The Non-Native Speaker Language Teacher vs. the Native Speaker: How Do They Stack Up?

2015-07-06 11.22.31

I’ve taught well over ten different languages over the course of my life for various forms of payment. Back when I first began teaching one of my friends who was a graduate student in Astronomy told me that the most important thing is that you know MORE than the person whom you are teaching (about the subject) and that you are capable of imparting this knowledge in some form.

With the exception of Greenlandic (which I’ve only taught ONCE and only as a side-order to a Yiddish student), I’m fluent in all of the languages that I teach. Do I know every single aspect of their deepest cultures and can I pronounce all of them correctly ALL OF THE TIME? No, but make that “almost all of the time”. Have I been mistaken as a native speaker in all of them? Well…I have, actually…

But there’s this understanding that in order to teach a language that you have to be a native speaker of it, but having taught English as a second language myself vs. other languages that I picked up later than life, I would say that OBJECTIVELY I teach languages like Finnish better than I do English. I know the grammar better, I can explain it better, I can take apart Finnish words and sentence structure in a way that it isn’t so scary anymore. I have an ear for the pronunciation which is EXTREMELY well-honed.

Granted, I know why this is. Customers usually tend to go for native-speaker teachers and advisors in the upper levels of their studies. Those who come to me seeking to learn “the languages of the Cold North” are usually beginners or beginner-plus (a term I use to describe people who can form some sentences but not a lot, or those who have completed half a Duolingo course but don’t feel comfortable doing post office errands in their target language).

After about six months or so, they’ll usually choose to mix it up with self-study or another teacher. Some students have remained with me for a long time, but these are primarily the exceptions (and even then some of them have life-changing events that throw everything off-course).

I think that some native-speaker languages teachers can feel chauvinistic at times, especially towards people who speak their language (no matter HOW advanced). But I also think that having had some language teachers in my life who learned it as an L2 (the Russian department at Wesleyan University when I was there only had ONE L1 teacher, and even then I think she was bilingual Lithuanian and Russian. The L2 teachers weren’t any less qualified than she and they were all fantastic), I was grateful for their presence because they probably should have shown me that becoming fluent in a language as an adult was possible, despite all of the hearsay to the contrary.

I’ve also heard of non-native English teachers as well and I deem them necessary and I’m thankful for their presence, because they can often describe the struggle of learning English as an L2 that I’m not aware of in the slightest.

Anyhow, what are the advantages of a native-speaker teacher?

  • Pronunciation extremely good
  • Can be RUTHLESS (in a good way, usually) with ensuring that you get every nuance right about grammar and pronunciation. I teach a lot of my English students finer points of grammar that most NATIVE speakers don’t even know.
  • Very tuned in on the difference between casual and non-casual registers of the language.
  • Know a LOT of cultural references that L2 speakers wouldn’t be aware of.
  • Ideal for if you want to go from great to UNSTOPPABLE in your target language.

 

Disadvantages:

  • Less likely to be structured in their approach
  • May know how to pronounce words correctly but may have trouble in teaching you how to make those same sounds.
  • May somehow make your goal of fluency seem endlessly out of reach (even if they do their best to not MEAN to do that)
  • May not be able to explain grammatical concepts in a way that makes sense to you.
  • Quality for absolute beginners is all over the board. (I’ve heard of stories of teachers like these reduce a student to tears in less than ten minutes!)

 

Advantages of a fluent non-native speaker teacher:

 

  • Knows the struggle of climbing the same mountain and will give you tips on how to do it yourself (and telling you that it IS possible).
  • Can explain grammar and sentence-structure in ways that are more readily accessible to novices.
  • Can provide you tips on how to NOT get answered in English and other struggles of being a foreigner learning the language (this is sometimes relevant to language-learning given the whole tier-of-politeness systems found in languages like Khmer or Finnish)
  • Can teach you pronunciation hacks that native speakers may not be aware of or know how to execute. (Greenlandic’s q sound and Swedish’s sj sound, both largely infamous, are something that I can get you to say in less than three minutes. I know because I’ve done it).
  • Will almost certainly not discourage you from learning or continuing to learn.

 

Disadvantages:

 

  • On rare occasions, they may need to reference the internet for things (I’ve even seen this at the UNIVERSITY level)
  • May not know the VERY deepest levels of nuance the way a native-speaker would.
  • With rare exceptions, they have probably not heard of every single song, TV show or internet meme in their L2’s. (The Languages for which I have this deep cultural knowledge of the most are…Yiddish and Greenlandic, surprisingly. I don’t even know English-language contemporary music that well and I actually like it that way). You’d be surprised how much that can actually be an issue.
  • Some of them can make silly oversights on rare occasions without meaning to (a lot of them usually correct it, like that one teacher I had that told me that Classical Greek had an ablative case [it does not!])
  • The occasional cloud of self-doubt may surface regardless of how strong they are.

 

 

Now, there are many ways to learn languages and pick teachers and a good deal of my languages I’ve learned through using absolutely no teachers at all (and you’d be surprised how the ones I’ve learned in the classroom are NOT my strongest ones! At all! Well, with the exception of Yiddish, that is, but even then I feel that my Scandinavian Languages and Melanesian Creoles are above it.)

These are just general observations for you to think about in the event that you are looking for personal teachers for the next steps in your journey. There are a lot of them (well…except if you’re looking for very rare languages like Gilbertese, but I’m willing to help YOU with that if you want!)

But also realize that there is more nuance in the teaching scene than just “native speakers as teachers = strictly better”. I had a tutor who spoke basic Thai and she helped me for a little bit during a language exchange I had once and for some odd reason I remember a lot of what she told me more than from what I retained from native Hebrew speakers in elementary school. Yet again, my native-speaking Russian teacher in my senior year of college was also no less fantastic!

Happy learning!

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