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!

2017: A Final Reflection

Well, here I am at what is the conclusion of the most legendary year of my life!

I think the one thing that changed the most about me over the course of this year was that I became very secure in my identity and, as a result, stopped taking forms of rejection so personally (someone says bad things about me online? Not my issue, I’m a hero! Someone doesn’t want to engage meaningfully in a conversation with me? I know I’m good at what I do, it reflects on THAT person!)

Despite the fact that I sometimes have an abrasive style in both writing and in real life, people who have met me in person do rightly think that I am very friendly.

Here’s the time for me to examine each of my languages and how I could improve:

On top of my fluency list are the Creoles of Melanesia, Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama. I have a very good grasp of vocabulary and I can listen to songs, radio and other forms of entertainment in these languages without flinching. In conversations I can manage to say everything, but I tried filming a Let’s Play video in Tok Pisin and my own self-doubt and self-freezing (that were an issue with me making videos even in English earlier this year!) got in the way.

What I’m going to need to do from this point on isn’t as much vocabulary building, but sheer immersion. I have to become one with the Pacific Islands, I have to live and breathe the cultures of Melanesia as though I were raised in Lae city myself.

The same is also true with my other very good (or almost very good with some consistency) languages: Trinidadian Creole, Yiddish, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, German and Spanish (the last two being the weakest of the bunch).

Next up in the “lower levels of fluency” line are Hebrew, Finnish, Krio, Breton, Jamaican Patois and the two that I am sometimes good enough in Icelandic and French. Polish and Irish used to be up there but fell down.

These are the hardest to diagnose because each one of them has a very unique problem. Finnish and Hebrew are definitely my strongest of that group, with Krio and Breton being next up.

Okay:

Hebrew – listening with immersion (I’m going to need to find films and use them. Often! If Hebrew were as similar to English as Danish was I’d probably speak it at C1 right now).

Finnish – continuing with teaching it as an L2 certainly helps but I’m also going to need to do some writing and translation exercises. Luckily I have a project lined up for that in 2018!

Krio – same as Finnish above, minus the teaching aspect. Written material in Krio is harder to find than in Finnish (not a surprise, despite the fact that more people in the world speak Krio fluently than speak Finnish [!])

Breton – I need more TV shows (luckily I found a number of good ones thanks to Reddit. Also a Let’s Play Channel of sorts!)

Jamaican Patois – Translation exercises would be helpful as long as I learn to READ OUT LOUD. I have to use all of my senses otherwise it’s just going to be passive understanding. I can’t afford to have just a passive understanding (even though that in of itself is very good), given that I’m practically living in Jamaica given where in New York City I live.

Icelandic – the Anki deck. I have to continue with that. It’s been solving almost every single one of my problems!

French – The grammar needs brushing up. I need to detect my weak points in conversation (past tense is a big one) and patch up the holes.

 

Next we have Greenlandic, Lao, Hungarian and Polish. They are all weak across the board in many regards and have full of holes. My biggest holes in them are: vocabulary for Greenlandic, Lao and Hungarian, grammar for Hungarian and Polish. I guess it’s just an issue of “keep using them”.

For Greenlandic I have the Memrise course and for Hungarian I have the 30-Day Speaking Challenge. I also have Anki decks for all of these languages except for Polish.

 

In its own category is my new project with Vincentian Creole (of St. Vincent and the Grenadines). The first language I’ve learned with no resources to learn it (that I can find), I’ll detail what I’m doing another time. It will be VERY interesting to read about!

 

The rest of my languages are too weak to judge with the exceptions of Burmese, Irish, Cornish and Kiribati / Gilbertese.

I have a good grasp of the grammar of all of them, I just need to use it in exercises, especially speaking exercises.

It’s a little bit hard to diagnose things when there are CONSISTENT problems across the language. But luckily usage will be enough to patch them up.

 

In light of the #CleartheList challenge hopping around Social Media at the moment, here is my list for January 2018:

For Hungarian:

 

  • Recordings every day
  • One episode of Pokémon dubbed in Hungarian every week
  • One full-length Hungarian movie every week.
  • Read out loud one lesson from Colloquial Hungarian once every week.

 

For Kiribati / Gilbertese:

  • Do the tasks for the Mango Language January 2018 challenge every day.
  • Acquire new songs in Gilbertese every week.
  • Film a new episode of “Jared Gimbel Learns Kiribati” every week.
  • Write a status in Gilbertese every week.

 

For Vincentian Creole:

 

  • Listen to one Bible story audio once every day.

 

Find and translate (into English) an article in each of the following languages. Write word-by-word translations for each sentence:

 

  • Bislama
  • Pijin
  • Tok Pisin

 

For Greenlandic / Lao (Bonus points!):

 

  • Record the speaking challenge prompts in these alongside the Hungarian challenge.

 

I look forward to making another list for 2018 and beyond.

I’ll publish my FULL LIST of goals for 2018 TOMORROW!

2017 was the best year of my life in a professional sense. And 2018 promises to be nothing less of continuing that miracle.

May you have similar fortune as well!

last pic of 2017

My Finnish Language Journey: Things I Wish I Knew Beforehand

Happy 100th Birthday, Finland!

finnish ain't hard

Yesterday and today buildings throughout the world were illuminated with blue lights in honor of the birthday of a country that has developed a stellar reputation well outside its borders in recent decades.

My journey with Finnish has been an interesting one, because it’s one that I learned how to speak well while leaving me in complete mystery in exactly HOW I pulled it off.

I’ve used all of the following:

  • Reading dialogues out loud
  • Reading grammar notes out loud from textbooks
  • Watching Disney film snippets and Pokémon in Finnish (dubbed versions)
  • Clozemaster
  • Transparent Language
  • Writing exercises
  • Later on (once I acquired B2 level) teaching the language to other people.
  • Language Exchange Groups (I’ve had fewer opportunities to use Finnish with real people in comparison to Swedish, Danish and Norwegian [especially the first two])
  • Songs (including passively, with lyrics and actively with karaoke)
  • Radio
  • Let’s Play Videos with Finnish commentary
  • Writing to people who speak the language.
  • Video games

 

Too often I get asked the question “what do you use to learn so many languages?”

The question should not be “what do you use to learn” them but “what DON’T you use to learn them?” I became successful with Finnish (despite the fact that I still feel as though I have a long way to go with it) because I threw EVERYTHING at it.

And that’s what a successful attempt to learn a language LOOKS LIKE! You don’t’ just expect to use “Duolingo” and get fluent (it’s in all likelihood not going to happen). You need to use AS MANY tools as possible to make a language a part of your life. The most successful of my language missions have had that, while those that were / are lacking are those in which I still have yet to use EVERY available means of using the language.

Looking back on the journey, here’s what I wish I told myself in 2012 when the Finnish Language and I seemed like we had a future together (which we DID!)

 

  • Throw Out Limiting Beliefs Immediately

 

Too many people are stuck with ideas that they’ll never be good, or that they won’t even be manageable. Others are stuck with ideas that they’ll just get answered in English all of the time. Yet others enter the world of Finnish and other target languages with a negative mindset, thinking that it is something they intend to lose as soon as they enter it.

I entered at first saying “I’ll see what I can get. I can always learn something and I can always learn more later”. But all the while I never DREAMED that I would be capable of mastering the grammar of the language, both colloquially as well as formally, the way that I did. And I should have thought even more than “I’ll manage”, I should have thought “I’m going to be GREAT!!!”

And this leads into another point…

 

  • Finnish (or any other grammatically rich language) is a giant feast. Savor each ingredient separately and don’t expect to gulf down EVERYTHING at once.

 

Many of the cases are straight-up prepositions (as is the case with the other Finno-Ugric Languages), but some other elements are more idiomatic. One that trips up my students regularly is the –ksi ending, which indicates that you are talking about a noun, and more specifically “given that it is that noun” or “into that noun” (e.g. transformation).

 

englanniksi sanoja – English(ksi) words(partitive)

 

English words, or, more accurately “given-that-they-are-English” “words-some-of-them”.

Okay now you have ONE concept, now see if you can manage personal endings for nouns (Kaveri [friend] + ni [my] -> “Kaverini” – “friend(s) of mine”) or the fantastic conjugating “no” (en -> I … not, not I. et – you (sing.) … not, not you, ei -> he/she/it …. Not, not he/she/it, etc.) usage of nuanced suffixes, verb conjugation, AND variant forms of verb conjugation and other grammatical features in colloquial speech! (These might not be in your textbook!)

Oh, and manage all of these concepts at once spoken by a native speaker at quick speed. Sure, the fact that Finnish words are always accented on the first syllable is going to help you, to some degree, as is the fact that some Finns speak very slowly in comparison to Romance Language speakers, but the grammatical buffet of Finnish is going to OVERWHELM YOU.

Unless, you take it in, bit by bit, and count every single one of the small victories.

This is true with other languages, but this is even MORE true with languages in which you might struggle with forming a simple sentence for weeks!

 

 

  • Use Flashcards and Other Similar Apps WITH Immersion for Progress

 

Memrise helped me reach my goals with Finnish but I couldn’t have done it with only them. I also had to use YouTube Finnish in order to bring words that I “vaguely” memorized in the app into a genuine context where they made sense.

Often when I was watching any amount of fun things in Finnish I would remember a word that I had seen in Memrise matching the context EXACTLY.

Unless a language is VERY closely related to one you know, or one that you’ve had experience being exposed to but have gaps in it (as is the case with Polish for me, for example), the flash cards by yourself are not going to be ideal.

But pair with other methods, everything builds off each other.

 

  • Being disappointed with your language progress means that you’re either studying too much or using the language without studying too much.

For all of my languages regardless of level, I noticed that there are some languages that I’ve STUDIED too  much to the exclusion of using them for fun (Irish) and others that I’ve USED too much without studying too much of them anymore (Greenlandic). To correct this imbalance, apply one or the other, depending on what you HAVEN’T been doing.

For much of my Finnish studies, I managed that balance PERFECTLY, more than with any other language I’ve studied. And I’m glad I did.

  • Small words mean a lot in making you sound like a fluent speaker.

 

Thanks to me having watched a lot of Pokémon in the Finnish dub (more than I care to admit) as well as a lot of gaming channels in Finnish, I’ve really learned how to use simple one-word expressions that make me sound believable when I put them in my speech (some of these qualify as “filler words” but not always).

 

Think about it: how often have you heard non-native English speakers say “very good” as opposed to “cool beans!” or “that’s great to hear!” (the latter of which are very American indeed, I think).

 

I got a lot of simple expressions like these thanks to me using Finnish in these “controlled environments”. They didn’t make me fluent, but they made me confident and believable with great regularity.

 

  • No language is too hard.

 

I don’t necessarily say “no language is too unlearnable” because I’ve tried to find some languages to learn in which I can almost seldom find ANY materials for them.

But even though a language like Greenlandic (and Burmese, later on) got me to almost doubt this, you need to keep in mind that, especially with more politically powerful languages, your L2 is learnable, even to near-native fluency. You just need to find methods that work, and utilize EVERYTHING you have in order to make it work.

The apps themselves are great, but they won’t make you fluent alone. Same for the books, videos and TV shows. Bring them altogether, and you’ll become someone who impressed almost EVERY native speaker you’ll meet.

 

That day can be yours! Go ahead and take it!

 

Let’s conclude with this, now, shall we?

 

How To Be a Good Presenter

Between Thanksgiving and my Birthday I had few opportunities to write new pieces, but today I‘m going to reveal some more fantastic secrets!

Today (weighed down by a throat illness and unable to make videos because of that) I‘m going to open up my full inventory on how to be a good presenter (which also ties into how to become a good teacher).

Summarized in one sentence, my teaching and presentation techniques can be summarized as follows: „think about what all of the boring teachers in my life have done, and do the opposite!“. A corollary: to become an encouraging and positive teacher, do the opposite of what the discouraging and negative teachers do.

(My friend Ulf, who is a priest in the Church of Sweden, was taking courses at Yad Vashem with me in Jerusalem [namely, ones about Holocaust history]. He said that „some teachers opened doors for me, and others closed doors for me instead]. I expanded this idea to pretty much everything in your life: advice, articles, friendships, or anything similar that OPEN doors are right, those that CLOSE doors are wrong. You can usually tell within reading one paragraph of an article, if not the headline, and the same applies to presentations).

Okay, you wanted insider tips so here you are:

 

  • Be very animated

 

I‘ve looked at the most subscribed channels on YouTube in multiple languages, and they all have many aspects in common. One of these is the fact that there is almost NEVER a moment that is emotionally „blah“ or otherwise stale.

If you are giving a class, it is YOUR job to keep other people engaged, and you can make ANY topic engaging.

Speak with a theatrical voice, use gestures if possible and DON‘T assume that putting information on the screen or just reading off facts is going to be interesting to most people.

BUT if you bring life into those facts with the tone of your voice, your body language and a general spirit of enthusiasm, you could make the most dreary topics in existence something to be remembered.

Be a lot less formal. Be a lot less like a typical college professor and more like a YouTube superstar. (I‘m sorry to say it, but there‘s a reason that the latter tend to be more well-known. I‘ve copied the techniques and learned from them. And even if you don‘t feel very animated right now, it is a ROLE you can grow into, no matter who you are!)

And here‘s another pointer…

 

  • Keep the Audience Engaged

 

„How many of you have heard of…“

 

„I‘m curious if there are people in the audience who know of…“

 

„Here‘s [name of memory technique / video game / learning app]. How many of you here have used it before?“

 

One thing that my Jewish background has taught me is the fact that performance heightens memory. Use your senses, your movement and your voice and beyond…the more aspects you use, the more you‘ll be able to (1) engage yourself in an activity and (2) truly create lasting memories of the experience.

 

If you ask a number of questions to the audience, especially at the beginning, you get them involved on a deep level, rather than too many presenters who often „talk at“ their audience rather than engage them.

 

And in line with that, there‘s another point of importance. Namely…

 

  • Know that Everyone is a Genius about Something

 

This is ESSENTIAL to being a good teacher. But also in Q&A sessions, I‘ve too often encountered to many people who have been shut down. In one particularly horrendous incident at Hebrew University, I was told to my face, „I would really have to say that you‘re wrong and I agree with him [indicating someone else]“. Jared: „Can you articulate that further?“ Teacher: „That‘s just how I feel“. (You can imagine how this made me feel inside).

 

In My Q&A session during the Polyglot Conference, I heard questions about LOLCat and Upside Down English (this had to do with the fact that I had listed the complete list of languages that Minecraft was translated into). I didn‘t know a lot about it, and so I asked the people who asked the questions to provide more. I remember telling one presenter that he should „submit a proposal for next year‘s conference“ on LOLCat.

 

In line with that: be willing to admit you don‘t know, and encourage your students to explore topics on their own and „let me know what you find“.

 

  • Assume Your Audience Knows ABSOLUTELY NOTHING About the Topic [But Don‘t Talk Down to Them]

I speak several languages very, very well. I was an absolute beginner in all of them once. I made silly mistakes with all of them frequently (including with my native tongue of American English, one such example was when I was 13 and I called „Freud“ of psychoanalytic fame „Frood“).

Sometimes when I‘m „not feeling up to it“, I CONTINUE to make silly mistakes with them (including my native language!)

Friday evening before the Conference opened with the 30-Language DJ set, I set aside forty minutes to give a „run-through“ presentation of my talk on Video Games and Langauge Learning. The target audience was, of course, my parents in Connecticut, super-excited for me as good parents should be. My father hasn‘t played a video game since the early 1990‘s, and let‘s not even discuss my mom‘s ability (or lack thereof) to play „Kirby‘s Return to Dreamland“ („If you‘re player 2, no matter how many times you die, you always come back!“).

Basic things that a video gamer would know (the Steam Store, Minecraft, etc.) and basic things that a polyglot would know (what an Indo-European Language is) would be things that I would need to explain very concisely in a sentence each. My prarents are monoglots who know nothing about memory palaces, video game design, fan translations, or anything else relevant to the topic. But by building on their knowledge base in a polite way bit-by-bit, they said that it was „excellently done“ (and many people attended my talk despite never having played a video game almost ever and walked away feeling EXTREMELY glad that they came!)

 

  • If there are visual elements, include pictures of yourself in them as well as a good dosage of „Easter Eggs“

 

Also feel free to briefly mentioned that the PowerPoint presentation has „a lot of surprises“ and tell the audience to „see how many they can get“.

My Video Game presentation had screenshots from game localizations in many languages (including Hebrew, Polish, Swedish, German, Esperanto, Japanese and Cornish [!!!]). They also included screenshots of games that may be „vaguely familiar“ to most people, even if they‘ve never played a game in their life (Super Mario Maker, of course!)

Your presentation can become a mystery trove that can keep people engaged, wondering if the next slide will be something that will cause the room to burst into laughter.

 

  • Use Extremely Positive Language Referring to the Audience

 

„Super-smart people like you guys out there…“

„Wonderful students like you…“

„People committed to their goals, just like you are…“

Very, VERY few teachers or presenters do this, and it is an EASY fix that gets people super-engaged because they associate your talking with positive feelings. Don‘t overdo it, though, because only once or twice did someone tell me that I was an expert in „buttering up“ other people.

Am I? No, I just think that there is a lot of criticism in the world and I think that there needs to be positivity to balance out the omnipresence of limiting beliefs. If I don‘t do it, who will? (Well…now there‘s you…I suppose…)

 

  • Draw Analogies Very Often

 

Analogies, metaphors and usage of the phrase „that would be like…“ bring out the inner explorer in the student. You want that explorer as present as possible.

 

  • Use Jokes and INDIRECT Pop Culture References Often (especially with US Audiences)

 

This will take work, no doubt. But once you‘ve got the previous seven points down, this shouldn‘t be very much effort at all. Also, watch the sort of presenters and personalities you would like to speak like, because, whether you like it or not, you are what you listen to.

 

 

CONCLUSION:

 

The only imperative is „don‘t be boring“ Oh, and another one, namely „don‘t be predictable“.

 

Those don‘t tend to help by themselves, but the above points certainly will help. And even if you don‘t see yourself as the variety of person(ality) that can encompassed with ease all of the points above, you can TRAIN yourself to be the presenter that never bores everyone and is super-informative as well, much like I did!

 

Happy Teaching!

I am brilliant lol