Language Barriers in the Classroom

September 23, 2017 | Teach English in Beijing

Language Barriers are Expected

One of the challenges of Teaching English as a Foreign Language in any country is the language barrier. And I’m not just talking about the language barrier I experience with the children, as that is to be expected. That is the reason that we have Chinese Teachers in the classroom, especially when dealing with the youngest children who are being exposed to English for the first time. It is very helpful when teaching a group of three-year-old’s what the rules of the classroom are. For some of the children it is their first time in a classroom, and it is primarily conducted in a language that they don’t yet speak. While we try to avoid direct translation when possible, it is sometimes necessary with the youngest/lowest level students. However, sometimes the language barrier also comes up with my Chinese teaching assistants, and finding ways around that is sometimes the most challenging part of working at my school in Beijing.

I really admire the Chinese teachers I work with, because I have never been challenged in quite the way that they have chosen to challenge themselves. They all live in their native country where the majority of people speak their native language and they choose to work in an environment where they are required to spend a good part of their day communicating in their second language, as the majority of Foreign Teachers don’t speak that much Mandarin. Some of them do it as a way to improve their own English levels so that they may eventually go to university or get jobs in the USA, UK, or Canada, while others have different motivations.

Chinese Teacher in Beijing

Relationships with Chinese Teachers

So far, I have had very positive experiences working with my Chinese Teachers in the classroom. They are delightful people who really care about their work and want to help you however they can. One of the biggest parts of their job is talking to the students’ parents, so it is very important for the Foreign Teachers to communicate well with the Chinese teachers about what material will be covered in a class and when. Depending on your relationship with them and how you both feel the class functions best, you can co-teach with them or they can function more as an assistant in the classroom.

English Levels Will Help Determine that Relationship

Sometimes this will depend on the Chinese teacher’s English level vs the English level of your students. CTs with a relatively high English level have an easier time helping teach higher level students, but when you get to the really high level classes, they tend to struggle to be active in the class and will take a more passive role. This isn’t really a bad thing considering that in these classes the students’ level of English is high enough that they can communicate easily with a Foreign Teacher. 

Chinese Teacher in Beijing

In one of my classes, the students’ English level is actually higher than our Chinese teacher’s so she and I have worked out other ways that she can help me in the classroom. She provides a lot of the materials I need and assists with making sure all students stay on task.

Good Communication

Good communication is key to doing this job well, and I have found a few ways that help communication between people who have a very high language barrier. One is to keep the language simple. Sometimes you may feel disrespectful by dumbing down your language, as you may feel like you’re treating them like children. But if the situation were reversed, they would have to do the same for you. Also, try to avoid using idioms, which can be hard because as native speakers we often don’t realize just how many we use in our everyday speech.

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