How being a language learner influences my teaching

Jul 14 / Alec Liu

We teach language learners all the time – but how do they ‘really’ feel in the classroom?
 This post explores some powerful influences that being a language learner has on my teaching. 

As an English language teacher, I always try to improve my own teaching. One effective way to do this is by learning a new language. This can give me a new role in class and make me more reflective of my own attitudes towards language acquisition and approaches to teaching. 
Being more empathetic
Most English teachers are native or proficient speakers of the language, so many may not realise the challenges, frustrations and success students experience when they acquire a new language. This first-hand experience of language acquisition enables English language teachers to provide a more emphatic and supportive learning environment for their students, in which the students not only feel understood and encouraged when they study new language items, but also become motivated to experiment with the language they’ve just learnt. For example, when I began to learn Spanish, I found it difficult to spell Spanish words correctly (such as, aeropuerto) because I always spelt some of them in the same way as English. Thus, when my Spanish students have some spelling errors in their essays, I have more understanding of why they make such mistakes, so I encourage them to spot more differences between their language and English. 
Understanding teaching methods better
When we learn a language, we experience the effect of different teaching methods on language acquisition. This allows us to reflect on the methods and approaches we use in our own classrooms.
Although my Spanish teacher used communicative approach in her class, she sometimes read out the instructions and quickly sent students to breakout rooms without checking our understanding of the task. Undoubtedly, we were quite confused about what to do, even though my classmates’ Spanish was much better than me, and consequently, we had to asked for her help again in the breakout rooms.
This reminds me of the importance of careful planning and clear instructions when setting up an activity, which sometimes requires demonstrations or instruction checking questions.
In addition, when I first joined a starter German lesson, the teacher spoke nearly three quarters of the lesson, and we all felt exhausted and confused with so many foreign words and sounds. Thus, I became more careful about teacher talking time in class, especially for A1/A2 level lessons, in order not to demotivate them. 
Increased language awareness of grammar
In general, many novice teachers of English don’t have a very high level of language awareness. This is particularly true when it comes to explaining grammar patterns and/or rules to students.
However, when we learn a new language ourselves, we start to notice and pay attention to the meaning and form of grammar structures. For example, word order in Korean is very different from that of English, where the sentence order is always ‘subject-object-verb’.
Moreover, languages like Spanish and French usually put adjectives after the noun they modify. When I studied these languages, I had to recheck the meaning and structures with my teachers. Otherwise, I would’ve said them the same way as I would in English.
Thus, learning different grammar patterns allows English teachers to pay more attention to sentence structures in English and highlight them in their lessons.  
Providing better feedback on pronunciation
Giving feedback on students’ spoken output can be a challenge for many English teachers. In particular, sometimes we don’t know how to best help students with their pronunciation. Learning a foreign language has helped me in this regard.
When I studied German, I had many pronunciation problems, especially ‘ach/och/uch’, because I wasn’t sure how to pronounce these sounds. Only when my teacher explained the mechanisms of these sounds did I realise how to say them correctly. In fact, it was the muscle and mouth movement that I had difficulty with.
Thus, when my students have difficult English sounds to pronounce, I first tell them the mechanism, i.e., what position is your mouth and tongue. After that, I encourage them to try it out and support them with lots of drilling.
In the end, they had a great sense of achievement when they correctly pronounced the sounds they had had difficulty with.  
Final thoughts
Learning a foreign language can be an extremely beneficial experience for English teachers at all stages of their career.
By being a language learner yourself, English teachers can understand their students’ classroom experience better, use more appropriate teaching methods, have better language awareness and help their students’ pronunciation problems more effectively.
Additionally, you will be able to speak another language and learn about a new culture. This is definitely an invaluable and rewarding experience.