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Teaching EFL In A Completely Foreign Environment: A Survival Guide

This blog post is written by Caro, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood in Rishon LeZion.

I have been living in Israel for over 3 months. Throughout this time I have been working in different volunteer placements around Rishon LeZion. I'm Uruguayan so my native tongue (L1) is Spanish, but I’ve been learning English for my entire life and teaching for around 4 years. Throughout my life, English has been a huge part of what I do, but it has always been constricted to specific environments. Now, not only is it the language that I have to use to communicate with my roommates, friends, other fellows (mostly native English speakers), and staff, but it is also the only way I can actually communicate with my students.

I’ve already learnt enough Hebrew that I can sort of understand some of what people say, or at least what they are talking about, in many interactions. However, that is not nearly enough to be able to have a conversation, let alone to explain a concept in another language. I am certain that my Hebrew will continue to improve, but for now, English really is the only way I can communicate with the people I work with and the kids I teach.

Working on an English lesson about food

First, I’d like to point out something very interesting to me from Israeli society; here, languages are a part of people’s everyday lives in a way that’s very different to other countries. Every community, every family and even many individuals have their very own story, their own identity. This is seen in the food they eat, the music they listen to, the clothes they wear and the languages they speak. Everyone speaks Hebrew, but they also speak Russian, Amharic, Arabic, English, Yiddish, Ladino, Russian, French, Spanish and more.

Ramat Eliahu, the neighbourhood where I live and work, has a diverse population, with a predominantly Ethiopian community, and also a big Russian community. This means that many of the kids we work with also speak Russian or Amharic at home. Regardless of how much Hebrew they speak at home, English is, at least, the third language that they speak.

For those who aren’t familiar with the terminology, EFL (English as a Foreign Language), refers to the teaching of English to people who live in countries where English is not a dominant language. Further, this typically means that the students only interact with English within the confines of a classroom. Therefore, students’ exposure to the language, and their opportunities to use it and practice, are very limited and structured; unless they are exposed to it in other spaces, be it because of their families or their own interests. Also the teachers share the student’s L1, and often resort to Hebrew during English lessons to clarify, explain and all other complex communicative acts that not all students would understand in English. Classroom management is much more feasible when your students actually understand what you’re trying to say.

In my years of learning and teaching English, I’ve come to the understanding that the best way to learn a language is when it is the only means you have to access something you are interested in. Be it science, books, tv shows, TikTok or Fortnite, there is a clear difference between the kids who just learn English at school and those who use it for their own interests.

Apart from English, I’ve noticed that in Israel there is a keenness for languages in general that I had not noticed in other places. The first time I was here, I was shocked to meet people who speak almost perfect Spanish, or people who don’t speak but can understand it pretty well, even though they have never taken a single Spanish course. As it turns out, Latin American TV shows are very popular here, and since translation and dubbing is a very lengthy and expensive process, they are shown in their original language with Hebrew subtitles. However, that is not enough to learn a language.

I have also met very young kids with amazing vocabulary and pronunciation, apart from an almost perfect comprehension of English, who improved their skills through their own interests such as YouTube or gaming, which even enabled them to establish friendships with people from other parts of the world, and English is the way they can talk to each other.

Israel is the only Hebrew speaking country, as interesting and varied Israeli cultural content is, it is limited; so, when people want to explore interests that are not so popular here, they have to do it in another language, and the most popular language for that is English.

Now, where do we come in? At first, going into educational environments where we knew we would barely be able to communicate with students seemed daunting, and it still is. But however scary that may be, it is also an amazing opportunity. We, as foreigners, are forced to try our best to communicate in Hebrew. We tend to go around thinking that everyone will be able to speak English, but that is not always true, and we need to learn how to adapt too. The good thing is people’s willingness to communicate with one another is much greater than the constraints of language barriers.

From my experience so far, there are a few things that I’ve learnt that have helped me get through the frustration of not understanding the people around me or not being able to give precise instructions to my students.

1. Learn to laugh at yourself

We all make mistakes when we are learning something new, I make mistakes in Hebrew all the time and the kids love being able to correct me. I like to think that seeing me try to speak Hebrew and fail miserably will help them relax and enjoy making mistakes in English too. I encourage them to speak even when they say they don’t know and always congratulate them, whether in English or in Hebrew. High-fives also work, even more so with younger kids.

2. Keep it simple and straight to the point

Activities are already hard to explain, don’t make things worse by coming up with sophisticated games that you can barely follow yourself. Even if the game seems too easy, that’s even better. Kids like doing things that they can follow without much effort; it helps to keep them engaged and boosts their self-confidence. If it's way too easy, challenge them to make it harder, see what they come up with.

When speaking to the students, stick to short, direct, and clear sentences with a basic structure and vocabulary they know. Try to use the same words every time you ask something specific and avoid colloquialisms that students might not be familiar with.

3. Use visual aids, easy games, and dances

Flashcards, drawing on the whiteboard, looking for things around you and even googling pictures of what you’re talking about makes a huge difference when trying to explain something. If you want to teach the word “marker” show them a marker and say the word clearly, then have them repeat it to you a couple of times. Later you can ask them again to see if they remember. Games like Simon Says or Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes are always fun and don’t require any explanation.

4. Learn the basic commands as fast as you can

To be honest, I never thought I’d be allowed to yell “die” to kids when they get restless. Turns out that’s how you say “stop it” in Hebrew. “Sheket” (silence), “shvu” (sit), “tagidu li” (tell me), “bou” (come), “rega” (moment) and a few others have been lifesavers in the different environments I’ve been thus far. They are easy to remember, and students respond to them very well.

5. Know your limits and don’t be afraid to ask for help

We often like to think that we can do everything by ourselves, but most times that isn’t true. We’re lucky to be part of an organization that supports us, and the places where we work also have people that can help us if things get out of hand. We are allowed to ask for assistance when we need it and to set our boundaries, there is no shame in not being able to do something.

For many of these kids, we are the only people that they meet who they can’t speak Hebrew with. As confusing as it must be to have adults around you who are constantly saying that they don’t understand what you say, they are usually eager to work with us and to show us what they remember from the previous class.

For me, these months teaching here have been the most challenging and frustrating, but also the most interesting, engaging and enriching of my life. I never thought I’d be able to actually teach a lesson, and many times I can’t teach the lesson that I’d originally planned, but I’m okay with that. Every day I see more and more how this is not about covering specific topics or teaching grammatical rules. It’s about communicating and finding ways to connect and learn about other people, regardless of the language that they speak. We don’t expect the kids to be fluent by the time we leave, we don’t even expect them to say they can speak English, we just want them to know that English is more than another boring class. Maybe, if we are lucky, the tools we help these children learn leave them with a newfound confidence to try new things, speak their mind, and be excited to learn.

Caro working with eager students in Rishon LeZion


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