By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
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.