Should You Learn the Local Language?

greeting in different language written by hand over chalkboard
greeting in different language written by hand over chalkboard

Since English is generally seen as the “universal language”, it’s usually pretty easy for an English speaker to travel and live abroad, even in countries where English isn’t an official language. Whether or not this is the right thing to do is, of course, debatable. Ultimately, each person needs to decide for themselves whether or not they want to invest the time in learning the local language. If your plan is to only be there for a year, you may not want to put in the effort to become fluent. However, it’s a different story if you’re considering living there long-term.

Get the Basics Down

It’s totally fine to move to a country not speaking the language. It’s not OK to assume that everyone can speak English. Sure, your school might handle a lot of the official things for you. They might secure your apartment. They might handle your visa or help you set up a bank account. But no one is going to be there with you 24/7. At some point, you’ll need to be able to make transactions in the store, get from one place to another, and generally be able to function in the society.

That’s why it’s important to learn a few of the basic phrases you might need while living abroad. These include pleasantries like “good morning” and “thank you”, a few common vocabulary words that relate to things you might need (bread, eggs, shampoo) or places you might need to go (train station, library, pharmacy). You should then also learn how to use those words in phrases, such as “Where’s the…?” or “How much is…?” Not only is this going to make your life a lot easier, but I think that at least trying to speak the local language can get you pretty far when it comes to dealing with people out and about.

Not In the Classroom

A lot of times, though, schools don’t want you to speak the native language in the classroom. They want the classroom to be a fully English-immersive environment and I can definitely get why that’s beneficial. When the teacher obviously has no idea how to speak the local language, students are forced to speak English, to listen hard to what the teacher is saying, and to make every attempt to speak English. These are the things that students really need to become more fluent in English.

My opinion is that this works best in classroom environments with students around 5 to 12 years old, and in cases where the English teachers are primarily working with adults who can already speak a moderate amount of English, but who need a bit of conversational practice. However, few rules are always true across the board.

When It Might Be OK

I’m going to start this section off by saying that this is fully my opinion. If your company has a policy against speaking the native language in the classroom and you are likely to get in trouble for doing so, please follow their guidelines. If you think that there’s a bit of leeway, though…

I think that when you’re working with very young children, it’s fine to incorporate a bit of the native language into the lessons. For example, at one school I worked at, I had children as young as 3 in the classroom without their parents or any Japanese speakers around. I can definitely see how some little ones would find this to be a particularly terrifying situation. I mean, even I would feel a bit scared to be in a room with someone and not being able to understand a word that they’re saying. I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to be a kid, especially when the other person is a grown-up and in countries like Japan or China, where the children may not have come into contact with people of other races. A lot of these kids would cry, and I found it helpful to be able to say, “You’re OK,” or “Your mommy is coming soon,” in Japanese. When I would do this, I’d always make sure to say the phrase in both English and Japanese in the hopes that they’d start to connect the two phrases.

I also think that when you start to get into the more complex rules surrounding grammar, like the high school or adult level, being able to compare a particular structure with how to do it in their language. For example, there’s a slight difference in meaning between “There is a book on the table,” and “I have placed a book on the table,” and, in my opinion, it’s really difficult to get that point across if you’re not able to tell the students what the equivalent in their language is. For example, when trying to teach “this” or “that”, I was trying to not speak Japanese and get my point across, but the kids just weren’t getting it. Simply saying “kore” and “sore” (the comparable terms in Japanese) was an easy “a-ha” moment for the kids, and after that, they understood how to use the two words.

Finally, for the students, being in your class is supposed to be all about them learning the language. One of the most difficult aspects of learning a foreign language is being able to express your true thoughts and feelings in that language. If you understand the students’ native language, even if you’re not fluent yourself, it becomes a lot easier to help that child say the things she wants to say. For example, if you’re asking a group of 6-year olds “What’s your favorite animal?” and the only animal vocabulary words you’ve taught are dog, cat, horse, sheep, cow, lion, tiger, and monkey, how is she going to be able to say that she loves her pet hamster or thinks that koalas are just the cutest things ever? I believe that it’s better to be able to translate the word for her, and when the kids know that you can speak some of the language, they’ll feel more comfortable in asking you how to say what they really want to say rather than just parroting back what you’ve been telling them.

(It also means that they won’t be able to get away with saying the naughty words, or bullying another kid in the class.)

I get that you might not want to pay for language lessons or put a lot of effort into self-study of the native language if you’re not going to be there for long. However, I do believe that having a slightly-more-than-rudimentary sense of the native language of the country you’re living in can not only make your life easier, but also make you a better teacher.

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