Do You Need To Be Bilingual To Teach ESL?

Jul 7 2023

Teaching English as a second or foreign language (ESL/EFL) is when you teach English to speakers of other languages. These English language learners speak another language as their first language, or mother tongue. Often, they speak more than one language - except for English. Because of this, you might wonder: Do you need to be bilingual to teach ESL?

In short, no

But let’s explain.

Bilingual education vs ESL

There is a difference between bilingual education and ESL/EFL. In bilingual education, the learners are taught through both languages. The teacher is bilingual in both languages. The students are taught a range of different subjects in both English and their home language.

For example, Maths and Science might be taught in English, but History and Geography in, say, Spanish. Or the teacher might switch between English and Spanish in the same lesson. There isn’t a specific focus on teaching English or the English language.

ESL teachers don’t need to speak the home language of their students. They usually don’t. ESL lessons focus on teaching English rather than other subjects. ESL lessons are often more communicative than other lessons which focus more on content.

For example, an ESL lesson can cover any topic under the sun, but there will always be an aspect of language study. The language is the focus of the lesson; the content is the vehicle for teaching it.

Can you teach English abroad without knowing the language?

Do you need to speak another language to teach EFL? In other words, do you need to speak Spanish to teach English in Spain? Or do you need to know Chinese to teach English in China?

Because you are teaching only in English, there is no need for you to be able to speak another language. Besides, many ESL classrooms have students who speak different languages. In a language centre classroom in New York, for example, you might have students from Italy, France and South Korea.

While it’s not uncommon for speakers of other languages to become ESL teachers (non-native teachers, as they are generally known), a vast number of ESL teachers can only speak English.

How do you teach English when you don’t speak their language?

The next logical question is, how can you teach English when you don’t speak the same language as your students?

In ESL classrooms, we only speak English. Translation can be used on occasion, but not regularly. This is why it’s not necessary to be able to speak any other language besides English.

How exactly do you teach students who cannot speak English? Understandably, this is a major concern for new ESL teachers.

For Beginner students, teaching English involves teaching a lot of vocabulary. This is done through flashcards, body language, actions, and any other means necessary. As you can imagine, simple vocabulary like red or apple are easy enough to teach.

But when it comes to conversational or formulaic language - like I’d like to order a pizza, please - it can be a bit trickier. Even grammatical concepts - This dog is bigger than that dog - takes some thought to be taught effectively.

In these cases, ESL teachers make use of demonstration, repetition, modelling and other techniques to teach the language.

As your students’ level of English improves, so your teaching techniques will change.

Intermediate students are more comfortable with conversational English. They can tackle more complicated grammatical concepts. Advanced and Proficiency students can focus on highly stylistic language and the more intricate nuances of the language.

These higher levels require less direct instruction from the teacher and are more participatory in class. They can be given collaborative tasks, group exercises and self-guided discovery activities to get to grips with the language.

What qualifications do you need to teach English abroad?

This is the reason you need a specific qualification to teach English abroad. A TEFL qualification teaches you all the methods and techniques to effectively teach all aspects of the language.

A TEFL qualification is the only qualification you need to teach English abroad. You don’t need any other formal teaching qualification. Provided your TEFL certification is from a reputable and internationally recognised TEFL course provider, includes at least 120 hours of instruction and practice, and is accredited by recognised accrediting bodies, your TEFL certificate will be accepted all over the world.

Do you need a TEFL if you have a teaching qualification?

Yes. Teaching English as a foreign language is different to teaching in a mainstream classroom. Some countries may reward teachers with a BEd or PGCE with higher positions or better salaries, but the general TEFL job doesn’t require any other qualification besides a TEFL certificate.

To sum up, can you teach ESL if you only speak English?

Absolutely yes!

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