Do You Need to Speak a Foreign Language to Teach in Asia?

Beautiful Thai girls dressed in traditional Thai dress for a Bangkok school performance.
Beautiful Thai girls dressed in traditional Thai dress for a Bangkok school performance.

Do You Need to Speak a Foreign Language to Teach in Asia?

During my years in Thailand, I’ve lost count of the number of potential teachers who have e-mailed me to ask if they need to be able to speak a foreign language to be able to teach English in Asia or speak Thai to be able to teach in Thailand. I always tell them they don’t, and here are a few reasons why.

Your school wants you to speak English to your students – The most important reason why you do not need to be able to speak a foreign language to teach English in Asia is because your school will always want you to speak English to your students. After all, they are paying you to teach English so, if you were able to speak Mandarin or Thai and proceeded to explain complicated English grammar points in those languages, it would defeat the object of having a native English speaker in the classroom to start with.

In Thailand, at every school I’ve worked at, I’ve been told not to speak Thai in the classroom even though I am now relatively fluent. The odd word is alright as a joke or as a way to translate vocabulary you simply cannot get your students to understand, but more than that and it is not looked upon kindly.

Besides, your students will learn faster the more English they hear.

Many Asian schools provide co-teachers – In every school I’ve taught at in Bangkok I’ve had a Thai co-teacher in the classroom with me at least 75 percent of the time. If you end up teaching kindergarten students, you will usually find that increases to 100 percent in many Asian countries you teach in.

Asian schools hire these native teachers to help westerner teaches who are working there, as well as to teach their own subjects in their native language. Most are a superb addition to the classroom as they not only help you with translating instructions and with discipline, they are usually also awesome for sharing the work load and for filling in for you if you need to go to a doctor’s appointment, visit the education department about your work visa etc.

As long as you reciprocate and fill in when they need time off, this type of relationship often works beautifully, and with no need for you to speak their language as they will usually speak English.

Paperwork is in English – In most schools in Asia including in Thailand, if you are an English teacher and need to complete paperwork like lesson plans, timetables, reports and the like, the school will expect you to do it in English and not in the language of the country you are living in.

The same goes for any information you receive from the local education ministry. One set will be provided in the native language for the school administration and the local staff. Another set will usually be in English for the benefit of the foreign teachers.

That’s why, whether you teach in Beijing, Bangkok or Tokyo, you will rarely, if ever, end up at a school that needs you to speak the local language or produce written materials in it.

Do use the opportunity to learn a second language – If you do teach abroad for a year or two even though you don’t speak a foreign language, however, don’t do what many western teachers do and either learn a few basic words in the country’s language and then give up, or don’t even bother at all.

A year or two living in another country, with Korean, Vietnamese or Khmer being spoken all around you, and it’s almost as if you are being given free language lessons by everyone you come into contact with. You’ll also be surprised at how fast you can pick it up.

Plus, when you return to your home country, your job opportunities will increase immeasurably if you not only have a year or two on your resume as a teacher overseas, but speak a foreign language fluently as well.