Language teacher as a language learner

I’m not going to try to argue different sides to this – I believe that a language teacher is a better teacher if he or she also a language learner. Well, let me peddle back a little – I know plenty of language teachers who do not gave a high proficiency in another language, and they are very effective teachers, but I think they could benefit from being on the other side of the textbook, sometimes. 

Taking some of your own medicine might be the way to phrase it. It’s very easy to tell the students to create word lists, do listening practice, or brush-up on a particular grammar point, but are you doing that in a language that you are learning? 

I’ve lived in Japan for over 10 years, and the first 3 years saw me study the language very seriously. I was teaching at elementary and junior high schools, so I was surrounded by the language all day. I was the only native English speaker at the various schools I taught at, which meant that I needed Japanese to communicate with most of my colleagues. Thinking back, what a luxury it was to have such a clear purpose for my language learning. Compare that with students in my hometown in the Western Isles of Scotland studying French, even though they have never been there, met a Frenchman, or even (in my case) eaten a croissant! (I was probably 16 older when I had my first croissant. The deprivation…). 

I was also fortunate to have time at work to study Japanese. Again, how great to learn some grammar or a piece of vocabulary just to hear it used by a colleague walking past your desk! An instant sense of progress.

So, back to the teacher as a learner. We need to understand the struggles that our students face. We need to know how they feel when they are put on the spot to answer a question or roll out a sample sentence using newly-acquired vocabulary. We also need to have an understanding of flow from a learner’s point of view – how do you handle a new piece of vocabulary? Where do you record it? What details do you record? How do you revise it? We need to know how to do it and how it feels to do it. Yes, we tell students to find example sentences, synonyms, phonetic script, collocations, etc., but do we do that when learning another language? I don’t. We tend to go for the path of least resistance, which I’m not sure even exists for Japanese… Anyway, we’re lazy, so we need to give our students a break. Sometimes.

We can, and should, be role models. The students really respond well when they find out that I’m studying Japanese, that I’m struggling with a language too. I’m taking my own medicine. 

I showed the students my Quizlet sets today and they were quite impressed (I think…). They can see that I have a system and that I have spent time putting together my word lists, making sure that I’ve got the right kanji for each English word. We’re in it together. I’m not just a native speaker who sits back and waits for others to learn English… 

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