Monday, September 20, 2010

Can You Be a Good Language Teacher if You’re Not Fluent?

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

Years ago, at one of the annual JALT (Japan Association of Language Teacher) Conventions, I attended a special session where a panel of experts fielded questions from the audience. One question that was asked was, Is it better to have a good teacher who is not fluent in English, or a mediocre teacher whose English is excellent?

It’s a good question, I think, and I certainly have my own answer (the former!). Often this question comes up in non-English speaking countries when fully qualified local teachers feel pushed out by unqualified native speakers.

However, it’s often not the question that schools or administrators have. Instead, the question might be, Is it better to have a good teacher who is not fluent in English… or not to have an English teacher at all? That’s a question that both influences the existence of English programs (and often that question gets settled by demand) and the self-confidence of teachers.

But I’m Not Fluent

I have personal experience with this, having taught—for years—a language I am not fluent in. I returned from a few years in Japan to take an ESL job at state university in the US. I was called in to see the Chair of the Foreign Languages Department about a week before classes started, and he asked me if I would teach the Japanese 101 class. Of course, the first thing I said was that I’m not fluent in Japanese. “But you were just living there,” he said. (Oh! Again the embarrassment of not having learned more! Does that ever really leave the non-fluent non-native speaker?) Rather than haul out my justifications and explanations, I just shrugged. My level was my level, and it wasn’t going to increase before Monday.

Do You Know Enough to Teach This Level?

He sat there for a moment, and then pulled out the textbook. “Do you know this much?” he asked. I thumbed through the pages for several minutes. Well… yes, actually, I did indeed know that much. In fact, I knew it quite well, because the Japanese that I had learned I had used over and over and over again, so it was solid. I couldn’t discuss the future of the United Nations, but by gosh, I had confidence in my ability to identify stationery items, report on the existence and ages of my siblings, and announce my job title and plans for the weekend.

What it boiled down to was this. He had a fully enrolled section of Japanese 101, and the native speaker teacher scheduled to take the class had just quit. Furthermore, some of the students in the class were seniors who had taken the class the year before and failed it—this was, therefore, their only chance to remove a failing grade from their transcript. And the choices for teachers seemed to be me… or no one. I said yes.

Be Clear About Your Language Level and Abilities

On the first day of class, after going over the usual information in the syllabus—name of textbook, office hours, grading policies—I told the students exactly how much Japanese I knew and how much I didn’t. Most of them, actually, looked quite uninterested; as long as I could teach this class, they didn’t really care about my nationality or non-native speaker status or inability to teach higher-level courses. Some students, though, did look a bit taken aback. So I put it to them exactly as it had been put to me: Their choice was me as a teacher, or no Japanese class. I also assured them that I was an experienced, competent foreign language teacher. I pointed out when the last day to switch classes was, and suggested that they give the class a chance, because they were certainly free to leave if it did not meet their expectations.

No students quit (although a few more added), and at the end of the semester, it was the students who asked me to teach the following semester; and then to teach the second year. I taught the first two years then for the entire time I stayed at that university.

It would be nice to report that while I was teaching the class, I also improved my own level of Japanese through intensive study. But that didn’t happen. I had my ESL classes, I had a young child, I was working on a Ph.D. Life stuff. I think that’s pretty common—while a teacher is in the midst of a full-time teaching job, it’s not so easy to find the time to work on his or her own education at the same time.

Get Support When You Need It

I compensated for my shortcomings where I could. I invited Japanese students in to help with pronunciation. However, I made it clear that these students were my assistants, not my replacements. They had the sounds, but I had the teaching techniques, and I let the class see me setting up the exercises and activities so they knew what role I was playing. When I designed worksheets that were, well, at the edges of my ability, I made sure a native Japanese speaker proofread them for me, so that I was not passing out anything that contained errors. If I couldn’t find a Japanese student on campus, I emailed a friend overseas. And so on.

It’s far worse, I think, to pretend you can’t make any mistakes than to be very clear with both yourself and your class what your abilities are. Students, after all, should be able to respect a non-fluent language learner, since they themselves are non-fluent language learners. But no one respects people who pretend to a skill they don’t have.

Results Build Confidence

The biggest challenge was to my confidence. Even knowing that I was the only choice, I felt sometimes as if I had no right to be in that classroom. I wasn’t fluent! I couldn’t always answer questions outside the textbook (although I knew how to find the answers). What got me back on track when I felt that way was looking at my students. When they entered my class, they knew no Japanese. When they left, they knew some. (Several went on to spend their junior year in Japan, and came back knowing more than I do!) The classes worked because I was a teacher, not because I was (or wasn’t) fluent in Japanese.

Just to be clear—I am not suggesting that an imperfect knowledge of the language is somehow better than a fluent knowledge of the language. Of course not. What I am saying is that fluency is not always necessary to teach a language. You need to know the level you propose to teach, and, to be comfortable, a decent bit above that level. You need to be a good transmitter of information and skills and strategies and enthusiasm and purpose. You need to be honest about what you can and cannot offer.

I do a lot of teacher training these days in other countries, and I sometimes encounter teachers who want to apologize for not being perfect in English. Our first conversations, therefore, are often not about English or even teaching, but about confidence and purpose. If there are non-fluent teachers reading this post, I want to say to you: Look hard at yourself and figure out what you can do; and then be proud of what you do.


Comment from Masoud Mehrjouei
September 20, 2010 at 11:37 pm

I think you are right.After teaching English in Iran for years I believe that even among non native English teachers fluency is not as important as technic. I mean those teachers who know more technics are absolutly more successful.

Comment from Sarah Yin
September 22, 2010 at 10:26 pm

I enjoyed what you have said here.I am NOT a non-native speaker of English but I’ve teaching English in Taipei, Taiwan since 1989. I cant tell you how greately I agreed with what you said. Being a language teacher for so long and a language learner on and off few times, I always asked myself what kind of teacher I would like myself to be in front of my students. I havent studied overseas at all and I had always thought that would not be PERSUASIVE enough to present myself as a QUALIFIED language teacher till one time, one of my students said to me, “I wish you were my first English teacher.” That boosted my confidence in being A GOOD AND BETTER teacher later on. I have always loved English since I was a student and because of teaching, I have never stopped learning more and more about English or how to use English better as a native speaker. When people told me they thought I must have studied in an English-speaking country when they heard me speak English, I couldnt help but wonder, “A non-native speaker of English can surely become a qualified English teacher as long as he/she enjoys doing his/her job and never stops learning.” Professional knowledge is a must of course but one can always learn as long as he/she has a heart in teaching. Thank you for what you have shared here.

Comment from Dorothy Zemach
September 25, 2010 at 3:56 am

@Masoud: You have a good point. Sometimes people confuse “knowing English well” with “being an effective teacher,” and they are not the same! And of course we’re not saying that fluency isn’t a big help. However, it is not the only trick in the bag.

@Sarah: Exactly! I think it helps to take a step back sometimes and think about the basic goals. What do you want your students to gain from your classes? I want mine to 1) know more English than when they started, and 2) know more about how to learn English than when they started–that is, I want them to learn both English and *how to learn* English, so they can continue outside of class and after class has finished. Of course, there are more and smaller goals for every class, but those are my main ones.

And really, aren’t non-native teachers an inspiring model for non-native students?

Comment from kalim
December 28, 2010 at 4:35 am

I’m really impressed when I read this article; first by your commitment as a teacher and then as an explicitly soft writer.I wish I could write like you.
May I share something professional with you.I’m an ESL teacher. thanks

Comment from Dorothy
December 29, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Kalim, you’re welcome to find me on Facebook (Dorothy Zemach). I have quite a few ESL teacher friends there!

Comment from lina
January 11, 2011 at 8:34 pm

i’d like to thank you for highlighting these points. All these years i’ve been thinking what is missing in me…as a teacher. I used to teach English, but always have no confidence in teaching and I can’t figure out why I feel that way. So, I decided to stop teaching and find another job. I am holding an English teaching degree and TESOL certificate (an intensive 1 month course) and used to live overseas for about 8 years. However, I always feel incapable to teach even to elementary students, because I am not a native. Reading your post is like an eye opener for me. Thank you for sharing.

Comment from Dorothy
January 11, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Ah, Lina, and that’s the biggest harm of that attitude–that the profession loses teachers like you! Perhaps some day, though, you will find yourself teaching English again. This profession has a way of catching you by surprise sometimes.

Comment from Sheila
May 7, 2012 at 2:13 am

I was really inspired by your post. 🙂 I’ve always questioned my ability to speak and teach English though in my country, the Philippines, we consider English as one of our official languages. Thank you for this really nice post. It helped me trust myself more as an English teacher. ^_^

Comment from naleeni
September 27, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Reading this post has just a touched a cord in me, with regards to our current situation in Malaysia. Teachers were made to sit for a Cambridge Proficiency Test and abt 70% of them have been found to be NOT proficient! It certainly has not been taken well by many as there was an air of secrecy in revealing the findings to the tested themselves! I certainly wish for a more open selection process to put better qualified teachers in our classrooms 🙂

Comment from Dorothy
September 27, 2012 at 11:46 pm

It’s a tricky issue, Naleeni. As you can see from my article, I think non-proficient speakers can still be good teachers of English. But it depends on whether they are proficient teachers, of course (which is harder to test) and also whether they are teaching the right levels.

But goodness, certainly those tested should be told how they did! And given a chance to discuss openly with their administrators whether they are teaching the correct levels (and if not, what can be done about it).

Comment from Dennis
June 16, 2013 at 12:11 am

Thanks for this terrific article. There is this idea out there that one’s language skills are useless unless one is “fluent” (I and and many linguists don’t like the word fluent, it’s not very precise, but it is such a popular term). It’s as if language learners jump from beginner to fluent and nothing in between. But what about intermediate and advanced-level speakers? Are their skills not useful as a language tutor or teacher? I think this article makes it clear language speakers at these other levels CAN be good tutors and teachers. They also have an added advantage over native speakers; they can share the pitfalls and problems, and the things that helped them learn along the way, experiences a native speaker might not have. Thanks again for this great article.

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