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Teaching English When It’s A Second Language

Ole at Costa Rica Classroom recently posted on the theme of teaching English when it is his second language…and he touched on the point of “authority”. I’m not going to summarize his points here (I’d recommend reading the post), but rather share my take on them…

I remember a conversation with a first year teacher who was not a native speaker. She was teaching that horrible lesson from Cutting Edge Intermediate contrasting “I have been living” and “I have lived”. The “beauty” of these tenses in English is that there is no simple rule for these. But students see it, they see that it is hard, and that’s what they demand to some extent, even if it is not the teacher’s active decision to dwell on it.

She was almost near tears. She was young and she felt like her students wouldn’t believe her because she wasn’t a native speaker…I don’t think this was a totally wrong impression, but the thing is: I had also been near tears once or twice due to a “mean” group that really wouldn’t let me off the hook when I couldn’t give them the grammar explanation they wanted. And this was because I had learned the language without reference to explicit rules. Part of this was being a new teacher, but part of it was just that there is always something you are not an expert on.

I’m now much more confident in my ability to clarify grammar, answer questions about it, and explain to a group exactly why we’re not going to dwell on present perfect simple and continuous differences in Intermediate One. Some amount of respect or authority may be automatic for native speakers, but sometimes I think non-native speakers have more authority specifically because they have learned English the same way their students are learning. There are people who assume native speakers know nothing about grammar and were hired simply to chat with students and leave the real work for others, even when the native speaker has experience and an appropriate qualification.

I do think, as Ole mentions, charisma can play a role. There are native speakers who seem to be able to bluff their way through almost anything…but this will take them only so far. I also think it’s fairly universal, at least among those of us with a conscience, to worry about how well we are doing…and those who take the job seriously and make an effort to do well by their students (usually the very same people who are concerned about their teaching) do end up doing a good job and also earning the respect they deserve.