I had to, I would try to explain grammatical aspects in Japanese as much as I was able, and I would try to explain in English as well. I would use English as much as I could, while being mindful of lower level students who could feel lost in class.

So consider teaching a required English class at a private university in Tokyo with over 30 students, and it is first period on a Monday morning. Motivation and punctuality can be an issue, and some classes have students of different levels. Some students do better than others, and some struggle. An English only policy may not work with some lower level students. I can give an example. Say I am teaching a grammar point in English. I use the board and call on students. The students practice but not all students understand. Say there is a student called Yuki. He clearly did not understand what I taught, even though he should have been taught the same thing in secondary school. English is tough for him, especially grammar and listening. He has a friend called Daisuke. Daisuke does well in class and does well on the tests. He is kind and helps Yuki with understanding grammar. He helps him with grammar exercises in the textbook. He explains English grammar in Japanese, and it helps Yuki understand.  All Yuki wants is to pass the class. Daisuke becomes like an assistant for me. So if teachers can have students in pairs with differing abilities, and if the students are amenable, students can help each other learn.

What I find is some teachers (or administrators) may think of theories (like English only) or want to focus on computer assisted instruction, and that is fine, but in the end, teaching is not about a particular method or about using technology in the classroom, it is about people. As university educators we try to get young people to learn. The classroom is an intimate setting where motivation and frustration with learning can be issues. As a teacher all I want is for my students to learn as much as they can. If I must enforce an English-only policy during class I will, but although it might seem expedient, the use of a little Japanese can sometimes help students understand something quickly.


Please check the How to be a Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the English Course for Teachers and School Staff at Pilgrims website.

Please check the English Update for Teachers course at Pilgrims website.

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