ESL and EFL Teaching: Do you need to be bilingual?
If you are thinking about trying out English language teaching, you may ask “do ESL teachers have to be bilingual?” The answer is simple… no. However, there is still a lot more you need to know! Your first job in ESL or EFL is just the first step. In this post, we will be looking at how being bilingual can help advance your career, industry attitudes towards bilingualism in the classroom, and how being bilingual in ESL can also be unnecessary.
Bilingualism and English Language Teaching
A career in English language teaching isn’t one-size-fits-all, and the more you understand about ESL and EFL the more likely you are to be successful in your job. These days most language classrooms are “full immersion” classrooms: this means that only the language being studied is used.
In the English classroom, then, students only use English. Whether teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) or EFL (English as a Foreign Language), schools do not expect English teachers to be bilingual. In fact, a quick scan of the jobs on English teaching job sites such as TEFL.com or companies such as English First shows that pretty much NO entry-level jobs require you to be bilingual.
However, these are entry-level jobs. You need to be clear on your goals for becoming an ESL or EFL teacher. Are you looking for a temporary job in ESL/ESL, or are you hoping for a career? Are you planning to go overseas? If so, for only a short-time, or are you looking for something more permanent?
The further you wish to advance in your language-teaching career, the more proficiency in a second language can help.
Why don’t ESL teachers need to be bilingual?
English lessons are expected to be taught in English
In the total-immersion classroom, the only language that is supposed to be used is the one being taught. This is the kind of classroom you can expect to be working in when you apply to be an ESL teacher overseas. This is true in language schools. From Japan, China, and Vietnam, to France, Germany, and Hungary, and from South America to across the Middle East and Africa, English language schools expect their teachers to use only English in class. In fact, the “all-in-English” is actually a selling point for these schools.
This is also often the case for preparatory year university courses, and for Assistant Language Teachers hired to be an additional teacher in Junior High Schools and High Schools.
Multicultural ESL classrooms
As an ESL or EFL teacher, there is no guarantee your English classroom will have students who all speak the same mother tongue. Often, you will have a class of students who come from many different backgrounds, and command different languages to varying degrees.
In this case, being bilingual in one of these languages does not help for the majority of students, and in fact can lead to unfairness. You don’t want to leave one of your students behind simply because you don’t speak their language!
That is, of course, assuming that speaking your student’s language is beneficial…
Young learners, teens, and the “illusion” of English-only
Another downside to bilingualism in the English classroom is this: learners, especially younger learners, will use their language far more often once they think you can understand them. Many English teachers will tell you how important it is to maintain the illusion of not speaking your student’s language, because it damages the learning process.
A student who believes their teacher does not speak their language at all works hard to discover ways to communicate meaning. They may use paraphrasing and use gestures. They may simply check their notes. If the student believes you can understand them, however, they might just say what they want in their own language.
This temptation is understandable. It can be extremely frustrating learning a language when you are unable to communicate a simple concept. This is especially true when it seems unimportant and isn’t what you want to focus on. Saying what you want to in your first language (L1) can seem to save time and energy. It can move the class on faster. In the end, though, you are actually losing out on language development.
Therefore, it can be important for your students to see you as an “English-only” speaker. They are likely to meet English-only speakers in the real world. This is not limited to young learners: even older students can give in to the temptation of using their L1 in the English classroom.
The benefits of being a bilingual ESL teacher
So do ESL teachers need to be bilingual? We have seen a few reasons why not, but if you don’t necessarily have to know a second language while teaching English, how can being bilingual help the ESL teacher?
Learning a language helps you understand your student’s challenges
As an English teacher, you are going to see your students encounter problems. Some of these problems will be identifiable as issues specific to English – idioms, cultural knowledge, tone and voice. However, many of these problems will be similar to issues encountered by learners of any language.
By learning a language yourself, you will learn the kind of problems encountered by your students. Every English teacher will tell you that it can be incredibly frustrating when a student is completely failing to understand a rule or example that seems extremely simple to the teacher.
This is because native speakers of a language have an inherent understanding of meaning. It is difficult to explain how language is full of background cultural knowledge and implicit meaning and nuance. Furthermore, especially above the level of single sentences, it can be difficult for learners to see how specific sections of discourse relate to each other.
If you have studied a language, you gain an understanding of how something so “obvious” to fluent speakers can be a mystery to learners, and gain patience and a better ability to empathise and explain such problems.
You can choose for yourself
ESL and EFL teachers who are bilingual can choose when to use each language. Experienced teachers will indeed sometimes use a student’s first language in the classroom because they have judged it to be appropriate.
This doesn’t mean they will use it regularly. They may use it very rarely. However, sometimes the use of student L1 can be a better use of class time than attempting to explain a difficult concept in English.
For instance, if a student is having difficulty understanding a noun such as “ratification” or “administration,” you might simply state the equivalent. An attempt at a detailed explanation that may cause further confusion.
Of course, you can that such difficult vocabulary should be used to encourage students to identify meaning through context. It can also teach correct dictionary use. It is your choice, as the teacher.
Admin, management, and advancing your English-teaching career
Another important consideration for ESL teachers considering studying a language is that you will not only be in the classroom. You will be working for a school or company that requires a significant amount of work outside the classroom.
For ESL teachers abroad, to be a true part of your workplace you will need to be able to participate in meetings. You will need to understand issues that arise with your company, and to offer your own ideas and opinions.
You may be surprised at how often management and staff of an English-language school do not, themselves, speak English. If you want to be valued as an employee and not as a product, getting a hold of the local language can be of immense benefit.
It can even help your relationship with your students. Usually,they will want to speak in English with you at all times. However, for lower level learners you may spend time discussing their progress in their first language.
For young learners, you may regularly find yourself in contact with concerned parent who want to understand their child’s progress. They may not themselves speak English. Here again, being able to communicate with them yourself distances you from the “English teacher as product” atmosphere that can surround you when someone else is required to speak to the parents about you and your class.
So do ESL teachers need to be bilingual?
No, ESL teachers do NOT need to be bilingual. However, there are many benefits to proficiency in any language. Don’t worry about being “bilingual,” and don’t worry about not being a “perfect” speaker of another language.
Every small piece of experience will help you be a better teacher, more understanding of your student’s needs and abilities. Each small advance in your own language ability is also an improvement in your ability as an English language teacher.
By learning a language yourself, you demonstrate your commitment to both your student’s and your workplace. You also open a variety of paths around the world. So don’t be afraid about your language ability: whether you speak only English or several languages, you can be an ESL teacher. But seize the day, and take the opportunity to study another language for yourself!
When considering whether or not to be a bilingual teacher, you should think about the needs of your students. For example, Japanese students have specific challenges unique to them.
Curious about teaching English? Check out these job sites:
Japan Research Career Information Portal (Japan and university-specific) a useful example of the qualifications and language skills you should consider to progress in EFL teaching