“Could You Please Repeat That?”: Teaching Language Without The Language

The Hairy Chef and his English Camp in Ban Luam, Thailand.

“I don’t understand how it works. It doesn’t make any sense!”

I could see a slight smirk forming in the corner of his mouth as if to challenge me to justify my professional choices.  I’ll bet that anyone who has been working as an English Teacher for more than a day will, at some point in their career, have been asked the question:

“How do you teach students if you don’t speak their language?”

The answer, in reality, lies at the heart of fundamental principles of teaching English as a profession.  And this doesn’t mean it’s always easy or enjoyable, but consider a group of elementary students in Australia who come from Japan, Brazil, Korea, Thailand and France.  They all have to make friends with each other sooner or later, and share no common linguistic backgrounds.  In fact, some of the most interesting conversations I’ve heard in the classroom have been between low level students discovering their communicative abilities, and experimenting with those boundaries that they never had thought they could surpass.

Yesterday, go….me…park…yes…park…my family…play football

Play football?

Yes. My family. You know football?

You? Football?

Yes, football.  In Brazil, very, very funny.  All the people Brazil football.

I football. You, me, football?


Football.  Today?

Yes, yes, football. After class.

A young girl happily studying English.

Now obviously you’re not going to get very far in a class if you teacher speaks this level of English as well, but the point is clear: communication is a phenomenon that lies along a continuum, and relies on context as much as it does on gestures and words.

I can remember my first ever French class:  I was the 12 year old fat kid sitting in the front row.  My teacher stood in front of the class, smiling, pointing at herself, and then at us:

“Je m’appelle Madame Arkle.  Comment t-appelles-tu?”

She made her way along the front row of desks, and I counted down




“…um…er…um…I…don’t…understand… “

I sank into my seat and tried to make the space under my desk swallow me and take me off to a far away place.  She continued around the room, modeling, drilling, repeating and prompting. And then came back to me.


I had survived my first class.  5 years later I would go on to be the top graduating French student from my school.

Anyone walking into a classroom of language students needs to keep in mind one essential snippet of information: context and body language is everything.

Imagine two people meeting at a party:

“Do you drink?”

“No thanks.”

Context and body language are a big part of language encounters.

You might have to read this a couple of times thinking it doesn’t make any sense, but actually, there is nothing wrong with this conversation. If you still don’t get it, think carefully about what the first person might be doing with their hands as they speak.

One of the easiest ways to keep context in language lessons is to look at what is called functional language.  For example, learning about meeting people and introductions, ordering food at a restaurant, agreeing or disagreeing, or perhaps asking for more information if you don’t understand.

All of these functions tend to have predictable and particular language that you need in order to achieve them successfully, and to establish the context of this by checking with your students…What are the two people in the picture doing? Are they happy? Frustrated? Why are they smiling? Where do you think they are going? … You will find that the students will be able to follow and understand, by deducing meaning from the context you created.

Obviously mistakes are going to be a part of the language your students produce, as in this example I once said to a bartender in Spain (in Spanish, obviously):

Excuse me; can I rain this drink on the beach?

In fact, it’s a lot easier to correct this kind of mistake.  If I were the student in this example, my teacher would praise me – I have the functional language correct (i.e asking for permission), my error is actually one of vocabulary – I confused the verbs llevar and llover (to take and to rain, respectively) – a very understandable mistake.

Teaching English is for the most part actually significantly more effective when you only speak in English, and in a huge number of cases, you may find yourself in a situation where it’s not so much about the language you teach your students, rather giving them an opportunity and some exposure to a native speaker. This is something that may very well change their lives by providing them with new employment opportunities that carry with them a significantly improved standard of living.

And that is nothing to laugh at.

About The Hairy Chef

The Hairy Chef is a teacher, a baker, a swimmer a photographer, a homebrewer and a freelance travel writer from Perth, Western Australia. He fell in love with teaching after a 6 week volunteer experience in Thailand after realizing that making people smile is something everyone should believe in. Currently based in Bogota, Colombia as a Senior Teacher, he has more than 4 years experience teaching English as a foreign language to students from Mongolia to Venezuela and loves going to work every day. Well, almost every day.