How to Teach English When You Don’t Speak the Native Language

I was explaining an example from a teacher training session this morning.

How many dialogues can you write to show the different meanings of: “the police are just outside”

I had to read this a couple of times to get my head around it – but it proves a very good point: context is everything.

The Police are just outside, just relax and they’ll be in shortly to speak with you

Sounds very different to

The police are just outside…better hide your crack pipe

Indeed context is the sauce that binds a good lesson together, because as you can see, meaning of almost all words and utterances can change depending on the context.

Think about it: D’you wanna dance? can take on entirely different meanings depending on whether you have a) just had a drink, b) just punched a guy in the face or c) both.

One really good way to put this into practice is to think about functions.  Functions are usually fairly predictable chunks of language that we as native speakers use to get stuff done.  Things like ordering a meal in a restaurant, giving directions, giving your opinion or disagreeing with someone.

Layered over the top of all of this are the social and non-verbal factors that ultimately influence the tone of any conversation, and can be really good fun to play around with in class.  One of my colleagues was telling me about an adjectives lesson where students are told they are at a party and have to mingle with their friends while pretending to embody one of the adjectives.  You’ll be amazed at how physical the activity can become.

My advice to any teacher is always:

1) Present your language in context.

2) Use this context to extract key language examples.

3) Give your students a chance to practice (maybe they write their own examples, finish off half sentences, or write some true or false sentences about themselves using that language).

4) Allow your students to practise again, maybe in a conversation they write themselves, or a discussion of some sort.

What advice do you have for teaching English when you don’t speak the native language?

James Pengelley

The Hairy Chef is a swimmer, a baker, a photographer, a freelance writer and an English teacher currently completing his DELTA in Bogota, Colombia. He fell in love with teaching after a 6-week volunteer programme in rural northeast Thailand, and realized that making people smile is something everyone should believe in. Significant achievements include production of a pioneering documentary aimed at identifying Young Carers in classrooms, called Starting a Conversation (), in 2011 and subsequent nomination for the State Government’s Youth Award for community leadership, and the season’s fastest English Channel Relay crossing in 2009. You can jump aboard the follicularly overactive bandwagon at Wider Horizons of The Hairy Chef.
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