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CELTA Course Tips & Advice for Non-Native Speakers

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Every day I receive lots of emails from non-native speakers of English, asking for help and advice with their CELTA course. In fact, I estimate around half of all CELTA trainees who receive my newsletter are from other countries around the world.

I have a deep respect for non-native CELTA trainees like yourself; not only have you spent time learning English as a second language to a very high level, but you’ve decided you want to pass along that knowledge to help other people too.

Non-native Speaker Concerns & Challenges

In this guide, I want to explore some of the unique challenges and concerns that affect non-native speakers during the application and studying of the Cambridge CELTA course.

Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  • I’m not sure my level of English is high enough for the application
  • My grammar knowledge is strong, but my spoken and written English lacks fluency and vocabulary and I’m concerned this will be a problem in my teaching practice sessions
  • I’m worried I might not be able to keep up with the native speaker trainees
  • Will I be treated differently for being a non-native speaker?
  • Maybe the students only want native speakers.
  • How can I improve my English before the course?

Don’t worry, I’m going to guide you through everything you need to know about applying for the CELTA course and ultimately passing it as a non-native speaker.

English Level Requirements

The first thing we should explore is the level of English language required for a successful application and interview. Let’s cut right to the details…

Applications for the CELTA course are expected to have a minimum level of English good enough to teach at a range of learner levels. In reality, this is CEFR C2, or high grade at C1 (Pass A or B).

Many of the international CELTA centres I’ve spoken to use IELTS too, and require an overall IELTS score of 7.0

If you already have a high CAE or CPE certificate, you should have no problem with the CELTA course.

Is an Accent a Problem?

It really depends on how strong your accent is when speaking English. If your accent makes it very difficult for listeners to understand, or you are unable to create some English sounds (phonemes), then this could be problematic.

However, I’ve seen many non-native speakers with accents (Italy, Brazil, Middle East) perform very well in their CELTA course. Trainees that seem to struggle with accents are usually — but not always — from Asian countries such as China, Korea and Taiwan etc. where some English phonemes do not have local equivalents.

Will You Be Treated Differently Than Native Speakers?

CELTA centres are highly professional institutions, individually accredited by Cambridge. They take on hundreds of non-native speaking trainees each year. It’s highly unlikely you will be treated any differently than native English speakers.

If you feel you are receiving a lesser standard of training or respect by the tutors, you should immediately mention this to the director and say that you intend to inform Cambridge if things do not change.

However, always be sure that any criticism you have received from the tutors is carefully considered first as constructive feedback; you may indeed have weak areas that need improvement due to English being your second language.

How to Improve Your English

This is probably the section you came to read 🙂

Improving Reading and Listening

These receptive skills can be improved at home, providing you have access to the right materials. The internet allows access to some fantastic resources for reading English news and articles. However, wherever possible, you should also take time to read physical formats, such as books, magazines, menus, letters etc. I recommend this because I believe that digital formats interact with our brains differently to physical formats, and that both are beneficial in today’s world.

You can quickly improve your listening skills with interesting videos (YouTube, TED talks etc.) and by subscribing to podcasts. Be sure to listen to a range of speakers so you become familiar with a range of accents. Of course, you can also watch English films and documentaries with no subtitles.

Improving Writing

Writing development, of course, requires that you write, and ideally receive feedback on your mistakes to help you improve.

The very best way to improve your written English is to book some classes with a professional English teacher. This could be with a local private school or one-on-one private lessons. It’s important your tutor understands the goal is to improve your writing skills, and that you want written homework every lesson that they can feedback on next lesson.

If you can’t book English lessons for whatever reason, the next best option is to participate in forums online. Join a few interesting online communities, and begin talking to people. In your forum signature, add something like “English is my second language – if you notice any mistakes, please let me know so I can improve!” – this will display under each of your posts and encourage people to help you out.

The least helpful method is to write in isolation. Without feedback from others, there is a risk you will continue to make the same mistakes over and over, however, if you have no other options, this is still a good exercise to help you improve your written fluency. Just be sure to always read your writing out loud the next day to spot missing words and other errors!

Improving Speaking

Speaking is probably the most difficult English language skill to improve on your own. Yes, you can make some improvements when speaking to the mirror, but the real benefits only come from human interaction. For this reason, spoken English is the biggest challenge for most non-native speakers.

The absolute best way to improve quickly, is to visit an English speaking country for at least a week and ONLY speak English. That means do not go with your friends, unless they also agree to only speak English. This type of high-pressure environment will force you to interact with people and you will see huge improvements to your confidence and fluency.

If you can’t take a holiday soon, your next best option is one-on-one conversational lessons with an English speaker, preferably native. I recommend a minimum of two 1-hour sessions each week. Speak, talk and converse! And always ask for feedback and corrections throughout.

Reducing your Non-Native Accent

If your native language has given you a strong accent (aka a ‘thick’ accent) that makes it difficult for people to understand your English, then again, the best solution is to have access to a native speaker to improve.

I know it’s difficult to pronounce some English phonemes when your native language doesn’t have an equivalent. I remember my own struggles with the rolled R used in Slavic and Arabic languages! However, it’s vital that you learn to pronounce all the phonemes in the English language if you want to teach English to others.

Here is a link to the Interactive Phonemic Chart to help you improve your pronunciation and accent.

Improving Knowledge of Grammar

The great news is that grammar can be learned from the comfort of your own home, without the need for lessons or native speakers. In fact, many non-native speakers have already studied English grammar more than native speakers, and feel much more confident with grammar and form than with the skills we’ve previously explored.

If you do want to improve your grammar knowledge, I recommend a few approaches:

Review my guide to CELTA course parts of speech. This is a great article containing an overview of what I consider to be the essentials for trainees on the CELTA course. If you identify any areas of weakness, it should be your priority to learn more about that element.

I also recommend that you buy a good self-study grammar book (oh no!) with exercises and activities. I’ve had good experiences with Murphy’s ‘English Grammar in Use’, but I’m sure you can find value with any well-reviewed book too.

The Benefits of Being a Non-native Speaker

Let’s finish this guide with something more encouraging… being a non-native speaker can be a huge advantage in some areas on your CELTA course!

Most native English speakers have no real knowledge of English grammar beyond what they were forced to learn in school. This may have be many years ago, with no revision and no application to their daily lives. Every day, I get lots of emails from native speaking CELTA trainees who are panicking because they can’t remember an adjective from an adverb.

You, however, have the benefit of acquiring your English as a second language (L2), layered that knowledge on top of your first language (L1). Unlike native speakers, this allows you to make powerful direct comparisons of grammar and to understand how your students will also make those connections.

Your own struggles and successes when learning English will help you to empathise and support your students, as you draw on your past experiences, learning styles and methods that helped you.