The language education industry has evolved enormously over the past 20 years, though developments in the private English teaching sector are not often seen in public school settings. As a result, there are a lot of commonly held misconceptions about what it means to teach English as a foreign language.
These may come from individual experiences with languages taught at school, or assumptions about what it means to learn another language without ever having done so outside the high school classroom. Here are some comments and questions that I often hear when I talk about the teaching that I do, and some reasons why these preconceptions often do not represent the reality of the contemporary language classroom.
1) How can you teach English if you don’t speak the students’ language?
This is a common question, which probably comes from the fact that many language teachers in high schools share the same first language of their students, so if someone in the class doesn’t understand something, it is a quick solution to explain it to them in the shared first language (which is never a good idea, by the way).
In the majority of private language classrooms, however, the teacher and the students do not speak the same first language (L1), and classes may be composed of speakers of a range of different language backgrounds. It is unrealistic, therefore, for the teacher to even attempt to use learners’ L1 as a teaching tool.
The methods which we use to communicate with students even at a very low level are designed to overcome this issue. Several teaching skills are necessary to be able to interact with learners in different ways (only one of these being English). The ability to use visual resources, body language and gesture, all of which are designed for communication without the use of words, is a key skill, and goes a long way to make new language understandable for learners. A picture of a school locker, for example, is understandable by anyone, no matter what their first language is or whether they know the word 'locker'. This is the first step to working towards the way it is named in English
Another way of ensuring that we can teach without a shared language is to grade the English that we do use in language classes. Teachers need to develop a knowledge of which words, phrases and grammar structures are likely to be understood by learners at different levels, in order to grade their language to within the competence of the group. In this way, complex and unknown ideas can be communicated using simpler and known language, before the more complex words for those ideas are presented to the group. Grading language and presenting new forms systematically in this way mean that we don’t need to speak any language other than English in the classroom.
2) I’m too old to learn (or teach) a language
I hear this comment from people of a rang of ages, all of whom cite the length of time since they were last in a language classroom as a reason why they will never be able to learn a new language, or a new set of skills such as teaching methodology. In fact, although the way we learn second or other languages changes as we age, and although second-language learning processes are somewhat different from first language learning, there is no such thing as ‘too old to learn a language’, and it is more likely to be the attitude that this sentence represents, rather than the speaker’s age, that blocks them from learning.
People prove this every day by moving to new countries and picking up local languages even without formal classes. Language and communication is necessary in order to live, and the human language brain is versatile enough to share the world linguistically with anyone who is around. This has been shown by multinational groups of people being thrown together through circumstances beyond their control, who have created creole languages by mixing words and ideas form each others’ first languages to enable communication for survival. Even people who have ben raised in non-linguistic environments (such as deaf-blind adults) quickly learn to communicate with language through necessity. Although the choice to learn something new is not remotely the same as some of the situations where people have been forced to develop new language in this way, it shows that the ‘I’m too old’ argument does not hold water.
As a teacher trainer, I have worked with trainees of all ages successfully, with my oldest trainee (who went on to pass the internationally accredited course he was attending) being over 80 years old, so the same applies to training as a teacher: you’re simply never too old to teach your first language to others.
3) I’m not good enough academically to be a teacher
There is an assumption that in order to teach, high levels of academic achievement are necessary. While this may be true of knowledge-based subjects such as history or the hard sciences, language education involves helping learners to develop a skill, and working with them on their demonstration of learning. Yes, it is important that a language teacher has a good grasp of grammar and other language theories, but the entry requirements to most initial teacher training courses, even those with worldwide recognition, do not include formal teaching experience or even a university degree. As Ofqual Level 5 regulated courses such as the Trinity CertTESOL and Cambridge CELTA require university-entrance level qualification, in other words A-levels, high school completion or equivalent in the trainee’s home country.
As a practical form of education, language teaching depends more on the skills of the teacher in imparting knew ideas and language, rather than a high level of academic achievement. In fact, it is often the case that the more experienced and the more highly qualified an initial teacher trainee is, the more they have to ‘unlearn’ when they join the course, rather than picking up good practice and methods for the first time as a new teacher without the preconceptions of long periods of academic study.
In summary, if you are thinking of moving into English Language Education and getting a qualification to teach, be ready to develop a set of skills as well as a breadth of language knowledge, and don’t be put off by your own preconceptions about what it means to learn or teach a language. The training you receive will probably not be in any way like the language education you received at school!
Language Point Teacher Education Ltd. delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL over 12 weeks, part-time in an entirely online mode of study, and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.