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Teaching English Through the Language Barrier

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

One of my most frequently asked questions is:

How do you teach English without knowing the language of the students?

Answer? A wish & a prayer.

May sound like a joke, but I'm dead ass serious. Teaching a foreign language when you don't know the mother tongue of the students can be a STRUGGLE. It may not seem like a big deal, but when you can’t even tell your students to take out their notebooks... You realize how significant the language barrier is. It's no joke. You have no choice, but to be creative and think outside of the box.

It's going to be rough in the beginning, but taking the time to learn the language of your students is going to make a huge difference. There is no requirement to do so beforehand or when you arrive either, but I promise it will be the best investment of your time. It will also be a great way for you to connect with your students and learn from them as well. Upon arrival, I spent the first couple of weeks learning basic phrases that will help me in the classroom and then move on to the good stuff. Having your students teach you those phrases can allow you to build rapport and trust with them right off the bat too.

Luckily, my first position teaching abroad was in a language high school where most of the students had a decent foundation in English. I could lean on the strong students to help others & teach me a few phrases in Italian as well. Your co-teachers can also be SUPER helpful when things aren't translating correctly during class.

My time in Dakar was not the same situation. I worked with kids in middle and high school who were just being introduced to the language. Some of my students were already speaking two languages before they even started in English. Geniuses, I know. I relied heavily on my few strong students to teach me basic phrases like, “Take out your notebooks” and “Copy everything from the board". The first couple weeks were a real struggle, but we got through it together. The kid was flying solo so I had to learn QUICK.

Gestures are truly underrated. So many things can be communicated without even opening your mouth. Telling students to sit down or open their books can easily be done with gestures alone. Pointing to something on a menu or drinking from an imaginary cup to let a waiter know you want something to drink is also a loophole. Gestures have become a huge tool in the classroom and often helps form that connection for the students. I've had students that literally would not close their books without doing the gesture with their hands. Kids enjoy learning and love showing off when they've mastered something. It also tells me I'm doing something right 😂

Another major tool you can use is Google Translate. You can download the languages you need so I can use it offline and I probably used it on a daily basis. Whether you need to know a quick translation or want to understand slang... Download it. I used it HEAVY. It's not always correct and things will get lost in translation... a lot. I still highly recommend having it though. Especially when you're away from wifi.

Teaching a foreign language is definitely difficult, but it's also rewarding for both the students and you. When my kids saw me outside of class and immediately tried to practice their English with me I know it's worth it.

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