native teacher with zero english (Photo credit

Yes, sounds impossible doesn’t it.

And there are many people who will advocate that esl students in their early days of learning a language should be taught by bilingual teachers to help explain.  Well I will jump right out there and say NO!!! The best thing in the world for a person who doesn’t speak any English is to have someone (who really knows what they are doing!) to teach them solely in English. Being taught by bilingual teachers at the early stages can create confusion and slow down the acquisition of English later. What an esl student learns in the first few months of English is the foundation for their English for life, so it needs to be ‘pure English’ right from the start.

So why am I so adamant about this?

Firstly, most students (99%) who take an English course have had some kind of basic English training dating back to primary school. Most primary and secondary curriculums around the world have some form of English programme even if it is only one hour a week, and the student learns only the abc’s and a few words here and there. This then means that when a student begins an English programme later, they will have some starting point. Actually in the ESL world, these beginners are called FALSE BEGINNERS.

(I will talk about the other 1% in a minute)

So how?

False beginners actually find learning English (from the absolute beginners level), quite easy with a native speaker. The textbooks available internationally for Beginners and Elementary students are targeted directly to the kind of beginning levels of English that a FALSE BEGINNER has. These carefully designed textbooks use vocabulary and phrases that most international primary and secondary school curriculums can feed into, and together with a very skilled native English teacher who brings their language level down to this textbook level, the student can very easily and gradually pick up the language.

At ELIT Language Centre, we only use native teachers for all levels including the beginners. This is for two reasons. Firstly for the reason mentioned above, and secondly because the students themselves demand it. They pay almost twice the fees to have a native teach them and want it right from the first level.

So what about the other 1%?

Up until the early 1990s in the western world, all students of English were FALSE BEGINNERS, it really wasn’t until the massive influx of refugees who had never been to school at all and couldn’t even read and write in their own language, that everything in ESL teaching got a big shift.

Huge studies were conducted on how to integrate these newcomers into the western world. In the past all immigrants had to do an English course before they were allowed full citizenship, then suddenly these countries were confronted with thousands of people who had lived only a nomadic lifestyle with little or no education in their own country, and not only this, they didn’t want to be in the western world full stop, and the very last thing they wanted to do was learn English!

So how did these countries deal with this?

These students were firstly separated from FALSE BEGINNERS and given a new name TRUE or ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS. Then everything had to go back to Primary school level with the teaching of ABC with some people even having to learn how to hold a pencil!

Gradually over time, with regular revision and persistence, a large amount of this group did manage to make it through their course and came out with at least a smattering of English to get them by in their daily life in the western world. The teacher uses not only simple words and pictures, but actions, dramas, games and role plays, not to mention taking it slow.

All this was done with a native speaker. If these classes had had a bilingual teacher, due to the lack of enthusiasm and negative view on education generally, very few would have made it as far as they did.

Saying that, the reason why some of these TRUE or ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS did fail was not because of their teacher, it was more because of their unwillingness to learn.

So I will say it again, I don’t think there is any legitimate reason to put a bilingual English teacher into an elementary class level to help them with the vocabulary and explanations. It will do more damage than good!



15 thoughts on “How can a NATIVE ENGLISH TEACHER teach English to STUDENTS WITH ZERO ENGLISH?

  1. I get the feeling you’re a big fan of the Berlitz approach, how do you feel about translation in class? I don’t mean bilingual teaching, and I agree with your argument, but I would translate words in class occasionally to facilitate scaffolding of low-level speech.

    • Actually our school only has native speakers so no one knows the languages the students speak. Though it is not our policy to allow translation in classes, sometimes in the low level classes, an odd word here or there is okay from others in the class, saying that we don’t encourage it.

      • I think maybe I’ve become too used to using the students’ L1 in class to scaffold. I have colleagues who don’t speak French, and the students clearly have a much stronger drive to use English with them in class.

        I feel like I’ve made my own students complacent sometimes as they know they can slip the odd L1 word into their discourse with me. At the same time, some of my strongest personal relationships with students are the ones with whom I often translate, as we’ve been able to share much more detailed personal stories in class (one-on-one classes normally). As a result, their contributions tend to be more natural and uninhibited, which I would say accelerates their development. Then again, if they use the same tactics in the real world they’re likely to run into misunderstandings.

        Wow, sorry for the head-spinning reply, I clearly don’t know what I really believe about L1 translation…

      • Head spin all you like! Feel free!

        Generally there is always a battle between getting students to feel free to say what they feel needs to be said and forcing them to use English all the time. As I say for us at our school, translation is frowned upon mainly because ‘where does it end’ a word here and there ends up being explanations in L1 then what’s the point.

        In fact because we have only native English teachers students have to pay nearly twice the tuition fees, so if the teacher starts translating in L1 they feel they haven’t got their money’s worth. So actually it’s the students who demand it.

        Also here in Malaysia there are many local teachers who teach English but the problem is exactly this so the students end up learning a lot slower and are not quite sure which is English and which is their own language.

      • I see what you mean about giving the students what they’re paying for. We have lots of Berlitz schools here in Paris which would have the same policy. You’ve given me something to think about there, I think I’ve neglected to ever ask what the students want with respect to L1 in class. I have to slap myself sometimes and remember the students’ needs come before teaching theory and what I think is right!

      • Thanks for your very honest feedback. If you are a native teacher yourself, they will expect you to stick to that. I’m curious as to how your school feels about the translation issue… let me know…just curious.

      • I’m actually in a worker cooperative. Our directors were teachers in the company at one point, so they’re very open to individual teaching styles. They’re happy as long as the course feedback is good, so we don’t really have any direction regarding L1 use. That being said, most of our teachers are Celta trained or equivalent, where they’re discouraged from translation unless necessary, so we all tend to avoid it as a personal rule.

      • Okay yes I understand. Where are your students from? We have 90% Arabs so they are very picky about their teachers and their skills. All our teachers are CELTA trained.

      • Ah yeah I’ve met teachers who work with Arabic students who mentioned they’ve got very high expectations. Ours are almost all French nationals but many have African origins, or cone from other ex French colonies. They have more traditional expectations and are skeptical about anything atypical in terms of teaching approach. Ironically, since they were educated in a system where the English teachers don’t do any oral practice other than drilling, not speaking L1 is uncomfortable for some French students! They always eventually warm up to it, but it’s quite emotionally challenging for them.

      • Just curious. Are you teaching in Paris? And what does it cost for a student to do a 60 hour course? Sorry for being nosey, just curious about prices in Europe for English Language courses.

      • No worries. Paris is expensive for most everything, language included! Our school works mostly with people using what the French call DIF, which is a 20-hour per year legal right to free training in any company. In a group they’d get 40 hours, we don’t normally do 60. If you paid for yourself it depends what kind of course you take, but it’d be upwards of 60€ an hour. We only do business courses so we don’t normally get people paying for themselves. Places like Wall Street charge about 40/h for group classes, but their teachers are paid squat, and Berlitz charge 75/h for 1-on-1 classes for example, though the teacher’s pay is equally bad (a hair above minimum wage).

  2. This article is fascinating. I don’t have any experience teaching language but – thinking back – I can see how my Spanish-learning experience was greatly hindered by teachers only too willing to slip into English at the first sign of frustration or confusion by a student. It’s always seemed like emersion would be the best way to learn a language – throw someone in and hope they swim – and it’s interesting to hear your views on the subject, as well as the shift in ESL students over the past 200 years.

  3. Do you feel the same way about leaving out the L1 when teaching middle/high school students and adults? I’m a new teacher who just started in Korea, and I’m working with all of those age levels. One or two classes are fairly high level while the rest are quite low (probably still close to the false beginner level). My co-teacher usually only speaks Korean to the students (even though her English is phenomenal), and I’m still trying to wrap my head around how to teach them using “only English.” It’s so hard when it seems like their comprehension is so low! Part of me just feels like they will learn better or remember more easily if the word in their L1 is right next to the English. Am I actually doing them a disservice?

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