At Home Among Strangers

Some teachers manage to teach the language they cannot call their mother tongue in the countries they can not call their motherland. Non-natives teaching abroad: I’ve got this experience and I want to share it with you.

Typology of English teachers

Generally speaking, I would divide all English teachers into three categories:

  • Speakers of other languages, who teach English in their countries to people who speak their languages (Korean English teacher teaching in Korea);
  • Native speakers of English teaching to students from all over the world (an American teaching in Italy);
  • Speakers of other languages, who teach English in another country.

I fall into the last category: I am Russian, I teach English, I work in Turkey (used to work in China and Thailand too). Nice to meet you all!

I don’t want to go now onto the slippery ground of distinguishing native from non-native speakers, but still, I cannot ignore this fact. A non-native teaching in another country is not such a rare case as it may seem to be. I want to share my experience and some thought about this position in the world of ELT.

Non-native looking for a job

Getting a job in another country is always a quest. Positioning yourself in our case is difficult: most companies expect either a person speaking the local language or a native speaker. Once you don’t fall into any of categories, you need to reinforce your CV and be very clear about why the company should choose you over other candidates.

One can hardly beat natives in the language fluency and proficiency but there is always a way to highlight educational background, language awareness and, certainly, your first-hand experience of learning English.

Another concern is related to paperwork as not all countries are eager to provide work permits to non-natives. Schools also face difficulties when explaining why they prefer you over local and native teachers. Once again, credentials, recommendations and experience will help to overcome this obstacle.

Teaching abroad

Some lucky people teach English in the country which language they happen to know. It is a huge advantage. But it is more common to have zero or a very limited grasp of the local language. Translation is not an option anymore. And very soon it turns out a game changer. Yes, there is no need to translate texts or do grammar drills with back and forth switch of languages. The problem is in building rapport with low-level students (real communication is very limited). It may be on the level of a catastrophe in school when classroom management fails as well as teacher’s tries to preach in English.

You may say that it’s common with all native speakers. Yes, sure. But native teachers don’t need to bother that much with keeping in shape their English for the lesson, and they usually have less control over them as a bonus coming with the passport. Oh yes, they are used to speak English always, no matter what. For non-natives, there is a chance that on some occasion words would come in your first language at once and English may be blocked (yes, it happened to me on my first year in China). You should know not only how to teach, but also how to praise and scold students and do it in the most natural way possible.


It was not easy to keep English up to high standards in my country but once I moved out I understood that there is much more.

First of all, your English gets exposed to all sorts of accents, a bunch of language varieties (say, Spanglish, Chinglish, Runish etc). You learn to use it in the occasions you most probably wouldn’t in your own country. Most probably you’ll get native-speakers around you too, who will also influence you. It’s like an avalanche of English. Plus, you’d have hours of broken English exposure from your students.

The trick in this situation is that while fluency rockets up, accuracy is falling down and down. Certainly, it doesn’t really matter much if you teach animals and colours in kindergarten. Just believe me, living in English does not automatically mean perfect English. Keep an eye on it and regularly work on improvement. You will need it, as the requirements are high (scroll up to ‘looking for a job’ paragraph for reasons).


You need to decide how do you prefer to be called. It’s a part of self-identification. I, personally, prefer a term ‘foreign teacher’ though I have to deal with a ‘non-native’ teacher too. Don’t forget ‘near-native’ and ‘native-like’.

There is another way to specify this position: a ‘bilingual’ teacher which may sound nice but raises lots of questions.

What can you do to feel comfortable working abroad?

  • Network. Meet locals, expats. You need to know people, you need to leave a great first impression and stay in touch with everyone; it will pay back.
  • Improve your English. Keep your English in a perfect shape and take a proficiency exam (IELTS/TOEFL/CAE/CPE) to have an official proof of your language abilities.
  • Develop professionally. I am reluctant to write it here but you should do CELTA or TESOL. The one which is off-line, with tutors, teaching practice and feedbacks. It’s much easier to find a job with the certificate and the salary may go up.
  • Stay open-minded. Once you move to another country you need to adjust to a local culture. Even more, you need to work with locals who may have different expectations from you. You cannot prepare for everything, so just be open-minded, take it as another step to learn about the country or an adventure.

You can learn more about me here

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