Language Use in the Conestoga Classroom

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By Kathryn Brillinger and Laura Stoutenburg

Chira (2017) interviewed over 70 international students in Canada to explore how they “anticipate, experience and negotiate their statuses and identities” and how identities “resonate with historical and contemporary developments in both Canadian immigration and post-secondary education systems” (p.135). Many of the students anticipated a very welcoming and multi-cultural approach to newcomers prior to arrival yet sometimes experienced something different. Our international students are our current students and most likely our future neighbors. This tip is to guide you in exploring how your comments and practices regarding use of the students’ first language (L1) in the classroom may impact an international student’s first experiences in Canada.

English is the Language of Instruction

Teachers need to be able to teach and students able to learn; it is therefore vital to identify protocols for managing diverse classrooms where English is not automatically the first choice of students for academic discussions. This teaching tip is aimed at helping faculty accomplish this in a welcoming and respectful way that honours linguistic diversity and personal identity yet promotes the use of English for mutual communication and maintains a safe and welcoming atmosphere for all students.

Key Questions and Answers

Should the medium of instruction be in English?

Yes. As stated on the College Admissions website, applicants must be able to receive instruction and respond in English. Even for faculty who speak more than one language, the language of instruction and discussion in class should be English.

Should a faculty member tell students that Conestoga is an English-only environment or that once they enter a classroom door only English is allowed?

No. The faculty member should set expectations that allow the best possible learning environment but not forbid the use of the L1 (the first language). There should, however, be a clear obligation on students to use only English where a class discussion includes folks who do not speak a shared first language and the chat on Zoom should be used only for English comments. Any non-English comments in a Zoom or Teams chat should be discussed and translated as cases of hate, discrimination and harassment have occurred. If you ever encounter hate language against an employee or student in a chat or elsewhere, complete the Conestoga Policy – Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Procedure – Complaints Against Students and the Discrimination and/or Harassment Complaint Form (for complaints against students) (

What are the implications of forbidding the use of a student’s L1 (first language) in an educational environment? Is this either legal or advisable?

The ability to speak additional languages is a workplace strength and should be celebrated. It is advisable to create a condition where students can periodically, and without distracting others, use the L1 for transactional purposes. In workplace cases in Ontario, employees have maintained the right to speak in their L1 if it does not interfere with workplace duties. For example, this legal review states, “Any policy requiring employees to speak English should limit its application to the performance of the job function.”   See Can you require employees to speak English at work?

How much L1 in the classroom is acceptable without leading to feelings of alienation and frustration on the part of the faculty, domestic students and students from other countries?

Very little official use of the L1. Timed periods of 5 minutes once or twice during the class time should allow students to stay caught up. Conversations between students before and after class or during the break can take place in the language of their choice.

If students and faculty share an L1, is it appropriate for them to use the L1 in discussion of course topics?

The class must be conducted in English. The students need to develop the ability to use the course terminology and concepts in English for future courses and the workplace. Limiting any exchanges in a shared L1 is particularly important even if there is just one student in the class who does not share the L1 of the teacher and student. Claims of bias could easily arise from excluding anyone. Occasional translations could be effective.

Is energy best spent employing classroom management strategies so that the L1 is used only for quick transactional purposes rather than trying to stop students from using the L1 altogether in the classroom?

Yes! Have 3 simple rules: 1. No one speaks when I am speaking so everyone can hear and process. 2. No one speaks when a student is speaking to the professor or the class. 3. If you are asked to be on task, you do the task or call the professor over to seek clarity.

Is there room for L1 comments posted in the Chat?

Comments must be in English. Students are accountable for what they say, and the language they use in a whole-class setting must be understandable to all. It is a good idea to record and save chat transcripts from zoom meetings as a record of what has been added to the chat.

What can I post in eConestoga if I observe students using other languages in class or in the chat on Zoom?

eConestoga Announcement: The Language of Communication for this Class is English

Hello Class,

I appreciate that sometimes in discussing course material it is efficient to do a quick translation into your first language. However, it is never appropriate to exclude others in a breakout room and/or to use a language other than English in the chat. Please be advised that in test situations, any conversation in any language will be considered cheating and that the chat is to use English exclusively so that I and all class members can participate equally.

The Importance of English in the Classroom

The following realities support promoting English as the main means of communication:

  • Students are accepted to Conestoga on the understanding that their English skills are adequate for studying in a Canadian post-secondary program.
  • The expectation is that teaching and learning will take place in English.
  • The use of English in the classroom facilitates the learning of course terminology and concepts.
  • Evaluations will be carried out in English without the support of a translation device, so English skills must be practiced.

The Place for L1 in the Classroom

As a college accepting international students from around the world into an increasingly internationalized environment, the following benefits to both faculty and students indicate the importance of finding a balanced use of L1 in the classroom:

  • English as an international language (EIL) and English as an additional language is now more common than English as a first language.
  • All students will live in a globalized world where English is spoken as a first, second, or additional language with many dialects, varieties, and pronunciations.
  • Having facility in more than one language is a strength, not a deficit. It should never be considered unfortunate that students have this ability.
  • Use of a student’s L1 represents an integral part of each student’s identity.  Where use of the L1 does not impede learning, suppression of the L1 sends signals of disrespect which do not reflect well on the College.

The Risk

Students told not to speak their first language may not feel welcome. In the past, some faculty and program teams have told students they cannot speak anything but English in the classroom. We have heard of students having to buy a coffee or do some task as “punishment” for not speaking English. An employee was once overheard asking students in an elevator to speak English!

These strategies are concerning given Canada’s past history of forbidding the L1 in education, human rights implications as demonstrated by various cases linking language use and OHR (OHR on Language and Discrimination), and current discussions on language use in the workplace including  Speaking Other Languages at Work. .

Research demonstrates that the use of the L1 in learning is advantageous and that brief transactions in the L1 aid efficiency and effectiveness in learning (El Mahmoud & Galante, 2020). It is, however, also true that the language of education at Conestoga is English, that students are tested for English language proficiency prior to intake, and that in both homogenous L1 and mixed-language classes overuse of the L1 can hinder learning, preparation for evaluations, and readiness for use of the terminology of the field in the workplace.

Most students from India use English not as a second language but as an additional first language. They can explain and discuss and read about things in English. Across the globe there are questions and explorations afoot with regards to “who owns English” and the use of English as an International Language (EIL) (Galloway & Rose, 2018). Holmes & Dervin (2016) believe “that any exploration of languages – including lingua francas – in intercultural communication must explore and seek to understand, both interpretively and critically, how language – and its problematic associated term ‘culture’ – are constructed and reconstructed, negotiated and renegotiated through communication in intercultural encounters. “

We ask you to consider how you approach your encounters with newcomers to our educational system with regards to language use and standards and reach out to if you want to have a conversation on strategies.


Chira, S. (2017). Learning Opportunities: International Students and Lessons About Education,    Immigration and Cultural Diversity On and Off the (Atlantic) Canadian Campus. Canadian          Ethnic Studies, 49(3), 133-152.

Galloway, N. & Rose, H. (2018). Incorporating global Englishes into the ELT classrom.  ELT Journal, 72(1), 3-14, 

Holmes, P., & Dervin, F. (2016). The cultural and intercultural dimensions of English as a Lingua Franca. [N.p.]: Multilingual Matters.

El Mahmoud, A. and Galante, A. (2020). Complexity theory and translanguaging as pedagogy for ESL learner empowerment. Contact Magazine, November 30.

Kathryn Brillinger

Kathryn is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Conestoga, bringing more than 30 years of teaching experience in the Ontario college system, specializing in English as a Second Language learning, diversity and intercultural skills. Internationally, she has presented on the impact of nonverbal cues on communication endeavours, and solving teaching and intercultural dilemmas. Kathryn holds an M.Ed., and certificates in TESL and Intercultural Studies. Contact Kathryn to discuss suggestions regarding potential programming for Teaching and Learning.

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