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March 24, 2009

Learning the Local Language

Should you learn the local language?

How long should you live somewhere before...

...you learn the local language?

When I lived in China, my academic mentors actively encouraged me NOT to learn much Chinese. I was there, after all, at great expense, to teach them ENGLISH. In other words I was there for them - not for myself.

My cultural clumsiness - and perhaps isolation - were my problem - not my hosts.

Does that match anyone else's experience?

Of course I did learn a few words of Chinese - it's amazing how well you can cope with only a few words - like yes, no, thank you and just a few more. But I was expected to rely on my Chinese students - but how realistic is that?

How long do you think a "foreigner" should live abroad before they learn the local language? One month? Six months? A year?

Does your language learning experience enhance - or confuse and clutter - your language teaching experience?

Is it the ESL teacher's responsibility to learn the local language - or should their focus be on his or her students of English?

Any thoughts on this?

In April, I'll be starting a series on book recommendations - books related to language, teaching, travel or anything related to the ESL teaching & learning experience. So send in your travel stories soon.

My best to you,


Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf spent about six years working for a Native American Tribal College, a few years teaching various humanities, English, writing and ESL courses with the community college system in Washington State (including one year as part of a faculty exchange program with The Beijing Foreign Language University). While in China, Morf was briefly a radio host for CRI (China Radio International) and did recordings for the "English can be enjoyable" book and tape series. Morf currently teaches English and writing for a local technical/vocational college with many international students. Morf prefers international and independent films, foods he can't pronounce, music no one else likes and riding his bicycle in unlikely and ridiculous situations.

Posted by mmorf at March 24, 2009 11:33 PM

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Your experience is definitely not uncommon. With regard to language learning, I think its only logical to study the local lingo if you are planning on staying for any period of time. I mean why not? You have the opportunity/access to learn a foreign language in its native environment why not take advantage of it? Learning it to fluency is another story, but certainly picking up as much vocabulary as possible can only help you in your day to day life.

Posted by: Stephen at March 28, 2009 06:17 AM

Yes, "local lingo" as Stephen put it, is crucial. I am always amazed at how much can be conveyed by a few words, gestures and a good attitude.

Posted by: Morf at March 29, 2009 09:11 PM

Just a short comment about your experience. Morf. Definitely an unusual and interesting name. I too have found isolation a problem in Taiwan as well as China. Isolation breeds disaffection and a number of other negative feelings such as anger and fear at its base. Only antidote I know is to spend time with people who speak your language and the cultural aspect seems to be a moot point at this time. Yes, there are things I would call quirks in societies, but I remember feeling like an alien in my own society. So there you have it. Hope all have a good, good day and enjoy the short life we have on this ball.

Posted by: Al Wingate at March 29, 2009 09:23 PM

I haven't taught overseas (yet), but when I do I'll definitely learn the local language. I won't teach English in anything but English, but knowing at least some of my students' language not only wins me brownie points (helps me establish rapport / shows I respect their culture, etc.) but is extremely helpful in understanding the difficulties they may have with English grammar & pronunciation. It's easier to explain our language if we can demonstrate parallel / equivalent structures, or be prepared to explain when there are NO parallel / equivalent structures or other elements in their language. Being a student of the local language at the same time you're teaching English reminds you of what's it's like to be in your students' shoes.

Posted by: Bob at March 29, 2009 09:29 PM

In Europe I was whole-heartedly encouraged to learn the local languages; it wasn't even uncommon for the school to give their own teachers free language lessons. However, when I came to Asia, my first school actively discouraged the teachers from learning the local language, even to the point where we would get lectured if we were "caught" studying it on the premises. I could make amateur observations about the psychology of the school owners, but I think more helpful would be class observations.

The logical reason to not let students know you can speak their language is that it may curb them shifting back into L1 when they are unsure of how to express themselves. If they know they can talk with you in their L1 at any time, they will be highly likely to do so.

However, I've observed that students hesitant for whatever reason to speak in the target language will frequently switch to L1 whether or not the teacher or others can understand them. Furthermore, I noticed that many of the best teachers are fluent in the local language, and use it to effect in the classroom. I hear them conducting the lesson in the target language, but switching to the local for complex instructions or explanations. Furthermore, when a student runs into trouble expressing his/herself, the teacher sometimes simply translates, and they may spend a short time going over the new phrasing uncovered in the translation.

Me myself, while I am not at the level to use the language as such in the classroom, I have noticed that I gain more respect in my students' eyes when they learn that I am studying their language. It shows a sincere interest in them, and a reciprocity towards their learning experience. On the other side of the coin, I have heard students express dismay at some teachers who seem to take no interest in their language or culture at all.

I personally believe that regardless of direct classroom use, all language teachers should embark on learning some foreign language, going from beginner and taking it as far as they can into advanced (and beyond, if possible (c: ), for the simple reason of being able to sympathize with their students, to be able to put themselves in their students' shoes, see with their eyes. For similar reasons, I think teachers should also feel free to join private and group language lessons.

On a final note, I study the local language largely because it's fun. It's like breaking a complex code that unlocks a new piece of life and the universe for you. Granted, there's no Talmud in ordering a cup of coffee, but being able to converse freely with those who had previously been behind the language barrier is a wonderful thing, and makes a world of difference in the living abroad experience.

Posted by: MrMackerel at March 29, 2009 10:15 PM

in my experience learning the local language is kind of showing respect to the place and people you find yourself at the moment.

Posted by: Daiga at March 30, 2009 03:10 AM

I spent nearly a year teaching English in Thailand, during which time I learnt to speak fairly passable Thai. This definitely enhanced my cultural and social experience of the country and also meant I paid a lot less than other Westerners for most things. Learning just the number system in any language will greatly enhance your bartering power and will help stop you getting ripped off!

Initially I thought that knowing some Thai would also help me explain language concepts which might otherwise be hard to get across solely using English, but in practice I found this wasn't the case. Once the kids knew that they started asking me to explain everything in Thai, rather than in English. From experience I can say that using the local language in the classroom is definitely not a good idea, although I did you use it successfully for classroom management on the odd occasion. If the kids are being naughty, telling them off in their own language is far more effective than English!

I think if you're planning to stay in a country for less than 6 months it's worth learning the essentials of a language, but if you plan to stay any longer then acquiring a working knowledge will greatly enhance your experience there.

Posted by: Matt - former EFL teacher, Bangkok. at March 30, 2009 05:14 AM

When we lived and taught in China 15 years ago, we weren't encouraged or discouraged from learning the language. After about 5 months, during which time we picked up basics, we hired a tutor to come several hours a week and started studying.

Now, we live in Hong Kong--no need to learn Chinese because English is one of the three official languages, and Cantonese speakers are convinced that foreigners can't learn their language. I spent the first three years here trying to review my Mandarin, and the last 2 studying Cantonese. I am totally confused and muddled and usually end up speaking sentences with all three languages in them, but, hey, people understand me and appreciate the effort to learn their language. Most of my communication is still in English, but when my Chinese friends find out I'm studying Cantonese, they are happy to hear it.

OTOH, when I taught in HI, the school and parents made it very clear to me that I should not learn the local pidgen English because they wanted me to teach their kids "proper" English. So while I have some words that I still use after 10 years, and I could understand most of what people around me were saying, I never was fluent in pidgen. However, that is a somewhat different situation.

Posted by: mom2twoboys at April 1, 2009 08:26 PM

I think every situation is different. Even every class is different.

I've taught at a high school and junior high in Japan for three years now, and although I was told I didn't need to learn the language, the world outside the classroom was simply to silent for me.

To maintain my own sanity and develop relationships I had to learn the language.

However, if you are not planning on staying very long (less than a year) you might not need to learn the language.

Some classes NEED discipline in the local language.

Some complex ideas and activities need to be explained in the local language. And I agree that good teachers do that.

However, teachers who overuse the local language (which I have done myself from time to time) will come off as condescending. You defiantly don't want to rob your students of English communication chances.

Also, sometimes I wish I didn't understand what my students are chatting about because it distracts me.

In short, I think life requires language learning. Teaching English for a short time may not.

Posted by: NB at April 21, 2009 08:42 PM

I have lived and taught in three separate asian countries for a total duration of 8 years. Now,I began this endeavor with the intent of exploring the cultures and learning their langauages. Initially it was just to help me expand my cultural base,but once in a foreign land you swiftly come to the realization that you can never rely upon any person but yourself,especially in the case of emergencies. If you are ill and need quick emergency care,it's best to know how to convey your symptoms to the medical staff on your own. Yes,it's true that English is spoken globally,but by not learning the language of another culture where you live and work,you virtually remain imprisoned in your own isolated world within that culture. That in itself ultimately leads to a great frustration. Often the places you live will work contrary to your wishes to learn their language,virtually keeping you a prisoner. So I say emancipate yourself from mental slavery and learn that other language for the sake of your own sanity and well-being !

Posted by: Byron at April 22, 2009 02:15 PM

When I was teaching in China my school had two classes a week, on e for beginners and one for intermediate students. The only problem was that a couple of the teachers who had an intermediate knowledge kept coming to the beginner class. They would get impatient with the newbie teachers who couldn't speak Chinese well or fast so it started to discourage the beginners from going to class. I personally think I learned more from my primary students than I did in the class. I would take my dictionary to class so that any misunderstandings could possibly be solved by having them find the word in the dictionary and writing it on the board for me. I would do the reverse if it was something they didn't know. I lived in China for five years, and while my Chinese isn't great, I can get by most of the time.

Now I'm living in Korea. I was very gung ho about learning the language before I got here, but I'm feeling quite apathetic about it now. China was a very welcoming place and the people where I lived were so open. It's the polar opposite of where I live in Korea. I think the attitude of the local people can encourage or discourage your acquisition of a foreign language. I keep trying to motivate myself to study, but I don't see myself staying here past another year, and I just feel like concentrating more on Chinese than Korean.

Posted by: Hui Qi at May 28, 2009 03:27 AM

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