I am a mom of three (NO, it’s not a post about parenting! I’ll come to the teaching part in a sec, so please, don’t leave and read on!)
So where was I? Yes, I’m a mom of three. I have been three times the bleary-eyed mom trying to find some kind of sane rhythm in the peculiar universe of just-given-birth moms. However, looking back now, I regret not having had the occasion to rightfully enjoy the stay-at-home mom’s life. I regret rushing back to classroom, to having to share my attention between my newborns and my students. I regret it, yet I most probably wouldn’t do it any differently if given the chance again. And you know why? Because I cannot afford it. I’m not talking finance here. I’m talking about being a non-native teacher whose English might get rusty in case left unattended for too long.
I guess I’m completely honest with you when saying I have no complexes about being a non-native teacher of English. It’s not something I try to hide (as if it were possible!), it’s not something I postpone announcing to my students, it’s not something I feel I need to write in excruciatingly tiny font in the footnote of my CV. However, being a non native teacher of English can be quite a special universe to inhabit and in this post I would like to share my thoughts on that.
I first got the idea of writing this post after having read Rachael’s article on drilling. At one point in the article Rachael writes, “
Native speakers are fluent mainly because they don’t have to consciously produce each word as they speak.” I almost jumped at this sentence. I could relate to it 100 %! No matter how often I speak or write in English, no matter how studiously I learn new vocabulary, how unrelentingly I keep polishing my English, it will never come as smoothly out of my mouth and brain as it does with natives. I’m not saying that I tend to stutter or speak with embarrassing pauses. My beginner or lower (even intermediate) level students probably find my English music to their ears. Yet speaking English is work for me for exactly the very reason Rachael pointed out. I THINK about the language when I speak. There are good days. Days when it simply flows. I seem to find the right idioms at the right moment. I produce these famous chunks like smooth chains. But there are bad days, too. Days when my tongue stays locked and I seem to be able to utter only very basic and banal language. There are days when I know what I am after yet never able to seize it.
Having said that, I am an avid learner of English. I guess you could even label me paranoid. Just the other day I had a long telephone conversation with one of my English friends. Right after having hung up I rushed to the dictionary, grabbed my English notebook and started feverishly to scribble down the idioms and new expressions she had used. When I am reading other teachers’ blogs I have a pen in one hand and my dog-eared dictionary right there next to me. When me and my hubby are relaxing after a hard day’s work in front of the telly watching British channels, there’s one whose ear is always a little more like a satellite-dish (guess who…)
So how is all that connected to teaching? Firstly, I am very sensitive to language. When my students use new or interesting vocabulary, I notice it right away and praise them for that. Because I am truly impressed. I often leave vocabulary-related comments at the margins of their work. (I am not saying that native speakers don’t do that. I simply want to say that having suffered myself, I know what they are going through). I also encourage them to work on their vocabulary as if there were no tomorrow. Highlighters, vocabulary cards, dog-eared dictionaries, scribbled pages, circled and underlined passages. Just go for it!
Just like bad things, good things come together. Right after Rachael’s article I discovered five wonderful posts in Hugh Dellar’s blog in praise of non-native speakers! One of the posts talked about non-native teachers as being realistic role models, of being models that are attainable for the students. I liked that idea a lot. When I introduce myself to my students I talk about where I come from and how I became a teacher of English. I tell them about the tough beginning, the bad marks, the teacher I didn’t like, about how English made no sense whatsoever for me, how I struggled with even the most basic grammar rules. And then suddenly there was a change of heart. Something happened. I am not sure what exactly made me like, then love, and then worship English. Maybe an offhand comment or praise from some teacher, maybe a sense of achievement, maybe the understanding that this was my fate. I went to university, majored in British Studies and halfway through university started teaching. And that’s where my students go wow! They cannot believe I did it without going to expensive language schools in Britain. Because they all seem to harbour this unwavering belief that you can only truly learn the language when you go to the country! I preach no contrary but I guess I do encourage those who would never have the occasion to enjoy the luxury.
Know your place
his January I attended a workshop aimed at non native English teachers who wish to improve their language skills. It was a commercial workshop with the speaker promoting his new books for advanced learners. I loved it! I bought all the books on offer. During the presentation the speaker expressed his views on how non native speakers might never be up to teaching high level students and he seemed truly apologetic about it. But I guess he shouldn’t have. I think it is true that there comes a level a non native speaker is indeed not comfortable enough teaching. There comes a level where idioms take over, where very subtle details about the English language are required, where it takes more than knowledge from the books, it takes intuition. I feel comfortable with that and I know which level is my roof. I guess it would be irresponsible towards my students if I pretended otherwise. I guess I would never venture higher than B2, but I am at ease with B1!
With time I have acquired enough confidence as a teacher not to freak out when we come across unknown vocabulary for me during the lesson. My students might ask me whether a word is appropriate for a certain situation or why a certain rule is suddenly misused in a context. I would simply tell them that I am not sure and that I will try to find it out. I also encourage them to do the same so that we could compare our findings during the next lesson. And you know what? I LOVE doing that! I love to go and find out. I love to understand why. And I hope that doing so will give an example to my students as well.
And last but not the least
Having said all the above I must say that sometimes I am more comfortable in English than in any other language (even my mother tongue!) I have a private blog in Estonian where I recount our family’s daily life and happenings. On countless occasions already I have found myself frozen in front of the screen and keyboard trying to get rid of all the expressions and sayings in English that would fit so wonderfully into a particular passage. I guess it is mostly due to the fact that 99 % of my book, magazine and blog reading is in English, so sooner or later you get so comfortable in one language, you get so jazzily into the rhythm (can we actually say that?), you get certain phrases printed into your brain, they automatically push their way through when given a creative occasion.