Improving Your Own Language Skills While Teaching Abroad

There’s no shortage of folks who imagine EFL as a great opportunity to improve your language skills. But is it?

Compared to staying at home, I’d say yes. Compared to traveling or actually taking a language class abroad, I’m not so sure. Certainly it depends on your individual personality, motivation, and a bunch of factors unique to your situation. While you may have only 20-some contact hours, a full-time job is usually a full-time job, and combined with realizing how much effort it takes to become proficient, it’s possible that your motivation may recede.

I’m curious to hear what those who are currently teaching think about tefl as an opportunity to improve language skills. Did you aspire to improve your language skills when you started…were there opportunities to do so … and how far did you / were you able to take advantage of those opportunities?

In my case, I do think I improved more than I would have at home. In Bosnia, even when I was not speaking, I had the opportunity to hear the language around me and see it in subtitles on original language tv. I had already studied the language for a year at university, so I think this made progress much more possible than if I had been a beginner when I arrived.

Usually it seemed thought that to get good practice I needed to be speaking with someone who really didn’t speak English at all, and frankly someone who had some motivation to be speaking with me, such as being stuck on a bus or train or in some business transaction. People are friendly but it is just hard to have some kind of normal friendship when language is an issue. If you’re dealing with a language which you had the opportunity to study for several years in school, you might be able to wing it. But spending a great deal of energy just to understand the words does deduct from the intrinsic enjoyment of hanging out with someone after some time.

I found myself in more of a position to practice while traveling (in countries with the same or a similar language). Even more so because it is my theory that with all the foreigners who come through Bosnia to work, Bosnians are much more likely to just automatically use English with them. In neighboring countries – and further – I found it much more common for people to reply to me in their own language. With Bulgarian and Macedonian (I spoke Bosnian and they responded in their own languages, which are by all accounts different than Bosnian) it was a challenge because I understood little, much less than a native Bosnian speaker would. But – it put me under pressure to try, and in that way it was a positive thing.

This phenomena is probably relevent elsewhere: in some places locals are just more inclined to speak English with a foreigner, and this is a function not only of whether they speak English but how many foreigners pass through.

What has your experience been?