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.
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 TEFL Course in Bangkok.