5 essential phrases to learn if you're teaching abroad

Knowing these phrases can save teachers a lot of time when moving overseas – and make getting to know colleagues easier

Chantille Rayman-Bacchus

International schools: Five key phrases for teachers moving overseas

Many international schools don’t expect you to speak the local lingo when you accept the job. 

However, working in a foreign country, you will, of course, encounter many local colleagues who will have a different mother tongue.

I’m not just talking teaching staff: consider the cleaners, cooks and caretakers who help to keep the school running on a daily basis. Oh, and the secretaries, IT technicians, administrators and accountants...the list goes on.

As such, it is well worth learning a few phrases in the local language to smooth the way to positive working relationships and help get those little jobs done quickly.

Essential phrases for international teachers

Here are five key phrases that I have found make life a lot easier when you can say them in your new nation’s language.

1. 'How do you say this?' (ie, 'Meet me halfway')

Before you turn up, ideally you’ve already mastered a few key words like "good morning", "please", "thank you", "yes" and "no" (maybe on the plane journey over) in preparation for your new life abroad.

No doubt, these will help to pave the way to creating friendly relations at school. 

Add to these stock phrases the ubiquitous "how do I say this?" to learn the names of the essential tools of your job, like "pen" or "board rubber" (it’s a strangely exciting thing to find blackboards across the world), "batteries" for the clock or the "air-conditioning remote control". 

There are all these little consumables that you won’t even realise you need until you are in-situ, so be ready to whip out "how do you say this?" and sometimes a bit of imaginative mime to take your first steps towards linguistic integration. 

And whatever you do, don’t forget the universal language of smiling – a grin goes a long way to easing any kind of communication.

2. 'How do I do this?' (ie, 'Argh, help!')

Once you’ve collared the caretaker, make the most of the situation to iron out those classroom idiosyncrasies: the tricky window you can’t reach or the desk drawer that doesn’t want to open. 

Every school has its own systems and culture and "how do I do this?" is the most practical phrase with regard to time-saving and getting things done. 

Finding somebody with time to show you can be more challenging than learning the phrase itself, so a good way to get them on-side is making an effort to speak their language.

This phrase works in all areas of school. It can assist when talking to IT support about accessing educational platforms or reporting systems; in the office it helps with filling out health and safety forms.

3. 'Whose is this?' (ie, 'Is this your mug?')

An international school is a small established community where everything belongs to somebody, especially as teachers feel encouraged to bring home comforts into school. 

So to avoid stepping on colleagues’ toes, it’s always best to ask "whose is this?" before helping yourself to somebody’s special anniversary mug or taking that seemingly empty seat in the meeting. 

And whatever you do, don’t touch that 10-year-old calendar of Budapest that’s slowly disintegrating on the wall as you can be sure it comes from the head’s enlightened world travels.

4. 'Where’s the apostrophe?' (ie, 'This keyboard makes no sense')

This question won’t seem random when facing a continental keyboard. 

Thankfully, QWERTY is still pretty much the same, but you’ll find yourself navigating all manner of strange accents and squiggles in search of the pound or "at" sign, or, most commonly, the apostrophe.

So rather than tying yourself up in knots over different ways of saying "Adam’s homework", just learn how to ask where’s the apostrophe. Full stop, comma and the question mark are handy, too.

5. 'Does this contain *insert dietary undesirable*?' (ie, 'Can I eat that?')

The chances are that the kitchen staff are locally employed so if you plan on eating school food, and you have some kind of dietary requirement, this question is essential. 

"Does it have meat/milk/nuts?" will become your daily mantra if you intend to make it through the school day.

What key phrases have you found work wonders in smoothing the transition when teaching overseas? Let us know below.

Chantille Rayman-Bacchus is a secondary English teacher who has been working in British international schools in Spain for 15 years

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