ESL Empathy

Do I have to have had your experience to be able to empathize with you? I came across this totally unrelated article in the International Herald Tribune and almost immediately connected it – of course! – to teaching.

My first instinct was to disagree with the author. While putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining what something is like without experiencing it is “a good thing to do”, I still think actually sharing the experience is more.

This however puts me in a bit of an awkward position as a communicative teacher of my own language! I didn’t learn my own language formally, and though I have definitely studied other languages, I teach some students at a higher level of English than I’ve ever reached in those languages. Only rarely have I been a learner in a communicative language class, and when I have I must admit I’ve had my moments of frustration – though I wouldn’t say those were always due to the communicative method itself. While I think the ability to look at things from a different perspective varies for each individual, and I like to pat myself on the back and believe I’m on the high end, by my own admission above this is not the same as having experienced something yourself. In this way, non-native speakers of English, especially those who have learned the language in a communicative setting, have a clear advantage.

As I confessed here…sometimes I even like traditional learning methods. My knowledge of the cases in the languages of the countries I’ve lived in is based on traditional and in-English explanations in a university class some time ago and then recalling (memorizing?) a couple of example from which I extrapolate other endings.

Does this make me less effective as a teacher? I hope not. I’d like to think each person brings different strengths to their job, and a person’s skill as a teacher is the sum of a number of factors, and not tied solely to experiences or training they’ve had.

What do you think – does the fact that native speakers have not learned their own language formally make it harder or impossible to relate to students who are doing just that?