Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Ma-TESOL; M.S. SpEd
I lived in Costa Rica for some time where I earned my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification and worked with students of all ages. Of course, ESL teachers typically work stateside in schools to help ELLs master English enough keep up with their classmates, while TEFL teachers go overseas to teach English to non-native English speakers. Still, for anybody who plans to work with ELLs, the value of earning TEFL certification and the experience you come away with speaks for itself.
I’m not a certified ESL teacher or professor of TESOL at any university, but I do have the kind of experience that gives me a pretty nuanced perspective on this topic, something you might not get from somebody with plenty of credentials but no experience actually living as an expat and working with non-native speakers.
Here’s a little of what that experience taught me…
Needless to say, learning a foreign language is not a pre-requisite for teaching English to speakers of other languages. You’re not going to have to heap the herculean task of trying to master Cantonese, Arabic or Hmong onto the pile of requirements to become certified in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) or to add an ESL endorsement to your existing teaching license. In fact, most ESL resource rooms in the public schools, community college ESL programs, and proprietary ESL schools have a pretty strict English-only policy in place meant to promote learning and avoid the crutch of falling back on a native language.
The question then becomes should you learn one. The answer to that question isn’t as straightforward as you might think… I know, this kind of vagary is probably not what you were hoping to find here, but it’s the most honest answer I can give you. And really, simple answers are just lazy.
There are arguments for and against making learning a foreign language a goal worth pursuing in preparation for teaching English to non-native speakers. I’m a big proponent of presenting the info people need to make informed decisions, plus, I have my own problems and don’t want to take on the burden of trying to answer this question for you.
So here’s my personal take on the pros and cons based on my experience and the experience of some of my colleagues…
5 Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language
1 – Gain a better understanding of what your students are going through…
Several years ago when I earned my TEFL certification in Costa Rica, I had to attend Dutch and Russian language classes as part of my training. The ideas was to give me a chance to experience what it was like to be a foreign language student. Let me tell you, it was a lot harder than I anticipated, and it showed me just how challenging and just plain frustrating it can be to try to learn a foreign language from a teacher who didn’t speak my language.
You want to learn how to quickly became a more patient person, walk a mile in your students’ shoes. Being thrown into an environment where you don’t know the language while at the same time being expected to pick it up from someone who doesn’t really know yours is a humbling, nerve wracking and bewildering experience for sure – and one that will help you better understand what your students are going through.
2 – The process of learning a foreign language will help you become familiar with several different teaching styles and techniques…
Not all students grasp language concepts the same way. By becoming a student, I began understanding which approaches were most effective for me and which ones only seemed to compound my confusion and bewilderment. The same approaches that left me scratching my head and questioning what I was doing there in Central America trying to learn a Slavic language seemed to come easy to my classmates – and vise versa.
The take-away is only that not all methods of language instruction work for all students. I lived it, and can tell you that you’re going to need to individualize the approach if you want to be effective when working with a group of 20 or 30 students from different educational backgrounds and cultures, and who speak an array of different languages at home.
I applied that knowledge to my lesson plans by making sure that I constantly developed alternative methods of teaching as a way to cater to the proclivities of different students.
3 – Connect with your students by connecting with their native language and culture…
This point speaks more to your ability to identify and relate to students rather than your technical skills as a teacher. Language is primarily used to sustain and express the cultural ideas and values within a specific community. By having at least a basic familiarity with the language your students speak at home, you establish a shared cultural awareness that may help students feel more comfortable.
This is going to earn you a lot of respect and make your students more receptive to your instruction.
4 – A chance to learn first hand how other languages are structured differently than English…
Learning a foreign language takes a lot more than just learning how to swap out equivalent words between two languages, unless, of course, you want to sound like Borat.
Many foreign languages subscribe to grammar rules and word order conventions that deviate considerably from ours. These structural inconsistencies are often the source of great confusion for people trying to understand even the fundamentals of English – not to mention being a source of frustration for teachers who are sometime puzzled by why students are struggling to grasp the basics.
Understanding these structural differences may inspire you to design lesson plans that emphasizes these variances for easier comprehension. At the very least, it will help you better understand how linguistic structure can be a barrier to language mastery.
5 – Knowing how to communicate with students using their native tongue may come in handy…
Not all interactions with students take place in the classroom. Since teachers live in the communities where they teach and often manage extra-curricular programs, they could very well find themselves coaching students or just running into them at the grocery store. You might even attend the same church or workout in the same gym or community center as your students and their families.
The English-only rule might apply in the classroom, but not necessarily on the soccer field, and definitely not if you ever happen to cross paths with students and their parents outside of school. Also, some parents may want to inquire about their children’s progress at school but may not speak English fluently themselves. Being able to communicate with parents, whether after school or during conferences, is something that could go a long way in keeping parents up to speed on their kid’s progress and the things they may need to work on.
5 Drawbacks to Learning a Foreign Language
1 – Most ESL teaching jobs exist in US public schools, making it completely unnecessary for you to learn a new language…
Simply said, there’s no need to make your job harder than it is.
2 – Using the same language as your students may tempt you to break the “English only” rule…
Knowing your students’ native language will tempt you to use it as a crutch instead of developing more innovative teaching methods and strategies.
For example, I knew some Spanish during my TEFL training course in Costa Rica. As a result, there were times when I just couldn’t resist giving perplexed students a hint with a quick word or phrase in their native Spanish. But doing so wouldn’t have made me a better teacher, and it certainly wouldn’t have helped them dig deeper to become better students.
3 – Chances are not all your students are going to speak the same languages…
Of course, Spanish is the language most of your students are likely to speak at home. No surprises there. In fact, the US Department of Education found that as of 2015, 77% of ELL students spoke Spanish at home. In the distant slots behind Spanish are Arabic (2%), Cantonese and Mandarin (2%) Vietnamese (2%), Hmong (1%), and then many other languages with a fraction of a percent each making up the difference.
Of course, these are the national averages, and the proportions could very well be different in the area where you live and teach. Some communities have a larger eastern European immigrant population, where kids speak Russian, Polish, or Czech at home. Others have a large South Asian population where the many different Indian dialects are more common.
Aside from not being particularly helpful if you happen to have a group of students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, by learning only one language, you could inadvertently alienate the students who don’t happen to speak the same foreign language you do.
4 – Learning a foreign language can be expensive, especially if you intend to master it…
Consider the extra financial strain of learning a foreign language. Seen from this perspective, it seems quite obvious why ESL teachers might stick with English. The cost of learning a foreign language largely depends on your provider or online learning platform you use.
Sure, you could use systems like Rosetta Stone or Transparent Language Online and it will only cost you a few hundred bucks, but enrolling in a college program or taking advantage of a fully immersive language learning experience overseas is the most effective way to learn. You do get what you pay for, but these primo methods are likely to cost several grand.
5 – It takes a long time to learn a foreign language. In fact, some languages may take years for you to become fluent…
According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), it generally takes between 575-2,200 hours for native English speakers to become proficient speakers and readers of most foreign languages used around the world. Of course, this is merely a general guideline. I’ve been steadily learning Spanish for years, and I still don’t really feel comfortable speaking it even though it’s supposedly one of the easiest languages to learn!
In the end, it’s important to remember that your job is about finding out how to be effective when it comes to teaching your students. It doesn’t really have anything to do with being able to speak a foreign language yourself, per se. Future employers hire ESL teachers for the very fact that they are native English speakers and have a strong mastery of the English language. Still, there is no denying that being able to speak a foreign language – and even more importantly, the experiences you go through while learning – is going to make you a more worldly and compassionate person, and any teacher will tell you that the ability to relate to students and draw from personal experience will make you more effective in the classroom.