by Paul Finnerty
I’ve been on both sides of the tracks when it comes to language-learning. I’ve worked as an English teacher for overseas learners for going on a decade now, but long before that, I had a passion for learning languages.
My teaching experience
Ten years ago I started teaching on a volunteer project in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in a very informal set-up where people from a favela community came to free classes on an ad-hoc basis. Their main priority was speaking and socialising. This experience prompted me to get my CELTA in 2011, after which I worked in a language institute in Portugal for two years, learning the ropes, you might say. I then freelanced for 18 months in Colombia, mostly on a one-to-one basis, before going back to working in a language institute in Italy for just over two years. In between all this, I’ve taught in summer schools in the UK and done university pre-sessionals with would-be postgraduates.
So you might say I’ve seen the profession from a wide range of angles.
My learning experience
I probably started teaching English because my love of learning languages drove me to travel, and the two have gone neatly hand-in-hand ever since. I did Spanish through high school, but probably only learned properly at university, where I did English and Hispanic Studies, which included Spanish, and Portuguese from scratch. The degree involved six months in Brazil then Argentina, and since graduating, I’ve spent about two and a half years in Portuguese-speaking countries, and a touch more in Spanish-speaking ones. While it was good to do the nitty-gritty groundwork in the languages at university, I really honed them while living abroad and I got to a near-native standard. In the case of Italian, I’ve never taken a class and only ever self-taught, obviously combined with living in Italy. I’ve recently passed a B2 CEFR exam in Italian, but in hindsight could have passed a C1, while I’ve got C2 in Spanish and Portuguese.
My next challenge is Russian, and I aim to learn it completely independently.
So, DIY is the way forward as a language student.
The point of this article is not to give a summary of my CV or academic achievements, but to say how my experience as both language student and teacher has led me to believe that the best way to learn foreign languages is ultimately by doing it myself.
1. As a language teacher, I know ‘how’ to teach
After reading about, being told about, and finally implementing the raft of language-teaching methods that are out there, you find out what works, and through watching your learners learn, you pick up things that are useful for your own language-learning. Simple examples include: recording vocabulary in context, listening to podcasts and making sure you use a new expression as many times as possible so that it sticks.
Arguably, I don’t actually need a teacher to do these things with me; I simply have to know that they are good habits to have.
2. But I also know ‘how not’ to teach
In the majority of classrooms around the world, there is a lot of what I’d call non-teaching, which most likely outweighs the useful stuff. Think of a teacher explaining when a grammar component is used, listening to song lyrics and doing gap-fills or reading a dialogue. All non-starters in my classroom and study room. Yes, grammar rules are useful, but we don’t need to know about them. Songs are great for hearing intonation patterns and learning expressions, but the time taken to do such gap-fills doesn’t justify the outcome. Dialogues should be models to be moulded, not simply read out loud.
The point being here is that so much time in the classroom is wasted on doing things that aren’t actually that useful for our language-learning.
3. English is not to be learned, but used
An argument that frequently does the rounds is the following: If we want to drive a car or play an instrument, we don’t study ‘how’ to do it. We simply do it. They are treated as skills rather than subjects, and it is argued that English should be thought of in this way too. I completely agree. There’s no point knowing about the language if you can’t actually use it, and so many classrooms and teachers are geared towards teaching you about the language, with a sort of checklist mentality (often imposed by employers), rather than how to actually use it.
Teaching English as a subject is not an approach that I believe to work.
4. English Language Teaching is a business
Most institutes want to enrol as many students as possible, and promise to make them fluent in an obscenely short space of time. I’ve taught in so many over-subscribed classrooms where the learning styles, levels, interests and needs differ vastly. It’s tantamount to teaching four classes in one, and this means that even the best teachers and students can’t make the most of the limited time they have together.
I don’t believe that the average language classroom is a rich learning environment.
5.A lot of teachers are poorly prepared
I mean this in the least offensive of ways. I see time and time again that language teachers simply go through the motions, and I won’t deny that I’ve done it myself. We pluck something out of a course book, often without considering whether our students know it, or if it’s relevant to them. There are of course reasons for this. Many outsiders would argue that teachers only have to teach 25 hours a week, a lot less than in other professions. What they forget is that teachers are often expected to teach 15 or more different groups a week. For each one, we have to prepare lessons and materials, mark work from previous classes, do school admin, all while trying to take students’ individual needs into consideration. A tough task.
It’s often said that teachers are the worst students. I’d most likely spend too much time thinking about my teacher’s flaws.
6.Learning language should be done on a peer-to-peer basis
I’ve learned over time that the best way to learn a language is to go out there and use it. Clearly, this is a lot easier if you have access to native speakers. Speaking to housemates, sending emails, listening to train station announcements and reading instructions are all things much more easily done in an L2 environment. But they are still things we do out of necessity, and this is the way teaching ought to be. The question must be: ‘What does the student need to learn?’ And the learners should be the ones at the forefront of their own learning.
Rather than a language ‘teacher’, what is needed is a language ‘speaker’, on whom you can practise and test out what you think you know.
But where do you start?
A lot of what I’m saying above is dependent on one thing: self-motivation. In order to be able to practise with native speakers, you need to get yourself to an adequate level to start with. This requires determination, knowhow and access to resources.
This may explain why so many people feel the need to have a teacher: because they don’t know how to learn a language.
Luckily, I do. Most of what a teacher can teach me in those beginner lessons, I can do by myself with a book, audio tape and the Internet, all of which can make me listen and repeat, fill gaps and guess and check meanings of words.
Am I being blinkered and unfair on people who have never taught or studied languages?
Perhaps I am. I studied my first foreign language in the classroom, and through this experience have been able to retain and remove aspects of the classes I’ve liked and disliked in my own self-study today.
Maybe it is only through learning your first foreign language that you realise that you are in control of your learning and your teacher is a mere facilitator.
The key is to learn ‘how’ to learn a language.
Come and ask me how my self-taught, no-teacher Russian is going in a year’s time!
Do other people agree that a teacher is not necessarily required to learn a language?
Let me know your thoughts!