Should TEFL Teachers Be Bilingual?

- - Should TEFL Teachers Be Bilingual?

Do ESL and EFL teachers need to know the language of their students? In this article, Larry Lynch sorts through some of the pros and cons, and finds the question to be far from straightforward.

The Controversy
Often, when prospective TESOL trainees are taking their first TEFL certification course, the question arises, "Do English teachers need to know a foreign language?" Foreign languages are not included in the requisite curriculum of any TEFL certificate course. The idea is to teach in "English only". This frequently only occurs if the ESL teacher is working where the L1 (first language) is English or classes are multi-cultural as in the USA, Canada or the UK. Aside from some practical issues though, should English TEFL teachers be bi-lingual? That is, have fluency in a language other than English? There is some controversy surrounding this concept.

Why or Why Not?
There are reasons both for and against having Bi-lingual TEFL teachers. These are some key arguments on the PRO side.

  • Teachers can empathize with language learners
  • Teachers have developed language learning skills and strategies of their own
  • Teachers can function locally in the L1 of the country where they live and work
  • Teachers can plan effective English acquisition strategies based on a knowledge of the learners' L1
  • Limited use of the learners’ L1 can be an effective language teaching strategy

There are also some points on the CON side of the ledger:

  • Teachers may not necessarily work abroad but in their home country
  • Teachers are tempted to use the learners’ L1 in the classroom
  • Teachers can have multi-cultural classes requiring several different L1s
  • Teachers can lose fluency in English after extensive use of an L2 (second language)
  • Some L2s are exceptionally difficult to acquire even after years of work

Identifying with the Students
People who have had the experience of learning a language other than their mother tongue will be able to identify with their students. Even though many would intuitively agree with such a sentiment, some are not certain that this is true. The language-learning experience can be quite different from one learner to another. The experience can also be radically different in going from one language family to another. On the ELT forum at participants often expressed conflicting views.

One ELT forum commenter wrote, "I speak two other languages and my learning experiences of each of them were quite different. Learning Spanish was a joy, learning French was an almighty pain in the butt."

The Importance of a Native Speaker
"I do understand that someone who has learned another language will have more insight into what a student of theirs may be going through.” stated another forum participant. In this point I also happen to agree. Experiencing the rigors and challenges of developing fluency in a foreign tongue provides valuable insight into the psyche of the foreign language learner. I've studied three other languages and have acquired a fair level of proficiency in two of them. The perspective of having struggled with foreign language elements is a definite aid to my teaching both directly and indirectly. But while I strongly favor bi-lingualism, there are some caveats.

Some Caveats to Consider
A detailed knowledge of language learning that only comes from immersing yourself in the language learning process, is an infinitely helpful experience. However, many schools absolutely prohibit the use of the learners' L1 in the English language learning classroom. So if the L2 you've acquired happens to be the learners' L1, you must be careful not to allow it to become a "crutch" in your teaching and interaction with the learners. All too commonly this winds up being the case. After all, if you live and teach in a Spanish L1 speaking country in Latin America for example, fluency in Spanish is helpful and practical.

In Conclusion
Developing fluency in an L2 can be a boon for the TESOL teacher. If you stay in one place for an extended period, you'll need to develop fluency in the local L1. This aids in developing rapport with your learners and in acclimatizing to the culture. Do not allow your proficiency in the learners' L1 to creep into your English classes or to erode your English. This will ultimately happen unless you actively work to avoid it. As ELT professionals, the more we can do to develop our skills and grow as individuals in the process, the better English teachers we will become.

What do YOU think?

Prof. Larry M. Lynch is an ELT Teacher Trainer, English language learning expert author and university professor in Cali, Colombia. He has published more than 350 articles and academic papers and presented at numerous EFL teacher training and TEFL conferences throughout North America, South America and Europe. For comments, questions, requests, to receive more information or to be added to his free TESOL articles and teaching materials mailing list, e-mail:


What do you think of this article? Add a comment »

Eveline on 6 June 2006

PROS on more languages:
Here in Switzerland speaking more than two languages, is a must. Switzerland has four official languages, German, French, Italian and Romansch (Latin based) with also very many foreign workers and now English is the official second language of the country which is taught in schools from an early age onwards. There may be a little snobbery involved but definitely a plus point if you are able to speak more than two languages. Trying to explain our English tenses and giving examples in one of their languages - so that the students have a clearer understanding on how and when it is used, is a clear advantage. They can then refer to it, or in some cases accept that it doesn't exist in their spoken language. But it is something they can 'hold on to' when explained to them.

Rosemary on 6 June 2006

I have studied two languages. At the present time I am teaching English to an American woman. Because she knows I understand Spanish, she does not make the effort she should to learn English - she insists on translating English to Spanish mentally and then translates back to English, which of course does not translate correctly.

I am also teaching two Chinese students - I cannot speak their language and they are making great strides in English, the reason being that they have to study, without help from me in Chinese.

I have taught in other countries and also found having no knowledge of the native language my students seem to progress quicker.

Jayne on 6 June 2006

Super article about a very controversial subject. I must vote for the bilingual side. Yes, learning a L2, as a teacher of my L1, has given me extra skills of the understanding, perserverance and determination required to build the path. Also, knowing the rewards and benefits of learning a new language and the logistics involved when the new language is used in immersion situations. The real deal. Those of you that fall victim to the lazy students who insist on relying on their baby language native tongue, just stand by your guns! Show them that they are building a "new language LIFE"...

Roger on 6 June 2006

I am teaching in Thailand. I am learning the language as best I can - it is difficult to find committed Thai teachers here. Nonetheless, my partial knowledge helps me to understand the differences between Thai vowels and English vowels, and is a definite aid in teaching the Thais to produce the English vowels. They have some which we do not, and vice versa.

A second point: I get great respect for trying to learn the language. Respect is a major cultural factor here. No matter how badly I do, the fact that I try is respectful! Conversely, my best students are the ones who try hardest, not the most skilful: this is an attitude I can understand.

Thirdly, my feeble attempts in front of the students have brought welcome laughter: an excellent ice-breaker. Do not spurn the clients language - it is a teaching tool along with all the others. Just don't rely on it...

Chris on 6 June 2006

I have lived and worked in Japan for the last 8 years. Having become relatively fluent in Japanese myself I can say that it is true that you tend to lose proficiency in your native language while at the same time your second language skills become better. As for using the L2 in the classroom. In my case I work in and elementary school, without assistance from any other native Japanese speaking teachers. Although the idea of teaching solely in English sounds good, practically speaking it is almost impossible. I find that relating rules to games and explaining some speaking points in the students L1 is essential for their understanding. I have a 40 minute class in which I am expected to to relay a certain amount of information and aid the students progress through their English curriculum. If I cannot use Japanese in the classroom then I would spend more than half of my class explaining rules and the children would be left with little speaking and activity time.

I agree that used in excess the students L1 can become a crutch in the classroom and impede the learner's performance in learning the L2. However, I believe that students who enjoy the second language experience understand that their improvement in the L2 depends on the amount that they use the L2 both inside and outside the classroom. Students who take advantage of the opportunity to speak English progress quickly, regardless if some limited L1 is used in their class. If a students puts forth the time and effort to learn the language he or she will be successful.

Arpani on 7 June 2006

I am Indonesian. I teach senior high school students. I think I have more problems than you have. Indonesia is a country of multicultural and ethnic groups. It also has hundreds of their own language, their regional language as their mother tongue. This is a big problem when teaching them English. They tend to use their own language even though they are in an English class. For your information, I live in Palembang, South Sumatera. Every village has its own language to communicate. I use their L1 sometimes when teaching them. The reason is if I use English all the time, they find it difficult to comprehend the lesson. Since I teach at "Plus School", I can make my students talk and talk in English. I have some ways to make my students speak English. They are ESM (English Speaking Model), Lesson Presentation, Debate, Discussion, Diary Presentation, and so on. The point is I try to design any topic into speaking skills. And it's worked so far.

Guillaume on 7 June 2006

I am a Cambridge CELTA qualified English teacher, I am also a high school graduate in Applied Languages, I am French and teach English in China. I speak 4 languages but use only English in the classroom, the others languages I use sometimes when explaining vocabulary. I am learning Chinese too to understand the syntax and the logic of the language so I understand my students' mistakes better. I practise all my languages whenever I can, making sure I don't lose fluency in any of them. Learning the language of the country you are in is not compulsory but I think it helps, and on a personal point, it's very enriching. Funnily enough I don't want to teach people with whom I share the L1.

Amani on 7 June 2006

I liked the comments everyone posted here, it's really interesting to get to know new experiences. I am Egyptian and I teach English Phonetics and Advanced certificates like TOEFL, IELTS, SAT and that sort of stuff. All my students first ask for an Arabic-English teaching method but I try in all ways to convince them of just listening to English and I do that by using various body language techniques which turns out in the end to be very beneficial. They feel it's fun because we then set some rules that if anyone speaks his/her mother tongue they have to pay money in order to not do it again!

Lesley on 9 June 2006

I am an English person living in Quebec and I teach English to francophones. It definitely helps that I speak French because it helps me to understand the mistakes that they make. I can therefore anticipate their mistakes and present the vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation that they need in order to not make those mistakes. I can explain to them the whys and why nots in their own language, which is a short cut, instead of them having to go through lots of examples to discover for themselves. If I explain an activity in English and they don't understand, they will do it wrong which leads to frustration, not learning. I teach many levels privately and also primary school. At school I resist speaking French, but discipline would be impossible in English, which they are only just beginning. However, it takes great discipline on my part to not slip into French and the advantage of speaking French is less evident at this level.

Talel on 11 June 2006

The question arisen in this article is noteworthy. The fact that I'm a Tunisian EFL teacher, my learners' native language is Arabic and the socio-cultural context in which I teach is Arabic, leads me to question the efficiency of referring to L1 when I have a difficulty in explaining some points in my classes or, the other way, should I or should I not make use of Arabic in my classes. It a huge problem for me and for my colleagues to have English only classes because the majority of the students, in secondary schools in Tunisia, tend to see it frustrating and difficult to understand and use English in class, this remarkable problem led me to adopt a strategy with my learners which is to use Arabic only when I need to explain some abstract notions in the language such as: explaining the difference between "past perfect" and "past simple" from an Arabic language perspective and this is to ascend the interest and the understanding of the learners. The major problem that we face everyday is that our students, as non-native English teachers, is the link between the language and culture we teach and the completely distinct environment of our classes.

Prof Larry Lynch on 11 June 2006

My sincerest thanks to all of you for your interesting comments. May I assure each of you that I read and reflect on the commentary generated by my articles posted on this site and find that quite a quantity of TEFL professionals seem to be benefiting from the postings and exchanges as I myself also do. Many of you might also find my English EFL teaching blog of interest. It is online at: Essays and opinions on aspects of ELT will continue to appear at this site in accordance with the webmaster. I find this site to be of great value in deepening my viewpoints on ELT. Many thanks again for your continued support and postings.

Robert on 12 June 2006

Yes, it certainly helps if you know your students' language. I was brought up bilingual. It makes teaching English much easier. Only speaking English to beginners produces a lesson which is 90% confusion and 10% learning - if that! There's nothing wrong with explaining grammar in the students mother tongue.

Ed Nicholson on 12 June 2006

Firstly, thanks Larry for having this article published and for creating the debate on, thanks to you all.

L3, L4 and multilingual groups have been mentioned little and with language teaching there is clearly an ever increasing complexity as both students and teachers' studies become more advanced. Many of us relish the increasing diversity of thought. However, in most language classrooms there are small groups of individuals who gradually develop learning relationships together and as a result we share intellectual and cultural knowledge. This is mostly subconscious and therefore natural. We learn about our fellows' cultural/social, educational and working backgrounds, our 'baggage' from beyond the classroom. If a teacher has a group of students for more than a few minutes or hours then he or she has a duty to develop knowledge of each of his students' personal backgrounds, their identities.

As language is a tool of our cultural selves, with time any and every teacher must develop knowledge of his students' cultures, and every student has a distinct identity and therefore a distinct culture. A teacher who has no use of his students' languages has no knowledge of the representation of his students' culture and identity and therefore he or she, the teacher, will be an impersonal, distant and apparently robotic or alien being towards his or her students. With no knowledge of students' L1 the teacher represents his or her culture in an inappropriately arrogant manner.

As to whether using students' L1 in the classroom is appropriate or not depends on the diversity of languages that the students in your class actually possess. I am tempted to write goodbye in umpteen world languages and as there is a diverse readership I shall favour none other than my L1.

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