TEFL FAQ: Do I Need to Speak a Foreign Language?
No. You do not NEED to speak a foreign language to teach English abroad. You will be able to find a job and work comfortably without knowing the language spoken in that particular country. The real question is, should you make an effort to learn a foreign language?
We are supposed to say, “Learn as much as you can! Study! Talk to people every day! Language IS culture! You’re a TEFL teacher, it’s practically your responsibility!”
That is all true. But it is not always practical. Your free time is your own. Your ambitions are your own. Learning a foreign language may not fit neatly into your TEFL experience. But language will impact your day-to-day life. Here is an honest assessment of what to expect:
In the classroom:
This is the easy part. Generally speaking, using your students native language in the classroom is prohibited. Your students will be proficient enough to understand basic instructions in English. If they don’t understand, think of a simpler way to explain it. Using their native language in the classroom can have a negative effect. The students will default to asking questions in that language. And if they know you’re capable of translating, you’re going to hear an endless stream of, But Teacher! But Teacher! But Teacher! That said, knowing a couple of phrases like, Sit down! and Quiet, please! can work wonders.
Outside of the classroom:
This is where the lack of a foreign language has an impact. Unless your charades game is strong you will not be able to shop, eat out or interact socially without a basic knowledge of the local language. At the very least, learn food and numbers. If you can order a meal and pay for that meal without automatically handing over the biggest bill in your wallet (whilst looking adorably confused) you’ll survive.
From survive to thrive:
If you stop at food and numbers, your experience will be limited. You’ll find yourself spending all of your time with other English speakers. And your chances of making a deeper cultural connection will slip away one How much? and Thank you at a time.
Learning the local language is a sign of respect and it puts people at ease. Non-native speakers tend to be shy about speaking English, especially with native speakers. But if they see that you are making an effort to learn the local language (no matter how bumbling that effort may be) they are much more likely to engage with you in English. Speak Spanglish, Mandranish, Czechish, Japanish, whatever. Make mistakes without fear. Allow them to make mistakes too. You’re in the struggle together!
If you are serious about teaching, learn a foreign language:
Unless you’ve made a real effort to learn another language, you’ll never truly understand what your students are going through. You need to experience those humbling moments unique to language learners. Screw up your personal pronouns. Accidently use the bad word that sounds oh so close to the good word. Hear yourself using the present tense when you know damn well how to use the past tense. Experience foreign language blackouts–you’re following the conversation, you’ve got this, it’s going well!… Wait. What was that word? AHH! I know this one. That word means it means, it means… And now thirty seconds have passed and you’re hopelessly lost. If you want to be a great teacher, dive into that unique struggle, it will make you better.
Do you need to speak a foreign language in order to teach English abroad? No.
Should you make at least a minimal effort to learn a foreign language? Yes.
And if you are making a long-term commitment as a TEFL certified English teacher or an expat, aim for fluency. Embrace your new home and it will embrace you.