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 bilingual 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 www.esl-jobs-forum.com 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.
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.