How can I Teach English Abroad Without Speaking the Local Language?

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As an English as a Foreign Language teacher, there is one question you will get asked again and again:

How many languages can you speak?

This is a very common misconception that we would like to bust right now. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, you only need to be able to speak one language: English.

It doesn’t matter if your students are Turkish or Spanish or Thai. It doesn’t matter if you are teaching English in South Africa or China or Mexico. And it certainly doesn’t matter if your students are Advanced learners of Intermediate learners or Beginner learners. What matters is that you speak English. This is the basis of immersion learning, and this is the foundation of teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Read more: 7 More FAQs about Teaching English as a Foreign Language

What is immersion learning?

Immersion learning is when students are taught a language using only that language. It is also used to teach other subjects in a second or foreign language. For example, immersion learning is when English-speaking students are taught French but the teacher teaches them using only French, or when Spanish-speaking students are taught Geography in English.

You might be wondering how on earth that’s possible, but immersion learning has proven to be a very effective teaching method.

First of all, you must realise that this is not a sink-or-swim approach. The teacher does not teach as they would in a classroom where the students speak the same language as the teacher. The teacher grades their language so that it is clearer and more understandable for the students. Teachers make use of hand gestures, body language, props, visual aids, and realia much more than in other classrooms. And teachers incorporate an element of language focus into the lesson, even if the language is not the focus of the lesson.

In other words, the teacher will define the aim of the lesson and then plan a lesson around that in order to achieve that aim. In a TEFL classroom, this aim is a linguistic aim. The teacher will plan activities that will help the learner understand the meaning and use of the target language. They will build on their current language knowledge and they will relate the new language to their own language use. Finally, they will utilise the language in a natural and relevant context. This is all accomplished only through the use of English.

The benefits of immersion learning

Let’s look at an illustration of how successful immersion learning can be.

Did you take foreign language lessons in high school or university? Usually, these lessons do not follow the same principles as TEFL and are often taught through grammar-translation methods. Even if you took those lessons for five years, would you be able to go to that country and comfortably speak to people on the street in their language? Probably not.

Then consider our students learning English as a foreign language. The whole point of our lessons is for our students to be able to communicate as soon as they walk out of the classroom. They learn the language which is useful to them and they are taught in a way that encourages the use of the language in a real situation from the get-go. Even students who have had a few lessons in a TEFL classroom are able to use what they have learned.

Immersion learning provides an opportunity for learners to be exposed to natural language, rather than only textbook language. They are more likely to encounter natural language, slang, and colloquialisms in the classroom, which will help them understand the language they hear outside the classroom. Immersion learning focuses on real language and everyday situations. In fact, immersion learning mirrors the way we naturally learn our first language – and we all manage to learn that pretty easily!

Read more: Authenticity in the EFL Classroom

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The success of immersion learning

Immersion learning also introduces the culture of the language to the student. The life and experiences of the teacher are part and parcel of an EFL lesson. The teacher will invariably share their stories with the students, and this will lead to bringing elements of their culture into the classroom.

Immersion learning has been shown to be a quicker route to fluency than other methods of learning a foreign language. Immersion learning is intensive and this extended exposure to the target language is the major reason immersion students learn the language more quickly.

This does not mean that there is no place for translation in our EFL classrooms. The translation is an effective tool in language learning if it is done appropriately. The translation should not be used as the main method of teaching a language structure. It should not be used as a first resort if a student doesn’t understand. There are plenty of strategies you can use which utilise the target language to aid comprehension or clear up confusion. Translation should only be used to convey very important information or to show a contrast between the two languages.

Read more: Using Translation in the TEFL Classroom

Immersion learning in the EFL classroom

As you can see, immersion learning is the way forward when it comes to learning a foreign language. Let’s look at how you can implement immersion techniques in the classroom on a practical level:

  • Use English as much as possible.
  • Use translation sparingly – only if absolutely necessary.
  • If you do speak the local language, don’t let your students know that you do or they will insist on speaking to you in their first language. If you are a native speaker of the same language as your students or they know you can speak their language, make sure you implement an English-only rule in the classroom.
  • In the case that your students are Beginner students, spend some time teaching them classroom language so they will be able to understand your instructions.
  • Incorporate authentic texts into your lessons as much as possible.
  • Use visual aids, realia, and props.
  • Remember to grade your language according to the level of your learners.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat!

As TEFL teachers, we are always aware of our students and their understanding in the classroom. Don’t get disheartened if your students don’t pick up a target language structure immediately; don’t let that make you feel your techniques aren’t working. Soon you will notice the benefits of the immersion classroom through the progress of your learners.

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