Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The case for non-native language teachers

Thanks to Lana for her Sept 8 blog post, Out with lecturing, in with problem-solving, and the link to a very interesting article, Rethinking the way college students are taught. Of particular interest was the following passage:

"Imagine two students sitting next to one another, Mary and John. Mary has the right answer because she understands it. John does not. Mary's more likely, on average, to convince John than the other way around because she has the right reasoning."

But here's the irony. "Mary is more likely to convince John than professor Mazur in front of the class," Mazur says.

"She's only recently learned it and still has some feeling for the conceptual difficulties that she has whereas professor Mazur learned [the idea] such a long time ago that he can no longer understand why somebody has difficulty grasping it."

That's the irony of becoming an expert in your field, Mazur says. "It becomes not easier to teach, it becomes harder to teach because you're unaware of the conceptual difficulties of a beginning learner."

I live in Shanghai, China, and am studying Mandarin Chinese. I'm still a beginner, but I have a good handle on some of the basic concepts of the language (grammar, tones, word order, etc.). One of my co-workers approached me last week and asked me to teach her Chinese. I admitted to her that I am only a beginning learner myself, and that she might do better studying with one of our Chinese colleagues. She said that she had tried studying with a native-speaker, but had problems understanding the tutor's explanations. The tutor just didn't understand what my co-worker didn't understand. Because I'm a student of Chinese myself, she feels that I will have much more empathy for her struggle to learn Chinese.

It reminds me of the discussion going around a couple of weeks ago: teachers are not necessarily experts in what we teach, but rather we are guides who are just further down the learning path than our students.


  1. I agree with your colleague. I took French classes at Mesa college in San Diego. A beginner's class with a French professor and an intermediate one with an American.

    The American (who, I must say, spoke flawless French with just the teeniest accent in his r's) was a much better teacher.

    Having learned French as an adult he could relate very well to the problems that his students had, like the issue (which is a problem for most English-speaking language learners) of when one should use the imperfect tense or the simple past.

    My class-mates were almost mad at me because I would always get it right and they used to ask me: "so... how do you know when to use the imperfect" to which I would answer: "simplicity itself: I use the imperfect in the same sentences where I would use it in Italian"... :)

  2. What an interesting post. I am a near native speaker and instructor of Italian at MiraCosta College and I have talked with my colleagues about this very idea so many times over the years. Your post made me curious to see what others are saying about this online and I found a few studies and papers which touched on this topic. I will include them in my shared diigo account if you want to take a look.

  3. Great Jacqualine! I'll be interested in reading more about this. Thanks :)