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English-Only Policy as a Tool for Systemic Oppression

English-Only Policy as a Tool for Systemic Oppression: Why We Need Anti-Racist Leaders in International Schools

Submitted by: AIELOC

Written by: Nayoung Weaver & Rama Ndiaye Click here to learn about the authors

As educators of color, our past shared experiences have allowed us to witness first-hand the direct impact and consequences of English-only policy institutions on our students and the community at large.

Photo source: Depositphoto

As multilingual educators, we noticed school leaders take full advantage of such power dynamics and market the idea to parents that an English-only language policy is crucial for an international school to thrive. We have also observed leaders argue that parents who do not speak (or learn to speak) English have no place in an international school community. However, English-only policies reinforce and perpetuate the dominant power structure in place. We strongly believe that educators have an ethical duty to advocate for their learners. So we offer this article as a collaborative opportunity for growth.

During a Professional Development meeting at an international school, where most students are Chinese and Korean, the topic of “values” was on the agenda. In preparation for that portion of the meeting, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee made an announcement:

...there are student-made posters of our English-only policy around the Upper School. One poster states, “Reason why we should speak English: to be a better person.” Our students are internalizing this detrimental idea. As we talk about values, please consider: are we implementing the English-only policy for the educational benefit of our students or because of the discomfort of our own monolingualism?

In response, the leaders ignored the reflection opportunity and propagated the harmful English-only policy by systemically enforcing the idea. For example, school counselors emphasized the importance of the English language during advisory time and publicized messages containing statements such as, “English is the language of Inclusion at our school,” and “Why do we remind you to use English at school?”. Leaders went as far as using YouTube videos as evidence to demonstrate that in the 21st century, the number of English speakers has surpassed the number of speakers of other languages. Based on our experience, promoting policies in such a manner emboldened some teachers to use the threat of disciplinary action to prevent the use of any language other than English on school premises.

As the administration refused to acknowledge the danger of creating an oppressive culture that denies learners’ identities, more proof of the damaging practices materialized in student work. Two particular essays demonstrated how students negatively perceive their own culture as a result. One 12th-grade student stated, “being international, or speaking English, for parents, means stepping one foot into the upper class.” She equated being “international” to “speaking English.” She also pointed out that parents see the language as cosmopolitan capital, which they believe is required to move up socio-economic hierarchies. An 11th-grade student stated that speaking English could help create a sense of inclusion as long as it was not forced upon the community.

In our opinion, these writing samples convey the urgent need for a more DEI-centric culture in international schools. The students who wrote the essays seem to have internalized the structural oppression fostered by an English-only language policy. The book Growing Up in Transit, helps us understand the reality of such language oppression by sharing stories of international school students who feel “a sense of superiority” as a result of speaking English:

[c]olonial and capitalist discourses about language and culture have imbued English with such power that even a child can use language as cultural capital to maintain or challenge relations of power with adults. […] Colonial and capitalist discourses relating to language, particularly English, shape the subjectivities of transnational youth.

Without an anti-racist lens, educators could perceive the students’ excerpts as evidence to double down on an English-only language policy. However, educators deeply involved in anti-racism work would notice these red flags and be proactive about making a plan to dismantle the oppressive system.

How did this phenomenon happen at an international school? What are the powers at play? How does a community propagate the supposed inherent superiority of the English language? Whose values are really being centered, and for what purpose?

One way for international schools to become DEI-centric - and move away from coercive and punishable English-only language policies - is to use the translanguaging framework. Language acquisition is better achieved through translanguaging since it “bridges learning across languages” and “also invites students who may feel more comfortable in one language into the conversation happening in the other language” (Castro). This approach empowers students and helps them proudly develop their identity while “deepening their learning and reflection about language use." Allowing multiple languages in schools is a more inclusive practice that can better cultivate student identities.

Meaningful and impactful learning often happens when students have the opportunity to bring their authentic selves to the classroom. When educators stifle the native languages of multicultural learners to elevate the English language, students internalize this subjugation and lose a sense of self that is necessary to deepen their learning. As Simmons writes, “culturally responsive social-emotional learning…does not punish students for their identities.”

Historically marginalized individuals generally understand what it means to be subjugated and silenced in colonized societies. These experiences often improve their emotional intelligence (EI) (Akitunde). High EI levels lead to a greater sense of empathy, connection, and understanding towards other people’s lived realities. These qualities are urgently required to meet students’ diverse needs in international institutions.

Anti-bias and anti-racist cultures stem from leaders (Kleinrock). Therefore, understanding our role in an international school setting is crucial (Engel). Structural racism has detrimental effects on international school students (Tanu), and school leaders have immense power in creating a culture that values and supports DEI (Kleinrock). Every single educator is responsible for creating an inclusive school community when shaping student identities. “Our everyday educational choices influence our students’ identities… [educators should] choose to value [our] students’ long-term identity development” (Wickner). If languages shape the Way You Think (Boroditsky), why are we implementing mandatory English-only policies at international schools and labeling English as the “inclusive” language?

The Western-centric justification of the English-only language policy takes away student agency and prevents learners from fully asserting their identity in their learning. As research shows, “we are setting [students] up for failure within a system that was not created with them in mind" (Castro). Unfortunately, leaders who do not look at education through an anti-racist lens will maintain a biased system to elevate their power and continue to take advantage of their privileges while perpetuating racism. Ultimately, this is a child protection issue.

International schools need anti-racist and historically marginalized leaders at the helm of their institutions, especially if the school community consists mainly of students of color. Until the decolonization of international education systems is complete, anti-racist leaders are the educators who have the perspectives and adequate tools to prepare our students for the future.

About the Writers:

Nayoung Weaver is an AIELOC Fellow. She strives to be an inclusive college counselor and equitable secondary school Math head of department and teacher at international schools. As a transnational member (a.k.a. TCK) of the global majority, she is raising her second-generation of transnational youth. Find her on

Rama Ndiaye is an AIELOC Fellow and a 3rd-grade teacher who has been working in the international school world for a few years. As an anti-racist educator, she strives to guide her students to actively challenge and critically examine the world they live in while helping them foster the interconnectedness that unites our shared humanity.


Akitunde, Tomi. “Emotional Intelligence as a Form of Healing and Resistance for Black Workers.” Work In Progress, July 2020,

Boroditsky, Lera. “How Language Shapes the Way We Think.”, TEDWomen, 2017,

Castro, Mariana. “Translanguaging: Teaching at the Intersection of Language and Social Justice.” WIDA, September 2020,

Engel, Rachel. “An Open Letter to the International School Community: Our Role in the Black Lives Matter Movement...” Medium, Medium, 4 June 2020,

Hamad, Ruby. White Tears Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color. Catapult, 2020.

Kleinrock, Elizabeth. “Anti-Racist Work in Schools: Are You in it for the Long Haul?” Learning for Justice, 30 June 2020,

Simmons, Dena (2021). “Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), without an antiracist framework, risks becoming ‘white supremacy with a hug.’”, PDF file.

Tanu, Danau. Growing Up in Transit: the Politics of Belonging at an International School. Berghahn Books, 2020.

Tanu, Danau. “Structural Racism at International Schools: What Do Students Think? - Webinar.” Danau Tanu, 21 Dec. 2020,

“The Most Spoken Languages in the World (1900 2020).” YouTube, YouTube, 22 Aug. 2020,

Wickner, Daniel. “Entrust Students With Their Own Identities” School Rubric, 14 Aug. 2020,


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