Why ESL teachers don’t speak other languages

(Updated May 2015.)

Almost every English teacher I’ve met has tried and given up learning another language. Sometimes they manage to get to a level where they can have a basic conversation, but it hardly ever progresses beyond there. They might have taken classes while living overseas, but these inevitably lead to excuses that “it’s actually a really hard language” or “I was OK with the grammar but I couldn’t get my speaking to improve”.

Why does this happen? Aren’t we supposed to be experts in this area?

Think about this for a moment. Language teaching is the only educational field in which the people who are supposed to be teaching actually have less experience doing the thing they’re teaching than the students. A tutor at med school has at least finished med school, a soccer coach has trained for years and grown the brain tissue necessary to be good at soccer, but an English teacher, in most cases, has no idea what it’s like to learn English as a second language.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to non-native teachers, who deserve much more respect than they’re given. But even non-natives, if they’re very good, likely didn’t learn English the same way they’re teaching it. It’s more likely they learned through a much more coherent and effective process involving massive amounts of context-based input, output and constant feedback, along with well-planned study methods and ways to deal with dwindling motivation. This is exactly what most native teachers fail to do when they learn other languages.

So how are we supposed to learn languages?

Unless you have spent time seeking an answer to this question on the Internet, you may not be aware of the online community that exists solely for this purpose. There is a vast, hidden world of language geeks, polyglots and dabblers who have used themselves as test subjects and shared the methods that worked for them. There are countless blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels and forums dedicated to the task of making the language-learning process more efficient. You hardly have to step foot into this world to find a wealth of such resources. All it takes is a Google search.

English teachers generally have no idea about all this. They live in a very different world, a world in which the only ways to study languages involve classes, textbooks, worksheets and drills, and — if you’ve got any time left over after class — practising speaking, reading, listening and writing (“just have fun with it!”). Talk to the average ESL teacher and mention any of the tools and techniques constantly discussed online, such as shadowing, mimicking, intensive vs. extensive listening/reading, mnemonics, spaced repetition, and self-study courses. You will be met with a blank look, because these things come from a different world: the world of learning, not teaching.

The average ESL teacher is not used to playing the role of a language learner. Their skills and knowledge are inherently centred on lesson planning, classroom management, and presenting language — things that make them a better teacher — rather than the skills that a student needs to learn languages effectively.

Is it any wonder, then, that most teachers struggle to master languages in their own lives?

Meanwhile, the few diligent ESL students, who long for a way to become more efficient learners, tragically believe that their teacher is the best person to consult on this topic. “Teacher, how can I improve my vocabulary? How can I improve my listening?”

Asking such a person for language-learning tips is like asking a person for travel tips for a city they’ve never been to. “Um, Paris? I heard the Eiffel Tower is good. And the Louvre, definitely go to the Louvre.” It would be more honest and helpful to admit that we really don’t know much about learning languages, but that would be unthinkable — after all, we’re supposed to be experts! Better to seem like we know what we’re talking about. I know some books with the word “vocabulary” in the title, so I’ll recommend those. That’ll do. Here, have more worksheets.

This textbook approach works for a tiny minority of motivated students who enjoy picking apart grammatical structures and doing exercises, and can apply that knowledge when they speak. But it is treated as a one-size-fits-all solution, and anyone who has difficulty with it is told to do more.

But it’s we who have to do more. In fact, now that we have the Internet, a lot of what passes for English teaching is redundant. Vocabulary and grammar worksheets are freely available online, movies and TV shows are there on YouTube, and self-study courses abound. If students knew where to find all this, they would probably prefer not to pay us to just photocopy and hand it out.

Most likely, your students are taking classes because

  1. they prefer a classroom environment, and/or
  2. they don’t know how to learn English

If it’s (1), we need to ask ourselves what students can get from a classroom that they can’t easily get somewhere else. Motivation, structure, and a chance to practise speaking and listening strike me as the most obvious. These deserve a high place in our list of priorities.

If it’s (2), we can show them how to learn languages by themselves. This is the greatest gift we can give them, and one that will likely outlast the friendships they make at school. It involves knowing how to optimise their learning, how to create a practice regimen, how to deal with motivation problems, and how to find stuff in English that isn’t mind-numbingly boring or too difficult.

Most if not all teacher training focuses solely on addressing (1). But it fails miserably with (2), and this is a problem that is set to become more glaring as the information age progresses. A person with a smartphone and laptop who wants to learn a language now has no barriers in front of them. The problem is that they don’t know what they need, or how to find it. That’s where you come in.

If you don’t know how to do this, are you really qualified to be answering people’s questions about improving their English? You can’t teach people how to learn if you don’t know how to do it yourself.

Gleaning even a few kernels of this knowledge would benefit both you and your students. The good news is that there’s nothing stopping you from taking it.