Do I Need to Speak the Local Language When Teaching English Abroad?

on June 8, 2017

It probably goes without saying that when you teach English abroad you’ll be going to a country where the first language is almost surely not English. It may also be the case that the vast majority of the population cannot speak English even as a second or third language, so this begs the question: how will I get by if I can’t speak the local language?

In most cases you won’t need to be able to speak the language to get started in the country, though it will definitely help! You’ll be surprised at how much you can convey with some simple gestures, and a friendly smile goes a long way to getting people to help you out by taking the time to understand what you need.

That being said in many cases it will help to be linguistically prepared, so let’s look at when it’s necessary to prepare before hand and how it can be done by country:

Speaking Thai in Thailand: Get your language lessons in your orientation

Thai is a complex language with an ancient alphabet that looks pretty much nothing like anything you’ll have encountered before. It has 5 tones which means that any one-syllable Thai word written using western letters can have up to 5 completely different meanings, depending on how you accent a vowel. Throw in that alphabet with it’s 44 consonant and 15 vowel characters and the fact that it’s often the only language spoken by Thais and that it’s pretty much only spoken within the borders of the country and you’d be forgiven for being concerned.

But, my advice from experience: relax! Thai people are incredibly forgiving to foreigners and make a lot of effort to understand you and help you master the language.

Thai language teacher Pear explains the hard P sound in the Thai word for fish during orientation for English teachers in the country

Luckily also if you sign up to a reputable teach English in Thailand program, Thai language lessons will be included during your cultural orientation. This will help you with learning the basics that allow you to perform daily tasks like shopping in the market or simply praising your students when they’ve done well!

Speaking Español in Colombia: get your lessons before you travel

Teaching English almost anywhere in South and Central America will mean that the local language will be Spanish (Español), countries like Brazil are different where it will be Portuguese. For those teaching English in Colombia, they’ll find that communicating in English is not a language skill many locals possess and so being able to speak and understand some basic Spanish will go a long way to making your journey a smooth one.

But is it necessary to speak Spanish before I depart? Short answer: no.

Learning some Spanish basics before you arrive will go a long way when Teaching English in Colombia for example

While just as in Thailand, a friendly smile and some simple gesturing will get you quite far, learning some Spanish before you head over to your teaching placement will be a great idea. Luckily it’s the language with the 2nd highest number of native speakers in the world behind Mandarin (Chinese), with more native speakers than English has! This means you’ll never be far from someone who can speak it or who can give you a few lessons before you head over. And, with it sharing many similarities to English in its vocab it will definitely be the easiest language to learn on this list!

Speaking Tiếng Việt in Vietnam: get in-class or online lessons

If you thought Thai’s tones were complicated, Vietnamese (known locally as Tiếng Việt) has 6 but what will make things a lot easier is that Vietnamese is written using the same latin alphabet we use, introduced by the French during colonial times. There’s one striking difference though, all the many accent marks to guide you on the pronunciation. Like Thai, it’s a language obsessed with politeness and the older the person you’re addressing, the more important it is to use the correct pronoun when chatting to them.

Restaurant names and menus are all in the local language in Vietnam – the lessons in your orientation will come in handy!

Luckily for anyone teaching English in Vietnam through one of our programs, you’ll get online or in-class language lessons depending on where you do your orientation. You’ll be more than ready to order your dinner, respectfully greet your elderly neighbor or ask for help by the time you’re done with your lessons.

Speaking Hanguk in South Korea: get your language lessons on orientation weekends

Korean, or Hanguk as it’s known locally, is a rather unique language. It’s pretty much only spoken on the Korean peninsula, has it’s own alphabet (called Hangul) and has no close living relatives in the language world. In Korea it’s also pretty much the only language most people can speak.

English teachers in South Korea learn Korean during their weekend cultural orientations

Luckily it’s a pretty easy language to read, being generally phonetic, meaning the characters represent exact sounds unlike English words like ‘thought’ or ‘enough’ or in Mandarin where characters represent whole words. The alphabet is also pretty short with just 14 consonants and 10 vowels meaning you could learn it in a day or two.

But is it necessary to learn it before I go? Short answer? No

Once landing in Seoul you’ll probably find that many things like the airport and the metro system do things in both English and Korean. So your first impression will be a little easier, it’s only once you head out into the suburbs or countryside or need to catch a taxi that you may battle a bit more. If you sign up with us to teach English in South Korea you’ll be offered free Korean language lessons on orientation weekends during the first few weeks you’re in the country.

Speaking Mandarin in China: Get your lessons once you arrive

Mandarin is the language with the highest number of speakers in the world – though it is spoken almost entirely in China you’ll find pockets of Mandarin speakers in almost every country in the world. Its alphabet is famously complicated with a character for pretty much every word making the alphabet as long as 106,000, depending on how you interpret it. That being said, there are tone of tricks and tips to learn for more easily understanding and writing the language.

There’s no need to be intimidated by the thousands of Chinese characters – lessons are provided as part of your job contract.

With teaching English in China, you’ll usually be placed at a top end language center and this means that they’re quite invested in you having a good experience in the country. As such, they’ll throw in some free Mandarin lessons to help you navigate life in the world’s most populous country!

Interested in Teaching English Abroad? We’ll send you more info!


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About Nick Paul

Nick is the Marketing Manager for Travelbud and has had a long history in the travel industry working in student travel and even a big multinational online travel agency.

He regularly presents at travel conferences and has spent a great deal of time traveling the world from the US to Europe, Africa and most recently South East Asia.

Nick is super passionate about travel and his best travel memories include his recent trip to Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea to meet face-to-face with some of TravelBud’s teachers.

Read more about him and other TravelBud authors.

Filed under  Thailand 


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