How to convince people to get rid of the “English only” classroom language policy at your school

In this week’s post, I summarize an audio-podcast from Harvard Business Review about how to ask for policy changes at your institution. The speakers were talking about policy changes in companies that give more rights to women, but actually, the strategies they talk about can be applied to making ANY policy change at ANY institution. How do you push for a policy change—like getting rid of the “English only” classroom language policy at your school—and encourage people to be open to translanguaging pedagogies?

In the podcast, available here, the voices of four women were heard: the interviewers (Amy Gallo and Amy Bernstein) and the guests (Lily Zheng and Ashley Lewis). Zheng is an executive coach and Lewis is a labor unionist for United Auto Workers in the USA. From their talk, I wrote down six or seven main points, which I later combined into three points regarding how to push for policy changes in an organization.

Point 1: Don’t decide what change to implement at the start. First, do a needs analysis, then discuss what change to implement.

The reason Zheng and Lewis talk about a needs analysis shortly after the start of their interview is that organizations with good intentions often try to help people by addressing problems they really have, albeit in ways they do not need. One example, given by Lewis, was a company whose female workers have to balance work with caring for children and elderly parents. The company proposed providing daycare. However, what if the women did not like the daycare provided by the company? In fact, the women wanted resources (e.g., databases, lists) for them to find caregivers themselves. Most importantly, the women needed professional help (lawyers and paralegals) to address the medical bills and insurance papers of the people (kids, elders) they needed to care for. The U.S. healthcare system is very complicated, and this was taking up a lot of their time.

Therefore, policy changes are best when they address the specific ways in which people need to be helped. If you survey stakeholders in a school community, or do any other kind of study about their needs, Zheng’s advice is: “You go into the survey [or research] process without assuming you know the solution.” In Lewis’ example, the company should not ask: “To what extent do you think company daycare would help you?” (already establishing their solution as THE solution). Instead, the company should ask: “How can the company help you with your challenges as a caregiver?” This means that survey questions should be worded neutrally and open-endedly. This goes for research on translanguaging. For example, research questions might not necessarily best be phrased as: “How can interventions guide pre-/in-service teachers to adopt more favorable attitudes towards translanguaging / implement translanguaging more?” Or “How can interventions get students to fully maximize their translanguaging potential?” The problem with that approach is that you are focusing more on providing the solution rather than gathering information about the situation. Instead, you might more open-endedly ask:

The point is that you don’t really know what will help people until you ask them in an open-ended way. You don’t know if the solution is cultural validation/celebration, raising proficiency in their heritage language, or blurring the boundaries between named languages. Or some combination of these. Or something else. A professor in Belgium named Jürgen Jaspers who wrote a critique of translanguaging scholarship argues that you need to ask people what they want to know, do, or implement in particular settings. He states: “this selection increases experts’ impact on practice” (Jaspers, 2019, p. 97).

In all likelihood, people will end up having to deploy different kinds of translanguaging practices (as well as translanguaging’s opposite, immersion) to achieve an ideal balance between immersion and mediation. Translanguaging strategies may also depend on the situation like the program aims, or the aims of the learning activity or lesson. The question of when to use what tool/approach is a matter of co-investigation and requires input from experienced and capable teachers. Teachers don’t learn best practices by receiving them from researchers, but by finding their own solutions to problems that they themselves identify in their community of practice. Researchers’ role is to explain in ordinary language what the research has shown about what it’s like to be bi/multilingual or what helps bi/multilingual students learn so that teachers can better interpret what they’re observing.

According to Zheng, another reason to approach research in this open-ended way is that you not only need to know what people really need, but WHY they need it—what currently happens when they do not have the thing they need versus what would instead become possible if they DID have it. For example, I have time and again met teachers who were proud to teach in total immersion schools because they said their students were fluent in the target language, but also admitted that the students’ grammar was not accurate, and the students’ range of expression (e.g., sentence complexity) was not comparable to L1 speakers of the same age. In the 1980s and 1990s, a researcher named Merrill Swain found that students needed to translanguage to understand target forms and the gap between their output and those forms. She used the term “languaging“—and translanguaging scholar Li Wei (2018) explains in a seminal article on translanguaging that translanguaging is partly based on Swain’s construct. In Swain’s theory, “languaging” means to translanguage (multilingually and/or multimodally) in a group to figure out target form(s) in the target language (Swain & Lapkin, 1998; Swain & Watanabe, 2013), leading to documentable language acquisition.

Twenty or thirty years after Swain’s research, teachers still prefer immersion even when they identify problems with accuracy and complexity, because immersion works to produce results in fluency. Instead of promoting translanguaging in general (to which teachers might reply: “But immersion makes my students so proficient; I don’t believe you!”), why not start with what immersion teachers find a concern—accuracy and complexity—and then say, “Some very important language acquisition research called Swain’s Output Hypothesis shows that translanguaging is necessary for those things to develop.” If this direct addressing of their concern doesn’t change their thinking and practice around translanguaging, what will?

According to union leader Lewis, you can’t just start with an issue. You need to know what the endgame is—what the result you want to achieve is. Then you do “reverse engineering”: Why isn’t it that way already? What are the obstacles and roadblocks?

Summary of Point 1: Base challenges to the “English only” policy on needs analysis. Provide solid information on what currently happens given the present situation, as well as what would become possible if the language policy changed. Researchers’ role is to explain in ordinary language what the research has shown so that teachers can better interpret the situation.

Point 2: Power to enforce anything (including language policy) is created in the interaction, not in the policy itself.

This point raised by the guest speakers reminded me of a passage I wrote for my qualifying exams to become a doctoral candidate:

In the 1970’s, Dell Hymes proposed examining smaller collectives of language users than had previously been researched: groups of individuals rather than imagined communities such as “speakers of X language” (Hymes, 1974; 2009). Hymes was interested in constructs such as the speech community (e.g., a community of practice of doctors), the speech situation (e.g., a dinner party), the speech event (e.g., a conversation between Dr. A and Dr. B), and the speech act (e.g., each maneuver Drs. A and B make during the course of the speech event, such as initiating conversation, joking, inquiring, etc.).

Most people think language norms exist in the speech community, e.g., “In Japanese, you should…” or sometimes more precisely in the speech situation, e.g., “When talking to an elder in Japanese, you should…” or “When talking to Mrs. Yamashita, you should…” But in fact, no matter what you think about what Mrs. Yamashita, she can always surprise you. In any speech event—any particular conversation with Mrs. Yamashita—she can change her norms and expectations. Moreover, after speaking informally with her for three and a half minutes, she can, for any reason that she wants, shift the norms of the conversation through a speech act.

Similarly, Zheng, a trans woman, argued that power is created in interactional norms set up in the moment. She told a story as an example: one day, they (Zheng) and their friend were at a gathering. The two of them were the first two people to introduce themselves. Both introduced themselves with their pronouns. The third person looked uncomfortable with the pronoun introduction, but followed with his/her own pronoun introduction because it would be rude not to do so. The fourth person then followed, and the next. If Zheng and their friend had not been the first speakers, there would have been no pronoun introduction made obligatory for everybody. Whatever norms are used at the start of any speech situation or speech event will initiate the norms for that speech situation or speech event, but then every speech act can shift the norms in a moment. However, the more the same norms are repeated in the gathering, and in repeated gatherings, the more solid they will become (see Mortimer & Wortham, 2015; “Analyzing language policy and social identification across heterogeneous scales”).

This has implications for language policy in practice. What will you do the first day of class? What speech acts will you initiate in that speech situation? Will you demonstrate that you know bits/pieces of all students’ languages, which you pronounce in a non-native way (doing your best) to show that it’s good to learn some of other people’s languages, and speak them in non-native ways without shame, even as the teacher? Will you tell people that they can use their native languages in small groups as long as they make sure to translate for someone who can’t understand? What norms do you want to establish on the first day of class? For positive examples, check out the norms set by Ms. Winter (Seltzer & García, 2020), Mr. Brown (Woodley & Brown, 2016), and Ms. Rosewall (Linares, 2019, in the middle of this post). Because power is created in interactional norms set up in the moment, we have more ability, and therefore more moral responsibility to change things, in these small interactions than first meets the eye.

“Did my friend and I have any formal power?” Zheng asked. “We just created this norm, because we wanted to see if we could take that into our control…” They and Lewis pointed out that informal power is something we all have access to. The more people we get on board, the more powerful informal power becomes. Lewis added that this is sometimes called the “microculture” because it doesn’t need to reflect wider societal norms or hierarchies. And it’s not really that far out of reach when you appeal to people’s commonsense courtesy, fairness, and kindness.

Summary of Point 2: We have great power over our microcultures, from schools to classrooms. Top-down policymakers do not. Read how to shape language policy in microcultures of classrooms and schools in my previous posts: here, here, and here.

And never say, “It was a formal/official speech situation, so I had to use English… avoid Spanish/AAVE/Pidgin/students’ home languages… tell people to speak appropriately… follow such-and-such a language policy…” Theoretically, you did not. You still had some control over your speech act. What might have prohibited you might have been other people’s speech acts and expectations, but not the speech situation. Speech situations can’t decide for people.

Point 3: Social justice is more holistic and universal rather than categorical.

One point raised by the speakers personally resonated with me as a critical applied linguist, because I believe a lot of critical education scholars have become disillusioned with universal social justice, or the belief that what is good for one person can be good for all, and vice versa. I understand that the construct of universal social justice has been abused by people in power—sometimes it has been white men, sometimes the middle class, etc. But we cannot give up on the construct of universal social justice. (For example, in the Philippines, where my parents originally came from, a social movement has arisen that goes: “An honest government uplifts everybody.” It doesn’t matter what social class you are, what linguistic group out of the dozen or so regional lingua francas and 180+ indigenous languages, whether you’re from an urban or rural area, whether you’re religious or not, Catholic or Muslim or another type of Christian. The point is that by making the government more honest, everyone benefits, which is why forming an honest government takes priority over any group interests. An honest politician from another side/party is more likely to care about your group’s needs as human beings than a sketchy politician who says they’re “for” you but would change when the wind blows. Thus, someone’s character is more important than their side, such as nationality, political party, or in academia, their theoretical camp.)

Zheng said companies can exhaust themselves trying to provide for every marginalized group (women, racial minorities, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities). They posed the question: “Do you really need six different movements or programs?” Similarly, I ask: “In the linguistically diverse classroom, do you really need six different approaches to teaching every language group? Or will one approach, called joinfostering (Faltis, 2001), largely do the trick?”

Moreover, a categorial approach to social justice divides. People think, “Where’s our movement? Why did you recognize/help/allocate resources to them but not us?” Most disturbingly of all, it positions the dominant group as the one that gives handouts to others.

Root causes affect all marginalized groups at once, and addressing them will save you time and resources. I have already provided links to universally beneficial interventions in linguistically diverse schools, by Christine Hélot and Andrea Young (extracurricular community-building), Heather Woodley & Andrew Brown (classroom teaching/learning processes), Kate Seltzer (course design), and the many activities in this chapter written by Jim Cummins about critical, transformative pedagogy in classrooms and schools. Zheng’s partner in the podcast, union leader Ashley Lewis, explained that providing lawyers or reimbursing lawyers’ fees to help people in an organization (no matter what group they’re in) is universally beneficial. Zheng added jokingly that the building of curbs for people in wheelchairs benefits a lot of other people, such as people with strollers, bikers, joggers, and delivery workers.

Another reason social justice is more holistic and universal rather than categorical is that it is relationally created—I have to create it for you so you can create it for me, and common values create it for everybody. If I make you feel bad about your English, you might make me feel bad about my lack of proficiency in other languages. However, if you encourage me to run even though I’m a poor athlete, I might likewise encouragingly coach you to become a better writer. How I construct your capability as a student will impact how you construct my capability as a teacher. In one of my papers about linguistically diverse classrooms, I write that in such classrooms,

students are acutely aware of asymmetries in language proficiency, on which they are continually assessed by both standardized and classroom tests, and in the informal judgment of their peers and adults at home and at school (with respect to the official classroom language(s), heritage languages, and peer groups’ languages of affinity). (Mendoza, 2020, p. 13)

Does this mean that with such a diversity of individual language repertoires in a class, there are as many solutions as there are individuals? Certainly not! Another quote from the same article:

individual plurilingual repertoires could be as different for three students who all speak Gujarati, Panjabi, and English at home as they are for three students from Norway, Egypt, and South Korea. This does not mean that language policy needs to be complicated in a class of 30 students from 11 countries. If plurilingualism is welcomed and the language of instruction is spoken with lingua franca rather than standard norms, the teacher simply needs to encourage two practices. The first is the “languaging” in “translanguaging,” which Swain (2006) describes as the Vygotskian process of talking aloud to make one’s thoughts apparent to others and learn through collaborative dialog. Students are apt to translanguage using their entire linguistic repertoires if they feel that the classroom is a safe space for doing so. The other practice for teachers to encourage is collaboration across language asymmetries (Faltis 2001), such as inclusive code-switching and language-brokering. Given such a classroom culture, students themselves can bridge the individual differences. (p. 5)

Linguistic/cultural inclusivity and equity is not about how “I (the teacher) need to do something for every group/individual.” Rather, it’s more about how “we (all of us) need to include everyone.” You may need to use different pedagogical strategies to include everyone based on their domains of language acquisition, but the underlying philosophy of all the strategies is the same.

To go back to the podcast, Zheng and Lewis advised against an approach to building alliances that goes like this: “How does this benefit for this group we’re seeking, affect other groups?” Zheng advises:

Instead of selecting a benefit and asking people how it helps them—remember what I said about assuming the solution. [Blogger’s note: You don’t even know if the solution you’re thinking of will really benefit the so-called target group, so why even ask how it can also help others?] Go back to the beginning. Say, ‘What would help you? And find commonalities between everyone’s challenges that lets you create a solution that they’ve already bought into. And I can’t tell you what that is at the end of the day… but if you have a good coalition of lots of different people, you understand their needs, by the time you’ve selected your solution, ideally it’s something that already has some degree of buy-in from multiple people, because they’ve already had a part in the process. You’re not coming to them as an afterthought after you’ve decided your solution.

To which one of the interviewers summarized: “We’ve been giving examples of solutions. But what you’re saying in a way is that we are forming our coalition around the problem.”

Summary of Point 3: Fostering unity in the microculture means focusing on people’s needs and goals in common. It isn’t the majority group, or the group in power, pretending that what they have is “in common with all,” or “good for all”… precisely because the problem identification and solution-brainstorming occurred in an open-ended way, with input from all, to identify what would be the common good. This process of gathering input from all evokes what Zheng calls the IKEA effect: “If you build your own furniture, you love it.” They likened this to the Hawthorne effect in psychology: “If people develop an idea themselves, they become attached to it. They have a sense of personal responsibility.”

Lewis similarly pointed out that social justice is based on community needs, which lead communities into movements. Social justice is not simply based on “issues.” Issues may change over time, but the task of caring for each other remains the same. Therefore, communities exist, think, talk, and act together to communally shape their well-being, not because they march behind “issues” (or in academia, teaching fads) but because they need to continually re-assess and meet their needs.

Overall summary: To change language policy, focus on the shared needs of the people in the microculture, gained through open-ended needs analysis. Through joint problem solving, you find ways to fulfill identified needs and foster good relations between people, who in turn realize their relationality and accountability to one another. For example, they modify their speech acts in speech events and speech situations in the ways that are best for one another, and shape the microculture in other positive ways. If everyone takes responsibility for this, it is a universal benefit rather than one particular to any group. The three principles are thus combined.

Acknowledgments: I listened to this podcast suggested by Amber Dunse for a meeting of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee in the Faculty of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also involving Cassandra Rosado, Krystal Smalls, Mai Mohamed and Sylvina Montrul. Lily Zheng’s interesting books can be checked out here.


Faltis, C. (2001). Joinfostering: Teaching and learning in multilingual classrooms (3rd ed.). Merrill Prentice Hall.

Hymes, D. (1974). Foundations in sociolinguistics: An ethnographic approach. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hymes, D. (2009). Models of the interaction of language and social life. In N. Coupland and A. Jaworsky (Eds.), The new sociolinguistics reader (pp. 583–597). Palgrave Macmillan.

Seltzer, K., & García, O. (2020). Broadening the view: Taking up a translanguaging pedagogy with all language-minoritized students. In Z. Tian, L. Aghai, P. Sayer & J. Schissel (Eds.), Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens: Global perspectives (pp. 23–42). Springer.

Swain, M. (2006). Languaging, agency and collaboration in advanced second language proficiency. In Heidi Byrnes (Ed.), Advanced language learning: The contribution of Halliday and Vygotsky (pp. 95–108). Continuum.

Swain, M., & Watanabe, Y. (2013). Languaging: Collaborative dialogue as a source of second language learning. In C. A. Chapelle (Ed.), The encyclopedia of applied linguistics (pp. 3218–3225). Blackwell.

Woodley, H., & Brown, A. (2016). Balancing windows and mirrors: Translanguaging in a multilingual classroom. In O. García & T. Kleyn (Eds.), Translanguaging with multilingual students: Learning from classroom moments (pp. 83–99). Routledge.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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