How do you teach people English when you cannot speak their native language?
I’ve dedicated an entire page to this question because it’s the first thing people ask me when they find out I’m an English teacher in Spain, and can’t speak any Spanish. On first glance it might seem like a completely impossible task, especially with young children who barely have a grasp of their own language let alone comprehend a foreign one.
Once you step into a classroom to begin teaching a new goup, it won’t take you long to figure out how slowly you need to talk based on the amount of blank faces you’ll get when they don’t understand you. This can be a really terrifying moment, when your heart drops to your stomach as you begin to think ‘These people have no clue what I’m saying – how the hell am I going to do this?!’
The more you teach, the more you realise that it just takes a class a little while to get used to you, and the best thing about having this problem with adults is that they’re sitting there desperate to understand you. At least they have the will to be there, something which doesn’t always happen with kids. And as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Slowing your speech down and using as much body language (without looking demented) as you can will help a lot. You also learn to stress the words you need to in a sentence to try and you get your point across.
I teach 5-year-olds, and can still communicate with them in English. Whilst children are the hardest to teach if you don’t speak their language, you’d be surprised how intuitive they are. Kids always need body language to read and visual aids to learn, even if you’re teaching them something in their own language but it is even more necessary in the world of EFL.
I won’t pretend like there hasn’t been points where it has been frustrating and I just haven’t been able to explain something using English with children. But with more experience you quickly learn ways to explain things depending on how the students learn – with pictures, music, games, etc. Using senses other than speech is the best way to get across meaning to children – show them a picture of a toothbrush, mimic the action of brushing your teeth, encourage them to do the same, write the word ‘toothbrush’ on the board, get them to draw a picture of one and write the word in their notebooks, and make sure they repeat the word after you. Repetition, repetition, repetition. It’s a fool proof way that children learn and one they’re familiar with all over the world.
What can be hard is when a child is upset in your class and you can’t speak their language to comfort them. These have been the most difficult points of my teaching experience so far. However, you’d be surprised how fast a kid will get over something if you focus them on another task almost immediately. Your tone of voice will also help – be comforting in your own language and they’ll know that you’re saying something kind. You’ll quickly be able to distinguish between a genuine, serious problem, and a kid just getting upset because someone has borrowed their pencil sharpener without asking. (99% of the time, problems fall into the latter category.)
Discipline with children can also be hard to obtain if you don’t speak their language. With young children, if you use a stern voice and point to the door, they will know what you mean, no matter what langauge they speak. With teenagers it’s more difficult, as they know what they can get away with and have less respect for teachers. You need to let them know who’s boss straight from the first lesson, but also try and engage with your teenagers to get them on your side. Figure out what makes them tick and use it in your lessons. My teenagers were massively competitive, so in many of my lessons I pitched them against each other and this gave them incentive to pay attention. Plus, that translates into any language and you quickly figure out that they can understand what you’re saying, just choose not to most of the time. Gotta love teenagers!
With all of that in mind, it is perfectly possible to teach people English in English, and you will quickly learn that whilst you are qualifying, and improve upon it when you gain more experience. You will find different experiences with every group you take, but if you play around with teaching methods you’ll soon figure out what your group responds to in order to understand you.