Language Policy in Non-Classroom Language Learning Spaces

Katherine Thornton, Otemon Gakuin University, Japan

Thornton, K. (2018). Language policy in non-classroom language learning spaces. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 9(2), 156-178.

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As self-access centres become increasingly social in function, the language of the interactions which take place in such language learning spaces (LLSs) and the guidelines or policies which guide their use have become increasingly important. Despite this, little research has been conducted into language policy. This preliminary study surveyed 50 self-access language learning practitioners in 30 institutions around the globe about their language policies and how they are received by different stakeholders, including learners. A range of approaches to language policy are in place, from strict policies that only permit the target language, to more flexible ones that allow or encourage learners’ first languages. Around a third of institutions reported no official policy in place. The data reveals that LLSs with strict policies tend to be found more in EFL contexts, but the factors governing policy choice are complex and depend on local context. While support for all kinds of policies is present in the data set, there is a distinct trend towards flexibility and acknowledgement of the complexity of creating an environment which maximises learning opportunities for all users.

Keywords: self-access, language policy, L1 use

Non-classroom language learning spaces (LLSs), such as self-access centres (SACs), social learning spaces and conversation lounges, are designed to facilitate language learning and maximise learning opportunities as a supplement to classroom-based courses or stand-alone learning spaces. This includes promoting target language use. As the availability of online resources for language learning calls into question the usefulness of traditional self-access resources centres (Reinders, 2012), LLSs are becoming more centred on social interaction (Allhouse, 2014; Murray & Fujishima, 2013). As Murray and Fujishima (2016) observe, social learning spaces are complex learning environments where affordances for language learning (van Lier, 2004) emerge over time as learners interact with that environment. The language(s) to be spoken in such spaces may be strictly prescribed, deliberately flexible, or left to the discretion of staff and users. The choice of language policy (or none) can have significant implications for the nature of interaction within the space and, therefore, the affordances for language learning. However, substantial research has yet to be conducted in this area.

Language Policy in Classrooms

The majority of research into language policy and first language (L1) use has been conducted in classroom environments. These include EFL (Anton & Dicarmilla, 1999; Littlewood & Yu, 2009; Moore, 2013), modern foreign languages (Macaro, 2005; 2006) and bilingual education programmes (Palmer, Mateus, Martinez, & Henderson, 2014; Wei, 2011). Some studies focus on acquisition, and show the benefits of using students’ L1 in the classroom, both cognitive (Anton & Dicarmilla, 1999; Storch & Wigglesworth, 2003) and socio-affective (Ford, 2009, Macaro, 2005). Others emphasise a more critical perspective of programmes which deny students’ first languages (Canarajarah, 2011; Kramsch, 2014; Pontier & Gort, 2016; Wiley & García, 2016; Zavala, 2015).

All of this research has resulted in a general rejection of the English-only model which dominated in the 1990s. Hall and Cook’s (2013) extensive study of 2,785 practising teachers in a variety of contexts shows substantial support for the use of L1 in the classroom especially among more experienced educators. However, around half the teachers surveyed felt pressure from their institution, parents or learners themselves to conform to an English-only ideal. This suggests that while researchers and experienced practitioners tend to support the judicial use of L1 in the language classroom, especially with lower proficiency learners, the powerful image of a monolingual classroom as the ideal learning environment still prevails among wider society, suggesting that Butzkamm’s (2003) claim of the “death of a dogma” 15 years ago was a little premature (p. 29).

Language Policy in LLSs

LLSs may have more in common with naturalistic settings than strictly controlled classroom environments, or at least represent a middle ground. They certainly differ from classrooms in a myriad of ways. As mentioned above, they are increasingly social spaces, with typical interactions ranging from simple greetings and transactional exchanges to in-depth intercultural discussions between learners, or metacognitively complex advisory sessions with a learning advisor. They may be multilingual spaces, and often cater for learners from a variety of backgrounds and proficiency levels. Usage of the facilities is often voluntary, which necessitates the creating of a welcoming environment that a teacher of a compulsory class does not have to consider. In many institutions the promotion of autonomy may take priority over language learning goals. In addition, LLSs may also have a remit to provide opportunities for interaction between people of many different cultures, who speak a variety of languages.

Several recent studies in Japan have started to look at the issue of language policy in LLSs. Adamson and Fujimoto-Adamson (2012) document the move from English-only to a more flexible language policy and report largely positive learner reactions to this shift. A small-scale study I conducted (Thornton, 2012) shows support for L1 in advising sessions among learning advisors. Imamura (2018) highlights the challenges of preserving and promoting target language interaction in an English-only space in part of a new and larger facility that the existing English-only SAC has moved into. She reports a discrepancy between student expectations of the space (student surveys prior to the move showed significant support for a partial or complete English-only policy) and their actual behaviour in terms of language use in the new space, as there has been a drop in English use in both the multilingual and English-only areas since the new facilities opened.

In my experience, language policy and use almost always feature in informal discussions between practitioners at conferences, yet very little attention has been paid to it in the literature. This study is a preliminary attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the current situation of language policy in language learning spaces around the globe.


An extensive survey of 31 questions on language policy in LLSs (see Appendix) which included both open and closed-ended questions was designed to address the following research questions:

  • How common are different kinds of language policies in LLSs around the world?
  • What factors feature in the rationales given for these policies?
  • What attitudes do practitioners have towards the policies?
  • How do the policies operate in practice in terms of enforcement and compliance?

In order to gain a detailed understanding of each LLS, contextual information about the institutions (size of student body, languages offered at the institution) and the LLS itself (age of LLS, number and majors of users) was also requested. Respondents were asked to give details of their role(s) in the LLS and the number of years of experience in self-access language learning (SALL). The survey is included in the appendix.

The survey was piloted by four people, three of whom worked in LLSs in EFL contexts, and one in a predominantly English-speaking country where students of various nationalities were studying both EAP, and other modern foreign languages. Based on the pilot responses and comments made about the questions, I revised several questions to remove minor inconsistencies and clarify confusing questions. While the pilot confirmed that the survey took some time to complete (between 15 and 25 minutes), the survey was targeted specifically to a community of SALL practitioners likely to have interest in the topic. The survey was administered directly to known colleagues via email and indirectly through an autonomy-focused online discussion list in August 2016.

Of the 63 responses received, 13 were not full responses and thus deleted from the data set. For reasons of space this article will focus on the most relevant findings. Respondents were asked, but not required, to share the name of their institution, and 40 out of 50 respondents did so. This enabled the data to be analysed on two levels: individual and institutional. To establish an understanding of the different institutions, a smaller data-set using only one response from each LLS (that of the most senior role) was compiled and analysed. Where the institution name had not been provided, each response was included unless other demographic information revealed that it came from the same institution as another respondent.

Data analysis

Responses to open-ended questions were subjected to a thematic analysis using HyperResearch, a qualitative research program. All data was coded, with categories emerging from the data. Originally, a separate group of codes were made for each key open-ended question in the data set. These codes were then refined to identify common categories emerging across different questions, to enable a deeper level of analysis.

Findings and Discussion

Institutional data

There are 30 different LLSs at tertiary educational institutions from nine different countries represented in the data set. Japan, my own country of work, is overrepresented with 18 institutions.

As many centres cater for both local students studying foreign languages, and international students studying the dominant language of that country as a “second language”, the task of determining a linguistic context is rather complicated. Respondents were asked to identify the main language context of their LLS, and this designation was used to establish three different language context categories: foreign language (FL), second language (SL), official language (OL). With the exception of one OL-category LLS in Ireland whose focus was the Irish language, all institutions featured English as either the main language (21), one of several languages (5) or one of two target languages (3), the other being the home language of that country. Thirteen out of 30 were multilingual spaces catering for three or more languages, and nine LLSs served more than six languages.

Patterns in language policy choice in LLSs

Respondents were asked to identify their space’s language policy from the following list, and then asked to give further details.

Thornton Table 1

This self-designation was then combined with other details given about each policy to decide the final category of each institution. For example, the following respondent gave a “no official or informal policy” response, but from the comment below, “Target language(s) use encouraged but not required” was considered a better fit:

We don’t have foreign languages department, so we cannot push students to use English in this center. However, we always encourage them to use English and mainly, they try to use English here.

Policy by language context

As no responses were received for two categories, the data was grouped into the following categories for analysis: TL-only (including TL only in certain spaces); TL-encouraged policy; and no official policy (including informal policy).

All 11 institutions with strict TL-only language policies could be classified as FL or OL contexts, nine from Japan, one from Mexico and one from Ireland. All but the Irish LLS focused mainly on English, but five also catered for other foreign languages. It is not clear whether interaction in these languages was also permitted. Institutions which operated more flexible TL-encouraged policies or no official policies at all came from a wider variety of countries and contexts, catering for second and foreign language learners in the following countries: Germany, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Turkey, the UAE, and the UK. Thirteen of 19 also catered for more than one language.

Thornton Fig 1

The predominance of FL settings for TL-only LLSs is perhaps not surprising. Where learners have little exposure to the target language outside the classroom, one would expect the role of an LLS as a place to use the language to become more prominent. This is supported by the data on policy rationale (see below).

No official language policy. Of the 15 respondents who worked in LLSs with no or only informal language policies, six gave no further details, one stated that the issue was a subject of discussion, and one explained that as the space was multipurpose it was considered inappropriate to have a language policy. The comments from the other seven respondents revealed that centres with no official policy may have an assumed dominant language of interaction, influenced by the country they are in, or the institutional culture, as the following examples show:

Students are already proficient users of English. It’s an English speaking university. All medium of instruction is in English. (Hong Kong)

. . . as it is an ESOL, so therefore a totally English ‘full immersion’ environment, this is not an issue we need to worry about. (New Zealand)

There is nothing written. But I take for granted that everything is done in the home country language, that is Spanish. (Mexico)

While it has not been decided explicitly, these centres do, therefore, seem to have unspoken expectations about the language of interaction, but it is unclear to what extent they match the mission of each individual LLS.

Rationales for language policy choices

Respondents were asked to give, to the best of their knowledge, the factors that were considered when determining the language policy. Twenty-eight comments were included in this analysis. The main reasons for each policy choice are discussed below. There were distinct patterns in the main reasons for choosing stricter or more flexible policies, but local context (i.e., stakeholder preferences and institutional culture), and, to a lesser extent, ideological considerations, played a role.

Overwhelmingly the main reason given for strict language policies was to provide more opportunities for target language use. Ten of 17 respondents mentioned this aspect explicitly in the rationale given, including the following comments:

Spaces to use English are limited in Japan, so it provides an important opportunity that students don’t get elsewhere. (Japan)

For students to have an environment that they need to force themselves to use English to help students who do not want to /can not go on study abroad. (Japan)

This zone was created so as to become the hub of Irish language activity on campus. This is the only “designated” formal space for Irish on campus. (Ireland)

In two cases, including the Irish language zone mentioned above, the LLS was designated purely as a conversation lounge, and so this purpose was the whole raison d’être of the space.

For LLSs with more flexible policies, the desire to make the facilities accessible to lower proficiency users or non-English majors dominates, with a total of 12 comments. These are often explicitly linked to affective factors such as anxiety or low motivation of users:

Many low-level students use this center. We do not want to discourage them using it by having an English only policy. At the same time, we want to encourage English so that students who use English do not feel out of place when they use it in the SAC. (Japan)

Students are nervous to even enter the centre, and English only policy was only adding to this stress. (Japan)

This concern with anxiety seems particularly prevalent in Japan, which is well-known for having many low-proficiency foreign language learners with high anxiety (Cutrone, 2009; Nishino & Watanabe, 2008). However, Gillies’ (2007; 2010) investigations into student motivation for using a SAC in the Japanese context revealed that language proficiency was not a predictor of use. This finding is supported by Rose and Elliott’s (2010) study at the same institution, which found that the perception of users as a closed group of learners, rather than as highly proficient, was the stronger reason for students’ reluctance to use the conversation lounge. While both these studies come from the same institution in Japan, they do suggest that multiple factors, not only language policy, need to be considered when attempting to make LLSs more accessible. While an English-only policy seems to be a barrier to usage in Japan, interestingly, in one case in Mexico, also an EFL context, this same language policy was seen to increase accessibility:

[English-only policy was decided upon] to make the facilities as accessible as possible and to encourage attendance. (Mexico)

Maybe this respondent is referring to the special nature of an English space, which could be seen as attractive to students interested in learning the language, but without further comment it is difficult to know for sure.

High motivation of users, can also be seen as a reason for not requiring a strict language policy, as seen in the comment below:

This group attracted a small group of students who wanted a chance to speak in English and to meet the international students on campus. They were motivated to speak English, thus we didn’t have to formalize a language policy. This most likely would have been different if less focused and motivated students had been required to participate. (Japan)

This may be more relevant for spaces with relatively fixed groups of learners, rather than those who are open to all.

Contextual factors

Apart from these main differences in policy rationale, the following reasons were given to support both more flexible and stricter language policies in different contexts, suggesting that decisions are highly context dependent.

Institutional culture was regarded as important in determining strict, flexible and non-existent policies by four respondents in total. The following comments are from the same national context (Japan), but illustrate how different the local institutional cultures can be:

Staff and teachers: Their proficiency and philosophy matter. It is very difficult to speak to Japanese teachers in English in our university. (No policy, Japan)

Original strong links with English Language Institute where TL was originally part of the classroom policy and philosophy. (TL only, Japan)

Two other respondents in two different countries also mentioned having been influenced by policies of other centres across the country, suggesting that the institutional culture of one institution may spread to others.

Stakeholder preferences

Similar to institutional culture, stakeholders’ views on policy can vary considerably from institution to institution, although it is noteworthy that no respondent listed this as the sole reason for policy. Two respondents from the same English-only LLS noted that stakeholders–administrators, teachers and advisors, and users –all shared a preference for English only, with one emphasising the PR benefits of the policy too:

The majority of students have a preference for an English only space (it was a strong reason for choosing this university). [It’s] a huge selling point and attractive to potential students. (Japan).

In another context, also in Japan, user feedback is given as the reason for changing to a more flexible policy:

Feedback and reactions of users from previous years when there was a stricter English-only policy. (Japan)

Ideological considerations: Theories of autonomy and second language acquisition

Among these mainly practical and socially situated rationales for different language policies were also some ideological ones. While one respondent from Japan said that having multiple languages being studied in the centre made it “logistically complex”, this was directly followed with: “it would contradict the goal of encouraging autonomy”. It is not possible to understand from the comment which was the most important consideration.

Despite the fact that promoting autonomy in some form is mentioned by 21 respondents as forming part of the mission statements or founding principles of their LLSs, it is not commonly cited as part of the rationale for the language policy. Only one other respondent mentions autonomy as part of the rationale given for changing to a more flexible policy. Similarly, theories of second language acquisition (SLA), specifically the positive role L1 can play, is mentioned explicitly by only one respondent:

We believe this approach is backed by a lot of research and theory on the role of first-language use in L2 acquisition and means we cater to students’ needs on an individual basis. (Japan)

One respondent admits that the English-only policy in their centre feels outdated now given new understandings about affect in language learning but was in line with the dominant SLA theories at the time the centre opened:

[I]t needs updating as we now know more about language anxiety, willingness to communicate and other psychological factors which affect language learning. (Japan)

It should be noted here that these ideological stances do appear more prominently when respondents were asked to give their personal attitudes to the language policies. These are detailed in the following section.

Attitudes to Language Policy

The rationales detailed above were not necessarily in line with the attitudes of the respondents themselves, and further questions in the survey asked them to give their own opinions of the current policy. While student attitudes were not directly elicited, respondents were asked about levels of compliance by users and staff of the centres.

Alignment with language policy. The extent to which the opinions of different stakeholders at each institution aligned with the stated policy was elicited using a closed checklist question, with an optional comment box. Respondents who stated their LLS had only an informal or no official policy were not asked this question, so data from 35 respondents was collected. As can be seen from Table 2, target-language-only policies attracted the most disagreement, with only three of 11 total respondents reporting no significant disagreement. Users were the most likely to disagree (5 instances). The more flexible policies were more broadly accepted, with 13 of 17 total respondents stating no significant disagreement. In these LLSs most disagreement came from LLS staff (4 instances). These results are supported by the responses from the open-ended data about personal attitudes to the policies in place, examples of which are given below.

Thornton Table 2

While there was support for TL-only policies, there was acknowledgement that it did not suit every user:

I feel strongly for it, though I worry about losing non-confident beginners unless they are really handled in an encouraging manner. (Japan)

Comments from three respondents once again highlighted concern about the affective impact of a strict policy. Users were described as being “intimidated” and “discouraged”, and the environment of a TL-only centre as being “off-putting”.

There is also some evidence of a tension between practitioner and student opinions of the policy:

Surveying our students, it is clear that the majority still want ‘English only’, but enough people are intimidated by the environment that we need to be more responsive to those students. (Japan)

It seems severe to me, but a lot of the students like it! (Japan)

Thirteen of 17 respondents from LLSs with flexible policies claimed no significant disagreement with the policy among stakeholders, and the comments showed more enthusiastic support for a flexible policy, as the examples below illustrate:

I think our ‘English first’ policy is very good. We have intentionally not posted any signs about language use as we felt the English community would evolve naturally, and it has so far. (Japan)

I love it. It took most of the pressure off students and it meant we don’t really have to be English Police anymore (one of my least favourite aspects of the job). (Japan)

However, there was also a feeling that users also may prefer more emphasis on using the target language, or could be missing out on opportunities to use the TL:

On a few occasions student staff members have expressed disappointment that they don’t get to use enough English while on the job, especially the counter staff. (Japan)

. . . this policy seems to work quite well, but on the other hand, students do not try hard enough to speak English when they do not have the so-called ‘conversation sessions. (Mexico)

Only one respondent expressed the desire to move to a TL-only policy:

We keep discussing the ways to promote target language use more instead of the users’ native language. A 100% English zone is our goal at this point. (Turkey)

Compliance. When examining responses about user compliance with the policy, no distinct patterns were evident in the data, suggesting the level of compliance depends on each individual user. There were even different accounts regarding which users tend to defy or ignore the stated policy. In one LLS with a TL-only policy a respondent noted that new users tend to use their own language, whereas in another LLS with the same policy it was regulars that were “lazy”. Respondents from LLSs with both strict and flexible policies reported that users used their own languages for more private interactions:

When students are in private booths, they revert to Japanese use. When staff are not nearby, they often speak in Japanese. Sometimes, students are caught speaking loudly in Japanese for all to hear. (Japan)


While this research is small in scale, and cannot claim to represent the views of all SALL practitioners in all contexts, it reveals that there is significant diversity in the language policies of non-classroom LLSs. Despite the research on the positive role of L1 in SLA, TL-only policies are still used as a way to encourage target language interaction, particularly in EFL environments. Practitioners confirm that more flexible policies seem to offer a more welcoming environment and foster autonomy, but if promoting target language use is an active part of the mission of the LLS, then specific measures may be needed to ensure that this does happen, especially in EFL contexts such as Japan.

This paper points to the necessity for more careful consideration of language policy and its impact on the usage of facilities and learning gains. While a third of respondents reported that their LLS had no official or informal policy, comments reveal that there is often still an assumed policy, often determined by the institutional culture or dominant national language. In such cases, LLS management should actively decide whether this kind of language use is in alignment with its mission.

This study also suggests that individual users will make their own decisions about the language they use, often regardless of official policy, and that people working in LLSs need to be able to respond flexibly to each learner. In the words of one respondent:

Teachers and staff use their discretion about how/when/where the policy is enforced. It makes little sense to impose strict rules for all when the needs, abilities and motivations of users are so diverse. (Japan)

I would suggest, however, that having a strict official policy whose enforcement is left to the discretion of the staff may be confusing for students if they are not made aware of why it is enforced differently in different circumstances. As educators, LLS practitioners should strive to help learners make the most advantageous decisions about language use, and provide an environment which maximises those opportunities. A contextually appropriate language policy can be one tool in promoting a suitable environment for learning.

As this is only a preliminary study, further research, in particularly studies investigating learner perceptions of language policy and actual analysis of naturally occurring interactions in LLSs would contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of how language policy affects social interaction and learning in LLSs.

Notes on the Contributor

Katherine Thornton is Associate Professor and Program Director of the English Cafe at Otemon self-access centre at Otemon Gakuin University in Japan, where she also works as a learning advisor. She has an MA in TESOL from the University of Leeds, UK, and her research interests include language policy in language learning spaces and second language identity.


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