Published 25th October 2017

As an English as a Foreign Language teacher you may find yourself teaching in any number of situations. Each teaching situation brings with it its own characteristics and features, pros and cons. The multilingual classroom is one example of a situation you may experience as an EFL teacher. Understanding the qualities of such a classroom will help you get to grips with the best way to deal with the learners and the learning situation inside the classroom.

What is a multilingual classroom?

In the EFL world you could be teaching in an English-speaking country or a non-English-speaking country. If you are in a non-English-speaking country you are unlikely to be teaching a multilingual class, unless your class includes students who are immigrants from various countries. If you are in an English-speaking country, however, your students may have different first languages because they are the children of immigrants or bilingual parents or, if they are adults, because they are in the country specifically to learn English – in other words, your students are all of different nationalities.

Advantages of a Multilingual EFL Classroom

On the plus side, in a multilingual classroom there is no common language. This may not seem like an advantage but it is. Your students won’t be able to talk to each other without communicating in the common language – English.

Coming from different countries also means that the students have different cultures and backgrounds. This can be a great starting point for many interesting discussions and conversations. In the EFL classroom we like to be able to use our students’ backgrounds and life experiences to inform the lessons. With a multilingual class, there is a natural curiosity based on the fact that everyone comes from somewhere different.

Because these students have different backgrounds also means that they will have different educational histories. They will have been exposed to different teaching environments and so will have different learning styles. This means that you will need to use a variety of teaching methods in your lessons which will prevent your students (and you!) from becoming bored.

Disadvantages of a Multilingual EFL Classroom

Of course, there is always another side to the same coin. If students don’t speak the same language, they may be shy to speak to each other if their English level is low. This can be overcome with time and if you are able to create an encouraging and safe learning environment.

If your students speak different languages you won’t be able to use translation as one of your teaching tools. In monolingual classrooms, if the teacher can speak the same language as the students, translation can be utilised very effectively. This is not possible in the multilingual classroom, unless the teacher can speak all the different languages!

Finally, students who speak many different languages will encounter different problems when learning English. These may be problems stemming from transfer from their first language or pronunciation problems. As a teacher of a multilingual class you will need to be on the ball to anticipate and address these different difficulties.

These are just a few of the many advantages and disadvantages of teaching a multilingual classroom. For every pro there’s a corresponding con, so if you find you’re having trouble with your multilingual class, think how you can turn a negative characteristic into a positive and you should find yourself enjoying the class more.