Almost sixteen years ago I moved to Shanghai to teach English as a foreign language. TEFL has underpinned everything I’ve done in my work since then and I still think of myself first and foremost as a language teacher.
Quite early on in my first year of teaching I had a conversation with a local teacher, Lilia, which taught me an important lesson. Lilia spoke English flawlessly, with a pure Valley Girl accent, despite being Chinese and never having left China. Everyone who met her assumed she was American Born Chinese (ABC) but, in fact, her English had been gleaned from devoted study and diligent watching and mimicry of American movies.
Lilia told me it was her firm belief that non-native speakers made the best language teachers. I bristled at this at first. After all, I’d been speaking English since I was a child. I understood it inside out. Surely I was the best model for my students? But by then I had also started to study Mandarin and I found that understanding the complexities of both my students’ native language and the complexities of really trying to communicate in an unfamiliar language made me an infinitely better teacher.
So, yes, I found myself agreeing for the most part. The best language teachers are those who not only understand the language they are trying to teach, but who understand what it involves to go through acquiring that language in the first place. I had forgotten the joys and the pains of learning English. In any case, I had had years and years to acquire it, whereas my students had to cram their learning into short bursts of an hour or so a week – not the same process at all.
Lilia was a better teacher than me because she had a much more acute understanding of the struggles her students were going through, and because she provided indelible proof to them that fluency in English was an achievable goal for a Chinese person.
(A version of this article was first published in February 2011.)