I have a confession to make. My Japanese is pretty crappy. There, I’ve said it.

I mean, I can read a menu. I can figure out what’s going on when I watch a movie or join a conversation about everyday topics. I can go shopping and get around. And in my defence, Japanese has three writing systems, one of which contains thousands of ideograms. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking how great it would be to be able to read a whole newspaper….

I can think of several reasons why a language teacher should also be a language student.

  1. It makes one more empathetic towards the students.
  2. It helps understanding of WHY students make certain mistakes with English
  3. It enables the teacher to use L1 in the classroom
  4. It sets a good example for the students

A serious question of priorities. Ideally, I would study Japanese, teach, do classroom research, publish and present, spend time with my friends and family, watch the football, keep up my photography, and go to the gym. Some of you self-disciplined scoundrels manage it all, I know. But if you are native speaker of the language you teach, do you think it is more important to study another language, or to engage in professional development activities? Which, ultimately, makes you a better language teacher?

(I can read most of these signs…)

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21 Thoughts on “the illiterate teacher

  1. Right now, teaching preschool classes full time for a while, learning Korean would be the most useful of all possible CPD things I could do. It won’t, however, be any use for my long term teaching career nor give me ideas I can write about, so probably still won’t happen…

  2. Alan Tait on November 12, 2009 at 12:09 am said:

    Agree totally! Well said.

    Furthermore having a teacher who is trying to get to grips with students’ L1 might give them a better point of view (mirror?) of their own situation. They hear you clunking around their phonological system like Frankenstein’s monster, and sometimes think ‘Well if he sounds like that in L1, do I sound like that in English?’.

    As you said at point 4, having a teacher who is willing to have a go is an infinitely better example than one whose attitude is ‘I’ll be buggered if I’m going to make a fool of myself in front of the class.’

    Kudos for having a go at Japanese – must be a damn sight harder that Spanish or Galician, even though I have to learn the two of them.

  3. Most of what I have learnt has been through necessity and osmosis… actually going to classes or picking up books happens sporadically but when I am doing that I KNOW I am a better teacher. It just gives you a different perspective. I came up with one of my better teaching ideas through my own frustration at keeping up with everything my teacher wrote on the board and listening to her at the same time.

    But even though I tell my students to keep vocabulary notebooks, I won’t betaking my kanji cards onto the train this morning…I’ve got marking to do. And what use is all that advice if you don’t follow it yourself?

    I’m thinking about taking an intensive course next summer, during the school break, to kick start the Japanese again…

  4. And this is where I ‘fess up and say, I was learning German… until it got to a reasonable enough level where I could get by pretty good… so PreInt more or less, and then I started my website.. and then I started my blog and I’ve got so much on my plate, like you writing materials and presenting and running workshops and running e-communities and teaching 30ue a week and the gym… me too and then there’s twitter and I will now quietly leave your blog thinking, when am I going to study more German?

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  6. Thank god…you ARE human Karenne! ;-P

    This is the problem, right? You learn what you need. It wasn’t so long ago that I knew all the words for ‘contractions’, ‘midwife’, ‘umbilical cord’ and so on, with that pressing, communicative NEED … but at home, we only speak English. At work, everyone speaks English. And if I’m out and about, I can get by.

    Please, more confessions. Come one, come all!

    (on a serious note, as I’ve mentioned before I think the teacher’s language ability is the number one driving force in attitudes towards L1 in class. Those who can’t use it won’t, but only then will they scuttle off and find pedagogical justification in their dusty journals.)

  7. I believe I am the only non-native EFL teacher who has left a comment here (so far). So, this is what I have to say: it doesn’t matter how well you can speak L1, it is the fact that you are making the effort that counts. If you use a bit of L1 in class, even if it is not perfect (especially if it is not perfect), they’ll love it. Yes, it will make you more vulnerable if you make a mistake, but who needs a perfect teacher anyway?
    You say learning L1 gives you a better perspective and I agree. I have a couple of stories that I often share with my students (like the first time I went to Britain convinced my English was excellent and I couldn’t understand a word of what people were saying to me. Or how I used to be terrible at spelling). It gives them hope that they too will learn English well one day. You have no such stories to share, but you can always tell them how difficult their language is.

  8. Thanks Natasa, I think this is an advantage that non-native speakers can have over native speakes…nnest’s are all succsessful language learners whilst nest’s are not necessarily. More credible than a monolingual, no? It’s more troublesome for me because I tend to focus on learner training and autonomy rather than pure language work…can I claim expertise?

  9. I think being able to speak the learner’s native language is very useful when it comes to teaching. I hardly ever use Japanese in the classroom but when I do it’s usually to speed things up. If I can give them the answer to something in Japanese that I know they don’t know in English, when finding out the answer for themselves isn’t that important, I’ll do it. It saves time so that we can jump onto the subject of the day. The students often feel relaxed too when they know that they can use Japanese if they really need too. One of the first questions a new student usually asks me is how did you learn Japanese and they seem to like it when they know the person teaching them is, or has been, in the same boat.

    But outside the classroom I’m still amazed at how many non-Japanese speaking foreigners get by on a daily basis. Life is so much easier, and quality of life is so much better living abroad if you can communicate with the locals. That must help keep the stress levels down that everyone experiences when living abroad, and lower stress levels for the teacher ultimately benefit the students too.

    Put simply, I think it’s an obligation to try and learn the local language when living abroad. It benefits everyone.

  10. I made my opinions on this clear elsewhere, but I find it very important. I mean, if I know how to teach a language, I definitely know how to learn one and I don’t feel it requires so much effort if you are living in the country where the language is spoken. I have to admit, I’m constantly shocked by how many long terms teachers in a country speak so little of the language. The biggest problem is, English at work, English at home, like you said Darren.

    I don’t find that you need to study as much as you just need to get out their and communicate. I am not a linguistically gifted person, but I know the language learning tips I give in class work because I use them. It took me about 6 months to become conversational in Turkish and I my level of Vietnamese was far above almost every other teacher living their in only month because I constantly used it when I went out. After spending a week in a foreign country I am generally able to count to 100, do simple greetings, and handle simple restaurant and hotel situations. The thing is, I make the effort while everyone else doesn’t bother because they won’t be staying so long or they don’t feel a pressing need to learn. Listen, copy, speak. That’s my motto.

    Like Karenne, I recently found myself stuck though. I speak only Turkish at home with the wife and on the street, but I recently needed to start using it at work to communicate with my Turkish only speaking staff. I’ve found that it’s actually difficult. The language just doesn’t come to me because, although I know most of it, I’m not used to the vocab, grammar structures, and formality used in office speak.

    Personally, I don’t think it’s so difficult to make the effort, so I think everyone should. All the benefits you mentioned are true. All our obligations and our immersion in English-speaking environments can make this difficult, if our students can work full-time and learn English, we have no excuse for not being able to do the same.

  11. *in only one month

  12. Thanks Sean…full disclosure, Sean is a friend of mine in REAL LIFE who has impeccable Japanese skills. I have no doubt that they make you a better teacher, and as you mentioned to me recently Sean, a lot of people learn more just by living than they do in a classroom.

    Nick – yup, I agree. We speak English at home for the kids, so that is something you might have to consider in the longer term. Now the older one speaks great English (at two and a half) because he has a grounding, but as soon as he gets to school the Japanese will obviously go through the roof.

  13. Most days, I think of myself as a high-functioning illiterate in Japanese 🙂

    I can usually suss out what’s happening in a news article about a foreign topic, but that’s largely because of good context clues, background knowledge (the same story is also probably being broadast on CNN) and that some of the key information is in katakana. With a story about the Japanese government, I get a sense of being able to understand the verb endings (since they are in hiragana) but not the main verbs (since my Japanese government kanji really sucks).

    One of my best friends did a JALT workshop after I’d been in Japan for a couple of years where he demonstrated how to teach Control Language in our classes (More slowly, please. Pardon me? What does X mean? etc.). Luckily for me, he did it in Japanese so we could feel like students. Knowing how to work my way around Japanese I didn’t understand was a turning point for me!

    Since I’ve never done a serious job of studying the language, I have Swiss cheese holes in my language knowledge that I fall into sometimes. For example, after moving back to Japan after 7 years in the US, I went to Daiei. The cashier asked if I’d like to sign up for a loyalty card. When I started to fill out the form, it hit me that I didn’t remember how to write my name–I hadn’t written Japanese in 7 years and had lost it. It’s not like Sakamoto is the toughest kanji out there, and if I had glanced at it for 2 seconds I would have been fine. But I didn’t glance, and for the life of me couldn’t remember the strokes for “saka.” 15 years ago, I probably would have been mortified. But, I don’t mortify easy anymore, so I just laughed and explained that “I haven’t written my name in 7 years and have forgotten how” (which sounds just as silly in Japanese as it does in English). Then, the older cashier and I both got a chuckle when the young casher had to use her cell phone to look up the kanji for my name.

    I have a bookshelf of Japanese books that I still plan to study, one of these days. In the meantime, my mistakes (hopefully) make my students feel more free to make their own.

  14. Great story Barbara! And what are you going to do, right? I have a friend who has been here for several years, but she speaks English to everyone with a big smile and has a blast. I’m always astonished, when I hang out with her, how many people can actually speak English in Japan. (She knows more than she lets on, though.)

    I love buying Japanese textbooks. Just buying them, mind you.

  15. I totally understand the predicament. Japanese must be a huge challenge!! It’s a very pragmatic consideration, I’d say. But how are you going to deal with things down the line? Do you plan to go back “home” at some point? Or continue on to another country? Local and international expat subcultures are a great help – but are they enough? I wouldn’t have “understood” Germany if I hadn’t become completely proficient in the language and culture – I’d feel alienated from my surroundings – not good for the psyche – and I’m pretty sure I would have left long ago. So what does the future hold for you?

  16. This is home Anne. It’s not even a question, really. The answer is obvious. But writing and research will have to take a back seat if I focus on my own language skills.

  17. Ty Kendall on November 18, 2009 at 12:29 am said:

    Hello Darren!

    Even though i find myself frequently disagreeing with you on Ken’s blogs, i am in total agreement with you here!
    I studied languages long before i had an interest in language teaching (when i was a kid basically) and i have found my reflections as a language student to be invaluable in learning how to teach.

    There’s nothing like actually knowing that feeling of frustration when you are trying to get a word out or use a barely recalled grammar structure to help you empathise with your students.

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  19. In training, one if our trainers taught us an example class in Japanese. We then had to teach the same class in English. It was a real eye opener. I think learning the L1 of your students is very useful for a lot of the points already mentioned. I don’t usually recommend things to people unless I’ve personally done it myself and seen if it works or not. There are tons of ways to study but some are more effective than others. I feel strange recommending a study technique that I haven’t personally tried.

    I also can’t push my students to take tests if I’ve never taken one. I’m attempting nikyu (intermediate level, 1000 Chinese characters, 4500? Words) again this year after failing miserably last year. It’s gruelling and unforgiving but at least I get a glimpse into what it is like for them.

    It’s also useful for classroom management. There is nothing that makes a student stop using Japanese in class more than by commenting in English on something that they have Just said in Japanese. 🙂

    However, having said that. Do I strike up conversations with people in Japanese? Can I read the newspaper? No not at all. My speaking skills are horrible.

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  21. Ty – Glad we agree on this one! (I think we can probably find common ground on plenty of issues)

    Neal – I think we might be about the same level. I can certainly understand what my students are whispering to each other, but I very rarely speak Japanese.

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