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Do I need to speak other languages to teach English?

Do I need to speak other languages to teach English?

At an exhibition this past weekend I was asked a common question:

“Do you have to speak your students’ language to be able to teach them English?”

It’s a good question and a common misconception that you have to know and speak the L1, (the language of your students). However, generally, the answer is no, you don't need to speak another language because Teaching English as a Foreign Language is based on total English immersion. That said, a little of the student language can be helpful depending on the context and location. So, let’s think about where a little bit of L1 help could be useful.

Holiday English (to multi-lingual groups)
If you are teaching a multi-lingual group, for example if they are on holiday in the UK from various countries, then it is unlikely that you will know all the languages spoken in the classroom. So you won’t be able to give any additional help in their language. If you do speak some French, helping a French learner continually will put them at an advantage over learners from other language backgrounds and could lead to claims of partiality or favouritism. So here I think the answer is a clear no. Don’t use any of their language, it’s English only.

English to monolingual groups
However, most of the English language teaching around the world takes place in a setting where learners all share the same mother tongue, or have a common language between them. The teacher may also share this language, or may not.

If you don’t know the language your students are using, again my suggestion is use English only in your classroom.  Don’t start using their language, as they will come to assume you can give help where perhaps you really can’t - especially if you don't know enough of their language. Instead of translating the unknown word into their language, use mine, repetition, video, pictures or objects to help them learn. These are much more likely to be understood and recalled by learners when you next come to look at this item of vocabulary.

What about if they are struggling to understand?
The temptation here, if you do know some of the language, and especially if you share the same L1 as your students, is to switch from the target language (English) to their language. The danger with this is that they come to expect it, so lazy habits can set in if they know you will give them the translation. It could be that they know the answer but have forgotten it, so try asking the question again, perhaps in another way. Alternatively give them a clue, by saying something like:

“The word we are looking for rhymes with…”
“This was our word for the day last week…”
“It’s something that you did this morning Pedro, before you had your breakfast…”

Be creative and proactive. Think about the words you will be teaching before the lesson, so that you have some of these ideas in your mind for things that they might struggle with. This means you won’t have to think of so many explanations on the spot if you have prepared them already.

What about if they are beginners?
Ah, slightly more tricky here. If learners are at the very outset of their language journey, it’s natural that some of the L1 may need to be used. However, I think it is important to set the tone for the course by using English as much as possible. The way to do this is to be really visual, using realia, images, video and actions, and then making your instructions as clear as possible. If you give instructions in the L1 they will come to expect this and it will be difficult to switch to the target language at a later stage. So start as you intend to go on.

Exceptions to the rule
Yes, there are times when I make a judgement call and use the L1. If my students are tired or simply dumbfounded by my repeated attempts to perform verbal gymnastics to explain something, then using the L1 can help and is appropriate. This is especially the case if they are struggling and possibly holding up the progress of others. So a quick translation might mean you are able to move on more quickly.  
Secondly, if it’s a grammar structure with a similar usage in their language, then using the L1 can be beneficial to ensure that something is clear. But you also have to be certain that you are getting it correct in the L1, as to give a wrong translation or explanation in their language will make you look a little bit silly!
Finally, I never use the L1 with a group of Intermediate learners or above. They should know enough by this stage to be able to understand and produce the target language sufficiently well. But as mentioned earlier, good class preparation is key to this.

Over to you…
What are your thoughts and experiences? When do you think it is appropriate to use the L1 in class? Is it ever? Write your ideas below the line.

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Where next?

  • Check out our recent blog posts on making written corrections and making spoken corrections in the classroom.
  • How do you get students to use English outside of the classroom? Some ideas here
  • Have a look at our top tips for teaching English grammar here
  • A bit more controversial… do non-native speakers make better English teachers? Have a look here

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About the author
William Bradridge started out teaching English in Mexico, then moved to Portugal and eventually back to the UK, where he now develops courses and materials for Global English TESOL. Currently he is working on an Introduction to teaching ESOL course, aimed at helping new teachers get alongside refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. This will assist them with their English and to pass exams to enable them to maintain the right to remain in the UK.

  • Author: William Bradridge
  • Date: Wednesday 29th May 2019

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Do I need to speak other languages to teach English?