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Bilingual Native English Teachers: How important is a second language?

English for Specific Purposes

Bilingual Native English Teachers: How important is a second language?

For the majority of native English speakers who learn a second language, their lessons will be conducted bilingually; with grammar explanations in English and direct translations the standard lesson style. The idea of a foreign language teacher working and living in the UK without a high or fluent level of English, for example, is unheard of. Yet English lessons as a second language are very often conducted 100% in the target language, and many native English teachers have a limited working proficiency in the language of the country they are residing in when outside of their home countries. So how does this work? Is it essential for teachers to use their students’ native language? Does knowing a second language make you a better teacher? This article explores the benefits of being bilingual and how it affects a teacher’s performance in the classroom.

In English, please…

The benefit of learning with a native English teacher is that they use the language in a natural, fluent way that not only conditions learners to understand spoken native English but use more complex grammar structure, such as phrasal verbs, easily due to continuously hearing these structures used correctly and in context. If your teacher is then teaching in a second language this benefit is lost. The evolution of teaching styles now leans heavily towards methods of teaching, even for beginners, that are 100% in English. The most common question native English teachers get when living in foreign countries whose language they don’t speak fluently is “how do you teach if you don’t speak the language?” and the answer is simple…a good teacher knows how to teach effectively and, in doing so, is actually providing the best learning experience possible for their students.

Understanding how your students are thinking

Even though lessons should be conducted primarily in the target language that is not to say that zero understanding of your students mother tongue is acceptable. A good teacher can identify where students are having trouble in their language development and a key point of that is understanding what is new to them in English. To name but a few examples;

1.     Different verb use – In English we ARE our age, but in many other languages including the romance languages, you HAVE an amount of years. A lot of mistakes come from direct translations where the verb from one language is actually nonsense in English.

2.     Structure – a key difference! Where are students putting their adjectives? How are they making questions? Are they using articles and prepositions correctly?

3.     Things that don’t exist in other languages – not all languages have the same components. Russian does not have articles, languages with masculine and feminine don’t usually have the pronoun “it”, phrasal verbs are unique to English and, most importantly; not all languages use the same tenses in the same way.

Understanding why your students are making mistakes, or what difficulties they will encounter along the way, can help you to be a more effective and understanding teacher.

In their shoes

As a native English speaker it can be easy to forget just how hard a second language can be. Native speakers have the advantage of a high percentage of people speaking English, even in foreign cities, so the need for a working second language can, in theory, be diminished. But understanding the learning process, the difficulties learners encounter, the lack of confidence at times; these are invaluable lessons for an English teacher to comprehend in order to make them a compassionate and patient teacher in the long run. You will find that most native English teachers nowadays have learnt at least one other language and credit this with helping their personal development as language trainers, even if they are not bringing it into the classroom.


For more information on the benefits of a native English teacher please check out our article Learning with a Native ESL teacher.

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