Language learning

The curse of the native speaker


My father was an excellent sportsman: national and provincial teams, trophies and cups. The whole nine yards. To his ultimate chagrin, none of his children were interested in sharing this passion with him. In fact, we all actively avoided sports.

With hindsight I can see why - a ball anywhere near him turned an otherwise affable and gentle parent into an irritable and demanding task-master, impatient with failure. Learning from him was a nightmare.

My father isn't an anomaly - some of our finest champions are remembered more for their failed careers as coaches than their amazing on-field skills. Here are a few examples. You might have a few personal experiences along these lines too. Champion performance doesn't lead inevitably to success at imparting it to others.

Fuzzy logic?

Now of course it's natural to expect from our teachers proficiency in whatever it is they are teaching. You may wish for a golf coach who is a reasonable golfer himself. You wouldn't want your child to learn to swim from a teacher who is afraid of water.

To some extent, this thinking is the basis of the controversial preference for native speakers. If you would like to learn English, who better than an Englishman, right? But clearly something is wrong with this line of reasoning. Being able to speak English is probably not enough to make you a good English teacher. Why not?

To answer this, let's go back to the sports metaphor. Champions have talent, an innate and intuitive 'feel' for things. Perhaps they cannot recall what it is like to lack unfailing control over every muscle and nerve as they move elegantly towards their next winning shot.

Beginners, however, experience a chaos of competing instructions that crowd out any possibility of success. Keep your head down. Watch the ball. Lift your chest. Relax your shoulders. Bend your legs. Back straight! Ah forget it.

How is this related to language learning?

The learning process

Well, there are two elements to leaning English: first, the English, and second, the learning. Let's think of English as the product, the end point; and learning as the process, the way we get there. While you certainly want someone who is good at English to teach English, what about the issue of the process of learning.

For this, perhaps it's useful to have a teacher with proficiency (or at least experience) in language learning. Let's face it - language learning is stressful stuff. There are words to memorize, grammar codes to figure out, rules that can't be broken, messages that have to be decoded and recoded, strange contortions of the lips and tongue, and frustration as everything comes out back to front.

A teacher who has gone through this pain, suffering and torture themselves provides compassionate company for the learners as they go through it too.

Learning from a teacher who is proficient at English, then, is probably not enough. A teacher needs to know the process of learning, as well as the end product.

Language learning problems

And here's the rub - native English speakers are often monolinguals, and can be notoriously reliant on their English language to see them through a life of international travel.

Many teachers I've met over the years have had every intention of learning a language, but somehow there's just so much to do. That's potentially a problem. If you are working with language learners, but haven't engaged in language learning yourself, is your view of the learning process properly balanced? Are you missing a chunk of experience that might aid you in being a better teacher of languages?

It's for this reason that I really I enjoyed reading the blogs by Bangkok Phil describing the pain and pleasure he experienced as a student of Thai.

This blog by Mike Curl lists a number of advantages of knowing the local lingo. And he's right, but there's more. As a language teacher, the experience of language learning, successful or not, is a valuable investment: it make us more attuned to our students' endeavors, and gives us insights into how intrinsically rewarding learning a language can be.

It's not so much that we can hear what our students are saying, but that we can feel what they are feeling.


Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.

You may also be interested in....Native vs non-native speaking teachers Who would you employ?

Comments

Sam, Bangkok...

What you have written is probably the most entertaining, most accurate and most pleasurable read I have had in years.

Your view is spot on and should be required reading for all TEFL 'program graduates'.

Thank you for making my day!

By Mark Newman, Irving (6 months ago)

I'll be honest I get really annoyed when teachers say "Learn another language and you'll understand the difficulties of your students". I find it to be trite and totally one sided. Languages are difficult. Saying they're difficult doesn't change anything.

"I've been studying Japanese two hours a week for 10 years, and now I'm fluent" said no one ever. You can't just turn up to class and expect to learn. 'You' have to try. And you have to try damn hard!

When I was younger I had French lessons. I studied French for about 7 years. How's my French now? Non-existent. Why? Because I simply couldn't be bothered to learn it. I had zero interest and didn't listen. Was my teacher bad? No. She did her best but there was no effort from my end. I didn't listen and I didn't care. Should my teacher have motivated me more? How? She was in a class of 25 kids. She had her work cut out enough already as it was.

Someone once said to me "The kids will learn with or without you". Meaning don't take too much credit for their learning. The guy who said it to me was an idiot who cared more about his bottom line and ego than anything else.

So....if the kids will learn with or without you - how is it that some kids have been learning English since kindergarten but still can't even answer "What's your name?". They've had different English teachers. They can't all have been bad. Oh! is it maybe because the student couldn't care less about learning English. Am I supposed to magically find the time to motivate this student. If that student can't be motivated, I've failed that student, right? Have I b*****.

Teachers here are thrown into classes with 35+ kids. All mixed levels. Most teachers have very few resources, have kids in class who not only don't listen, but talk when the teacher is talking. When I was a kid, if I talked when the teacher was talking, I'd have been thrown out of class. My parents would have been called and my father would have given me a whack and said "don't talk in class!". If you don't wanna listen in class then that's up to you, but you won't disrupt the other kids from learning. Kids here so often just talk when you're teaching. I was told once not to send the kids outside because they'll be missing out. So what? Just keep saying "Be quiet every other 10 seconds? No. Put your arm around the child and say "Look, buddy. Your behaviour isn't acceptable". I was actually told to do that. Em.... A; that kid probably won't understand a word that's coming out of my mouth, and B: why do I always have to pander to the disruptive kids? Why are they getting most of my time and attention. There are a lot of kids here who actually wanna learn.

As for teacher trainers, well, they're employed to train teachers. That's their job and I'm sure most are good at it. They all have the qualifications and have studied hard. But, if you put them in a typical Thai classroom, the kids would just run rings around them. I believe most simply couldn't do the job. But again, their primary job is to train teachers.

Unfortunately, a lot of what the teacher trainers have studied doesn't apply to Thailand. You shouldn't have 35+ kids in a class. A lot of the kids when with their Thai teacher just sit quietly, pretend to listen and copy off the board. When they come to English class with a foreign teacher, they see it as a release. Have some fun. Not too serious, teacher. The buck has to stop with education system here.

I take my hat off to any teacher with integrity. All you can do is learn as you go along and try your best. The odds are often against you, and the onus seems to be on you if the kids aren't learning, but you still work hard and try. Instead of people laying blame on teachers all the time; let's call a spade a spade. The education system here is for the most part horrible. There is no such thing as a perfect classroom nor teacher.

One last thing. If you really wanna learn something, you will. Even if you only learn a little, you will learn something. If you don't listen and don't wanna make the effort, you won't learn anything. There's only so much a teacher on a 40k salary can do until 'you' realise 'The teacher is a guide. If you wanna learn, 'YOU' have to make the effort.


By Sam, Bangkok (6 months ago)

Jack,

Nice to see your response. I like my job very much but my main point was that Thailand does very little to encourage quality people to teach in their system. Therefore, having dedicated teachers who really want to improve themselves on a daily basis by say learning Thai or engaging in the academic literature (ahhh what a bore) is only going to happen in the urban centres where people pay more and thus expect more from language teaching. So a lot of articles do not reflect the reality in most of Thailand. I give you an example we had a Japanese teacher who could speak Thai great and was dedicated yet she was offered half the money most of us got and yet she had skills. So yes it would be great if every teacher learnt some Thai so they could understand what students go through however I am worried it is only the privileged kids who get to experience quality teaching however the rampant jealously and corrupt promotion practices mean that the best teachers become a cog in the system and you end up having to take care of your own skin.

By Craig, Maha Sarakham (6 months ago)

Thanks Otto for the useful feedback. We will add trainer profiles to the website, as you are right that these may be a useful addition.

By Steve, Chichester College (6 months ago)

I just stumbled across this and was curious what he had to say. Having studied a dozen languages and observed a few things about the teacher training courses here in LOS, I believe he has a point. I followed the link to his employer's website wondering what his qualifications were, but didn't find much in the way of a description of the trainers there. Indeed, I would be curious to see Phil do an article on the typical academic qualifications of all of the trainers in "training programs" in LOS. How 'bout it, Phil?

By Otto Jespersen, Cambridge (6 months ago)

Craig

You don't like your job, you think you are underpaid and underappreciated and you think the Thai educational system should change to fit your wants and priorities. I got it, but still not sure what your rants have to do with the article as written.

By Jack, In front of my computer (6 months ago)

You are so right the process of learning is the most important thing to learn if you want to be an effective teacher of anything, not just English. This person is channelling me!!

Steve

By Steve, Abu Dhabi (6 months ago)

I think there is a lot of sense in what has been said. Jack made some good points and I myself try to not 'bash' Thais because there are a whole host of reasons why students don't learn well and it is linked also to the British too and our lack of prowess in French/foreign languages. Language learning in the UK is a good example and mirrors Thailand with the government seemingly not caring about such an important area of education. However, I would reiterate, how can you recruit passionate, committed teachers who might also want to engage with language learning themselves? I myself am a skilled worker yet I won't get any retirement monies from Thailand. I do listen to the news in Thai and fight to learn some Thai (I learn bits from my students). But I can assure everyone, working in the public university system and not the privatised Bangkok learning environment, that management is so shocking as to disadvantage the poor the most. The middle class and rich can buy tuition or send their kids to Bangkok or even round here, the richer parents can fund English Programs by paying for foreigners to teach. The Thai university lecturers in some cases are worse than hardworking school teachers - they themselves are not improving their own language skills. Even some teachers who know Thai quite well are not always good teachers because they were not trained to be. My students at age 18 in many cases still do not know how to tell the time whilst kids in local private schools will know how to do that at ages 6-10 - that is educational divide that exists. Foreigners speaking Thai won't fix the system, but it could help. Peace and love, Craig

By Craig, Maha Sarakham (6 months ago)

An interesting read and is concerned about something I have noticed over the years. Being a dedicated by rather poor language learner myself, I can understand the struggles many students have in becoming fluent in a foreign language.

Meeting a Farang English teacher who has lived in Thailand for many years but could never be bothered to learn the local language complaining about the laziness and lack of interest in language learning of some of the local students who have never been abroad is a pretty common, but often painful, occurrence while living in LOS.

But of course engaging in some simplistic Thai bashing (Which we see in some of the the previous comments) is much easier than actually learning a foreign language and attempting to understand the complexities of motivations and approaches associated with language learning.

Ok, enough for now, back to my studies of Chinese.

By Jack, At home (6 months ago)

Great banter, DHK.

There are more Spanish speakers in the USA than there are in Spain. In fact, the number of fluent Spanish speakers outnumbers the population of the entire UK.

By Mark Newman, Irving (6 months ago)

If you speak three languages, you're trilingual, two languages, bilingual. If you speak just one language? American.

By DHK, Seoul, Korea (6 months ago)

Interesting take... but this seems to be very one-sided in favor of the work the teacher has to do.

To be able to teach effectively there has to be an equal and opposite force of learning! This is where Thailand trips up as it doesn't teach its youth the required skills needed to absorb information that has no strict 'laws' attached to it.

Although many foreign teachers in Thailand speak only English, if they have a university degree then they have obviously spent a good deal of their lives learning something, right?

Sure, recognizing the difficulties of language learning can make a teacher more sympathetic toward the students but it doesn't make the teacher any more capable. More patient, maybe.

To be an appreciated and successful (not necessarily good) educator in Thailand you have to recognize why the students are there and how engaged they are in the process. What is their motivation for learning English?

One of the best points of your article is that students face an overwhelming amount of competing and often conflicting instructions. This is one of the biggest differentiators when it comes to separating the 'effective' teachers from the rest.

Educators must recognize that teaching something abstract, confusing and of seemingly no value is going to be a tough act to perform.

Breaking the subject matter down to bite-sized digestible chunks is the only way Thais have any hope of absorbing anything you do or say... regardless of how sympathetic to their difficulties you are and regardless of your knowledge of your subject. It's like teaching kids to play the piano but glossing over the importance of practicing scales.

The building blocks of learning English as a foreign language in Thailand have been ground to dust.

By Mark Newman, Irving (6 months ago)

Very interesting post and yes learning a language can help you to understand your students and the difficulties. However, Bangkok is an anomaly in Thailand. The first assumption is that Thai students want to learn English. Some do, but many just want to study a degree with a certificate at the end (Where I work ). Maybe about seven students out of a class of forty actually want to learn. Secondly, many teachers are having to do additional work on top of a full time job. In my case it is trying to maintain some academic work which is nearly impossible but I am try even though I am not paid to do it. Third, even though I have a PhD, I started on less than 30,000 baht in a Thai university and have experienced a complete lack of regard for language teaching . I am clever, hardworking and committed to my students, but nobody else is and another factor is that I would gain very little advantage economically in having Thai language. The government has set our pay low for decades and we cannot get performance increases like the Thai staff who can sit back doing relatively nothing. Most of my time now is spent trying to find alternative sources of income but I am fighting to find the time to learn some Thai even though I have a Thai partner she says the same - I gain no benefit other than cultural and social integration. Thanks for the great post, I am enjoying Thailand but I think for some, there are some realities which get in the way. Having financial security makes everything easier!

By Craig, Maha Sarakham (6 months ago)

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