Multi-Lingual Classrooms: How to Teach English to Students from Different Backgrounds


You made it! You are now an EFL/ESL teacher with the Trinity College CertTESOL certificate! Well done. Calls, emails are coming in, interviews are being lined up but there is this nagging doubt about a certain group – the multi-lingual class.

I have good news for you. You are certified and trained to teach English in a multi-lingual class and that is why your certificate says – CertTESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Woohoo! 75% of the battle won.

Do you remember those teaching practice classes on Thursday and Friday when the tension was running high just before you entered your classroom?

Lo and behold, the class had at least 3 different nationalities in a group of 5 ELLs (English Language Learners). There was Conchi, the sweet Spanish lady, straight faced Oleg from the Ukraine and lastly jovial Mustafa who was from Morocco.

You taught an Intermediate class and you did the third conditional!

You started with:

If I’d known the Christmas meal was so important to you.… (This is the imaginary situation in the past)

I’d have brought you your special Christmas treat on the wee hours of the 25th…. (This is the imaginary result of the situation in the past)

Seemed like a normal start to a lesson. But then Oleg and Conchi seemed to have a question and Mustafa was just smiling. Back home in Oxfordshire, the Christmas meal meant lunch of the 25th of Dec. To Conchi and Oleg, the Christmas meal meant Christmas Eve of the 24th and of course to Mustafa, Christmas was just a normal Bank holiday. This was your first experience of a multi-lingual and multi-cultural class.

The Mono-lingual Classroom

A monolingual classroom means the students all have the same first language or mother tongue. Not to worry, you have been trained to teach a mono-lingual class and that is why you have the second certificate – The EBC International TEFL certificate. TEFL being Teaching English as a Foreign Language. For example, you are teaching in an English language school in Spain where your students are locals so they will all be Spanish speakers. When teaching in a country where they have their mother tongue, you TEFL.

Mono-lingual Classroom

The Multi-lingual Classroom

A multi-lingual class, on the other hand, is a class with students from different countries. This is where you TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. For example, you are teaching in a community college for immigrants in the US. The students you teach will come from different countries and your only common language is English.

What could be the possible issues in a multi-lingual classroom?

Many other TEFL-certified teachers were only trained for mono-lingual classrooms. You weren’t you took a dual certificate course so you can both TESOL and TEFL. However, let’s look at some of the challenges:

There is no common mother tongue or first language in a multi-lingual classroom.

They won’t be able to help each other with grammar points or an unknown vocab because English is the only language. You also can’t get a helping hand from an assistant when the going gets tough and a simple translation will do the job. A real challenge for you but teachers refraining from using the class´ mother tongue are helping their students learn faster.

Cultural difference in the class.

Great advantage for the teacher. Culture, holidays, food, customs can all be great conversation starters.

 Multi-lingual Classroom

Multi-lingual classes will have different language issues.

In a classroom of Spanish speakers, you would hear them adding the /e/ in front of words starting with /sp/, /st /. A class of Chinese students may have issues with the “r” sound in English. If these 2 nationalities were in a multi-lingual class, the others will understand the mistakes and so the students will not bother trying to pronounce the words correctly. In a multi-lingual class, the Spanish students will have to drop the /e/ and the Chinese students will need to pronounce the “r” better to be understood by the rest of the class.

Different learning styles

This could be the biggest issue in multi-lingual classes vs. mono-lingual classes. In some cultures, the teacher lectures and administers tests. In other cultures, students are encouraged to participate in class. Pair work and small group work made up of students from different cultures can be a good opportunity for students to get out of their comfort zones and try a new English learning approach.

As a Trinity College CertTESOL certified English teacher, your career can lead you in many directions, including mono-lingual or multi-lingual classes in your home country or abroad. Taking advantage and putting to full use the many unique issues you will face in a multi-lingual classroom will make you an effective, productive and much liked English teacher.

Not yet certified?

Take your travel dreams to the next level and check out our Trinity College CertTESOL certificate course.