Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language: The Ultimate Guide 2022

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One of the biggest misconceptions about teaching English abroad is that you have to speak the local language.

While it certainly helps to understand what students may be whispering about or tell them to follow directions correctly, you absolutely do not need to speak the local language to be able to teach students English as a TEFL teacher.

I have taught English abroad in China without learning the language first and I was able to maintain a routine in my classroom to successfully teach students who are not native English speakers. Read more to see how I did it.

How Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language?

You may be intimidated by walking into a classroom without an idea of how to communicate with your students. You might wonder how students will follow directions or how to control the classroom if the students are not native English speakers and can’t understand you.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - 4 kids posing as superheroes

These are all very valid concerns, but they should not be enough to deter you from teaching English abroad. Having a few tricks up your sleeve as a TEFL teacher will ensure that you manage a classroom whether or not you speak the local language.

Pro tip: TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) is the overarching idea of teaching English to non-native English Speakers.

  • TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) and EFL (English as a foreign language) are used interchangeably for students who are learning English as a foreign language.
  • ESL (English as a Second Language) refers to students who are learning or have learned English as their second language.
  • Bilingual means the speaker is fluent in 2 languages.

Here are 5 tips to help you teach English abroad without speaking the language.

1. Use visual aids to teach English abroad.

One of the first tips TEFL teachers learn is to play videos, show pictures, and bring in realia (or real items) for students to hold and touch.

If your lesson is on farm animals, you might want to have a play area with all the animals on the farm, read a book about farms aloud, or show a short video of animal farm life. You might even consider bringing in a chicken… or maybe go visit a farm or a zoo.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - 4 kids dressed up in police uniforms

Instead of putting up signs around the classroom, it may be more beneficial to put up pictures. For example, the schedule would be more helpful to have pictures of music class, P.E. class, or reading time rather than those classes being written out.

As your students are not native English speakers, they will have a visual in their minds when you introduce new terms to them.

2. Use audio aids to teach English abroad.

Using our example from visual aids of teaching farm animals–if there’s a song, like Old Macdonald for example, that would help students remember even better and connect different animals and their sounds.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - a classroom sitting on the ground, listening

For students who are not native English speakers, songs are a great way of connecting language with a catchy tune.

My favorite way of cleaning up after playtime is to play the song “Clean Up” by ELF Learning so that students associate that song with the time of cleaning. The song triggers the routine so students can be ready for the next activity.

Pro-Tip: After showing this video once or twice, I only play the song without the video so students don’t become distracted.

3. Use gestures and facial expressions, also known as TPR to teach English abroad.

Another huge strategy TEFL teachers use to teach English is Total Physical Response, or TPR, which is a method of teaching where learners are using physical movement or action to connect to language.

This method of teaching was developed by Dr. James Asher who believed that from when we were young, we weren’t taught to read and memorize, but rather taught to understand through listening and acting.

 Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - Pafou and a student making angry faces

For example, when a parent says to a child, “Pick up your toys and put them away,” the child listens and understands the command by acting exactly as the parent says.

This is the same while teaching English to students who are not native English speakers. Commands like, “Line up,” “Quiet please,” or even “Write your name and turn in your paper” can be easily understood and acted upon after multiple demonstrations.

So as a TEFL teacher using actionable phrases or words (like verbs) with your students who are not native English speakers, experiment with TPR. You can read more about TPR at ef.com or directly from Dr. Asher’s website.

4. Use repetitive phrases to teach English abroad.

Lilli Kimppa did a study and reported in Science Daily that repetitive phrases actually created a quicker neural response to memory.

According to Kimppa’s study, the more phrases that are repeated, even short phrases, the faster language learners are going to make connections and start understanding English.

With the knowledge from this study, increase the frequency of phrases you can use in the classroom to help your students remember and act them out. Some of these phrases could be, “line up for lunchtime,” “find your seat and sit down,” or “take out your math folder.”

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - classroom of kids posing for a picture

5. Label everything, especially things that belong to the students to teach English abroad.

From nameplates to backpack cubbies and spots in line to where to sit on the carpet, students who are not native English speakers will start recognizing their names and be able to go where they need to be.

For one, this will help students recognize their names quickly, and for another, it’ll help with classroom management.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - 5 kids working on an assignment with the tables labeled with their names

It may be helpful to have a table of pictures taped to desks so students can easily point to them for early communication.

Some of these pictures can be of the bathroom to represent a student needing to use the bathroom or a water bottle to get up and take a drink.

As your students start utilizing photos to communicate, you would also make sure to say them in English, and if possible have them repeat after you.

Do You Need to be Bilingual or Know a Foreign Language to Teach English Abroad?

The short answer is no, you do not need to be bilingual or know a foreign language to teach English abroad.

While you might be able to relate to your students’ language learning journey if you did learn a foreign language, you need to remember that you are creating a language immersion experience for your students.

You are in high demand as a TEFL teacher and were hired to teach English in a natural setting for students to acquire the language.

Because of this, it’s not necessary for you to know the language of your host country. Truth be told, you’re probably going to learn the language of your host country anyway just by living in that country.

You Might Have a Bilingual Classroom Assistant or Co-Teacher

Another reason why you do not need to be bilingual is that your school may have a structure in place where you are working alongside a classroom assistant or co-teacher who is bilingual. This can be helpful knowing that there is another adult in the room to understand the students if anything crazy happens.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - Pafoua and 2 Chinese teaching assistants

You Might Be Teaching Students from Various Countries

If you work at an international school abroad, you will most likely be teaching students who come from different places such as South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Japan, France, Germany, and many more places. They may not be native English speakers and all speak different languages.

Your school will most likely have English as the primary teaching language so you don’t need to be bilingual or know a foreign language to teach.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - Pafoua posing with her classroom of kids

Other Considerations of Teaching English Abroad Without Knowing the Language

What qualifications do you need to teach English abroad?

It depends on where you teach English abroad, but the most common qualifications are to have a TEFL Certificate and/or 2 years of teaching experience.

If you are working at an international school, the school will most likely also require a certified teaching license which is usually completed through an education bachelor’s degree.

If you do hold a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license, you will actually be ahead of the game and not need a TEFL certificate.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - a diploma and graduation cap

What are the requirements to teach English abroad?

One of the most important requirements, apart from a TEFL certificate and 2 years of teaching experience, is a work visa so you can legally work in another country. You will usually receive a letter of invitation from your school to bring to the embassy (along with your passport, health documents, educational papers, etc.).

Once everything is approved, you’ll be provided with a temporary work visa until you land in the country and get a permanent work visa.

Read Next: What are the Requirements to Teach in China International schools?

Can you teach English abroad if you are not a native English speaker?

Overall, most places are looking to hire people who have a native or near-native English accent. But because there is a great need for teachers who can speak and teach English, you will be in high demand and seriously considered for a position abroad.

I have personally worked with teachers from Singapore, the Philippines, and Malaysia who were not native English speakers.

How can you land a job teaching English abroad without experience?

Although many schools will say that they prefer previous teaching experience, there is a high demand for EFL teachers all over the world, especially in China. Because of this, the school may be willing to work with you.

In order to be highly considered for a position, ensure your resume details all your training, certificates, and licenses. If you have teacher training in your bachelor’s degree, such as student teaching or field experiences, add that to your resume.

Can you teach English abroad without knowing the language - teachers standing together

While you are waiting for a job offer (let’s be real, waiting for the application process to go through – it could take up to 3 months), you can apply for a job through VIPkid or one of these other platforms to get some EFL teaching experience.

Read next: Teaching In China Experience – What is it Really Like?

How do you get hired from your interview?

When preparing to teach abroad, especially at an international school, it is not uncommon to have a long application process and multiple interviews.

Through my personal experience, I had to complete 7 steps of the application process before getting a total of 3 interviews.

The company I went through actually has its home base in the United States, so I first interviewed with the director/CEO from the US. After everything was approved, I moved forward and interviewed with the Head Principal at the school I was assigned to followed by an interview with my department head, the ESL director.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - 3 people sitting in an interview

Keep in mind that you are applying for a 1 or 2-year teaching contract overseas. These companies want to ensure that you are fit for the job. In your interview, make sure to talk about your desire to move overseas and teach English abroad.

You’ll also want to talk about skills you have as an EFL teacher from lesson planning to classroom management. If you have experience teaching, talk about it and use examples in your interview.

Read Next: The Top 11 Common Interview Questions For Teaching English in China (And How to Answer Them)

Will you face age restrictions teaching English abroad?

Generally, no. There aren’t age restrictions for teaching English abroad. Most places are looking to hire people in the range of new teachers to retired ones. There may be certain places, like China, that can’t hire people who are the same age as their citizens’ retirement age.

Getting By in a Foreign Country When You Don’t Speak the Language

Living and surviving in another country

When you land in a new country where English isn’t the primary language, it can be intimidating to go shopping, get a new phone plan, order food at a restaurant, or even visit the doctor and use your health insurance.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - Pafoua with her Chinese friends

It would be best if your school has a hospitality team where you are partnered up with a person or family who has lived in that country and experienced the ups and downs of moving there. From here, they would be able to show you where to shop, which restaurants offer the best foods, and possibly introduce you to local friends or teachers in the area.

If this isn’t the case for you, you should be able to connect with one of the teachers in the school were hired to work at. They can introduce you to their favorite places and hopefully local friends who can help you get settled.

Even though you are new and trying to figure out your teaching position/situation, you will still want to go out and explore so you can become familiar with this new place. Don’t let the fear of not being able to speak the language hold you back.

Most locals can tell that you don’t speak the language and will jump at the opportunity to help you out.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - Pafoua and a friend eating out

Should I learn the local language while teaching English abroad?

Honestly, you’re going to pick up local words as you start living abroad. For example, you’ll start to repeat “how much is this?” or “check, please” and those will become your staple words.

Living in a new country will be much easier if you did take language lessons so you can get around, order some of the local favorite dishes, and connect with the locals. In my opinion, if you can take the time to study for at least a year of the language, you’ll be golden.

Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language - person studying on a computer

Best Places to Teach English Abroad Without Know the Language

Listed below are some of the best places where you can teach English abroad without knowing the local language. With a TEFL certification, you can be placed in any classroom setting to teach students of all ages.

  • China
  • South Korea
  • Japan
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam
  • Saudi Arabia
  • UAE (United Arab Emirates)
  • Dubai
  • Czech Republic
  • Germany
  • France
  • Spain
  • Costa Rica

Final Thoughts on Can You Teach English Abroad Without Knowing The Language

If you are looking for a way to teach English abroad without knowing the language, I hope these tips are helpful. Sure, it may be challenging at first but with these suggestions and resources, you can make your teaching experience an enjoyable one!


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