On being a non-native teacher

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!)

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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.

Language

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!

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Role model

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

T

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.

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21 thoughts on “On being a non-native teacher

  1. Hello again Sirja – nice to be back here 🙂

    It’s a topic I care about because occasionally at my school I’ve had the good fortune to meet non-native teachers of English who have come over to the UK on a Comenius grant to spend some time in an English-speaking country and see how we do things.

    There is an almost apologetic air about some of them, as if they are automatically inferior to us native speaker teachers, or feel ashamed of their achievements and abilities. Little do they know that I feel the opposite. I learned this language as my L1, so – frankly – I have got no idea how to learn it! Any native speaker teacher who pretends that they do know is, to be honest, guessing, and one of my bugbears is the occasional lack of humility around all that.

    You possess the experience that every learner of English will have to go through. It is a real commodity that I do not have, and I think that it outweighs my major advantage.

    Perhaps there is a level above which non-natives can’t teach, but it must be an extraordinarily high level that most students would never aspire to. I tend to think that above B2, all I am really doing is showing the student interesting things, rather than actually teaching this successful language learner. I suspect that they already know how to learn the language, and it is presumptuous of me to try to get them to learn another way. There is, as you say, a point where all you can do is start noticing useful new phrases, ideas and shades of meaning, and picking up on those jazzy rhythms!

    On another note, it’s funny how people get comfortable using different languages in particular contexts. I remember being amazed when I visited a friend in Stockholm how the general conversations in cafes tended to switch between Swedish and English, depending on the topic being discussed. I could hear people unconsciously switching to talk about music and films in English, presumably because that’s the language they tended to read reviews in, and be thinking in when they watched / listened. Fascinating stuff, and an ability I really envy.

    • Hello Paul and I’m really glad you found your way back here! I appreciate your feedback a lot and I must admit that I kept reflecting on it for quite a while. You wrote “I suspect that they already know how to learn a language…” well, I loved this remark for many various reasons. Mainly because it made me ponder on the role of teacher in general and on my particular role with the students I currently teach in particular. It’s not only about knowing the subtleties of the language, it’s about helping them to learn how to learn, to try to infect them with the same bug that bit me 😉 So maybe my role is not simply to give them the basics, but most of all, to equip them with the tools that help them to discover further.
      I mean, it all sounds pretty basic when written down, but I guess all truths become real only if we reach them taking our very personal paths.

      And what’s more – reading your comment and then thinking about it in the light of one other post, the one of Adam on Slow Teaching (http://fiveagainstone.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/great-expectations-and-slow-teaching/), I feel I loosen the grip around the expectations I dictate to myself. It is not my responsibility to make my students fluent in English, how could I, but I sure have to help them get up and start walking comfortably on their own two feet.

      Cheers!

  2. Congratulations, Sirja, on everything you have done, are doing and will continue to do- because it is people like you that will always do great!!!
    Kisses from Zug,
    Eugenia

  3. So true Sirja, and really well written. As a native English speaker, teaching in a French speaking part of this country, I often get students telling me how difficult they find it to remember certain vocabulary, idioms and intonation. Fortunately I can identify with them and explain how difficult it was for me to learn to speak French – which I now use daily. However, I still make mistakes in the gender of words, which gives them a laugh sometimes and makes them feel less inadequate in English.
    I also agree with the fact that we connect each language we know to whatever situation or subject we are talking about. I use English with my children and grandchild as I was brought up in this language, and I teach it. I use French outside the home as it is my general environment, and I use Dutch when using numbers or when I’m exasperated as I went to school in Dutch. Sometimes I don’t even realise I’ve switched language until people look at me oddly!
    Language is a fascinating thing which, contrary to some people, I love listening to, even if I don ‘t understand a word. (like Estonian!) I try reading your little posts on facebook, but very few words are familiar and the translator is pretty hopeless! Maybe I shou ld get myself a little dogeared dictionary.
    Jane

    • Dear Jane,
      A big thank you for your comment! It’s great to share my thoughts, but it is absolutely exhilarating to receive feedback, to see that people actually read and reflect together with me. That makes me soooo happy!
      I make hilarious mistakes in French with my students all the time. But the effect is never negative, on the contrary, when they see me struggling with French, they seem to consider me as a true part of their group. They feel they need to help me too 🙂 They help me when I look for words, they correct me when I misuse articles, but most of the time they seem to regard it as something “cute” 😉
      I agree with you that languages are extremely fascinating. I don’t think there is a language I wouldn’t be interested in learning if I had time and money on my hands!

      PS – I didn’t know my Estonian posts were giving language work to someone 😉

      Hugs

  4. dear Sirja, I can relate to each word in your post. I am also a non-native teacher who is constantly trying to keep her language fresh and alive, reading and watching almost everything in English, having bad and good days, etc.
    I am now on maternity leave, and when I finally stopped having lessons (though I tried to keep at least several classes a week for as long as it was possible), I was about to be depressed. then I tried to find different ways to be as much in English environment as I could ..so now I try to listen to all the podcasts and books I can find in English, read English books abd blogs, and actually the blog I’ve recently started here, on WordPress, is also one of my ways not to forget my job and my language..
    Good luck with everything you do!

    Svetlana

    • Hello Svetlana,
      and what a pleasure to have you here! It seems we understand each other very well 😉
      I am all curious about your blog now and will definitely check it out. Enjoy your English language journey, but most of all, enjoy your little blessing 🙂

      Sunny greetings from the Alps and till next time!

  5. Hi Sirja,
    Thank you so much for sharing how you feel about being a non-native speaker. As Paul said, you have something we can never get.
    It’s great to see this from a non-native who is proud of being a non-native, rather than from natives (who while well-meaning, can sometimes come across as patronising) or from apoletog non-natives.
    Off to share your post now…
    Sandy

    • Dear Sandy, many sunny thanks for taking time to leave some of your thoughts here! Especially now as you must be quite exhausted after a week of sharing and learning in Liverpool.

  6. I think you are definitely right about you being a role model. Students can really look up to a teacher who has learned the language themselves.

    Still, my Spanish housemate joined an English course recently and found he had a teacher who was originally French. His first comment, depressingly, was “what’s the point in coming all the way to London to be taught English by a French person?”. However, after two weeks he grew to really like the classes. I think there can be an initial negative reaction to the idea of being taught by a non native speaker, especially from students who have traveled to study, but that over time it is the quality of the lessons that teachers will be judged on. Students may initially be thrilled to find a British teacher at the front of the class, but if the lessons suck, the thrill won’t last long!

    Also, although I see your point about teaching above B2 level, I recently took on an advanced class for the first time and I’m wondering if anyone is really qualified to teach this level! I thought my knowledge of language was pretty solid and my own English excellent, but I still often faulter when trying to recast what they’ve said into something correct (searching my mind for exactly the right piece of vocabulary for rare situations or trying to think which structure sounds most natural). And everyone comes across unknown vocabulary sometimes! Given your incredibly high standard of written English, I wonder if you’d actually be worse off in an advanced class than the average native speaker or not.

    • Hi Jonny, and thanks a lot for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. i appreciate that a lot.
      I absolutely agree that in the end it comes down to the quality of lessons, and the sole fact of being a non-native won’t keep classes full! My first English teacher at unisversity was an Estonian woman and I still remember the awe with which I listened to her … And her way of teaching left a deep imprint … It might even be that I still subconciously imitate her 😉
      Sunny cheers

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  8. Sirja,

    I am constantly astounded by the ability of non-native speaker teachers that I meet on my travels, even more so when you meet people whose English is amazing but who have never actually visited an English-speaking country. In contrast, native English speakers who speak another language well have usually lived in a country where the language is spoken.

    And yet, as you seem to imply, there is a deep-rooted belief amongst non-NESTs that they are somehow inferior to ‘the real thing’.

    The first thing I want to do is blow this belief out of the water because it’s nonsense. Native speaker teachers with little training or experience are often the worst people to learn English from, whereas a speaker of your own language teaching you English can be the best way to learn.

    Sirja, I’d be really pleased if you’d like to do a guest blog for me about the underlying doubts and fears of non-NEST teachers. If you’d like to do that, email me at kenwrite@btinternet.com

    Only if you have time, of course!

    And if you’re interested in a blog which is about the ‘delights’ of balancing being a parent and having a career, check out my daughter Anya’s blog: memoandjoepilates.wordpress.com

    • Hi Ken, and thanks a million for taking precious minutes from your busy schedule for popping in and leaving your thoughts here.
      I would be delighted to write the post and even more delighted to participate in my own little way in blowing the nonsense out of water 🙂

      • “even more delighted to participate in my own little way in blowing the nonsense out of water.”
        What a beautiful image.

        I’m grateful your 11 confessions led me to this post. I will show it to my teachers. I know they will connect with your story. One teacher recently shared her experience of how she learned English on her own without leaving the country. This is almost unheard of in Korea where there is an incredible belief that you need to go abroad to learn “proper” English. Sometimes parents send their children away to an English speaking country to learn. This teacher did it in Korea and is very proud she can share that story with her students. She wants them to see another way.

        And I second everything Ken said. 🙂 Thank you for being you!

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  10. Hi, Sirja

    Congrats on the reat post! As a teacher trainer first and foremost, and a NNEST at that, I find you thoughts delightful.

    I never really knew I was a non-native until I left my country of origin — well, of course, I did, but I had no idea that in other places it was considered a drawback. I was shocked, outraged, ashamed, outraged again, then defiant. Then I became obsessed with the topic and did my research. And it turns out, even so-called experts cannot really say that one is better than the other. Funnily enough, my fellow Hungarians argue that NNESTs are precious gems and their skills are to be taken advantage of…

    But there’s one thing all this taught me. We simply care too much. I’ve come to realize, while working on an academic career in wildly multilingual Switzerland, that there can easily be more differences between two NESTs than a native and a non-native. There are so many more variables to consider. And, fortunately, the industry seems to recognize this more and more. The battle seems — to me — to be more of a personal kind than truly institutional. It is the teacher whose attitude will matter eventually, since being uncomfortable with their own situation only projects an unauthentic image. No wonder they seem less professional and competent.

    I never apologize for my unique style or occasional slips of performance. They come from a very continental, very multilingual upbringing. I used to teach company courses, and I always told course participants about my background and told them they were free to ask for another teacher if they preferred. None did. Not necessarily because they loved me so much, but because they didn’t care about the difference. Later on many confessed to feeling more at ease with a non-native or thanked me for the kind of cultural values my classes were loaded with.

    All in all, I don’t think anyone expects us or our students to become native speakers. What would be the gain? Diversity brings choice and varied perspectives. And the fact that we (sometimes) THINK while speaking… well, that just might mean there’s less rubbish said. That could in itself be something to teach. 🙂

    I guess this has become something of a long rant. But I do feel the urge every time I see an opportunity to comfort a fellow NNEST. Because I do think this battle has been misdirected. Our aim is to provide students with educators who can teach them a) target language skills b) skills and values for life. If their teachers are cowling in shame or bursting with nationalist pride, they might accomplish the first, but not the latter. Being proud of who you are and showing respect for others is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects education. Languages are learned and forgotten. These skills are for life.

    Good luck with all your ventures, I’ll keep reading for sure.

    Bisous

    Fleur

    • Chère Fleur (how beautiful!)
      thank you so much for your wonderful comment. And no, it definitely isn’t a long and never ending rant but a beautiful collection of great thoughts and reflections!
      “I never apologize for my unique style or occasional slips of performance.” – well, me neither! I don’t think, or I can’t recall ever being apologetic in front of my students. And with the years I have actually grown fond of who I am 🙂 I guess the time of planting my roots here in Switzerland was the most fragile and tightly connected to identity-crisis. But now, after 13 years in the Alps, I have grown strong and having many different facets to who I am is no more a struggle but something I cherish. And I can only hope and imagine my students feel that.

      “And the fact that we (sometimes) THINK while speaking… well, that just might mean there’s less rubbish said. That could in itself be something to teach. ” – I absolutely LOVE that part!
      Makes me think of one of Hugh Dellar’s recent postshttp://hughdellar.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/twenty-things-in-twenty-years-part-seven-input-is-more-important-than-output/

      Thank you once again for taking the time and I would love to hear from you again!

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