5 Challenges of Teaching English as a Foreign Language

Teaching Abroad Direct

Teaching English as a foreign language is an exciting career opportunity that can take you to many different places. You also get the chance to meet people from all walks of life, sample different cultures and experience living in a different part of the world.

While teaching English as a second language is a dream job for many people, and is seen as a career highlight, there are a few challenges that you need to prepare for before embarking on this new chapter of your career. In this article, we'll explore 5 of the challenges that TEFL teachers can face when teaching abroad.

What does teaching English as a second language mean?

Teaching English as a foreign language, otherwise known as TEFL, involves teaching English in a country where English is not the first or primary language spoken.

According to research conducted by the Statista Research Department, as of August 2022, there are 1.5 billion people around the world who speak English either as a first or second language.1 Many countries now teach English as a second language to children in schools, such as Germany, France, China and India. English has become an international language as a result of brand globalisation, and major businesses retailing in English across many industries. 

TEFL teachers are usually comfortable in a classroom in overseas schools, but they can also be enrolled in placements at other locations including:

They teach everyone who comes into their class how to speak and use conversational English, including idioms and phrases. 

The type of work a TEFL teacher does can vary based on the needs of their students. They might teach early years children the basics of English, teach employees of a company more advanced English skills (if English is their second language), or help students to prepare for an examination of some kind.

Challenges you could face as a TEFL teacher

Travelling to work abroad can involve a level of risk, and teaching abroad can bring its own challenges depending on the country you are teaching in. This includes political unrest, different cultures and religious beliefs, terrorism and civil war. 

Economic instability is also a reality in many developing countries, so you should research your destination carefully before taking up an offer of employment as a TEFL. Here are 5 other challenges when it comes to teaching English as a foreign language.

1. Being the outsider

When you sign up for a role to teach English as a foreign language, you will have a community around you, but to many, you may be seen as an outsider. You may stand out physically because of your appearance and the way you speak. And for some people, you may be the first non-local person they have seen. This could mean pointing, gestures, comments that are not translatable, and other uncomfortable encounters. 

You'll need to get to grips with local customs quickly to avoid standing out and looking like a tourist. Many people will however be curious and intrigued, but you should still be prepared to be the centre of attention for a little while. This is all part of the experience, and a chance for you to educate your students about engaging with different people in a multicultural society.

2. Loneliness and isolation

When you imagine your life as a teacher abroad, it is easy to envisage a romanticised version of your everyday routine, with a big community around you, interacting with locals with ease, and traveling the world at your leisure. 

The truth is that it may not be that easy, and your social life outside of your job will all depend on the amount of work that you put into getting to know those around you. You can however use social media to meet up with people and find friends in foreign countries. 

Although you will have people around you in your learning institution, it may feel sometimes as though you are on your own and isolated. Due to time zones, video and phone calls will need to be scheduled, and loneliness is common. The best thing to do is get yourself out there and meet people.

3. Disorganisation and poor management

Management processes and work environments vary greatly depending on the country you are visiting. In some cases, it can be very eye-opening. In South Korea for example, it is common for managers to immediately confront staff about an issue – whether big or small in nature. Prepare yourself for awkward exchanges and encounters. 

Another issue may be a lack of resources and equipment due to a lack of organisation. You may get to your classroom with no guidelines, lesson plans or even pens. All you may receive is a textbook, and the rest is up to you. You'll need to unleash your creativity to keep your students on track, and be prepared to ask plenty of questions about the curriculum.

4. Culture shock

This is likely to be your biggest challenge when teaching English as a foreign language. Classrooms in other countries will be different to those in the UK. Procedures will be different, children will react in various ways to learning methods, and in some cases, you may even be filmed while teaching your class, with your manager watching your every move. 

You'll need to be creative with your management style in the class, and observe other teachers to see how they discipline students and establish good communication with them. If you are heading to a country that is very different from the UK, try to embrace the new culture as much as possible. After all, it's all part of the fun of teaching! Some practices may seem inappropriate or incomprehensible, and it may seem overwhelming when you are surrounded by people who may not be able to communicate so well with you. 

Once you have figured out how to read facial expressions, gestures and body posture, and have settled into the community, you'll find the whole experience enriching and rewarding. To the point where you may find it hard to adjust when you come back to the UK.

5. Strict schedules

Sometimes people taking jobs teaching English as a second language may have a misconception that their career will enable them to travel the world freely. However, the reality is that your day will be very structured and fixed, so you may not have as much time as you envisioned to tick those places off of your bucket list. 

You will get a month's paid holiday, which is great when compared to countries like the US, which offer workers very little annual leave, but many schools will insist that you take this off in increments rather than in one go. Be prepared to spend most of your time in your country of choice. Use this as an opportunity to get to know the country on a much deeper level, so that you can truly connect with the locals who live there.

Things to consider as an ESL teacher abroad

Teaching English as a foreign language is a life-changing experience. It's rewarding, enriching, encompasses a new lifestyle, and ultimately delivers a challenge that will bring out the best in your character. 

It can help to fulfill a natural curiosity if you are intrigued by other cultures and countries, and you will be changing others' lives by teaching them an important language that is becoming more of a necessity in the world. While you may come up against challenges, remember that these tests will help you to grow as a person. 

You will learn to face obstacles and figure out how to problem-solve, and you will realise how to take better care of yourself and other people. Commitment to your job is important because the classroom will throw you many curveballs, but ultimately, if you make a success of your job role and connect with your students, you will end up with a highly enjoyable career that gives you plenty of amazing stories to tell.


  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/266808/the-most-spoken-languages-worldwide/


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