Tips for teaching English abroad without speaking the local language

teaching english 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.

thailandd 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.

thailand 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.

thailand 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.

Talking Travel with Susan Griffith

Susan Griffith is a freelance writer and editor whose specialty lies in working and volunteering your way around the globe. Her most well known book, Work Your Way Around the World, was first published in 1983, and she personally updates the long-running series every two years. This month will see the brand new 13th edition hit stores, and it’s packed full of the most definitive information on working and volunteering abroad.

Through her shoestring travels in and around Europe in the early 1980s, she happened upon a few short-term jobs before realizing that people can travel indefinitely, working a string of odd jobs they find during their travels, and make enough money to survive — and then some. The idea for Work your Way Around the World was born, and today it is the go-to “guide for the modern working traveler.”

We’ve got a few copies of the brand new edition of the book to give away to three lucky Gadling readers, so stick around after the interview to find out how you can score one.

How did you get started traveling?

As a child, family holidays seemed to consist almost exclusively of driving somewhere a long way away. I grew up in southern Ontario, right in the middle of North America, so it was a very very long drive to the east coast and to the west coast. But that didn’t deter my parents on our fortnight-long summer holidays. Once I was independent, I was desperate to fly somewhere completely different so flew to London and spent ten weeks InterRailing round Europe and a month hitch-hiking round the UK. I seem to remember we used Europe on $10 a Day and concluded that that was unnecessarily extravagant. I was hooked from then on, both on travel and on Europe as a place to live.

What events led up to first writing this book?

After finishing university in Toronto, I schemed to get back to Britain, and did a graduate degree at Oxford. After that, I wanted to stay on, so got a job with a publisher in Oxford. This little press published some boring but useful directories of summer jobs and one or two travel titles, and I started as an editorial assistant. While updating these job directories, I thought it would be much better to bring the hard information alive by including the stories of the people who had worked abroad. To find these stories, the publisher and I placed small ads in the Guardian newspaper and the local student newspaper, asking for work-abroad stories of all descriptions. Scores of people replied, many of whom I invited to the Nag’s Head pub around the corner from the publisher where I heard the most unlikely tales from people who had earned a fortune gutting fish in Iceland or who had delivered trucks to west Africa or who had worked for gold prospecting companies in the Australian outback.

Meanwhile I was doing a lot of shoestring traveling myself since my employer was generous with time off but not with pay. I managed to avoid doing slave-labor jobs like fish-gutting, but opportunities kept presenting themselves unbidden, mostly in the nature of work-for-keep exchanges that meant you didn’t have to spend your travel fund. While roaming around the Ionian islands (before Captain Corelli made them famous), my companion and I were befriended by a local farmer who offered us the chance to work in his fields. I got the easy job of wandering around pouring wine out of a plastic jug into the workers’ cups while my less fortunate companion did some strenuous digging. Later on the same trip (on Crete), a hostel owner asked us to clean out her dogs’ kennel in lieu of paying for our beds, not one of the most appealing jobs. On a solo trip round the Indian subcontinent, I met a round-the-world yachtsman in the wonderful south Indian port of Cochin who was looking for crew to join him on a trip to Dar es Salaam. It sounded romantic, but I had commitments at home which didn’t really allow me to entertain that one seriously. Then in the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan I stumbled across a film being shot with the Himalayas as a backdrop. They asked me if I would like a bit part as the Colonel’s daughter, but their faces fell when I had to confess I was no horsewoman. I began to see that if you were a free and unfettered traveler, you could take advantage of all these things and stay on the road, maybe indefinitely, which got me excited about writing a book to guide and encourage people.

What sort of information can people expect to find in Work Your Way Around the World?

I include anything that will help travelers who are willing to offer their labor to extend their stay or to get from A to B. Of course all the usual seasonal jobs are covered, like working in a ski resort or working for farmers at harvest time, or longer jobs abroad like teaching English abroad which is covered in some detail and becoming an au pair and doing volunteer work in developing countries. A classic example of the kind of topic covered is crewing on yachts. Inexperienced sailors might not be able to cross the ocean for free, but the daily cost will be much reduced if they pitch in and share chores. My aim has been to make the information as concrete as possible, to cut the vague generalities and waffle. So that in the sections about crewing, specific yacht basins, chandlery stores, crew list agencies, etc. are named and contact details given. The book is of course strewn with first-hand accounts by travelers who have found these and a thousand other opportunities on their travels.

Who is the book written for?

Any individual with guts and gusto, from students to grandmothers. Everyone has the potential for funding him or herself to various corners of the globe. In fact, the majority of readers are 18-28, and the type who loathe the prospect of settling down prematurely with a nice safe job and mortgage.

What benefits does the updated edition have against older versions?

I have personally updated the book every other year since the first edition was published in 1983. I read every word, check every fact as far as is possible and add lots of new accounts of people met on my travels or that readers of the last edition have sent in. Google has changed everything and the new 2007 edition has nearly 2,000 web addresses, all of which have been checked in the past few months. The internet has become not just an asset but a necessity for the job-seeking traveler. But unless you know precisely what you are looking for on the internet, you can quickly (in fact within 0.19 seconds) become overwhelmed. You will feel as though you have been hit by a tsunami of undifferentiated information. Books are better at cutting through the clamor and rubbish, and I like to think that WYWATW creates order out of chaos.

What makes the book live are the first-person stories which I am always collecting. Since the last edition was published in 2005, I have either chatted to or corresponded with many recent working travelers, including a Canadian who got a job on a dude ranch in the American Rockies after cold-calling them out of the Yellow Pages, a lively Flemish woman who volunteered at the Botanical Gardens in Berlin and interned with a consultancy company near Frankfurt, an American adventurer who at the time of writing had decided to stay a while in Mauritania where he had t
alked an English language centre into giving him some hours of teaching, a serial volunteer in national parks in North America who especially enjoyed her stint at a school in the remote Canadian arctic, a young woman who spent 2006/7 between high school and university picking grapes in France, joining a three-month conservation programme in South Africa and traveling in India, a long-time resident of Crete who reported on the temporary job opportunities on the island, an American photographer who fixes up short English teaching jobs – most recently in Poland and Taiwan – in order to extend her portfolio, a newly graduated Canadian who spent a year teaching English in Korea, a 19 year old Australian who worked for a floatplane company in Vancouver before backpacking across Canada, and a round-the-world TEFLer who has picked up teaching jobs on arrival in Brazil, Ecuador, Thailand, Australia and this year Seville, Spain.

What laws/regulations are in place for foreigners working in other countries? I assume it varies by country?

Every country in the world has immigration policies that are job-protection schemes for its own nationals. Full and realistic account is taken of these restrictions in the book. The European Union has largely done away with the need for work permits for people lucky enough to have access to European nationality. Outside the EU, work authorizations become more tricky though there are lots of ways round these, for example government-sponsored schemes such as the Japan Exchange & Teaching/JET programme, farm placements made by a Norwegian youth exchange organization or the recently expanded New Zealand one-year working holiday visa for travelers aged 18 to 30 (www.bunac.org or www.ccusa.com).

Apart from these specific programmes, the job-seeker from overseas must find an employer willing to apply to the immigration authorities on his or her behalf well in advance of the job’s starting date, while they are still in their home country. This is easier for high-ranking nuclear physicists and pop stars than for mere mortals, though there are exceptions, especially in the field of English teaching.

What countries are the friendliest when it comes to U.S./Canadians looking for work abroad?

A huge number of North Americans are looking to the Pacific Rim countries (Korea, China, Japan and Taiwan) for job opportunities, primarily but not exclusively as English teachers. Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia are equally welcoming. Closer to home, American and Canadian job-seekers have an advantage in South and Central America because the whole continent is culturally and economically oriented towards Il Norte. There is a decided preference among language learners for the American accent and for American teaching materials and course books, which explains why so many language institutes are called Lincoln and Jefferson.

There are ways round the work permit restrictions. To give just one example, an organization called Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) operates in many countries around the world. National WWOOF co-ordinators (including in most European countries, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, Japan, etc) compile lists of their member farmers willing to provide free room and board to volunteers who help out. No wage is paid and no work permit is required.

What’s your opinion/experience on finding and working under-the-table jobs while traveling?

Some travelers are prepared to throw caution to the winds after concluding that by the time the system discovers they are ‘aliens’ they will be long gone. This is more serious in some countries and in certain circumstances than in others, and the book tries to give some idea of the degree of risk, again based on first-hand accounts. It seems that the authorities will usually turn a blind eye in areas where there is a labor shortage and enforce the letter of the law when there is a glut. It is always important to be as sensitive as possible to local customs and expectations, but many informal arrangements work perfectly smoothly.

How realistic is it for someone to fund their travels while they travel? Is it possible to forgo the traditional save-money-then-go practice of traveling in favor of leaving with the intention of making money as you go?

By its nature, any trip like this is unpredictable, so there are no guarantees that a given individual will be able to fund him/herself abroad for a fixed period. How much you decide to set aside before leaving will depend on whether or not you have a gambling streak. But even gamblers should take only sensible risks. If you don’t have much cash, it’s probably advisable to have an open return ticket so that you have an escape route if things don’t work out. Sometimes pennilessness acts as a spur to action as it did in the case of one of my informants of longstanding whose travel fund ran out in Australia but who stayed away traveling for a full 18 months after that. On numerous occasions, he got down to just $50 but somehow something always turned up. He says, “When your funds are REALLY low you WILL find a job, believe me.”

What type of traveler is best suited to work on the road?

The kind of traveler who feels most at home looking for ways to work their way has an optimistic and resilient personality and does not give up at the first hurdle. Usually it is a self-selecting group who happily contemplates this “seat-of-your-pants” kind of travel. An affluent, tour-package kind of person is unlikely to choose to travel this way. On the other hand plenty of well-off people accustomed to a luxurious standard of travel relish the prospect of a spell of simpler living. They might be tempted for example to do some conservation volunteer work in Africa or to live on an organic farm for a while.

While I’m sure it will make it easier, do you need a college degree to find work abroad?

Most of the casual jobs discussed in the book like fruit picking, working on summer camps, au pairing, etc. need no degree. The notable exception is English teaching. Having a university degree is a visa requirement in some countries (e.g. Japan, Taiwan, Turkey) but not all (e.g. Latin America, Africa).

What options are available for degree-less travelers looking to work in another country?

Many other qualifications and skill sets can prove more useful to the round-the-world working traveler than a university degree. Among the most useful qualifications you can acquire are a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (for which a degree is not a prerequisite), sailing, diving or other sports qualification, catering experience, knowledge of a foreign language and so on. But WYW is aimed at people of all backgrounds, as long as they feel the call of the road and the spirit of adventure flicker.

Thanks so much, Susan!

Susan Griffith’s Work Your Way Around the World, 13th Edition (Crimson, $21.95) will be in bookstores in June, 2007.

As promised, we have copies of the book to give away to three lucky Gadling readers! Just leave a comment below and our magical system will automatically select three random winners — but make sure you use a valid email address, as we’ll have to contact you to get your mailing address. For official rules, please click here. Comments and contest will close one week from today, May 16 at 8:00 PM.