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Why ESL teachers are the best teachers and the best learners

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

I've had many jobs in the last many years on the road but the one that I could always rely on was ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. I worked in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Brazil, and Ireland as an English teacher for non-natives and found it to be very satisfying work.

However, what I have also found is that the process of teaching English has also helped me to refine my language learning strategy and learn the local language better.

As well as this, I take great satisfaction in the fact that I was successful in helping even the weakest students to speak English and dramatically improve the level of many of those I taught. My success in teaching English is a huge part of why I am so confident in giving advice about learning languages in general on this blog (as well as my own experience in learning to speak them of course).

In meeting other ESL teachers, I can see this is true for many of them. There are plenty of exceptions, but I have found that ESL teachers make better teachers than traditional academic ones, as well as having an edge themselves for learning a language.

Non-traditional techniques in a classroom environment

ESL teachers are forced to step outside of their idea of a failed academic system that never helped them learn to speak a language when they were at school and to do things completely differently.

When I try to compare my own personal experience as a learner in school, with how I personally taught English (which I know is very similar to how many other ESL teachers do) there are several things that I did very differently to the traditional academic approach:

  • I always taught my classes entirely in English, even when I spoke the local language fluently, without exception (even with absolute beginners). This helped my students tremendously as they were forced to communicate in English with an actual human being, rather than see it as a list of rules. Many traditional academic courses teach through the mother tongue of the learner, which makes the target language more artificial and theoretical and less like a means of communication. To teach a language, you absolutely have to use the language way more than just occasionally.
  • I never discussed grammar in tabular form and would very rarely use technical terminology (words like past participle, conjugation, noun declension etc.) Grammar was always explained by use of examples in such a way that it didn't feel like grammar. My own German classes in school would directly discuss cases, adjective agreement and many other things I simply didn't care about. Unless you are a grammarian learning a language this way is boring. Grammar can and likely must be taught, but in a communicative context.
  • Many ESL teachers even abandon the whole classroom idea and make it a game, especially with children. When you take learning away from blackboards and copybooks, into dances, puzzles, board games, activities, competitions, interesting assignments rather than homework etc. the student is way more likely to participate simply because it's more fun. These work just as well with adults (but perhaps using less stuffed animal toys). One of my most favourite jobs as an English teacher never involved entering a single classroom. One day I dressed up as a pirate (see photo) and went hunting for treasure with my students, but added in important vocabulary along the way and corrected mistakes they would make.
  • Positive rather than negative feedback. I would always encourage my students, and congratulate them on their efforts, no matter how small the achievement. Corrections would be added in subtly, in a way that they would remember, but without embarrassing them. All I remember about my German classes in school was constantly being wrong, feeling stupid and suffering through a marking system that emphasised my mistakes rather than focusing on progress. This feedback loop made me hate a language that I could have actually learned to love in a more encouraging environment.
  • Personal touch. The traditional classroom environment has the teacher constantly at the blackboard and perhaps occasionally peering over your shoulder to criticise your work. In more personal (and in my opinion, more effective) classrooms the teacher joins in on games, sits down with particular groups, and gives students encouraging pats on the back. I got warned by my employer about my back-patting encouragement when I taught Mathematics in the states and found this unhealthy obsession with personal bubbles counterproductive. Teaching should be more human! In many countries teachers are way closer to their students and this helps a lot.

Result? ESL teachers learn languages quicker

The result of applying the above and other more efficient teaching techniques means that many ESL teachers figure out what they were doing wrong themselves as learners and actually get a good hold over learning their own language. They realise that (like in their own classroom) less study and more actual use of the target language makes all the difference.

Seeing others struggle with their own progress directly can also help as you give them words of encouragement and start to believe these words yourself. Even though I don't teach English right now, encouraging others via this blog and the many e-mails people send me, reinforces my own enthusiasm in my language learning journey. Giving encouragement can encourage the person giving it too.

Teaching English was also part of my journey of becoming less shy, since this is necessary if you wish to be a good non-dull teacher. It's ironic, but more experience can actually make many traditional teachers worse because they are bored with teaching the same repetitive course year in and year out and their disinterest comes across very clearly in the classroom. Since I never taught any particular courses, sticking to speaking and games much more, I did not lose my enthusiasm as easily.

The energy I got from pushing large groups of people to speaking a foreign language (English) would come with me and help me to convince small groups of people to listen to me as I make mistakes in their language.

The most important thing I learned in teaching English, is that learning a language can indeed be fun and not all about grammar, vocabulary, mistakes and feeling stupid.

Some readers of the Language Hacking Guide have been telling me that they have been using my suggestions in their own classrooms or with their own children with positive results! Do you teach a language in a more interesting way than traditional approaches?

Have you taught English (or another language) yourself and found that it helps your own language learning mission? Disagree with me and think that a dusty old blackboard and time-tested course material is the best way to learn a language? Share your thoughts! And don't forget to share this post with your friends on Facebook!

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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