Over the years I've found that whenever I've told someone that I teach English as a Foreign Language, the next question they invariably ask is "But how do you teach learners who don't speak your language?".
A seemingly valid point but of course we all know it's not necessary to be able to speak your learners' L1s to be able to teach them. Useful yes, but necessary no - if it was many of us would not be where we are today - but this is especially true for multilingual classes since it's unlikely that any teacher would be able to speak all the languages of their learners.
When I was teaching in London, for example, I often found myself teaching learners who spoke Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Italian, German and Korean in one class. Talk about the United Nations of TEFL!
I must say, though, teaching multilingual classes are at the top of my list of favourite things to do (during the week!) for so many reasons:
* Communication in English becomes so much easier.
It's not often in a multilingual class that I have to ask learners not to speak in the first language, because a lot of the time they have no one to speak to. This also means that when they do want to chat with their classmates, they naturally do it in English.
* Lessons are intrinsically interesting.
Because learners come from different countries, they can have vastly different backgrounds. Different backgrounds means different customs, beliefs and experiences. Learners enjoy speaking to their classmates because they are naturally interested in what they have to say. Teachers can take advantage of this and plan lessons which deal with the differences between the learners.
* There are loads of chances for opportunistic learning.
All this natural communication gives rise to numerous opportunities for error correction or language learning. Because this language input is relevant and contextualised, it'll be more likely to resonate with the learners and be more effective.
* Learners are exposed to different accents.
Gone are the days of BBC English being the only acceptable English accent and it is necessary for our learners to be able to understand the different Englishes they may come into contact with in the real world. Chatting with their classmates provides them with this opportunity.
*Teaching is learning too.
Probably the best reason for me, selfishly, is how much I learn in these classes, about different cultures, ideas, beliefs - even history and geography. Each lesson I am guaranteed to learn something new, which makes my job seem less of a job and more of an experience.
Multilingual classes aren't without their challenges - learners have different problems with the language and it can be difficult to cater to so many different cultures, just to name a few - but rest assured there's never a dull moment in a multilingual class.