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How to Manage Abroad When You Don’t Speak the Local Language


It’s a common misconception that you need to speak the language of a country in order to teach English there. While it’s certainly helpful for your day-to-day experience of getting around, grocery shopping or making local friends, it is not a requirement of EFL jobs. Rather, most schools foster a “total English immersion” environment in the classroom after students get to a certain English level, so the students you teach will benefit from 100% English class led by you, a native English speaker.

This opens the world up to EFL teachers! With the right qualifications, you can go just about anywhere and teach English, from Turkey to Taiwan, and everywhere in between. That means you could easily find yourself teaching for 6 months or a year in a place where you may not pick up enough of the language to communicate effectively. That’s what happened to me when I took a job in Morocco, knowing no French or Arabic! Here’s my advice:

Get comfortable with looking silly.

When I first moved to Costa Rica, I carried around a Spanish-English dictionary and looked up basic words on signs I saw out of the bus window, to try to learn the language. If someone actually spoke to me (nerve-racking!), I had to thumb through the dictionary to figure out what they were saying, or to formulate a response. I also became such an expert mime that I could probably fall back on that as a career to this day. What I’m saying is that it’s a humbling, and often humiliating, experience when you can’t speak the language, but you’ve got to work with what you have. Get comfortable looking silly with your limited language skills, and you are guaranteed to get more out of your experience abroad.

Take language classes.

This might seem obvious, but a teacher who is staying for a shorter contract, such as six months, in a country may not think it’s worth it to attempt to learn the language. However, sometimes a dictionary is not enough, and taking a class to practice some basic words and phrases can really bridge the cultural gap, showing the people of your host country that you are not just a tourist passing through, but a resident (if only temporary). In addition to learning some basics of polite communication, studying the language will make you a better English teacher. You will understand firsthand what your students are struggling with as they, too, try to learn a foreign language (especially without the benefit of hearing it spoken all around them).

Become friends with local teachers.

Just because you don’t speak Arabic, Chinese, Russian or whatever the local language may be, doesn’t mean you can’t befriend locals and learn the culture, if not the language. At every English school I’ve worked for abroad, the teaching staff was split between local teachers who were native to that country, and we foreign teachers (American, Canadian, etc.). Instead of gravitating toward your fellow native English-speakers while abroad, befriend the local teachers instead. They are usually eager to share their culture, perfect their English through conversation practice, and to swap teaching ideas and resources. These colleagues are a window into the culture that doesn’t require your mastery of the language.

My experience as a teacher has taught me that there are ways to maximize my experience abroad, even if you don’t have enough time (or more likely in my case, talent) to truly master the language.

Trying to improve your foreign language skills while abroad? Check out these tips. 


Jennifer is from Tampa, Florida, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in both English and psychology. After a short career in social work, she gave in to wanderlust, got TEFL-certified, and moved abroad to teach English. She has taught students of all ages at language centers in Costa Rica, Morocco, and Spain.