Teaching English Through the Language Barrier

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.

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 coteachers can also be SUPER helpful when things weren't translating 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 use it HEAVY. It's not always correct and things 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 me. When my kids see me outside of class and immediately try to practice their English with me I know it's worth it.


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