Published 25th October 2017

multilingual classroom

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, advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons. The multilingual EFL classroom is one example of a situation you may experience as an EFL teacher. 

While many new TEFL teachers imagine that they’ll be teaching children in a country where the first language is not English. For example, teaching kindergarten in Thailand – it is also very possible that you will be teaching learners in an English-speaking country. In other words, teaching learners from a multitude of backgrounds and who speak a range of first languages. Understanding the qualities of this kind of classroom will help you get to grips with the best way to deal with these particular learners and this particular learning situation.

What is a multilingual classroom?

First of all, let’s make sure we know what we are talking about. 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. For example, Spain – 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. For example, Australia – 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 could all be of different nationalities.

What is a multilingual classroom

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. Learners of English, especially lower level learners, have a natural tendency to speak in their language during their English lessons. This might be for translation purposes or just having a chitchat with their classmates. As a result, in a classroom where all the students speak Italian. For example, there are likely to be moments of Italian conversation throughout your lessons. However, if your students don’t speak the same language, they will be unable to communicate in this way with their classmates, so they will be forced to speak in English if they want to say anything.

Read more: Using Translation in the TEFL Classroom

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. Students always enjoy hearing personal stories from their teachers and chatting to their classmates to find out more about each other. This helps them form relationships in the classroom and creates a good atmosphere for language learning. With a multilingual class, there is a natural curiosity to talk to other students 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. Some students might be more familiar with the teacher doing most of the talking during the lesson, while others are more comfortable asking questions or challenging the teacher – in a good way! Some students might be stronger in their grammar knowledge while others might speak more fluently. All of this means that you will need to use a variety of teaching methods, techniques and activities in your lessons to prevent your students (and you!) from becoming bored.

Read more: 3 Teaching Methods for the EFL Classroom

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. The EFL classroom should be considered a safe space by your students so they feel comfortable enough to speak even if it means making mistakes. If they are not comfortable speaking in front of a few people they know, there is no way they will feel comfortable speaking English with strangers! So it’s important to help build relationships between your students so they can relax and speak naturally.

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! This is not actually a disadvantage, though, as translation can very easily become a crutch for your students, in that they will talk in their first language because they know you can understand. Not having this as an option removes the risk of translation being over-utilised by your students.

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, pronunciation problems, problems relating to different alphabets, or any number of other problems. As a teacher of a multilingual class you will need to be on the ball to anticipate and address these different difficulties. In cases like this, Google is your friend. If you are not familiar with the languages spoken as first languages by your students, look them up to identify and anticipate the problems they might have in your lessons. This way you will be able to prepare your lessons to be as effective as possible.

Read more: Teaching Multilingual Adult Learners in the EFL Classroom

These are just a few of the many advantages and disadvantages of teaching a multilingual classroom. While it might seem like for every pro there’s a corresponding con, this also means that for every disadvantage there’s an advantage. 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.