How (not) to choose an English language school – part 3 of 4

If you’ve been following this series of posts about how not to be deceived by appealing offers and promises of fast, better language learning, welcome back. If you haven’t, be my guest and, if you like, also check out the previous posts, where I talked about two common myths about foreign language learning (just click on the titles):

MYTH 1: Our cutting-edge methodology will make you fluent in English in 18 months.

MYTH 2: The earlier you start learning English, the faster you’ll acquire it and the better you’ll speak it.

Today I’m talking about another argument often used by language schools to lure customers:

MYTH 3: FOR THE BEST RESULTS, COME STUDY ENGLISH WITH OUR AMERICAN TEACHERS.

What is behind this myth is the idea that the best teachers anyone can have are those who are native speakers of the language they’re teaching. Well, it seems to make sense. What could be better than learning English with someone who comes from an English-speaking country? This person will provide you with the best vocabulary and pronunciation and an in-depth knowledge about the culture. No Brazilian teacher can beat an American when it comes to knowledge about the English language, right?

WRONG!

Almost everything’s wrong with these ideas. Let’s see why and how.

Who’s the native speaker?like a native

Imagine we have a Portuguese language school and need to hire native speakers of Portuguese to work as teachers. On the day of interviews, we have four candidates: (1) a girl from the megacity of São Paulo, with a degree in International Relations and lots of travel experiences; (2) an Engineering undergraduate from a town in the south of Brazil; (3) a man who didn’t finish elementary school and (4) a teenager from Rio.

What do they all have in common? They’re all Brazilian and native speakers of Portuguese. What don’t they have in common? The language they speak, funnily enough.

This is because “Portuguese language” is basically a general term used to refer to several varieties of the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) community. It’s not only about the different accents these people have. There are lots of differences in vocabulary and grammar as well. And the same thing happens in English. Someone from Yorkshire, UK speaks a variety quite different from someone from Austin, USA. And even within the UK, you’ll find loads of differences in the way people use the language.

The thing is that some native speakers have more prestige than others. If you decide to study in a school that has native speaker teachers, what you expect to find is a very sophisticated person from a cosmopolitan centre such as New York, London or Sydney, not native speakers of English coming from Thurso, Scotland or Oudtshoorn, South Africa.

Everything I said about native speakers so far is interesting and relevant, but there’s only one reason why our candidates above wouldn’t make good language teachers: they have no training on foreign language teaching.

In order to illustrate how this important, just try to answer this question: what would a ‘Portuguese As a Foreign Language’ lesson given by that uncle of yours who is a physician be like? What sort of skills would he teach? What techniques would he make use of? How would he choose the best assessment approach?

The truth is that foreign language teaching is a complex activity that requires not only a high level of fluency but also great knowledge about the structure of the language, the methodologies, the different techniques for teaching grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading, writing, speaking, collocations, pronunciation etc. Just like practically all of the professions, it requires qualification. Being a native speaker of a language doesn’t qualify you to teach it.

Native vs non-native teachers

Ok, let’s suppose we have two candidates for a teaching position in an English language school in Brazil. Both of them have had language teaching training and have taught English for a least 5 years. One of them is an American, born and raised in the USA, but now living in Brazil for about 2 years. The other is Brazilian and learned English in Brazil. In this sort of more balanced competition, what would be the advantages and disadvantages of having a native or non-native English language teacher?

Non-native speakers of the language they teach can be great examples for their students, as they’ve gone through pretty much the same learning process. They know which aspects of the language will pose greater difficulties and they can easily switch to the native language they share with the students in order to explain or give instructions. The communication between teacher and students is genuinely bilingual.

On the other hand, non-native speakers will probably not be as good models of natural language usage and pronunciation as the native speakers. And the latter will have cultural information to share as someone ‘from inside’ the linguistic and cultural context. However, native speakers might not be good models of International English, depending on the variety of English they speak, and this is an important issue because most people learn English to communicate with the world, not with the guy from countryside Texas.

The fact is that it’s not really important to know whether your English language teacher will be a native or non-native speaker of English. Professor Jeremy Harmer, a leading scholar and researcher of ELT, says that the two most important questions to be answered are:

  • Does the teacher speak English that is good enough?

  • Does the teacher know how to teach?

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