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What Does a Foreign Language Teacher Do?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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A foreign language teacher designs and implements a curriculum to meet the language learning needs of students at a particular level. These instructors may be highly educated or simply very good speakers of a certain language. Work can be conducted in informal settings as tutors or group leaders of conversational classes or take jobs in formal settings such as a middle school, high school, or college. Their job is always to help students acquire language, but the formality of the setting may change the ways in which they teach.

Where a foreign language teacher works often governs the curriculum that is prepared, and this is also partly determined by students’ previous language knowledge. Informal tutoring or conversational classes may focus most on conversation and vocabulary building, but are less likely to spend time on more advanced grammar, spelling and writing skills. In middle schools, high schools, and universities, unless a course description specifies otherwise, teachers will design lessons that are more academic in nature, and which are likely to include more writing and reading of the language. These lessons still must be balanced with conversational practice, and they need to include work on the fine details of pronunciation and auditory recognition of the spoken language.

One of the important jobs of any foreign language teacher is to provide, through spoken example, a guide to correct pronunciation of the language. To further immerse students in the learning experience, some classes may be taught entirely in the new language. Beginner’s classes could occasionally have explanations in the primary tongue, but most teachers argue that instruction is better if it can mostly occur in the language being learned.

In addition to introducing materials that allow for formal study, the foreign language teacher is likely to provide instruction that stresses cultural values or that reinforces lessons. Readings, recordings, or movies could make up part of the classroom experience. These help engage students to learn on many different levels.

As mentioned, there may be differences in the amount of training foreign language teachers have and this will affect the environments in which they work. Teachers with a bachelor’s degree and a credential are likely to become foreign language instructors at middle and high school. Most colleges require at least a master’s degree of their teachers, and many also want instructors to have a doctorate. University professors are likely to not only engage in teaching, but they may also need to regularly publish articles to achieve tenured positions.

Some teachers are experts in a language without possessing a formal education. They may work as tutors or in conversational classes offered in informal settings. People traveling to foreign lands are sometimes able to get work as instructors in their native tongue, too, and some people pay for their travels by taking reputable work of this type.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By candyquilt — On Feb 07, 2015

I think that informal education in foreign language concentrates too much on grammar and writing and not enough on practical conversation. I studied French for one year in high school and one year in college. Then I went to France on vacation and couldn't even ask for directions or ask for a menu. I could write a whole paragraph on my family history and interests, but the courses had little practical benefit.

I do believe however that foreign language teachers need to have formal experience. I also think that they ought to have spent some time in the country where that language is spoken. Both of these are necessary for a productive education in language. We just need to make the curriculum in schools more practical.

By serenesurface — On Feb 07, 2015

@stoneMason-- Which country are you interested in teaching?

I have a friend who spent a year in China teaching English to students there. She didn't need formal education but she went there through a program for foreign language teachers. These programs may not be available for every country but if you want to live abroad and teach English, I'm sure you can find a way to do it. Don't expect huge salaries, most programs give a basic allowance that's just enough for living expenses. Most people do these programs for career experience and experience in another country. It can be very rewarding if you like language, teaching and children.

By stoneMason — On Feb 06, 2015

I want to teach English at private schools abroad but they all require teacher certification. As far as I know, I have to get a formal education which lasts at least one year to be certified. I can't afford to do that without a salary so I haven't been able to fulfill my dream. It's disappointing and I don't understand why schools make it so difficult especially considering that I will be teaching my mother tongue.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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