Teaching English In Order to Learn Another Language Abroad. Is It a Good Idea?

Unlike countless other articles, this article is not an “it depends” article.

I’ve taught English in Mexico and China and I consider both these two jobs to have been good “learning experiences,” but bad jobs overall. In this article, I want to explain why that is.

Living abroad provides total immersion, right?

Total immersion in a foreign language is so often touted as the most surefire way to learn a language.

I cannot disagree there, total immersion has its merits.

But teaching English is one job in particular that deprives you of total immersion (or rather, immersion in itself).

Let me use my two previous English teaching jobs to give you a better idea.

We will go with the most recent instance first: China.

After a dozen Skype interviews, I landed a “good” job teaching English in at a public school in Nanjing, China.

The company organizing everything seemed reputable and I had negotiated a salary of 10,000 Reminbi per month. It’s no Wolf of Wall Street, but it allowed me to live well enough.

Now here comes the catch. I went into this job with many unanswered questions.

I was never told which school I was to work at (not for lack of asking, they said a school would choose me when I got there), and I was told I would teach 5th grade, which ended up not being 100 percent true (I taught 5th grade once a week, and the rest of my teaching was 1st and 2nd grade.)

So shortly after landing in China, they took me to my school, where I was to live and work.

I was placed in a tiny dorm in the back of the school, requiring me to walk five minutes just to get out of the school grounds and another couple minutes by moped to get to the metro.

For my goal — to learn Mandarin Chinese — this wasn’t immersion at all. I was at a school where they expected me to only speak English, and it was rather hard to get out of this controlled environment.

Now Mexico City, Mexico.

In Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, I taught English at a Wall Street English.

I worked from 7:00 to 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. each day.

Yes, this is a double shift, which left me depleted.

It also left me very little time to meet people and practice my Spanish. Plus, Wall Street English wanted me to come in on Saturday every other weekend to work 4 hours.

This schedule was made worse by the fact that I rarely got off right at 11:00 a.m. or 9:00 p.m.

Often, I had to stay later because a student arrived late or I had to simply wait for students to finish their lesson on the computer.

So what’s my takaway?

My opinion is that teaching English doesn’t grant language immersion and is often exploitative.

The English teachers I met in China were often career-less, which is a term I just came up with (though I’m sure I’m not the first to say it).

What I mean by career-less is that if they were to return to their country of origin they wouldn’t have a career to fall back on.

In my opinion, career-less people are often careless and unmotivated. This lot does not make the best friends, either

Back To Learning Mandarin Chinese!

In China, I would try to speak Chinese with the other teachers (that is, Chinese people) at my school, and I really had to search out the ones who would speak to me in Chinese because most of them would want to speak English with me.

It was really an uphill battle, and I urge everyone to take caution when they commit to a long-term contract in another country.

In the case of China, anything that that is not in the contract, they won’t honor. That was my experience at least.

What should I do?

I would get a decent job in your home country, save money, and enroll in a language learning program in the target country.

Once you are there, if you still want to teach English,  you can find a good teaching job there and avoid the bad ones, which might look good on paper.

You can probably set up a job before you leave, therefore, circumventing the dangers of entering into an agreement blindly like I did.

 

 

5 Ways Foreign Languages Made Me a Better Writer

 

As a Journalism major, I spent a lot of time honing my craft. Years actually. (Truth is I’ve never stopped.)

Like many writers, I tried to refashion myself after the greats who came before me.

Of the many traits I noticed in their writing, there was one thing in particular that began to dominate my thinking: Multilingualism.

Whether it’s George Orwell, Aldous Huxley or Alex de Tocqueville, they all spoke and read multiple languages and had spent years abroad.

I knew, if I were to take my writing to the next level, I would need to do the same.

Here are the 5 ways Learning a Foreign Language Has Made Me a Better Writer:

 

1. Perspective:

Have you ever heard a college professor mention being in someone else’s shoes?

Learning a foreign language is this — and then some.

Imagine two writers, the first an armchair anthropologist reading books in his office; the second a traveler just as well-read and well-versed living in a foreign land communicating in another tongue.

Who do you think has a deeper understanding of our inner workings?

 

2. Noticing Nuance:

Learning another language, especially a European language, can serve as a lens to look at your own native language.

After learning Spanish, I realized English doesn’t always turn nouns into adjectives, for example, “education system,” and not “educational system.”

In contrast, in Spanish, they would modify the noun, making it an adjective: el sistema educativo (en Mexico, el sistema escolar).

 

3. Word of mouth:

There are countless ways to say it, but getting the scoop, the low-down, the goods, the dirt from someone else by word of mouth is invaluable.

Now take a step back and think about getting that in another language.

It worries me how few foreign correspondents speak a foreign language; it most certainly is keeping them from the scoop.

 

4. Reading in another language:

History has so much to tell us.

Reading in another language, allows us to tap into a rich vein of knowledge that would otherwise go unseen, and therefore, excluded.

Tuning into another language’s literature, history and folklore is like having two refrigerators, instead of one.

It’s literally food for thought.

 

5. Mental Effort:

Learning a foreign language exercises your brain.

As humans, language is one of our unique abilities that separate us from the rest of the Animal Kingdom.

Learning another tongue is a mental exercise that sharpens the mind, providing confidence at the same time.

Exercising your brain not only prevents mental degradation, it also improves your overall mental wellbeing.

If you would like to learn a foreign language, please download my free eBook, written to guide you through the process of learning a foreign language.

The Fischer Method for Language Learning

 

3 Reasons Why Language Learning Is Different in the U.S.

Sure, there is the occasional Spanish-speaker, but the truth is language learning in America is much less widespread than elsewhere in the world.

Here are three reasons why, which I will explain in this article:

  1. The education system
  2. Our commonly held expectations
  3. The supremacy of English

 

First and foremost, our education system.

As Stephen Krashen explains in his book, “The Natural Approach,” the American education system has bought into grammar-based methods and never looked back.

It is safe to say that by the period of World War II and its aftermath, the language profession in the United States had settled back into formal grammar-based methods which stressed conscious knowledge of grammar rules and ability to do sight translations. (“The Natural Approach,” pg. 12)

As a journalism major in college, I was required to complete the equivalent of four years of a foreign language (in other words, four semesters).

Imagine me slouching in a class of thirty-something students, trying not to get called on.

This was not for lack of interest; I didn’t want the teacher to call on me because I was so far behind.

And this was the case for the majority of students. Most of us could not understand what was being said to us. Or in Krashen’s words, we were missing out on comprehensible input.

Our level of comprehension was so low, we didn’t want to participate.

This gets circumvented by multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank tests that focus on specific vocabulary and grammar concepts, rather than speaking or listening.

Second on the list is commonly held expectations and understanding of language learning.

Beyond, pressing number one on the phone to bypass Spanish, there are very few instances when a foreign language is encountered here in America.

And therefore, foreign languages are not taken seriously. There are very few instances where it comes into play or serves a purpose for us.

Only two or three of the thirty-odd students hiding in the Spanish class with me intended put in the time to learn Spanish. And, sadly, they were held back by the rest of us who were stuck on the basics.

The sad truth is the majority of us simply needed the college credit to graduate.

That leads me to my third point, the supremacy of English.

In a Skype call with one of my French friends, I asked if Europeans would start studying German, since the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.

He said, “Europe is keeping English.  With or without the English people, we will still speak English. English is here to stay.”

And because of the prevalence and widespread use of English, many English speakers see no need to learn another language.

Alex Rawlings, “Britain’s most multi-lingual student in 2012,” says in the video I linked below: “I think we can all agree this is not an equal playing field. English has a very powerful popular culture amongst young people.”

And I don’t foresee this trend diminishing anytime soon.

When I was in China, there were native English-speakers whose full-time job was to talk to infants who could not talk yet. The purpose was to expose these newborns to English now, so that they learn English better later on in their lives.

One Thing You Never Knew English Lost

One usually thinks of a language as a tool for communicating and seeing the world, but a language also serves many other functions.

Back in the days when I would trek across the snowy campus of the University of Minnesota, I took a class on linguistic anthropology.

There, I read about the utility of language – what purposes it might serve – and in one class in particular I read theories of why language evolved.

 

One of these theories flashed before my eyes as I watched a news video about Brexit.

In the video, the BBC detailed the lives of three Poles who were displaced by the Brexit vote.

In listening to their stories, I recalled my linguistic anthropology class, where I learned languages serve the purpose of keeping outsiders out.

A foreigner will forever remain foreign if his or her speech is incomprehensible.

And this, I thought, is where English has found itself on uneven footing.

Mass media, which has been broadcast throughout the world, has made the English language the current day Lingua Franca; and therefore England, America, Canada, Australia, and all the other English speaking countries – all speak a language that doesn’t serve a purpose it once did.

Nowadays, immigrants can land on the tarmac and get by — some even hit the ground running, quickly starting work as doctors or engineers.

In many ways this is a truly great thing.

But the problem is the reverse is rarely possible: an English-speaker working in another country, speaking another language.

This situation makes England’s membership in the European Union much different.

A candidate from Wales running for UKIP leadership said it best when he said the English can’t leave their country and go work elsewhere because they are not equip with the foreign language.

Whereas the reverse situation stands for all other European countries.

The bigger picture.

And in keeping with the times, I see this situation mimicking that of the United States, where Trump’s message of insularity has struck a chord.

The English language certainly profits from having such cachet worldwide. But it also spells out the loss of a once powerful feature of keeping outsiders out.

Even other countries that had empires, such as Portugal and Spain, have not had the same degree of immigration as English speaking countries – although each has taken in many immigrants from their former colonies, Brazil and Latin America, respectively.

Countries like Hungary, who never had a seafaring empire, don’t have to worry as much about immigrants because there language poses such a wall.

Germany, on the other hand, despite being the birthplace of a very difficult language, has accepted many immigrants because of its economic prosperity and humanitarian aspirations.

 

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(Purposefully) Lost in Translation

Below, we have a recent interview from the BBC in which they ply Rachida Dati — the former Minister of Justice in France — with a broad array of questions about women’s issues.

Rachida pushes back on the loaded-nature of each question.

Yet, in the subtitles that form Rachida’s message, the BBC reduces her words, and as a result, her message.

It starts out rather innocently, then becomes more and more of a convenient deflection of Rachida’s contrarian answers. (We see the interviewer below.) (I provided a link to the video at the bottom.



 

Interviewer: Do you think Hillary Clinton has come under scrutiny and pressure from the media in different sectors because she is a woman in the public eye?

Rachida, in her response, exposes Hillary Clinton as a very privileged figure in the public eye.

Rachida: She knows the code; She knows the system perfectly.

The simple translation that does not communicate the emphasis in her words is the following.

BBC Translation: She knows the system.




 

The interviewer: Do you think this conversation around women breaking the glass ceiling is shifting now?

Rachida aims her words at the media and fires away. She subsequently points out the resulting hypocrisy.

Rachida: It’s all the women you have seen and interviewed. And I know some. When they have power, they don’t serve the cause of women to get the message out. They use the cause of women just to access power.

BBC Translation: I know so many women who use the cause of women to access power.



 

Later, after explaining that all the great democracies of the world have turned a blind eye to the bloodshed in the Middle East (especially Syria) and the little girls who are forbidden to go to school, Rachida says:

Rachida: We are resigned. People are drowning in the Mediterranean. Eventually, it becomes a news story. (She uses an idiom: Ca fait divers.) That’s what shocks me.

BBC Translation: People are drowning in the Mediterranean and it is becoming run-of-the-mill. That’s what shocks me.



 

 



Even the comment section notices the lack of honesty in the translation.

Here is a link to the video.