“Do you speak German?” “Um, no, not really.” And no, learning German for one year at high school fifteen years ago does not count.
This is a common question among TEFL teachers when teaching ESL in a foreign country: do I need to speak their language too? Some would answer ‘yes’ and others would answer ‘no’, but in fact there are arguments for and against this learning method, however, in most countries and reputable language schools the answer would be negative because in their mind if you’re a good teacher, you don’t need to speak the learners’ mother tongue.
This is quite a controversial debate, however, there’s no shame in wondering – it’s a common question among many new teachers. When you do your TESOL or teaching English as a second course, there’s the widespread idea of ‘English only!’ Naturally you’ve got to only speak English when you teach a multi-lingual class, but what about if you are teaching a mono-lingual class such as only Arabic speaking students? In this case do you need to know Arabic? Is it really necessary to have some degree of fluency in the learners’ L1?
So, the big question is: Should I or shouldn’t I be bilingual to be an EFL teacher?
There are reasons that support the strict NO-English rule, and then there are a few arguments that go against it. The majority of newly qualified teachers would argue ‘no’ whereas you’re more likely to find older more traditionalist school owners require at least some knowledge of the learners’ mother tongue language.
Firstly, some ESL teachers choose to work in an English speaking country where there’s a high percentage of non-native speaker immigrants, so knowing the mother tongue is not only not necessary, it’s impossible. It’s quite possible that you have a class of ten students all of whom speak different languages – it’s just not feasible.
Many people are under the assumption that a language can’t be taught just through the target language, especially if the learner has zero knowledge of that language. However, it is possible; it just takes more time and patience. There are a number of ways and means to teach not using the target language such as through repetition, scenario-based learning, task-based learning, visual imagery, and so on.
Limited or no use of the learners’ L1 is better. Usually, this hinders a learner’s learning experience because it’s so easy to slip into the mother tongue language of the student. Often bad habits are formed and students will come to expect their teachers (or those instructing them outside the classroom) to give explanations in their own language. This is not realistic and happens seldom in real life, therefore no matter what the level, learners of English (or any other language for that matter) need to hear as much of the target language as possible. This may go against your teaching philosophy, but it’s not necessary for your students to understand what you’re saying, at first anyhow.
However, on the other hand knowing some of the learners’ L1 one can help you help your students avoid common translation or transference mistakes. For example, in German every single noun is capitalised. Only a person who has ever learned German before could know this. However, you can overcome this problem by simply researching this online if you’re living in a non-native English speaking country teaching ESL – make Google your friend and search: Common language translation problems/mistakes between X & Y.
Another reason why you might want to know how to speak a learner’s L1 is not for the classroom use, but for outside the classroom, for example if you have to communicate with parents (if you teach children) to talk about your students’ progress, but again this is not 100% necessary as they’ll always be someone to translate if necessary.
Many teachers complain after a number of years teaching ESL that they begin to lose their own fluency in English after they’ve used the other language extensively in class. When it comes to making a transition from translation to only English, it becomes more difficult and it’s quite possible that despite being a native English speaker, the teacher will pick up bad habits from the students, therefore it’s better to keep it real in English.
Generally speaking, if you want an effective ESL lesson with your learners with quicker progress, stick to English only. Even if you know your students’ language, don’t let it on. Instead use it to your advantage such as pinpointing those fossilised English language mistakes. Of course, if you’re working in another country, you’ve got to learn some of the local language; this is called respect and of course it will make your daily life there much easier, but that’s a whole different story.