Why You Don’t Need to Speak Another Language to Teach English

People ask me all the time whether I spoke the native language of whatever country I was living in when I taught EFL.  (Did you speak much Turkish?  How good was your Hungarian?)  When they find out I started teaching in those countries long before I had a decent grasp of the local language, the next question I’m asked is “How can you teach English to them if you don’t know their language?”

I can see where this question is coming from, but honestly I don’t feel like my effectiveness as a teacher is inhibited in the least by not knowing my students’ language.  Here’s why.

Teaching is not Translating

I think these questions stem from a faulty assumption that teaching EFL or ESL comes down to translating.  You say a word in English and the equivalent word in the learner’s native tongue, and now they know that word.  Move on to the next word, and before you know it, they’re speaking English!  If you’re already a teacher, you know that’s not how it works, at least not if you want them to learn effectively.

Or maybe the assumption is that teachers would need to speak the local language to explain all the English words and concepts.  Perhaps this is because that the method many schools in America use to teacher their students Spanish or whatever language they’re learning.  But again, that’s not the most effective way for students to learn.

Both of these faulty assumptions arise from a third: that understanding the words one another is saying is essential to communication.  It’s not.  It helps, obviously (at least initially), but there are plenty of other ways to communicate.  It’s through those ways that we communicate with learners who don’t yet know English, without ever using their native language.

Other Ways to Communicate

There are lots of ways to communicate, including things we do even with people who speak the same language.  Teachers simply have to be more intentional in these areas.

Some of the methods are more rudimentary, like pointing to things, drawing things, or acting things out.  In fact, communication-based games like Pictionary, Charades, and Activity are no strangers to the classroom.  Other methods require a bit more thought: using certain tones and demonstrating one’s focus narrow down the possible message more than you might think.

There are so many ways to communicate that we put them in a different post.  Check out Communicating Without Words.

The Trouble with Using the Native Tongue

I mentioned earlier that using the students’ native tongue to explain everything or merely to translate all the words they need to know is ineffective.  There may be times where it makes sense to teach these ways, but they shouldn’t be your primary method of teaching.  The main issue here is that students can use their native tongue as a crutch – they continue to depend on it, and as long as they can use it in the classroom, they’ll be less motivated to learn English.

Even for those students who are eager to learn and put forth the effort, using their native tongue too much can cause problems.  In their minds, they have to do a quick translation before using a second language; everything is filtered through their primary language first.  This causes language production to slow down, and at times can result in inaccuracies.  If you don’t teach with their native tongue, then the students won’t learn to filter English through their native tongue.

Even once I did learn the students’ language, I pretended I didn’t understand anything they said unless it was in English.  Forcing them to speak in English leads to them thinking in English.  Ask anyone who’s studied another language both abroad and in their home country, and they’ll tell you they learned so much more by being immersed in the language for one year than by five years of language classes back home.

From the Ground Up

Young children raised in bilingual households have no issue leaning both languages, or even three (if a third language is prevalent in their community or is featured in their school).  Yet no one sits down with them on a regular basis and translates words from one language to the next; they know words independently of their translations, and they understand on their own when there are two equivalent words from different languages.  The natural way for them to learn is simply to start from scratch for each language they’re learning.

If you don’t know any bilingual or trilingual children, just think of how a child learns even one language.  No one pulls out a dictionary to define ‘cat’ to a toddler.  They learn by observation, and gradually by identifying patterns.  While they do this naturally, students in school and adult learners need to put a bit more thought into it, but it’s still the best way to acquire another language.

Learn the Local Tongue Anyway

The whole point of this post is to show that knowing the learners’ native language is not a requirement for teaching those learners another language.  However, I recommend that you learn the language anyway.  Learning more languages expands your understanding of English, connects you with other cultures, and helps you identify which areas students might struggle with (compared to students with different native languages).

The long list of reasons to learn other languages will have to wait for another post.

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