I Don’t Speak a Foreign Language – Can I Still Teach English Abroad?

Do you need to know another language to teach English? Do you have to be bilingual to teach English abroad? Let's take a look at your options for teaching English overseas if you don't speak a foreign language.

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The ability to speak a foreign language in order to teach English abroad is probably one of the most common questions we get asked at International TEFL Academy (ITA). Fear not, you're going to like the answer. Let's start by addressing a few common questions:

Do TEFL Teachers Need a Second Language? What You Need to Know

TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teachers do not necessarily need a second language. While knowledge of a second language can be beneficial, it is not a requirement for teaching English as a foreign language. The primary language of instruction in a TEFL classroom is English, and the teacher's fluency in English is the most important factor in their ability to effectively teach the language to non-native speakers.

Now let's address teaching English abroad and bilingualism.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing Another Language?

You do not need to know a foreign language to teach English abroad. Speaking another language isn't necessary to teach English abroad. Your fluency in English will create an immersive classroom where your students are challenged to actively learn English.

Do ESL teachers have to be bilingual?

No, ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers do not have to be bilingual. Being bilingual is not a requirement for teaching English abroad either. Fluency in English is sufficient to create an immersive classroom where students can actively learn the language without the need for another language.


Can you teach English abroad without speaking a foreign language?
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Now that you know there is no need to know another language to teach English abroad, let's break down this topic into 4 main categories.

Teaching English Abroad Without Knowing The Local Language

While it may seem daunting to teach English abroad without knowing the local language, it is important to understand that it is indeed possible and that many teachers have successfully navigated these challenges, including:

  1. Interviewing & Getting Hired
  2. Teaching Local Students Successfully
  3. Living & Surving in Another Country
  4. Learning the Local Language Once in the Country

Let's explore these more in detail:

1. Interviewing & Getting Hired

But if I don’t speak the local language, how will I interview and get hired? 

Remember that you are in demand and qualified to work as an English speaker because you are a native English speaker (or a very fluent non-native speaker) who has been trained to teach English on the professional level, not because you do or don’t speak the local language.

When it comes to the actual hiring process, English teachers around the globe are interviewed in English, and you should almost never have to worry about needing to provide a resume or cover letter in the language of the country where you wish to teach. Keep in mind, the job is to work at an English language school. The staff interviewing you speaks English!


2. Teaching Students: How to Teach English When You Don't Speak Their Language?

If my students don’t speak English and I don’t speak their language, how will I be able to communicate with them?

The very first thing your employer will tell you is they only want you to speak English to the students. In addition, according to the principles of modern language instruction, you as the teacher will want to immerse your students in an English-only environment as much as possible when they are in your class.

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In many cases, by using your students’ own language, you are providing a crutch for them that may impede their progress in learning English.  You should also remember that the vast majority of your students will already have had some exposure and instruction in English.  With this in mind, a large portion of your TEFL training is dedicated to providing you with the skills to communicate with non-native speakers of various levels.


3. Living and Surviving in Another Country

You may be wondering about living overseas without knowing the language of the country you reside in. Questions such as these may arise:

  • If I don’t speak the local language, how will I be able to function? 
  • Will I be able to make friends? 
  • Will I be able to perform the rituals of daily life like grocery shopping, riding public transportation and ordering in local restaurants?

Well, let us ask you the following: Have you ever gone on vacation to another country? The same way you use a guidebook and navigate around town, or go site seeing and find a place to eat while on vacation, are essentially the same skills you'll need to live in a city.

Remember that English is the most widely used language in the world and in major cities, and in other regions where you will most likely live and work as a teacher, a substantial if not high percentage of the local population will have at least some ability to communicate in English. In major cities across the world – where the vast majority of jobs for English teachers are concentrated – it is common for many waiters, bank tellers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and other folks in various walks of life to speak at least some English.

In many countries and cities, whether it be Madrid, Spain; Cairo, Egypt; Santiago, Chile; or Seoul, Korea, it is common for street signs, menus, shop prices and other useful information to be printed and published in English, or at least in the Latin alphabet. 

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You will also find large communities of expatriate English speakers in major cities throughout Latin America, Europe and Asia where job opportunities are concentrated. Most large cities in these regions are home to several thousand English teachers at least, in addition to large expatriate communities comprised of business professionals, students, diplomats, and others. 

In many countries and cities, the local English-speaking population is large enough to sustain its own English-language press as well as English-speaking churches (and other houses of worship), social groups and sports leagues.  As a teacher, chances are high that you will be working, or even living with other English teachers. Teachers not only typically live together, but also socialize on the weekends, or even travel together on holidays.  In fact, one of the greatest benefits of going abroad to teach English will be the friendships you forge with others, including your colleagues.


4. Learning the Local Language

If I want to learn a foreign language, will going abroad give me the opportunity to do so?

Yes. Immersing yourself in a country where a language is spoken by living in it is often the best way to learn a foreign language. This is one of the greatest opportunities for living abroad.  And, while it is not necessary that you make an effort to learn the local language of your teaching country, you will find that at the very least, it will be helpful to learn enough of it so that you can ask directions, read a menu and exchange pleasantries and greetings with the locals, who will invariably appreciate your efforts.

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When it comes to options for learning the language of the country where you wish to teach, you may consider taking a class or even getting your hands on some audio lessons prior to your departure just so you can learn a few words and phrases. Once you move to the country where you will teach, opportunities to study the local language should be ample as language courses and tutors are usually abundant. In fact, many of the schools that hire English teachers themselves offer classes in the local language and so your employer may be willing to provide you with language classes at a discounted price. 

Many teachers also engage in “language exchanges” with local citizens, whereby the teacher and a local citizen gather for a coffee, a meal or a drink, and spend some time speaking in English and some other time speaking in the local language. This allows both parties to gain some language practice as well as an opportunity to learn about each other’s lives and cultures.

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