Monday 24 November 2008

Learning the Local Lingo while Teaching EFL

Updated 22 January 2012

This is part 2 of learning the local lingo and is guest post written by James Zerfoss.

Some people teach ESL* because they would like to learn the local language. This is a great opportunity for many native English speakers. The one drawback is that you will be spending four or five hours a day teaching English. That means that you will be required to speak English during those hours. Furthermore it will likely put you in a community of English speakers. I think this is one major determining factor as to how well students acquire a foreign language. There are lots of tips for learning a foreign language.

I am currently attending a university in Taipei every morning to learn Mandarin and working as an English teacher in the afternoon. The one major obstacle I see for most people, not only for native English speakers is that many people spend most of their free time speaking their native language with friends from their country.

Few students actually spend much of their free time speaking Mandarin. Of course I realize that learning the language of the host country is not everyone’s primary goal. Some people are just in another country to have fun and learn about the culture. For the more serious language learner you really need to distance yourself from the pack. You need to make local friends and try to spend your weekends with locals and not your fellow countrymen. You can do this by doing your favorite hobbies. You can join a hiking club, find local drinking partners, local musicians, or local skateboarders.

Language Partners
They can be helpful but I believe that many people in Asia have mixed reviews on language partners. Since their English is likely to be better than what you can speak their language sometimes they take advantage of the situation. I have not used language partners much in Taiwan but had language partners in South Korea since there were no Korean language courses available where I lived.

The one drawback to doing a language exchange is that if you are not serious about grammar you may really miss some important points. There are grammar aspects that taking a course that tests you on certain grammar can help with. That said, I know people who really liked grammar or who were translators that really hammered away at learning the grammar.

University Courses
In some countries it is possible to attend courses at a university language center in the morning and work at a language school in the afternoon. This will cost you more but it will guarantee that you listen to two or three hours of the local language a day. This is not an aspect to be overlooked. If you are a true beginner it will take you some time to make local friends that do not speak English.


One good way to learn the local language is to make friends. In some areas of the word this is easier to do than others not to mention that people all over the world are looking to practice their English. In some countries it can become a struggle to get people to stop speaking English to you. In my experience Asian countries are the best for getting opportunities to speak the local language. Part of this is that many Asians are not very confident when it comes to speaking English.

If you show that you are confident at speaking their language, they are likely to speak to you only in their language. That even happens when their English is better than you can speak their language. In some European countries the opposite happens. Some Europeans are so confident in speaking English that as soon as they hear your English accent they will try to speak to you in English.

It is all about input. While speaking is great, if you really want to get good at a language you need input. You need to have people talk to you. You can also listening to music and watch DVDs. Another thing you can do is join a local club or take a class about something that you are interested in. I have met some Koreans and Chinese with great English who have never been to an English speaking country. How did they do it? Well they have been watching American movies for years, even decades. Not to mention that movies and friends will teach you local lingo that you are not likely to find in a book.

My Experience
I have studied German in Germany, Spanish in Peru, Korean in South Korea, and Mandarin in Taiwan. I learned spoken German by having a German girlfriend in Berlin. German was also my major in college. After studying German Literature for two years at the University of Delaware I moved to South Korea. I lived in the country side for one year and learned a lot of Korean from language exchanges and Korean friends. Later I lived in Gwangju and learned a lot of Korean from a good friend Tae-yung.

Now I have been living in Taiwan for over a year. I hope to study at Taiwan Normal University for the next two years and then take the American Foreign Service Test.

*I realise it should be EFL, however, many people use ESL when they're talking about EFL.


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