Let me start by saying that I don’t think it’s strictly necessary to know your students’ first language to be a good ESL teacher. In fact, I know a lot of excellent ESL teachers who don’t speak languages other than English. But I personally think that knowing other languages helps the teaching.

When I did my CELTA almost ten years ago, I could only speak Polish, English and some basic Spanish. I didn’t really have plans to learn more languages then. I hadn’t got the bug yet…

But meeting Chris led to me moving to Korea, and so I decided to start learning a language.

 That’s how it all started…

Now, every time I move to a new country, I make a solid effort to learn the local language. I really think this has helped me become a better ESL teacher. In this blog post, I introduce 7 reasons why.

1: You can connect better with your students

Even being able to say a few words in your students’ first language helps to build rapport with your students them. Now, I teach in a primary school in Hanoi and my students are incredibly happy when I say anything in Vietnamese. It shows them that you like their country and that you find it interesting. And this helps builds respect.

Ola teaching English at English corner
English corners are great opportunities to connect with more enthusiastic students

The connection tends to be even better when the language isn’t that widely spoken. I still remember the applause I got after saying a few words to my students in Putianese (a local language spoken only in Putian, China).

2: You can anticipate their grammar mistakes

Once you start learning a language you also start to learn its grammar. And, obviously, you start noticing the similarities and the differences between the language you are learning and English.

This way you can anticipate which grammar structure your students may have more problems with and plan to spend more time teaching it.

An infographic showing different parts of speech in English
Parts of Speech

For example, because in Spanish and Vietnamese the adjectives always come after the nouns, students make a lot of mistakes with adjectives when speaking English. So, I spend more time on this grammar point, to help the students remember the structure.

3: You can explain the pronunciation better

I’ve found through talking to other teacher and my own experience as a learner that pronunciation is often overlooked during ESL lessons. But this probably a topic for another blog post.

I personally think it’s important to teach students pronunciation skills

Knowing what sounds your students have in their first language really helps me while teaching them pronunciation.

Last summer, I had a few Spanish students and they were amazed when I told them that the voiceless th sound in English is the same as the first c in the word cerveza meaning beer ( note this doesn’t apply to every dialect of Spanish, for example most of South America pronounces the letter c as s).

Another example, I encountered was while explaining to my Vietnamese students the schwa sound, which is the how the e is pronounced in paper. I explained to them how schwa it’s basically a shorter version of the Vietnamese ơ sound. After this, my Vietnamese students stopped having problems with the schwa sound.

4: You can advise them on learning techniques

One of the great things about learning languages is that you can understand better the problems your students face as they’re the same as the problems you’ve encountered.

One is that you realise in your own learning how some words just don’t want to stick in your memory while you remember others naturally. And another that two hours of listening per week is just not enough to improve your listening skills.

I always advise my students on different learning techniques like flashcards or listening in your free time.

5: You can understand your students, and this helps you anticipate their problems

Many people say that ESL teachers don’t have to know their students’ first language, and this is true. But knowing the first language can make the work easier, especially if you don’t have a teaching assistant or your teaching assistant doesn’t speak English well.

Understanding expressions like “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know” can go a long way. Especially in public schools, we often get classes with students with very different levels.

A group of Chinese students with back to camera in classroom. Their teacher is in the background, blurred out, with her hand raised.
Group of middle school students studying in classroom

Of course, I always try to encourage my students to use as much English as possible. But, it’s helpful to realise when weaker students tell you they don’t understand.

6: You can sometime revert to a student’s first language

I know this one is a bit controversial. In fact, one school forbade me from using the students’ first language in the classroom. And generally, I tend to avoid it.

But sometimes, when a student really doesn’t understand, it’s good to give them some guidance. I’m not talking here about totally switching to their first language, but instead just using some words or expressions.

This can help make students feel a bit more comfortable, which often encourages them to speak.

Hello in Chinese and English written in chalk on a blackboard
Even knowing a few words from your students’ first language can help the teaching

7: You can use it as a motivational tool

You can sometimes use the fact that you know their language as a motivational tool. When I worked at the Xiamen Institute of Technology in China, my students had to do a short presentation every two months.

They were all university students, and they’d all studied English for many years. But still, many of them could barely speak much English.

The presentation topics were easy, with things like: “What do you like to do in your free time?” or “Who do you want to be in the future?”. They had time to prepare at home, but still many of them would come back with only a few basic sentences, and sometimes nothing at all.

After quite a few presentations like this, I got a bit annoyed. And I for a moment, I wondered how I could encourage them to try harder.

Then, I had an idea. I showed my students one of my videos from my Chinese Add1Challenge. This was a video of me talking for a few minutes in Chinese about my hobbies.

After they watched it, I told them that I recorded that video after only learning Chinese for a year. And that if I could do it after one year, they can also do it after more than 6 years. I’m sure it helped some students.

Are you both teaching English and learning other languages? Do you think this helps you become a better ESL teacher? Leave us a comment below, we’ll be happy to hear your thoughts.

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About Ola Jagielska

Ola Jagielska is an ESL teacher, language enthusiast and co-author of this blog. She speaks seven languages and is striving for more. She loves travelling, reading and drinking good coffee.

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