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Monolingual Classes & TEFL

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Buddhist novices in class.

As a TEFL teacher, you will be faced with one of two types of classroom: Monolingual or Multilingual.

In a monolingual classroom, all the students speak the same first language and they are all learning English. This type of classroom is typical in countries like South Korea, Spain and Brazil‏‎ where English speaking teachers teach the classes in the students’ own country.

The second type of classroom, the multilingual class, describes a salad bowl of students who speak several different first languages. This type of classroom is typical in countries like the United Kingdom, the USA‏‎ , and Canada‏‎ where foreign students travel to these countries to enroll in English language lessons. The only thing the students may have in common is their desire to learn English.

This article will focus on teaching in a monolingual classroom and the types of challenges that are common in this type of class.

Common Monolingual Scenarios

Teaching English in foreign countries – particularly in Asia – has been popular and big business for the last few decades. With the desire to compete in a globalized world, where English is the lingua franca‏‎, countries have poured billions of dollars into government sponsored English programs, many in state schools but also in private schools. This has resulted in many jobs for native English speakers looking to earn good salaries while traveling and living abroad.

When teaching in this type of situation, the course either forms part of the students’ compulsory curriculum or it may take place in a private school paid for by the students’ parents.

In classes like this, the students’ levels of interest will vary a lot. Often the course is mandatory so don’t expect all of the students to have a genuine desire to learn English if you’re teaching in a foreign country like China or Japan and they have to attend your lessons.

As a TEFL teacher, teaching in your students’ home country has many advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the country, the students level, and your colleagues, you may end up speaking a lot of English in the classroom or very little.

Unlike a multilingual classroom where English is the only common language for the students and teacher, a monolingual classroom can make it easy for students to use their first language in lessons to communicate with one another, which can seriously impact their progress in learning English. After all, it’s easier to communicate in the language we can already speak – especially when it’s only one person – the teacher in this instance – who doesn’t understand the language!

Language Issues with Monolingual Classes

One of the biggest advantages of teaching a monolingual EFL‏‎ class is that the students will usually make the same kinds of errors when they speak English. For example, Korean students struggle with prepositions‏‎ and articles‏‎. And both Chinese and Korean students often have difficulty with the /r/ and /l/ pronunciation.

These errors are the result of influence and interference from the students’ mother tongue (known as mother tongue influence‏‎). Sometimes, the mistake is taught by English teachers with the same mother tongue as the students.

(Compare this with a multilingual class where you might find several students having problems with prepositions while other students – with a different mother-tongue – in the same class find them easy to understand and use.)

The biggest advantage of teaching a monolingual class is that it makes it easier to tailor lessons to meet the students’ needs since generally most students will have the same issues and needs. As a teacher, you can focus on errors that the entire class makes rather than the many different errors that you will encounter in a multilingual class.

Depending on the level and mother tongue of your students, you will experience a variety of different errors between language groups. For example, students who speak a language like Arabic‏‎, Japanese or Cantonese may have difficulty with reading and writing in English because the script is so different. Speakers of other languages might have more pronunciation or listening difficulties.

As a teacher, it’s often easier to identify the types of errors that need to be corrected in a monolingual class because most of the class will have the same problem. Also, you are able to use themes and topics that relate directly to the students’ culture.

However, there are other problems that potentially arise, too.

Students will find it easier to express themselves in their mother tongue. Since the monolingual class shares a mother tongue, the temptation to speak less English in the classroom can overpower the desire to learn English – especially in the early stages of learning.

Similarly, if the EFL teacher speaks the same language as the students – even if the teacher speaks it as a second language – it can be easy to revert to using the students’ mother tongue to give instructions, clarify tasks or explain difficult concepts. This can quickly lead to a situation where very little English is spoken in the classroom.

If you teach a class with a co-teacher who speaks the same first language as the students, it can very easily turn into a translation lesson. This happens when the native English speaker gives an instruction or explanation in English and the co-teacher serves as a translator. The main problem with this type of approach is that it becomes a crutch for the students. They often stop listening to the English parts and wait for the translation in their mother tongue. The result is usually very slow progress in learning and speaking English.

Overcoming Problems with Monolingual Classes

To overcome problems like these, you first need to identify the main problem. In some instances, there may not be much that you can do to improve or change a situation. For example, if students have low intrinsic motivation to participate in a mandatory course and are only interested in the course credit, it can be extremely challenging to engage them in discussions and group work.

Here are some general guidelines in dealing with the most common problems that arise in a monolingual English classroom:

  • If you are required to teach with a co-teacher who shares the students’ first language, discuss how (and if) you will use the students’ mother tongue in the classroom so that it doesn’t detract from their acquisition of English.
  • If you are teaching complete beginners, you will likely use less English in the classroom initially. Once students understand basic English, try to increase the amount of English used each week. With intermediate students, anything less than 65% English in a lesson is too little unless the concept is very difficult to understand. For advanced students, an all-English environment is not unreasonable.
  • Remember that even a monolingual classroom will have students with different levels of proficiency in English. Don’t expect all students to have the same level of knowledge and/or fluency.
  • Never assume that all the students understand you because one or two of them know what’s going on in class. In some cultures, receptive communication styles mean that students will not ask questions even if they don’t understand what you have said because they have failed to understand the message.
  • Use grammar and vocabulary‏‎ that is easier than the students’ actual level of proficiency – at least in the first few lessons. Don’t be scared to simplify grammar to only the essential components needed for communication in the early stages of learning. For example, a student who has only just started learning English needs an instruction, with gestures, like “Door. Close. Please” while an intermediate students will understand the complete sentence, “Please close the door.”
  • Adjust your speed of talking. Even if you are teaching advanced students, speak slightly slower than your normal speed. English is still a foreign – or at least a second – language for your students and they need time to process what you say. If you are teaching in an English speaking country, you probably won’t need to speak too much slower than usual for advanced students because they are exposed to English daily outside of the classroom.
  • Focus on the errors that most directly affect students’ ability to communicate and be understood in English. Start with macro problems and work your way down to the micro problems.
  • Encourage students to use English as much as possible in the lesson. Chances are that this is the only time during the week in which they will have an opportunity to practise their English, so help them to make the most of it. Unless they have just started learning the language, students should use English for questions, asking for help, and talking to other students in the lesson.
  • Using candy or similar “bribes” to encourage student participation can quickly backfire. In many cases, students will associate it with their participation and refuse to do anything without the reward. Be careful with how you use rewards or “bribes.”

Cultural Issues with Monolingual Classes

As a teacher in a foreign country, one of the most common issues you’ll have with a class is the culture – especially if you’re teaching in a country where the first language and culture is extremely different from your own. Even when teaching a monolingual class in your home country, you may still experience cultural issues.

For example:

  • In patriarchal societies where men are considered to be more important than women, female teachers will usually encounter resistance from male colleagues and students.
  • Hierarchal cultures – like many Asian cultures – usually produce students who accept everything that a teacher says without question. This is also often applied to textbooks and the students find it hard to accept errors in their books.
  • Similarly, some cultures value silence and lecture style learning rather than group work or participation.
  • Some cultures emphasize tests while others emphasize experiential and progressive learning.
  • The way students and teachers interact may also influence their learning and response. For example, many western teachers expect students to look at them when being reprimanded while many Asian teachers see this as a sign of disrespect. Similarly, asking student repeatedly for an answer when (s)he remains silent might embarrass the student unintentionally.

In dealing with issues like these the first thing to remember is never to force the students into a situation where they’re not comfortable.

Try to learn as much as you can about the culture of your students – particularly with regard to their approach to learning – as this will help you to structure your lessons in a manner that makes the students feel comfortable and relaxed. Being tense or nervous about the lesson is only going to detract further from their progress, so try to lessen this stress where possible.

Similarly, while it’s good to encourage students to participate in lessons, be sensitive to shy students who feel uneasy about speaking in front of their peers. In a monolingual class, especially in a competitive society, students have a tendency to compare themselves to their classmates more than they do in multilingual classes. This can quickly lead to feelings of inferiority when the students feel that they are not progressing as quickly as their peers.

Also, some students feel self-conscious about what they perceive to be their poor English or they may be reluctant to speak unless the utterance is perfect. Japanese students in particular are known to take a moment to compose a sentence mentally before speaking to ensure that the grammar is correct.

A good approach in a speaking lesson is to encourage students to speak at a continuous speed with as few pauses and hesitations as possible; the speed should be one that they, personally, can maintain regardless of how slow it may be. In this way, they can start to build their fluency and confidence, which will also help them to participate more in future classes.

Useful Links

Monolingualism – when only one language is spoken

Multilingualism‏‎ – when more than one language is spoken

Multilingual Classes & English Language Teaching – how to deal with students with different MTs

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