Jessica Watson

This is an English-speaking only zone

Reflections from teaching in an English-only international school

Teaching English is all about speaking English, right? Well, sometimes I forget that when I am in the classroom and speaking in broken, grammatically incorrect English in an attempt to help my students understand even a word of what I am saying. Or when my assistant immediately translates everything I have said, completely negating the students' need to understand English. The last six weeks have been different.

Six weeks ago I started a new teaching job in Myanmar at an international school. The job and the school have surpassed my expectations and one of the most impressive things is that I can use complete sentences in the classroom and give directions in English and the students not only understand, but they respond with great English. This has been a breath of fresh air. I think every teacher reaches a point where they get a little frustrated that their directions are not being understood; I know I have, especially when having to resort to baby talk because its the only way your students will understand directions. Teaching in an international school where English is the language, not just a subject, is a totally different experience.

Once again I am teaching Kindergarten, but this time I can talk to my students like an adult and I can use full sentences and explain directions in English and trust they understand. Never before have I spoken to Kindergarten students like this. Typically, I would have to say things like "bye bye crayon" instead of "please put your crayon away" and never before have my students told me what they did over the weekend. One of the real treats has been watching my students talk to each other in English. It is amazing to me that they understand the concept that they are only allowed to speak English at school and they not only follow that rule, but they are able to have the same conversations in English they would in their mother-tongue.

The reason I bring this difference to attention is because I think it illustrates a very important part of language learning that is often neglected in schools: complete and total immersion in the language. From my experience as an ESL teacher in two other countries, I have noticed that even in the English classroom, the native language is still being spoken, sometimes more or equal to the amount of English. While I understand the benefit of translation, I think a lot more can be spoken exclusively in English, especially when coupled with hand gestures and demonstrations.

I think our students understand a lot more than we give them credit for, and providing translations for every direction takes away from their creative and critical thinking. My Kindergarten students don't speak English fluently, but because they have been challenged by an exclusively English classroom, they are able to critical think about what I am saying and either form an understanding or ask questions that help them understand.

ESL is one of the fastest growing sectors and English language-learners are one of the largest demographics. Hopefully, they will learn to speak English correctly and fluently, but this can't be achieved if schools don't start investing in programs that challenge their students to speak and understand English in the classroom. As for me, I think I'm going to forever be the evil teacher who makes the rule that only English can be spoken in the classroom...and hope that my students appreciate that someday in the future.

If you enjoy my ajarn blogs, then feel free to e-mail me. And why not take a look at my personal blog site as well.


Thank you! for this wonderful idea. I totally agree with you. School does need to give students opportunity to learn how to speak correct English.

By debbie, yilan, Taiwan (17th November 2015)

"Well, anyone who has ever studied a language in an immersion environment can tell you that it does work. I learned several languages this way, and nothing compares to just diving in. "

But if we're really trying to shake out the particulars, we have to be more specific than simply 'learning in an immersion environment' because that could include so many things.

So people think that means a situation where little or no explicit teaching is taking place. It's imagined as a pool you just toss the kids into, and watch them figure out how to swim on their own.

But John H. is describing having " an immersion environment" the environment supported the STUDY. Two entirely different things.

Children up to age 14 or so will learn a new language 'immersively' without much explicit instruction if, say, they move to the US and have hundreds of meaningful inputs to navigate and inspire every day. But something like 'English Speaking Mondays' in Thai schools is a whole other ball of palm sugar.

I'm not sure the idea of children "immersing themselves" is clear. What does that mean? How do they do that? Is it possible for a child to immerse themselves?

"...the difference is that I trusted that I would get better if I dealt with the pain at the beginning. I had faith in my teachers and in my ability. In Thailand (and most of Asia) most people (this includes directors and teachers) do not believe in it."

What was the role of your teachers in that learning process? Perhaps one major difference in the successful learning you describe there and the unsuccessful learning of Asian students you contrast it with is the quality of the teachers and the teaching, not the 'faith' of the students in the process of 'immersing themselves'.

To be honest, the more I think about what you've written, the less I understand about what you're saying!

By Bobby Blasson, United States (9th September 2012)

Well, anyone who has ever studied a language in an immersion environment can tell you that it does work. I learned several languages this way, and nothing compares to just diving in.
I would say, though, that the difference is that I trusted that I would get better if I dealt with the pain at the beginning. I had faith in my teachers and in my ability. In Thailand (and most of Asia) most people (this includes directors and teachers) do not believe in it.
Of course, the kids who do immerse themselves in English or any other language do learn, which proves that is works. But, people just say "oh, you are so gifted," without realizing that they had no choice but to learn, so they learned.
And that is the core of the problem.

By John H., Bangkok (8th September 2012)

When you say ESL classrooms should be "English Only Zones", keep in mind you are depending heavily on students figuring out vocabulary meaning contextually. That is not so good if the students are beginners or not very good at learning a second language because learning language was never a strong part of the family relations. Also you always need definitional vocabulary in your lessons and direct translation is one method of doing that. I think that bilingualism (helping students understand the vocabulary and structures of a sentence using thier native language) can actually help ESL students that are behind due to a slow start in learning English when they were young. Students that may have not been raised learning English from a very young age will fall farther and farther behind due to a lack of knowing the vocabulary compared to other students that have been learning English for a long time. Vocabulary appears to be the most significant bottle neck in language learning and it takes a long time for second language students to adequately pick up a large amount of vocabulary. Slower students need all the help they can get, from other students explaining English to them, and from the teacher explaining it to them using bilingualism.

By bloggie man, Bangkok (10th June 2012)

"but I’ve made Cambodia my home and I look forward to returning."

hmmm.. somehow I think you will be posting a new column from a different country before the end of the year.

By Erik, Thailand (7th May 2012)

I'm glad you caught the humor in the last statement in my article!

I do believe total immersion would be a simple solution to a complex problem. I agree that immersion alone would not solve a lot of the difficulties in learning English, or any language. I suppose, I've just been a blown away by the difference in my students English when they are immersed, versus my students who had everything translated even when I included detailed demonstrations in my lessons. And honestly, I haven't even begun to think about to think about how to apply a "total immersion" classroom to Thai or other schools...but I appreciate you bringing up this point and your feedback because now my gears are turning!

The contract I have with the school in Myanmar is only for two months(summer school). I have three weeks left and will return to Cambodia afterwards. I've really enjoyed my time in this country and the school is wonderful, but I've made Cambodia my home and I look forward to returning.

By Jessica, (25th April 2012)

"I think I'm going to forever be the evil teacher who makes the rule that only English can be spoken in the classroom...and hope that my students appreciate that someday in the future."

Jessica, perhaps 'arrogant' is much too strong a word. I really do appreciate your article and your sharing - fantastic to hear about Myanmar at this juncture, too, when all kinds of possibilities seem to be opening up there moving into the future. Do you think you might stay?

^As for the above quote. I like the (tongue in cheek) sentiment of 'being the evil teacher' who is extra conscientious and disciplined about maintaining an English-speaking environment in her classes. How would you effectively and realistically apply this to, say, an average classroom in Thailand? This is where the rubber meets the road.

Hopefully the students will do more than 'appreciate it in the future' because they somehow 'soaked it up'. Ideally it would be a foundation for a very active, tuned-in classroom where students are learning and ultimately acquiring the new language at as fast a pace as possible.

I'm certainly not convinced that immersion on its own is an absolutely necessary element in a successful language acquisition process, or on its own particularly potent beyond the point of puberty when the window of natural passive language acquisition closes.

By Matthew, United States (25th April 2012)

I'm not going to criticize here since I totally understand where you're coming from. After 3 terms in a vocational college here in Udon where I had to be happy when classes understood the difference between 'good morning teacher' or 'good afternoon teacher' I am also looking forward to teach in 'real' English soon.

However, before anybody tries to understand my comment the wrong way, I'm not blaming the students. It's, of course, not their fault and I loved teaching them. That's why I stayed 3 terms over here. Big problem for me was that 3 of my 5 English teaching colleagues haven't been able to communicate with me without using google. Unfortunately they also intended to teach 80% of their classes in Thai because the kids then 'understand it better'.

While my Thai skills increased of course I also stayed the 'mean' English only teacher who also focused on punctuality and homework to be done. Sounds kinda 'not funny' but it actually was the complete opposite and students seemed to enjoy that some teachers actually care about and challenge them and not just give them grade 4 because their shirt looks nice.

So to come up with a conclusion and not only a 'my experience' comment. I think you're right. English can't be improved the way they are trying it right now. The fact that we have the 'English speaking year' right now doesn't change anything and foreign languages simply need to be taken more serious. (Even the text books we had to use last term were full of mistakes).

By Sascha, Udon, soon BKK (25th April 2012)

English in Thailand is still very much taught as a foreign language using old-fashioned methods. There is very little in-put or time per week for speaking and listening. This subject is not taken seriously. Thai students are hardly capable of failing their English speaking classes even if they never come to the class at all for the whole year! Foreign teachers are expected to 'repair' such students in the end. With these kinds of policies, it's not fair to compare such Thai schools with real international schools where English is the medium of instruction. It's like comparing apples-to-oranges. Of course it's more rewarding to teach students who are eager and really learning English (in a supportive atmosphere) as opposed to students who are just sitting in a classroom expecting to be 'taught' in a 'funny' sort of way. 'Good morning/afternoon, teacher!' LOL

By Lisa, (24th April 2012)

I appreciate the constructive criticism, and I know my teaching experience, and writing, is still young and has a lot of growth to do.

I wasn't trying to make declarations about how ESL education should be, or come across as arrogant. I'll be a bit more careful with my words next time.

It's funny though because today in class, I had an article forming in my head in response to this one highlighting language difficulties my "totally-immersed" English students still have! So, as I said, always room to grow and learn more!


By Jessica, (23rd April 2012)

Thanks for the reply.

You still seem to be resting your 'should' statements on the pretense that an 'immersion' environment similar to an international school is a possibility (and desirable) in (for example) a THAI school. It's Thai. Not English-speaking. It's not an international school English is the international 'linga franca'. That does not mean that everyone should be immersed in it. You can only be 'fully immersed' in one thing at a time by definition. I think you should choose your terms more carefully if you want to be clear about what you are suggesting. I think there's some there there; but you don't do the expression of a serious position justice by muddling it like this is the process. Do you see where you run the risk of coming off as naive at best, arrogant at worst if you continue to insist that 'this is the way it should be done in EFL' referring to your present experience as a summer school teacher for kids who have already learned a good deal of English because of their access to a very particular education?

If you have something to say about effective language teaching methods I would like to suggest that you a) specify the context b) specify methods appropriate to that context. I'm not saying I don't like your article(s) and what you're writing about here but when you shift from a casual personal account into educational policy declaration mode ("this can't be achieved unless...") and seem only to support the latter with the former, you run the risk of coming off as a bit ingenuous.

I hope that doesn't sound too harsh or unwarranted; it's meant to be constructive criticism. Take care and good luck.

By Matthew, United States (23rd April 2012)

Hey Matthew!
Thanks for responding and I'm happy to respond to your comments/concerns.

Some differences between this school in Myanmar and the other schools I have taught at(both in Thailand and Cambodia) is foreign run and the Burmese teachers are required to speak English in classroom. I think this is very beneficial for the students because they are challenged and totally immersed in the language. Also, when I was teaching in Thailand and Cambodia, a lot of the English teachers never spoke a word of English to me, despite being English teachers. Many lacked confidence(or maybe even ability?) to hold a conversation with a native speaker. I think a teacher of a foreign language should feel confident speaking the language they are teaching with a native speaker? This should be applied to all languages being learned, not just English.

I hope my analysis didn't come across as critical of Thai teachers. I think for anyone teaching a foreign language, it is always easier to explain things in the native language. I believe language teachers have a much more difficult time in the classroom than any other subject teacher, and using the native language to aid the lesson makes the job easier, but doesn't necessarily improve learning. I think the students benefit tremendously from total immersion and I've seen those benefits first-hand.

I'm not trying to imply that native English-speaking teachers are superior to foreign English teachers. In fact, I've met many ESL teachers who speak English as a second language and they are excellent teachers and have a good command of the English language. I just feel language teachers, both native and non-native, need to be better prepared for giving their students an exclusively English(or other language) atmosphere.

I hope that answers some of your questions/concerns. If not, please elaborate more and I'll answer as best I can!


By Jessica, (23rd April 2012)


I'm really happy that you've had such a positive initial 18 month teaching career in SE Asia and wish you continued success, adventure, and growth. I'm not sure exactly where some of the below comments are coming from, to tell you the truth.

On to responding to the article:

I get what the thesis of your piece is, but wonder a little bit about how you support it (or don't, really) You seem to be comparing the teaching of ESL by (Thai?) teachers to yourself, a native speaker, teaching at an English-medium International School...and saying that based on your experience so far you've realized that national ESL teachers (in Thailand right?) who habitually resort to translation methods ought to more bravely and ultimately effectively (are you sure?) experiment with using more English to teach English.

What are the reasons, do you think, why they don't/can't do this? I'm disappointed that you seem to blame them without offering any theory as to why they don't do what you're doing in your Burmese international school this summer. It strikes me as a bit naive. And that you clearly have a good reflective practice going on...but don't appear to have considered the primary difference between ESL and EFL.

Would enjoy hearing your thoughts on these things.

By Matthew, United States (23rd April 2012)

Forgive me, but I thought the article was about language learning and developing methodology not a critical analysis of the writer?!

As a QTS and PGCE qualified Teacher from the West who has taught in Thailand for more than six years, I have seen my fair share of 'traveller teachers', both young and old and those with no core prior experience and qualifications other than an online TEFL or a 40 hour course undertaken overseas. Do these make you a Teacher let alone a good Teacher? No they do not, they create 'traveller Teachers' and unscrupulous schools both government and private, and agencies that do not sort appropriate visas, work permits and other typical Teacher packages. Such situations are a bane to education worldwide.

Should schools employ Teachers for short periods as opposed to long contracts? For continuity yes, but many education systems around the world require short term teachers because good qualified
long term teachers are hard to find in some countries. However I digress...

The point of Jess's article as i see it is that Teachers need to give praise when and only when it's due (not to make students feel they are doing wel for the sack of 'saving face' by parents or the school). Teachers need to get out of the idea you can stand t the front of a class, read a few chapters from a book, give out a few hand sheets and your job is done.

A good Teacher uses a variety of methodology (learnt through qualifications and experience)' be a good communicator and actually know their subject inside out. Should English language students receive translation in a class? No they should not because it encourages laziness. Also from a linguistic perspective, using native translations especially in Asian languages creates confusion amongst students due to inaccurate translations (I speak fluent Thai and would never use it in class).

Native Teachers especially Thai often come unstuck teaching English because of this. Immersion methods are used the world over to successfully teach a language, I think the point that needs to be addressed in TEFL particularly in SE Asia, is native Teachers and Schools employing foreign Teachers, need to be honest about students ability and not expect foreign Teachers or even native Teachers to perform miracles in language learning in a few weeks, months or even a years contract!

By Kel Willis-Wright, Bangkok (23rd April 2012)

Hey Elizabeth!
It's great being able to communicate more with your students, isn't it?! I love being able to ask my students what they did this weekend, where did they go on holiday, ect. and get full, responses. Plus, my students are much less shy around foreigners.

I'm sorry to hear you aren't loving Thailand! But as my Mom used to say, "Different strokes for different folks!" I'd be happy to share more details with you about the job in Myanmar; I actually found it through Ajarn! Send me an email at and we can talk some more! :)

By Jessica, (23rd April 2012)

I just want to clarify, I have been WRITING for Ajarn for 6 months...I have been TEACHING in SE Asia for 18 months. You must have missed my previous comment, but I'll reiterate that I completed a 1 year contract in Thailand, I volunteered in Cambodia for 4 months(with plans to return in the next 3 weeks and continue teaching) and yes, 2 month contracts do exist and my job in Myanmar is an example(it's a summer school), which by the way, I found on Ajarn.

I posted this article in hopes of creating some rhetoric about language education in SE Asia and how we can create better learning atmospheres for our students, but somehow it has turned into a critique of my resume and... my profile picture?

Lets stick to the topic of the article. If I need to write an article that goes into the full details of the last 18 months of my life living and teaching in SE Asia, I would be more than happy to share!


By Jessica, (23rd April 2012)

Hey Jessica! Really interesting reading about your experiences in Myanmar and think it is awesome you have settled in Cambodia. I taught in Korea for a year and then came to Thailand and am honestly not loving it. I am really interested in hearing more details about this short, money making contract you have there! Also, what NGO do you work for?

Also, currently I work at an international school where my 5 year olds speak fluent English (which is SOO different than my experience in Korea) and it is quite fun! We get to talk about such fun and interesting topics and they always amaze me how smart and intellectual than can be! Enjoy your time there, excited to hear more about your time in Myanmar!

By Elizabeth Buck, Bangkok, Thailand (23rd April 2012)

Actually you are wrong Joe....It is worse.
Look at the dates of the blog entries and it looks like 3 different countries in only 6 months, not 1 year.
Aside from maybe a summer camp or private tutoring, I have not heard of many schools that offer contracts for teachers for less than a year or school term (basically a year) So we should be looking at 3 countries in 3 years, not 6 months!
Teaching and "living" in different countries for a few months at a time is not the way to experience and discover what you want to do. True, it does give your more exposure to different cultures and people, but it's really just more of an excuse for a traveler who is looking for an extended vacation. That seems to be the case here.

By Linda Bretnak, Thailand (23rd April 2012)

Very funny Keith! Actually, it's a headband and I have curly hair that is quite unruly in the heat and humidity of SE Asia. But don't worry, I only wear it while backpacking, not while in the classroom!! ;)

By Jessica, (23rd April 2012)

Hey Joe! I taught in Thailand for one year. I had a one year contract with a language company and I followed it through till the very end. I spent 4 months in Phnom Penh teaching with an NGO that didn't require a long-term contract and this job in Myanmar is a short-term contract(2 months). I plan on returning to Cambodia after I complete the job in Myanmar and resume teaching with the NGO.

I suppose I don't have as much experience as others, I'm still young and have only been teaching for a year and a half, but I feel confident in the classroom and I always challenge my students. In fact, I think students in SE Asia are not challenged enough in the classroom and I always encourage them to think outside the box.

I'm certainly not jumping around SE Asia. I'm very settled in Cambodia, in fact, I'm dating a Cambodian man and consider Cambodia to be "home". The job in Myanmar was a great opportunity to make some good money, gain more teaching experience AND explore a new country that I couldn't pass up...and I think many other ESL teachers would feel the same way!


By Jessica, (23rd April 2012)

I have to say it does seem that Jessica is on a backpacking trip around SEA. Look at the cap on her head!!!!

By Keith, kamp (22nd April 2012)

How many schools and countries have you been to now? First Thailand, then Cambodia, and now Myanmar...all in a 12-month span, correct?
I like your blog entries, but it's a bit odd as well. It seems you are jumping around SEA without much intention or desire to stay in one place - but your blog seems to sing the praises and rewards of your teaching experiences despite the challenges. Who is being challenged more - the students or the teacher?

By Joe, Bangkok (22nd April 2012)

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