Learning a foreign language will make you a better teacherAndrew Forrester
When I was studying for the Trinity CertTESOL qualification in 2003, I was very surprised to see that part of the syllabus was to study elementary-level Japanese! “I’m going to be an English teacher, why do they want me to learn Japanese?” The other trainee teachers in my class had the same reaction. “What’s the point?” we all thought.
Well let me tell you that those 4-5 hours of Japanese lessons, all given in spoken Japanese with no English, taught me the most important lesson of all. – How it feels to be an elementary-level student learning a new language. As teachers, we often don’t realise what it is really like to be learning a completely new language with a native speaker of that language. The best way to understand what our students are feeling is to live that experience ourselves.
Even if your TEFL syllabus doesn’t have any foreign language learning, I strongly recommend you organise this for yourselves. Book some language lessons of a language you know nothing about. Preferably choose a language very different from your own native language and insist that the teacher only speaks in the target language. During the sessions, write notes on your observations as a student. After the session, take those rough notes and write a journal with the teaching methods that really helped you learn the target language. Also write up exactly how you felt during the lesson.
When I did this exercise, here were some of my observations:
The importance of repetition
As teachers, we are often hesitant to keep repeating new vocabulary to our students because we don’t want to insult their intelligence and we feel patronising. But let me tell you, try a 1 hour lesson of Japanese and you’ll be very appreciative of the teacher constantly repeating the target vocabulary in different contexts throughout the lesson. You will not feel that he/she is insulting you. While teaching elementary level students, we often have a tendency to over-estimate their level, skills and ability and often the student is too embarrassed to tell the teacher that they don’t understand.
The importance of speaking slowly
When teaching adults in particular, we sometimes don’t want to be seen to be talking too slowly to them in case they get offended. But what you must realise is that an elementary student isn’t bothered that you are talking slowly to him. He is more concerned with trying to understand what you are saying and to learn some new words. In fact, he probably doesn’t even notice the speed.
The importance of visual cues
Writing on the blackboard, the use of props, hand gestures were all essential parts of the learning process. Visual cues also help make the lesson more varied and interesting.
Students feel intimidated
Learning a brand new language is daunting. It can make an otherwise intelligent person feel very stupid and frustrated. As teachers, it’s essential for us to pick up on that and ensure that the students are all equally involved in the lesson. Elementary students require plenty of encouragement, positive reinforcement and feedback to keep them motivated and aid them in feeling more comfortable.
Students want to practise
Within the first 2 minutes of my Japanese lessons during my TESOL training, the teacher had us speaking and using the new words she was teaching us. Being active and not just passively listening keeps students focused and interested. Students want to use their newly-acquired skills. They want to communicate and be able to apply what they have learned. It doesn’t matter if they are making small mistakes. An added benefit of this is also that the students will start to feel less intimidated and self-conscious.
I hope that this article has convinced you of the importance of learning a new language in helping us become better English teachers. Not only has learning Japanese been a big help to me understanding my students’ struggles, but now I can also say “please” and “thank you” when ordering sushi!