Tips for teaching English abroad without speaking the local language

When people hear I spent a summer teaching English in Thailand, they often assume I speak fluent Thai. The truth is, you don’t need to be fluent in the local language to teach English abroad. I’m not saying that it doesn’t help, however, it isn’t necessarily required, as the goal is creating an environment of English-language immersion.

Teaching English is a great experience for all parties involved, and if it’s something you’re interested in doing you shouldn’t let fear of not speaking the local language fluently hold you back. Not only will you get the chance to have an eye-opening experience and get a unique perspective of the culture, you’ll also be helping educate children and getting the chance to share your unique background with them.

To help you get the most of your experience teaching English abroad, here are some tips.

Figure out if you want to get paid or volunteer

When I taught English in Thailand, I volunteered with an affordable organization called International Volunteer Headquarters. Basically I paid a small fee which included having 24/7 support, accommodations, meals, school supplies, and cultural activities like elephant trekking and a weekend homestay experience. A portion of the money also went toward benefiting the local community. You can also search through the SE7EN database for free and low-cost opportunities. The truth is, there are a lot of expensive volunteer programs out there for this kind of project, and while many of them are reputable, there’s really no need to spend a fortune to volunteer, especially if you want a truly local experience.

If you’re looking to teach English long-term and want to get paid for your work, I would recommend signing up for a TEFL, TESOL, or CELTA course, as many schools require that you have a certification. While it’s not impossible to get a job without one, you’ll have less choices in the positions you can apply for. Some excellent resources for these kinds of jobs include Dave’s ESL Cafe, ESL JOBS, and Teaching Opportunities Abroad.Educate yourself before you go

Whether you’re teaching English or just traveling, doing a bit of research on the culture before you go is always important. Knowing the etiquette and customs of a community will help you avoid making embarrassing mistakes or possibly offending somebody. Even little things that you may do on a daily basis at home may not be acceptable in other countries. For example, in Thailand sitting with your legs extended out in the direction of another person, touching someone’s head, handing something to someone with your left hand, and raising your voice are all considered offensive. These are things you’ll definitely want to know before arriving to the school you’ll be teaching at.

Understand cultural differences

While certain teaching tactics may work at a school in your hometown, they may not work where you’re teaching English abroad. Certain methods not only may not work, but can also be detrimental to the child’s learning. For example, in my New York high school it wasn’t really a big deal to have a teacher crack a joke about their students or poke fun at them, and while getting yelled at by an instructor was never fun, it wasn’t something that would scar you for life. However, this is not the case all over the world. For example, in Thailand and many Asian countries where “saving face” is of utmost importance, being called on by a teacher and not knowing the answer to the question can be crippling, especially if the teacher yells or loses their patience. What I would often do was have the children work in small groups and then go around to speak with them individually.

Learn some basic phrases

While you don’t need to be fluent in the local language, it doesn’t hurt to know some basic phrases and be able to make small talk. This is true whether you are teaching English or just traveling. While you’ll want to immerse the students in an environment of only English speaking, it’s inevitable that there will be side conversations in the local language, and sometimes giving them short commands in their language and then translating to English can be helpful.

Be prepared

This is one of the most important rules of all. Always make sure to plan out your lessons the night before, knowing what you want to teach as well as how you will teach it. Practice and time out the lessons so that you can feel confident when teaching and will have enough material to take up the entire class period. It can also be helpful to see what other classes before you have done if that information is available.

Visual aids are helpful

Remember that words aren’t the only resource you have to get your point across. Obviously, if a student doesn’t know what a “slide” or a “pineapple” is in English, showing them a picture and saying the word is a helpful tool. I also found charades and acting words out to be useful and fun, although be mindful that cows don’t say “moo” and cats don’t say “meow” all over the world.

Tailor lessons to the age group

Think about what kind of information will be helpful to the group, and the best ways to impart your knowledge. While coloring in letters and pictures and doing crafts may be a worthwhile lesson activity for young children, this will not help children at the higher levels trying to learn networking and job skills. Moreover, remember that the older the students are, the more grammar, sentence construction, and conversational lessons you will need to be utilizing, as teaching English is not just about vocabulary.

Use online resources

If you’re stuck on how to make a lesson plan effective and fun, utilize the myriad online resources there are for ESL teachers. Some of my personal favorites include California State University, Northridge, Total ESL, and Reach to Teach.

Be confident in your abilities

You were selected for this position because you’re a native English speaker. Be confident in your abilities and know that you have the knowledge and resources necessary to do the job; the trick is simply finding effective ways to disseminate it.