Thursday, 22 March 2012

Language learning, language teaching and identity

I met my friend Eljee for coffee today and we had a really interesting conversation about how we and people we know feel about our ability to speak, understand and teach languages and how it affects our sense of our own identity.  She is doing some very interesting research about English teachers, and you can read about her work on her blog at

I've spent the afternoon thinking about what a huge role my knowledge of languages plays in my sense of who I am, and how differently I feel about teaching English (where I am an undisputed 'expert' because I am a native speaker) compared to how I feel about teaching German (I have a degree in German and near-perfect command of grammar but would never be mistaken for a native speaker).  

Can a non-native speaker ever feel fully equal to a native speaker in a business or academic situation?  I personally never overcame some nagging insecurities about not being a native speaker of German throughout my fifteen years as a German teacher, although in some ways I was a better German teacher than I am an English teacher.  I was able to fully identify with the struggles my students faced as they learnt German - after all, I had faced and overcome these struggles myself.  As a novice English teacher, I was often at a loss to explain WHY something was grammatically incorrect, and had to fall back on the rather inadequate explanation that it just 'didn't sound English'.  That would never have happened when I was teaching German, as I knew every rule and the exceptions to that rule inside out.  Nevertheless, now that I am a (relatively) experienced English teacher, I am confident with explaining most aspects of grammar and, most important of all for me personally, I never have to worry about my accent or the breadth of my vocabulary, as I did when I was teaching German.  I have a strong and positive sense of my own identity as a 'good teacher'.

Next year my husband and I are planning to spend three months in Berlin - I wonder how I will feel about myself as a speaker of German after that?

I'd be very interested to hear from other language learners and teachers about how they feel their language abilities (and weaknesses) affect their sense of who they are.


  1. When living in Chile and learning Spanish, I never really managed to rise above that feeling that I sounded quite silly to them. On the flip side, peaking Spanish words in a Spanish accent to English speaking people is not a problem. It seems to me that linguistic ability is not the only factor. How do you help your students overcome this?

  2. Thanks for this comment - I've been thinking a lot about how to answer it. I'm sure that the most important thing for me as a teacher is to build up my students' confidence as much as I possibly can, and also to focus on the primary purpose of language - communication. While it would be fantastic to be able to speak other languages with a native-speaker accent, the fact is that this may be an unattainable goal for the majority of learners. The important thing is to be easily understood, and that is most definitely an achievable and realistic goal. So, I make sure we practice speaking a great deal in the classroom, and I encourage my students to overcome their shyness about speaking to native speakers outside the classroom.