Language experts: a rare breed

I was in Germany last week to present busuu at a conference in lovely Cologne. The conference attendees were language experts who work for large German companies, advising on and implementing language training programs to employees.

It was refreshing to attend a conference which was populated by people who know at least as much – and in some cases a great deal more – than me about language teaching and learning. It’s often oddly dissatisfying to present your product to people who are impressed by the mere fact that a language course can be squeezed on to an app, or that voice recognition technology is a thing that exists. The questions I received were great:  detailed, highly engaged and perceptive. I came away with some useful feedback and recommendations for a couple of books and papers to read – definitely a first.

Back in London, my team are somewhat resigned to the fact that, as language experts in the UK, few people other than polyglots and other language experts are interested enough to engage with our work below a surface level. That’s why it’s so important to have conferences like IATEFL and InnovateELT to attend, and to have a good network of peers on Twitter to share ideas with. The optimist in me hopes that, post-Brexit, there might be a resurgence of interest in language learning in Britain. If you want to make a defiantly pro-Europe move, learning an additional language seems like a good one.

Who makes the best language teacher?

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.)


What are the real products of our work?

I was on the Northern Line recently, wedged up next to a Brazilian student and a Spanish student. I know their nationalities because I was intently earwigging their conversation and listening to them talk about their respective countries in English.

As a former EFL teacher and a creator of online language courses, I love to listen to people from non-English speaking countries talk to each other. I’m quite far away from the customers who buy the products I work on, and occasional encounters of this kind show me the results of my work. More and more people are communicating with each other in English (far more non-native speakers than native speakers), and it’s nice to feel like a part of that.

The boy and girl I was listening in to were having an animated discussion about soup. The girl came from the far north of Brazil and was trying to describe a local delicacy – a soup made from manioc. She was trying to describe some of the ingredients for this soup, and the plants they come from. At one point she was trying to think of the English word for ‘leaf’. I know this because she could say ‘tree’ and ‘branch’ and was sketching the things you get on the end of branches in the air, and saying the Portuguese word for them. At this point, the bad teacher in me was desperate to lean over and say ‘leaves’ to the two, but having learnt to elicit, not lecture, I held off. After some more thinking, the boy remembered the word ‘leaf’. I did a little somersault of joy inside: English teachers just love it when students come up with the language without prompting.

manioc leaves

Soon after, the girl made to get off the train, but before she did they made a very careful plan to meet up later, repeating the place and the time in English over and over again. They were clearly very keen to see each other again as soon as possible, and I detected perhaps the beginning of something more than a friendship between fellow students.

This got me thinking about the real products of what I do. I tend to think of the results of my work as being more and better speakers of English, but what goes along with this? Business deals and partnerships are forged. Directions to interesting places are given on street corners and in town squares. Hungry people order food. Interested people can read stories and access all kinds of information online. Students at all levels can take courses and grow their knowledge. Friendships are made. Love affairs blossom. Babies are born.

It was nice to be jolted along in that tube carriage, thinking of all the things I’ll never know that my daily toils have contributed to; the real products of my work.

(This article was originally published March 29, 2011.)