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Ask a Teacher: Is It Necessary that I Speak a Foreign Language to Teach English Abroad?

Ask a Teacher: Is It Necessary that I Speak a Foreign Language to Teach English

Living in China for the last few years, people often ask me: Do I need to speak Chinese to teach English in China? It's a common concern among most people who teach abroad. How can you possibly teach a foreign language without knowing the local one? Won't the students be confused?

Well, the short answer is no: you do not need to know the local language to get a job teaching abroad (though it certainly helps with living abroad), and there are plenty of reasons why.

1. You're Creating a Language Immersion Experience for Your Students

Most parents and schools, even those with young children, want complete language immersion for the students.

As someone who actually does speak Chinese, it's so tempting to use the local language to help get my message across. But once the kids discover I speak Chinese, they no longer feel forced into using English. Even if I try to force them to use the language, they'll default to Chinese every time they get a chance.

To combat this, many schools prefer teachers don't speak the local language, or at least pretend not to.

2. Local Teachers are Bilingual

In most countries, you will not be the primary English teacher. The students will have a local instructor that teaches English grammar using the local language, and you will be an oral English supplement. Because you aren't teaching grammar, there's no need for you to really speak the local language. The focus for you will be getting the kids to speak English, which you don't really need the local language for.

Even if this isn't the case and you are teaching grammar -- or teaching a group of students from many different language backgrounds (as you might in an English-speaking country) -- you can absolutely teach the concepts without speaking your students native tounge fluently. Simplify your language, demonstrate activities, and use comprehension check questions (which does not mean asking "understand?") to make sure they're on track.

3. You Might Have a Classroom Assistant

Many schools and institutions will actually provide classroom assistants, especially if you're teaching younger children. These assistants will help with translation and discipline, to make sure the class runs smoothly. This can be really helpful when teaching little kids, and a necessity if you don't speak the language. Since these assistants are full-time teachers at the school, the administration has no problem asking them to sit in on your classes.

4. High Demand, Low Supply

Many countries, like China, have a serious lack of native-English speaking teachers. Due to high demand and low supply, China has even started hiring non-native speakers while lying to the parents about the teachers' origin. Some schools in China also forge documents and lie on visa applications to get around rules. Your lack of local language ability is the least of their concerns when trying to hire foreign teachers -- they're more focused on your native English abilities.

How Do You Teach Without the Local Language?

Is It Necessary that I Speak a Foreign Language to Teach English

Great question! Whether or not you have a classroom assistant, how do you lead a class without speaking the local language? As someone who has been teaching kids, teens, and adults in China for years, I can honestly tell you it's actually pretty simple.

1. Use Powerpoints and Other Visual Aids

Powerpoints are my best friend, especially when teaching students with low language ability. Ever heard the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words"? Well in this case a picture is worth a vocabulary word, but that's all you really need.

Create a presentation with the English word and a photo below. Bonus points if you make the pictures funny or entertaining. This is great for teaching anything from emotions to food to weather and more!

2. Integrate Props and Realia into Your Lessons

You'd be surprised how much props or realia (what EFL teachers call real life items used in the classroom) can help you in your classes. Bring flashcards, photos, or use objects around the room.

Don't have flashcards? I make my own! I've been known to draw animals and food on little scraps of paper. I also used to use colored pens spread out over a table to practice colors! One time I even brought a bunch of clothing and had kids dress themselves relay-style.

3. Play Videos and Songs

I once taught at a company that provided mini-videos to show at the beginning of class. These videos are great for teaching actions, and are much more engaging than a photo. Songs like "head, shoulders, knees and toes" are also great for communication and making sure kids stay active and focused. I was surprised at how even my four-year-old students were able to remember the songs I taught them!

4. Simplify and Demonstrate Your Instructions

When you're giving instructions for an activity, only communicate the most essential parts of the instructions and simplify your language to a point where you're confident your students will understand. It can be helpful to break it up into steps and say "one" or "two" before each step.

Lastly, act out the activity as you go. To verify your students understand, you can also go through one practice round with a volunteer before letting them try the activity themselves.

5. Remember, A Lot of Communication is Nonverbal

On that note, remember that 93% of communication is nonverbal. Your students will pick up a lot based on context, hand gestures, and visual cues. Leverage this to your advantage and learn to not rely on your words alone for communicating ideas and instructions.

So I Don't Need to Learn the Local Language?

I didn't say that! While you don't necessarily need to learn the local language to teach abroad, I highly recommend learning the language before and after you arrive. Try to watch a few videos before you step on the plane, just to learn the basic phrases. This will make you feel more comfortable in your first few days while you get settled in.

I also highly recommend taking language classes once you're on the ground. Learning the language will help you communicate with locals, solve problems on your own, and... survive.

I can't tell you how much I appreciate my Chinese knowledge living in China. It can be a bit draining to rely on local colleagues and friends for every little thing. The autonomy that comes with knowing the language will make you feel independent and accomplished (and will ensure you have far less struggles while living abroad).

Most countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and more will have very affordable language classes you can take after work. You can also talk to your company or school about providing free language classes for you in your package. My employer gives all of the foreign employees one free Chinese class a week! You may also want to become language partners with a local colleague who needs a little help with English, and help each other practice.

So to answer your question, no, you do not need to speak the local language to get a job abroad, but you'll probably want to pick it up while you're there!

Learn more about opportunities to Teach Abroad.

Photo Credit: Mojpe
Photo of Richelle Gamlam

Traveler, blogger and serial expat, Richelle has been living and working in China for the last four years. From high school English teacher to college admissions consultant, Richelle has tried her hand at many different jobs in China. She spends all of her vacation days traveling Asia off the beaten path, and in her spare time, she loves to scuba dive, salsa dance and try weird foods no one else will eat. For more of Richelle's crazy misadventures, check out her blog Adventures Around Asia.