What if I Don’t Know the Local Language?

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Don’t Know Chinese?

How Can I Teach English if I Can’t Speak Their Language?

How will I survive?
It’s a question that’s on a lot of new teachers’ minds when they start Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL): What if I can’t speak the local lingo? Will I still find a job teaching?

Rest assured, nervous teachers!

** You don’t need to know your students’ native language in order to teach them English**

Yep, you can relax (about this issue anyway!). In fact, most EFL teachers won’t understand or speak their students’ mother tongue, especially when they first get to the country. Schools almost never assign true beginner students to the foreign teachers—usually the foreign staff teach students who have already acquired enough language to be able to follow at least a simple class taught completely in the target language.

So, how much English will my students understand?

Your lowest-level students will usually have about the basic language skills of a native-speaker toddler. They’ll know some simple commands and classroom words, perhaps you’ll even be surprised at how much they know!  But, very often, they will feel insecure and shy about these newly acquired skills and will need you to help them build up their confidence.

Your intuition is why they’ve hired you

Native speakers find jobs abroad because students (and therefore employers) are looking for teachers who have native accents and can help train pronunciation and who “have an ear for” what grammar is correct or incorrect, and who intuitively know how the language is used.

Of course, after a bit of experience in front of a class (augmented by a good TEFL certification course) you’ll be able to simply explain why something is right or something is wrong.  But, in the beginning of your teaching career, you’ll find that even if you can’t explain just quite why something is correct or incorrect, you’ll still be able to intuit the right answers.

But, once I learn, I should use the learners’ native language in my classes to help them understand, right?


You have this great job as an EFL teacher because you are a native English speaker (or at least highly fluent in English) and the expectation is that your classes will be solely conducted in English. There are plenty of local teachers, who are often paid much less than you are, who will use the local language to explain concepts and drill translations. You are usually expected, because you are a foreigner, to challenge the students with an immersion experience for the duration of your class. That is what makes you valuable as a teacher.

I like to compare learning another language to learning to ride a bike.  Students must do it to learn it. If you only talk about riding a bicycle (i.e. use the native language to explain the foreign language) you’ll never be able to do more than just wobble your way around. Many students, before they come to your class, will have “talked about it” for a long time and have still only learned the most basic of skills. This is precisely why they need a native-English speaker, like YOU.

How will I attend to my daily needs without speaking the local language?

Your school will most likely be sensitive to the fact that you’ll need some help settling in at first. Usually, the foreign staff (you) will have a local assistant (possibly one of your colleagues) assigned to them to show them around and help navigate the things they need to do. Your school will be helpful in finding the things you are looking for, from Western food and bedsheets to cyber cafes, cinemas, pharmacies and city bus passes.  You won’t be their first foreigner.  They know how this works. And 99% of the time, you’ll find them amazingly gracious and helpful.

Later in your career, after you’ve had some experience living and working abroad, you’ll realize that you’ve become adept at getting by using just basic language or even body language and gestures.

Tip #1:  Just because you shouldn’t use the local language when you’re teaching doesn’t mean it’s not useful for you to pick up some phrases to use out of the classroom. I like to learn the basics before I go to any country, even on vacation. Remember what your mother told you were “magic words?” They still are: Please, thank you, excuse me, I’m sorry, (and a smile!) can often be the difference between getting the help you need and finding everything is lost in translation.

Tip #2:  Numbers are the second most useful bit of language that you should acquire to help you live in a foreign land. Learning to say “how much” and understanding the answer will free you up from hand signals and finger counting and will cut down on miscommunication when you’re shopping, eating out, or paying that Uber driver.

The post What if I Don’t Know the Local Language? appeared first on TEFL Educator / TEFL Boot Camp.

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