Little I knew, eleven years ago, that I would be teaching my own language in another country. Being a Language Assistant was an eye opening experience which did not only make me discover a passion for teaching Spanish, but also made me realise what a challenging task I had ahead of me.
In Spain, the country where I am from, some students would prefer to be taught by native teachers. They will say they prefer to listen to someone with an “authentic” accent. I have had English, French and German native teachers and I remember how exciting (and exotic) I always thought that was. There was this person who was coming from another country with a different language, a different culture and different experiences. However, thinking back I do not recall learning more with them than I did with my non-native teachers.
Now, it is me the (exotic) native teacher who comes from a foreign country and, although I must say I thoroughly enjoy sharing my language, culture and experiences with my students, the fact that I teach my own language does not make my job much easier. To be honest, had it not been for my training as a teacher, I would have really struggled, even if I was an expert in my field!
So, what would I recommend those who are thinking of becoming native teachers?
First of all, think of your students. You cannot treat your students as a big homogenous mass. You need to know what is their motivation to study your language. Your students may be 9 year old children who are starting to learn the language, teenagers who are not specially interested in the subject, young people who enjoy learning a language and have a hunger to achieve good results in their academic life or adults who want to learn a new language because of their job or just because they want to visit a country during their holidays and they would like to communicate in the local language.
All groups are not the same and you may find yourself dealing with different dynamics. Our job involves working with people and there are not two people who have exactly the same needs. So it is important to understand these needs. Non-native teachers have a significant advantage compared to native teachers: their learning experience has been similar to their students’, so they understand better which difficulties they may encounter. Sometimes I have found difficult to understand why my students would struggle with different tenses or with the pronunciation of a particular word, whereas my colleagues have been able to foresee any issues before they have even arised.
Being a native speaker does not make you a good language teacher, but this happens with any subject. You may be an eminent scientist, but that does not make you a good Science teacher. A teacher has to be a facilitator of knowledge. It may sound ironic, but it is important to learn how to teach before you start teaching. To some people it may come naturally, but some of us need training to master our teaching skills.
As I mentioned earlier, pronunciation is also important, but it is not more important than fluency and that can only be acquired by practice. There are other skills that are equally important such as writing, reading and listening. You do not need to be a native to teach all of these skills. However, it may make more sense trying to communicate with a native speaker in their own language. After all, you are learning a language because you want to communicate with other people whose mother tongue is not the same as yours. Many people get frustrated if they make mistakes when they communicate. Unfortunately, they do not understand this is part of the whole process of learning. So I tell my students I also make mistakes in English. After all, it is not my mother tongue, but I can still communicate successfully.
So, are there any advantages to being a native teacher? The answer is yes and that is actually our strongest point. We can inspire our students by talking about our culture, our history and our traditions and how these are linked to theirs. I can tell my students what life is like in Spain, I can tell them about why siestas are such a bliss in the summer, why we eat our lunch and dinner so late compared to them and I can also tell them we do not say “please”, “thank you” and “sorry” so often, but that does not make us rude. I can also say that women never lose their surnames so I have my mum’s and dad’s names or I can explain why some of us still live with our parents in our late twenties or early thirties. I can also tell them about my personal experience and how learning a language has helped me travel to places.
All in all, being a native speaker does not make you a good teacher. It is your teaching skills that make you a good teacher and these skills can be acquired thanks to training. It is important to understand the needs of those we teach and make sure we use our strongest points as native speakers in order to help them and inspire them.
(Note: this post is not based on any study. I have just narrated my experience as a native teacher and I have expressed my personal opinion on teaching and learning languages).