Using Students’ First Language in the EFL Classroom

Using your Students’ L1 in the L2 Classroom

It is important to use English in the classroom as the target language and as the teaching language.

There are times, however, when the limited use of the students’ first language can be useful.  Times when a complex idea can not be easily explained and no one is getting it, as an example.  Be careful though.  Some native speakers lose their value when they begin teaching in the L1.

Most EFL students have already studied English for years in their L1, but still can’t speak fluently.  The more you use a student’s L1 the more you lose your value as a native speaker and in most cases, a major factor in your hire was that you were a native speaker.  If you don’t use that skill and ability, they might as well hire a local teacher for half of what you cost.

An example from a few years ago.  I was teaching at a university in Korea that had a liberal policy about keeping foreigners for longer periods of time.  Toward the end of my three years there a French native speaker (he was teaching French)  was told that his contract would not be renewed.  He had worked there for about 12 years and was very angry about being let go.  Not having your contract renewed is pretty much the way university teachers are fired.

What was the problem?  He had during his time in Korea become very fluent in Korean, a fact of which he was quite proud.  The problem was that he was teaching his classes mostly in Korean, not in French.    In a discrete manner I asked some of my students about his classes (some of my students studied several languages) and they did not like his teaching methods.  They felt they weren’t getting enough French.

If you walk the hallways of a primary, secondary or tertiary school in most countries and listen in on the English classes, you will hear local teachers TALKING about English in the first language.  Many teachers, many classes – almost ALL in the L1.  And while living in those same countries you will see many television programs teaching English by talking about it – in the L1.  No wonder the students have difficulty becoming fluent.  They almost never get to listen to the L2 and even more rarely get to talk in the L2.

Language learning just doesn’t happen that way.  You don’t learn to swim by talking about it.   You have to – at some point – get in the water and swim.

Help your students by teaching in the L2 and don’t devalue yourself as a native speaker by not using the very thing you were hired for: your skills in English.

TED’s Tips™ #1: As wonderful as it might be to learn your host country’s language, use it sparingly if ever in your classroom.

Non-Native Speakers Teaching English Abroad?

What about Non-Native speakers teaching English? Know that around the world, there are far MORE non-native speakers of English teaching English than native speakers.

Some are extra-ordinarily well skilled and they KNOW how difficult it is to learn a foreign language well. Some are quite poor and perpetuate poor usage and poor pronunciation characteristic of their native tongue. (Their L1 is interfering with their L2).

This post is about a skilled and fluent non-native speaker, experienced teaching in his own country and he wrote to me the following:

I spent my last weekend looking for opportunities for teaching abroad, but I got disappointed when I found out that all the schools require native speakers!

You are right, most schools are looking for native speakers. You will, to some degree, have to educate them that YOU and many others have excellent fluency in English. We will talk about that in a bit . . .

Come on, I’m graduated in English and have been teaching people from 4 to 50 years old in language and regular schools for 5 years!

You are quite right! Schools are missing out. But that doesn’t change the reality of how you might need to adapt your job search, especially as you are hitting brick walls, right?

Then I tried to look for volunteer work, but the results of my search were disappointing again: if I want to teach in Malaysia, for instance, I have to pay my flight, my accommodation, etc. That is, in addition to not being paid for working, I have to pay for it!

It is better to get PAID for a skill that you have developed over the years. I might volunteer some day, but TEFL has been my profession and I don’t want to give away the skills I have worked hard to obtain. It’s that simple. Frankly, my TEFL skills are what I have to sell to a school.

I was about to give up, when I came to the idea of Googling “teach abroad for non-native speakers”, and then I came across your website! I have a question, though: is it mandatory to have CELTA or any other kind of ESLT certificate to be accepted or is my curriculum enough?

Well . . . I think you have seen from your job search that you have a bit of a disadvantage in terms of how employers might see you. Fairly or unfairly – and probably unfairly in your case, right? Yes, keep adding to your resume.  Additional TEFL training can only help improve your situation.

But, fair or unfair, that doesn’t change the reality of what you personally need to do to land a good job ( and equally so do many other non-native speakers, older people, people of color AND anyone else who doesn’t fit in the box that foreign employers want you to fit you into . . . )

Just as an aside: I am 59 years old and already most places won’t even reply when I apply for a job via email. In spite of working and living overseas since 1989, a master’s degree in education, a PGCE in TEFL and many other qualifications – excellent references – just too damn old!

So – there are a LOT of us in the same box you are in – just for different reasons.

What to do about it? That’s the number one issue . . . and I am going to propose numerous things you can do to improve your chances. These are all things I would if I needed to find a job tomorrow.

First, research which countries might be more liberal, more adaptable. In my experience, for example, Thailand is one of the most flexible countries about non-native speakers, older people, black brown or green people – or anything. The need is there for teachers, they hire who they can get.

BUT – Thailand generally doesn’t hire from abroad. You would need to go there and apply in person. But Thailand is just an example. There are other countries that are open to you and me.

Personally – I wouldn’t bang my head against the wall of countries that absolutely can not or would not hire me. Indonesia and South Korea are two countries that have very specific lists of the countries from which their English teachers must come. Don’t have that passport? You can’t get legal working papers there. Period.

Don’t fight an impossible-to-win battle. For me, I wouldn’t apply to work in Saudi Arabia. Retirement is mandatory at 60 and schools will not hire you unless you can work at least two years. But I would apply to countries where I can find success.

What are those countries? I don’t know all of them and they vary by the issue of non-native, age or whatever. Thailand and Cambodia are two of the best options that I know of. The rest you might want to ask on various forums on the internet (always taking what is said with a bit of salt!).

So back to the list of things to do . . .

1. Research what countries are most flexible about your issue.

2. Go there – yes, APPLY IN PERSON. Then they can see that you are fluent and it is much more difficult to say NO to a skilled person sitting in your office when you need a teacher and you don’t know when you are going to find one. Well . . . here is one NOW.

Let your potential employer see in person that you are energetic, positive, fluent, flexible, skilled and everything else they are looking for. For us older folks they are worried that we will be tired, grumpy, sick . . . and many of us are! Show them you aren’t. For non-native speakers they are afraid that you are not fluent. Show them you are!

And – I shouldn’t have to say it – but I will – when you show up in person, dress professionally. First class all the way. From the hair to the freshly shined shoes. To the clean fingernails to the absence of or hidden tattoos, piercings and other things teachers should not be flashing about.

3. Get a professional passport type photo with you dressed professionally, groomed immaculately and with a friendly smile on your face. Attach it to your resume.

4. Make sure your resume reflects your qualifications – put those at the TOP of your resume – don’t make people search for your qualifications and relevant experience. I do some placement in China and you would be surprised how well many people hide their skills, qualifications and experience. It is sad that people sabotage themselves!

5. Make sure you have some TEFL training on that resume. If you don’t you are helping a potential employer ignore you.

6. If, against my advice, you want to try to apply from abroad, make a video of you doing an exceptionally successful class. Put it on YouTube and give links to potential employers. Tantalize them with it. Make it a great video. I have had people send me terrible videos of boring classes with them demonstrating quite well that they have NO teaching skills at all! Make yours a good one!

Do those things and I think you will be on the job soon.

TED’s Tips™ #1: When the deck is stacked against you, take every opportunity to improve your odds. Most people are a bit careless about their job search, make yours an exceptional effort and you WILL find what you want.

TEFL Career Path Questions #6

This post is a follow up to the previous post – TEFL Career Path #5.  Here we talk about a career option that is open to you that is a bit of an alternative from the straight TEFL idea of teaching English.  We are talking about teaching in International Schools.

In a follow up question to the previous post the reader asked (and I will extract here):

. . . should I first look into getting my teacher’s certification and then consider the tefl certificate?

IF you have the time and money to become a certified teacher, do that first as it is MORE important than the TEFL cert, though you may still need to get a TEFL certification at some point if only to satisfy employers who don’t understand that a certified teacher is a better animal than a TEFL certified teacher . . .  🙂

Also – there is a circuit of international schools out in the world that hire ONLY real certified teachers.  Those schools DO require more experience and talent, but also pay MUCH better and offer much better benefits and even long-term pension plans for the professional teacher.  I would consider that a STEP ABOVE the college/university option in terms of professionalism.  I don’t usually mention the international school option as it is often not an option or even a consideration for most people considering teaching abroad.   But it is – in my opinion – the very best option if you can take it.

For more about “international schools” cruise the website.  Yes, it is a pay service, but eventually you might use them and they can at least introduce you to the idea of working for those high quality first tier schools abroad.  These are often the “American School” or “British Curriculum School” type situations to which expatriate corporate executives or even diplomats will send their children.

First tier international schools – I say “first tier” as there is a whole raft of wannabe schools and lower quality imitations with “international” in their names – will usually want you to have at least two years of experience teaching as a qualified and certified teacher in the schools in your home country along with the appropriate degrees. In the UK this would be called Qualified Teacher Status or QTS – in the USA you would be certified by the state in which you are working.

The only downside to this option is that you are essentially working in a Western setting, according to Western standards and Western cultural rules. If your goal is to immerse yourself in a foreign culture – you won’t find that at work, but you will find it at home and in your community.

TED’s Tips™ #1: If you have the time, money and inclination, give a close look to the option of working in international schools. It is an option not often considered by the TEFL troops, but is one that should be considered – especially early in your career.

TEFL Career Path Questions #5

As often happens, questions from you – the readers – are better than any ideas I have for blog topics, so here is another thoughtful question:

I have my BA and have been looking into TESOL certifications. I’m trying to find the most appropriate track to teach English (most likely overseas or possibly in my local community classes, but I am not interested in public schools in my country.)

I am not sure I have ever said a degree is not necessary though I would say or agree that a degree is not always required. However, simply having a degree does not qualify you to teach English as a foreign language.  In your questions, you have asked about a couple different career tracks.  Teaching EFL abroad is a bit different that teaching ESL or even just straight English in a country where English is the first language.

He also asked:

From your experience would you say that it would benefit me to get a post-bachelors TESOL certification or some other type of similar certification, or even a master’s degree? There are so many different types of courses I’m confused as to what certification would be the most advantageous to look into since I currently have a BA.

First: If you want to teach in the USA/UK/Australia/etc in a community college setting or just community-type classes, you probably should consider getting an MATESOL.  Otherwise you will have difficulty competing for and landing such jobs as almost everyone applying will likely already have experience abroad and an MATESOL or similar qualification.

For teaching abroad, your options depend a lot more on what you intend to do, where you intend to do it and for how long you intend to do it.

If you are not sure about TEFL as a career path and are thinking of just heading out for a year or two to see if you like it – then one of the online programs will be just fine.  No need to spend a huge amount of money. They will give you some good simple basics that will significantly improve your teaching skills. Usually many things you would never have thought of if you had no training.

Get out in the world, get your feet wet, see if you like the occupation and if you do and if you decide to stay abroad for many years then you should take a good in-classroom TEFL certification course. Name brand does not matter much (in my opinion).  CELTA is often seen as the gold standard, but you will pay a lot of extra money for that course, sometimes twice as much.  Most generic TEFL courses are just fine. Most employers don’t care about one brand or another (unless they are selling it!).

IF you intend to stay abroad for a long time and wish to approach the field as a professional, get the best jobs, teach at universities and colleges, save some real money and get lots of paid time off – then RUN, don’t walk – to get an MATESOL (or an M.Ed. in TEFL is okay too – or an M.Ed. with a PGCE in TEFL or anything roughly similar).

Teaching at the college/university level is quite a different occupation from teaching at language schools. Language schools tend to offer only limited time off and the career path leads to supervisory or DOS type roles.

University positions can offer a much lighter work load, a more prestigious position that will allow you time to pursue other interests – professional or otherwise – and offers you a longer occupational lifespan.  I’ve spent many of the last 16 years with anywhere from ten to twenty weeks PAID vacation per year and much of that time was with four-day work weeks. It can be quite a decent career if done right.  It allowed me to explore websites, pursue further professional training and – at times – just take a well deserved rest.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Get some training no matter what you intend to do in TEFL. If you goal is short-term then an online course is fine. If it is longer term, get a good four-week in-classroom course. If you wish to teach at the college/university level, a graduate degree is a must.  This is true for the great majority of countries though not true for China, but you may wish to be able to work in a variety of countries in a similar capacity.