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Differences in Teaching Monolingual and Multilingual EFL Groups

Differences in Teaching Monolingual and Multilingual EFL Groups | ITTT | TEFL Blog

I am currently working as an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan. Before I began this job I assumed that because Japan has a largely homogeneous population, all of my classes would be monolingual. However, I was wrong in this assumption. In addition to my Japanese students, I have many students who are Brazilian or Filipino. These students largely do not use Japanese as their mother tongue and have to learn both English and Japanese as a second language. This diverse student population, in addition to my work experiences and studies, has taught me a lot about working with both monolingual and multilingual classes.

Teaching Monolingual Classes

In the few monolingual classes that I teach, it is fairly easy to anticipate and resolve problems that students might have with learning English. I understand a fair amount of Japanese, and the head classroom teachers I assist are native Japanese speakers. Through our understanding of the rules of the Japanese language, we understand where Japanese-speaking students might struggle in learning English. Applying that knowledge, we can easily design classes based on addressing anticipated problems that affect every student.

Struggles in Multilingual Classes

Compared to monolingual classes, anticipating and addressing struggles in multilingual classes requires a more individualized approach. The Brazilian and Filipino students in my schools have a wide range of language abilities. Some students speak only Portuguese and have to learn both English and Japanese from square one. Others might speak English plus Tagalog or Portuguese fluently even if they can't speak Japanese. Still, others might speak Japanese plus another language fluently, yet struggle with English. Understanding students as individuals and providing proper support to both students and head classroom teachers is key in such cases.

Personally, understanding the needs of each class and adapting my teaching style to suit is challenging. As an assistant teacher, I visit multiple schools and multiple classes in one week. This makes it difficult to get to know students individually. In addition, I have little to no say in how classes are designed and implemented. However, through observation and reflection, I have begun to understand certain approaches to teaching monolingual and multilingual classes, and have figured out small ways to support my students.

Also read: The Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program: All You Need to Know and How to Apply

How My TEFL Course Helped

Studying material in the online TEFL/TESOL courses has been an especially helpful tool for reflection. For example, unit 20 of the 120-hour online course, "Troubleshooting," addresses possible approaches for classes with multiple language abilities. I have noticed that my head classroom teachers largely take the approach of having all students study the same material.

Much of my schools' cultures are centered around group work. I get the impression that in ensuring all students learn the same material, teachers hope that stronger students will help weaker students. In many cases, this actually does happen. If an individual student is called on to answer a question and struggles to answer, students sitting nearby will jump in to offer some help. This works in monolingual and multilingual classes despite differences in native languages because English is the common language between my students.

Using Students’ Native Languages as Useful Tools

However, my students' native languages are useful tools in class as well. Multiple units in the 120-hour online course and the Teaching English to Young Learners course support this idea. From my observations, this concept applies to both monolingual and multilingual classes, but is sometimes more essential in multilingual classes. For example, all test questions, assignment instructions, and lectures at my schools' lower grade levels are delivered in Japanese.

For Japanese-speaking students, the majority of students in all classes, this is helpful for clarifying class activities. For students who have yet to learn Japanese, this is a reason they might struggle with tests and assignments. I have noticed that students who do not use Japanese as their native language might easily become bored in class or delay starting assignments simply because they do not understand what they have to do. In these cases, support teachers are often brought in to class to help individual students understand. From this, I have learned that the use of students' native languages and English should be considered and applied carefully. This is especially true in multilingual classes.

Also read: Teaching English In Japan - The Salary and Budget Guide

What Monolingual and Multilingual Classes Have in Common

Despite all of their differences, one thing that is absolutely universal between monolingual and multilingual classes is demonstrating the relevance of learning English. The Japanese education system is heavily centered around standardized testing. Students must take tests in order to enter high school and university, and English is always featured on these tests. In that way, one need for learning English is made obvious.

A major role of my job, however, is proving to students that there is a need for English outside of testing. I make a point to respond to students in English so that talking to me becomes a means and a reason to learn English. I have also created spaces outside of class where students can study English that is more suited to their interests. For example, I run lunchtime activities where students and I play English board games or card games together. Multilingual and monolingual students with high ability or interest in English often participate in these activities. Maybe these students find certain class activities boring or too easy, but through these activities, they can practice language skills in the practical, everyday setting of playing games.

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In summary, effectively teaching multilingual and monolingual classes requires a competent understanding of each class's students and the students' needs. It also requires keen observation, flexibility, and sometimes extra resources. Each class setting has its advantages and disadvantages, and neither is impossible to work with. I am incredibly happy to have experience working in both kinds of classroom environments so early in my teaching career, and I am excited to learn more from my classes.

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