Language teacher as language learner

I’d definitely count Scott Thornbury’s A-Z of ELT amongst my favourite ELT blogs ever–it’s meaty, stimulating, relevant well-written, and the debates in the comments sections on his posts  are just as interesting. I’d heard he’d be discontinuing that blog, and starting another, but I hadn’t gotten around to checking out the (De-)Fossilization Diaries until now.

The (De-)Fossilization Diaries bears the sub-title “A language teacher tries to crank up his Spanish”. The author is a native English speaker who has lived in Barcelona for 30 years, and has decided to re-activate his Spanish, which, by his own description, has fossilized at a less-than-satisfactory level.  Along the way he visits the literature on fossilization, and gives his account of his own language acquisition, as well as language classes he’s enrolled in. It’s an interesting read, though the blog is only a few posts in.

The language teacher as language learner; it’s not an uncommon trope, both in research literature as well as in more informal settings such as classroom-focused publications and blogs. I’ve always maintained that you should  never trust a monolingual ESL teacher, and reading these accounts shows exactly why; by putting themselves in the shoes of their students, language teachers-cum-learners inevitably come to a new understanding of what their students go through in the classroom, and (hopefully) adjust their teaching strategies and techniques accordingly. Whether its in an adjustment of classroom management, methodology, learner strategies or betting understanding the nature of learner motivation and identity, language learning makes you a better language teacher.

Does being a language teacher also make you a better language learner? I think so. You can’t help but draw on your tickle-trunk of knowledge, experience, tools and techniques in the realm of language acquisition when designing your own program. What type of class do I want? What are my strengths and weaknesses in the target language and how can I best focus on them? What should I do in class and outside of class to maximize my learning and push acquisition?  What tools are available to help me both in language learning as well as in language production and use?

Being a language teacher can also hinder your language learning. I’m currently learning Portuguese, and am very confident as to where I stand, what my strengths and weaknesses are and what I need.  I already speak Spanish, so my reading and grammar skills are at a solid intermediate level, but my speaking and listening skills are  low, and the Portuguese I produce is riddled with transfer errors from Spanish. I know what I have to work on, and I have a variety of tools at my disposal: apps, grammar texts, on-line resources for listening, graded literature for reading.

But I wanted the classroom experience, so jump-start  my speaking and listening skills, and to work regular exposure to Portuguese into my weekly schedule.  Halifax is a small city, so there is exactly ONE institution that offers a group Portuguese class, which, upon attending, I found out was taught by an unqualified, disorganized native speaker who seemed to lack any real knowledge as to language acquisition, language teaching, and the Portuguese language itself.  I promptly dropped the course.

Was this simply my language-teacher self being extremely picky? I don’t think so. This was beyond preference for one methodology over another or anything like that–she was that bad. But it was definitely my language-teacher self that refused to sit in a horrible-run language classroom, preferring to drop the course and look for another option that would suit my needs. But it’s a month later, and have I replaced that course with a private teacher, or a language-exchange, or signed up for LiveMocha? No. even the language teacher stumbles over time management and “getting around to it.”

I will continue to learn Portuguese, and hopefully blog about it here once in a while. And I wish Scott Thornbury the best on his de-fossilization journey as well.


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