Published 8th July 2020

Do I Need to Know the Language to Teach English as a Foreign Language?

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So, do I need to know the language to teach English as a foreign language? Teaching English as a Foreign Language is becoming more and more popular these days. We are very happy about this here at The TEFL Academy, because it means we get a chance to help people achieve their dreams of travelling, earning money, making a difference and just generally living their best lives. Understandably, people have a lot of questions about teaching English as a Foreign Language. In fact, there are a few questions we get asked again and again. And again. A few of the top questions are 

How much money can I earn teaching English online?

Where is the best place to learn English?

 and

What do I need to teach English online?

Do I Need to Know the Language to Teach English as a Foreign Language?

Read more: The TEFL Academy FAQs

There is one question that is quite interesting that we thought we should address because it forms the foundation of teaching English as a Foreign Language. 

That question is: 

Do I Need to Know the Language to Teach English as a Foreign Language?

In other words, if I’m teaching French students, do I need to be fluent in French to be their English teacher? 

Many people believe that teachers need to be able to speak the first language of their students in order to teach them English. Besides the fact that there are not that many people who are highly fluent in more than one language besides English, this would be especially difficult when teaching English as a Foreign Language simply because throughout your career you will teach students from all over the world who speak many different languages. 

Even if you can speak Spanish, this won’t be very helpful when teaching English in China or Saudi Arabia, or when you teach a class of Germans, Brazilians and Libyans. 

So not only is it unlikely that you’ll be able to use your students’ language to teach them English, but it would also be to a degree ineffective. In fact, theories of language learning point to the efficiency of learning a language through immersion.

What is immersion learning?

Immersion learning is learning a language by being exposed to the language. Instead of learning through translation, you learn the language by hearing it, reading it, and interacting with it. Obviously the ultimate immersion language learning experience is living in a country which speaks that language. In this case you are only exposed to that language and do not have your mother tongue as a backup. 

However, there is a distinction between effective immersion and ineffective immersion, or submersion. Submersion occurs when the language level is too high for the learner. In effect, the language will go over the learner’s head and they will understand nothing – and be totally demotivated at the same time. Effective immersion is when the language is at a level just higher than the learner’s understanding. In other words, they will understand some of it but they will be pushed to understand all of it. 

This is where EFL teachers come in. 

We are able to provide a model for our learners which is pitched at the correct level for our particular students. We grade our language to speak with the appropriate vocabulary and grammar, we speak at the appropriate speed, and we use visuals, realia, demonstrations and examples to communicate. 

Is translation a total no-no?

Absolutely not. Translation can be a very effective teaching tool, when used in moderation. Translation works when it is necessary to translate a single word which is proving to be confusing, or a grammatical structure which has a parallel in the student’s first language. 

It is not useful when it is used as a crutch by the students or the teacher. This often results in students spending their time looking up individual words for direct translations, which is often more problematic than helpful. 

Read more: Using Translation in the TEFL Classroom

Should I learn the local language?

Absolutely yes! But not for the purposes of teaching.

It can be problematic if your students know you can speak their language simply because they will resort to asking you questions in their language. Even if you answer in English you are still depriving them of the opportunity to practise their English by formulating and asking the questions in English. 

If you are tired or if a concept is particularly challenging for your students, it can be easy to slip into an explanation in their language. Again, this is not helpful because it is taking away time that could be spent talking and thinking in English. 

We want our learners to learn English as naturally as possible. This means we want them to learn to think in English, rather than think in their own language and translate. Ultimately this will slow them down.  This is why many classrooms have an “English only” rule. This might actually be at the request of the school rather than the teacher. 

On the other hand, you should be learning the local language as a way of understanding and fitting into the culture better. Knowing the local language will not only help you get around more easily, but it will introduce to a world which is not easily accessible to a tourist. Speaking to locals in their language will show them you respect their language and culture and you will learn a lot more simply because you can speak to those who cannot speak English.

Not being able to speak the local language will restrict your friendship circle, too. You will find yourself spending all your time with other English-speakers and not making any friends with locals. 

Read more: Culture Shock

Finally, learning another language will help you understand what your students experience in your classroom every lesson. Learning another language is not easy and it can be stressful. Learning another language will remind you of the hard work and dedication it takes to learn a language, and of the importance of motivation. It will help you realise the apprehension when it comes to making mistakes but, at the same time, the necessity of making them. 

Learning a foreign language will make you a better teacher, both because you will better understand effective teaching practices and because you will have more empathy for your students.

Read more: How to Get to Grips with the Local Language

If you’re worried about going through the process of finding a job in, say, Thailand if you don’t speak Thai, don’t let that freak you out. There will be a staff member (probably quite a few) at the school who will speak English. They will take you through the interview process and liaise with you. They will be the ones who will help you acclimatize to your new home when you get there. In other words, there shouldn’t be a work-related situation where you are stuck because you don’t speak the language.

So in a nutshell, you most definitely don’t need to know a foreign language to teach English as a Foreign Language. Learning the local language will help you be a better teacher and fit into the culture better, but it is by no means necessary to be an EFL teacher.

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