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How do I teach ESL without speaking the students' language?

How Do I Teach ESL Without Speaking the Students’ Language?

I stared at my new teacher incredulously. It was my very first Spanish class, and she was speaking in Spanish, only in Spanish. After the first class I was pretty irritated, but after a week or so it started to make sense. If I was going to learn Spanish, then I needed to be in a Spanish-speaking environment.

The same principle applies to an English classroom. There is a common myth that you need to speak to your students in their own language to effectively teach English language concepts and vocabulary. But many ESL schools encourage their teachers to use English exclusively in the classroom. This post discusses the pros and cons of an English-only classroom, and finally some tips on how to create an English-only environment in your classroom, when you are teaching English abroad.

Bilingual Education vs English Immersion

The Pros of English Only Education

Imagine learning to ride a bike without ever taking off the training wheels. It feels comfortable and easy, but you will never really learn to ride a bike. The same is true of any foreign language. If you’re always relying on the crutch of your first language, you have no chance of becoming fluent.

On the most basic level, students need to interact with English to learn it. Constant exposure will help students to hone their listening skills and opportunities to speak will aid with fluency and pronunciation. The other clear benefit is that of setting an example. How can you expect the students to speak in English if you do not?

The Cons of Teaching English Only Education

Students may feel intimidated by English, associate it with endless rote learning, and see it as having limited use in their everyday lives. For that reason, you might run into a high level of resistance to using only English, at least initially. Most ESL students around the world are used to learning English from non-native speakers. Often, those teachers will use a mixture of English and their native language in the classroom. That is what many students will expect when they turn up for your first class. With some students overcoming their resistance will be relatively easy, but for others it might be a bit more of a challenge.

How to Teach ESL Without Speaking Your Students’ Native Language

The benefits of an English-only classroom are clear, and the resistance to it relatively easy to understand. How to make it a reality, however, might not be so obvious. In my opinion, there are two things you can do to achieve this.

Create a new set of expectations

Stick to your guns. Speak only English, and respond only to English. At first, the absence of their native language might irritate the students, but it will not take long for it to become the norm. Within a week or two you will have created a new set of expectations.

Make yourself more comprehensible

Teaching English to those for whom it is not the first language may appear to be a challenge at first. With a few techniques and some practice, however, it’s nowhere near as difficult as it might seem.

Communication is so much more than just words. Use non-verbal cues to your advantage. Hand gestures, actions, pictures, posters, drawings and text can all aid understanding of instructions and concepts. You can also change the pitch, tone and intonation of your voice. Select the vocabulary that you use carefully and simplify your sentences. In other words, you can use many of the same techniques that you use to communicate with a small child.

The Best Way to Teach, and Learn English

I learned a very important lesson from my first Spanish class: it’s possible to teach a foreign language without using the student’s native language. Not only is it possible, it’s the most effective and efficient way to teach, and learn a language.

Using your students’ native language as a crutch is what they will expect and what they will feel comfortable with. Although that is the path of least resistance, it will only hinder their progress in the long run. The initial effort often dissuades many teachers from trying the idea in the first place. All you need, however, is a little persistence.

Want to learn more about teaching ESL overseas? Sign up for a free information session or download our course guide.

Written by Robin Garnham

Robin Garnham


Robin Garnham originally planned to teach ESL for a year in Spain to improve his Spanish, but has now been teaching for five years. He currently teaches ESL in Oakland, California and is an Oxford Seminars instructor in San Jose, California.


    • B. Gain
    • September 26, 2016

    I do not completely agree with this assessment. I am assuming he is dealing with adults in a training school or students that have some basic understanding of English to begin with. Perhaps he is teaching middle school, high school or university. For true beginners, teaching a mix of English with a native language is best. Especially with younger people. Sure, some will take hold of English and run with it. But, at what costs? I have seen this type of English learning that he explains. What typically happens is that the achievers in the class take off running, but far too many others are left behind in the dust and they never really fully recover from their initial failure. I think the most prudent advice to give is to evaluate the quality of the students and determine what might be the best course of action to take. Just because one method or experience works for a person, does not mean it will work in all situations. That is why teachers need to be flexible and innovators.

      • Ms. C
      • May 2, 2018

      I agree. If you’re teaching solely language then that makes sense, but if you’re teaching a content plus language, then you have to find a way to make that content comprehensible to the students. Plus, there are so many new apps and websites that make much easier to communicate regardless of knowing the language. You also have to be careful where you teach. If you teach in a country that has a history of suppressing that first language, you want to be careful telling that student not to speak it. You could be sending the wrong message. I usually just do both: try my best to use the first language as a foundation and then start moving to only English as they get better.

    • Karl
    • October 22, 2016

    What about the months of the year or days of the it has no image or drawing how they will be able to know
    What you are talking about ..

    I think u are going to show the equivalent words in their language or show them the meaning using spanish english dictionary..

      • Hector
      • March 20, 2019

      Simple – you can draw or use a calendar. And avoid things like using “u” instead of “you”.

    • Rei
    • November 19, 2017

    I have to agree with B. Gain- after 15 years teaching English in China, Japan, and Korea the English Only approach only works on paper. One of the biggest drawbacks is that there is no ‘flexing’ of English muscles outside of class. And while English only looks wonderful written on a pamphlet to promote the school, it’s the students who take the hit if they cannot ‘learn English’ in the 40 mins a day that they spend trying to figure out what the heck you’ve said. Even when I learned Japanese in university they delivered the instruction with English- and when English natives learn other languages they ALWAYS use English. I call it a ‘touch stone’ by providing the vocabulary in Chinese and expanding the English from there…that way students are allowed to understand the fundamentals of the lesson while still using English. These kids aren’t hearing it in their daily lives, they aren’t using it after class and it’s unrealistic to think that they will magically learn to swim if you throw them in the ocean without any tools.

    • Kuitair
    • November 23, 2017

    I have seen it work in certain situation. I know that teaching only in the target language is possible. I also believe that bilingual education is best in certain circumstances. It really depends on the students. However, there is also the factor of motivation. If students are not motivated and will not use that language, it becomes more difficult to gain their cooperation. My question is how does one teach using only the target language when it comes to behavior problems in the classroom (especially if the teacher does not start the year off with the students)?

    • Victor Garcia
    • January 16, 2018

    I totally agree with B, Gain. The first language L1 (whatever might be) could the best tool to teach a second language L2. Specially out of the L2 environment. Now, as it happens with every single tool, if you don´t know how to use it, is better not to try it because instead of a tool, you´ll have a setback. I used to see a sign in all English Institutions in Colombia my country; official and private, saying: “Think in English”. That´s silly for me! How is that possible for a beginner student? How does a human being could think in a language he or she doesn´t know anything about it?

  1. I agree with Robin Graham. It’s always possible to teach using only English and frequently it is the only solution, when you have a multi-lingual class for example.

    To answer Karl, asking how to teach months of the year, I came up with these ideas:

    The idea is this: Pick 6 months with typical weather. If weather isn’t an option, keep reading because there are alternatives lower down.
    Write up the month and draw a pic of the typical weather.
    Spread those over the board – word + pic.

    If the UK it could be:
    January: freezing weather
    March: leaves coming out on trees
    April: rain
    July: sunshine
    October: Autumn leaves
    December: snow

    That’s six months – which is enough in one lesson for the little ones or they won’t learn any of them – better six than a blur.

    Now you call out the month and they mime it. Then they mime and you guess. In teams – one mimes – the others guess. They will loosen up with the miming as they get used to it. However if they don’t like it don’t insist.

    Get the kids to each draw one of the types of weather. Call out the month and the kids with that picture all jump up and shout out the month. After you’ve called each month once the kids swap papers and do it again.

    Then you can take one of each weather and stick it on the wall (kids can do a gap fill while you stick them up).

    I might be interesting to do “In January I make snowmen”, in March I ….” whatever activities the kids do in those months.

    If your pupils are in the tropics and have never known snow then adapt these ideas to something relevant. For example there might be a festival in a certain month of the year. One could just as easily associate each month to a special day or festival, relevant to the country you are in. Equally one could associate the date of birth of a famous person, known to your students, with a month.

    I’m author of several games books for teaching English in fun ways. You can check them out on Amazon under Shelley Ann Vernon, or on my website Teaching-English-Games dot com.

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