Foreign Language Acquisition:

Why having a balanced teaching team matters
17 Feb 2019

The benefits of having a non-native speaker on your language instruction team

I have often been asked the same question, though on opposite sides of the globe: Are you a native speaker of the language you teach? In Italy, this meant “English.” Here, it means “Italian.” My answer differs depending on how the question ends and I’ve seen reactions on both ends of the spectrum: delight, in Italy, when I say that yes, I am a native speaker of English, and disappointment, in Canada, when I say that though not a native speaker per se, I have native-level proficiency in Italian, a Ph.D. in Italian language and culture, pedagogical and methodological training, and over twelve years of experience as a foreign language instructor, among them five lived in Italy.

It seems backwards, doesn’t it? That one should be praised merely for growing up speaking a language from birth, though not by choice, yet discounted when demonstrating mastery of a field acquired through years of study, hard work, and constant engagement with ever-evolving best practices. Not to mention the passion required to keep your head in the game when society is keen to tell you that you are not needed or easily replaced with someone innately more qualified.

It’s hard to explain to a student, to a parent looking for the absolute best for his or her child, that being a native speaker of a language, without pedagogical training and experience, doesn’t automatically make you the best teacher of that language. So I thought I’d list for you today the benefits of having a balanced team of language teachers composed both of native and non-native speakers to dispel some of the myths out there about foreign language instruction.

Let’s start with the benefits of non-native speakers.

  1. Empathy – Specialists in foreign language acquisition and teaching methods have been saying it for decades: students learn better — and more successfully produce language — when their difficulties are understood, acknowledged, and discussed. Who better to connect with them on the difficulties of learning a foreign language than someone who has had to learn that very language the very same way? Not through constant exposure at home, at school, everywhere, but in a classroom two or three times a week? Or, at best, traveling to a place where that language is spoken once a year for a few weeks?
  2. Safe spaces – Along these same lines, students learn best in “safe spaces” : environments where their errors are permitted as necessary stepping stones to self-correction and, later, fluent communication. Research has shown that students feel more comfortable trying — and failing — in so-called low pressure settings, where the expert in front of them is relatively close to their own position. Engaging with a native speaker, especially in early stages of foreign language acquisition, can lead to cognitive blocks or refusals to produce language because doing so seems unattainable in the face of such an authoritative figure.
  3. Educational history – This refers not to the degrees a language instructor holds, but to where s/he obtained them. Learning (and learning a foreign language) looks different in different parts of the world. So, too, does teaching one. Instructors who have learned the foreign language they teach in the same country or continent where they work are intimately familiar with the teaching methods that best resonate with language learners and with the educational system more generally. They know the ins and outs of the school day and school year and have realistic expectations of their students’ attention spans and of the types of exercises and input that will work in their classrooms. This knowledge, acquired over years of study in the same environment, allows them to plan their lessons effectively for their intended students.
  4. Answering the question, ‘why?’ – From a formal point of view, foreign language learners need to know why. Why this verb is conjugated in this way. Why this pronoun is being used instead of something else. Why this syntactical structure is necessary. Non-native speakers can often more effectively answer this question not only by making comparisons with their students’ native language (which they often share), but by looking at the grammatical reasons for intricacies in a language that seem idiosyncratic to its native speakers. As a result, they open the door to more pattern-based than rote memory-based learning.
  5. Grammatical accuracy – Here, I am referring to grammatical accuracy among native speakers who, however, might not have any training in pedagogy or foreign language teaching. Even native speakers make mistakes in their own native language. Have you ever said “ain’t” or used common phrases that have become accepted over time? In Montreal, think of the phrase, “What day are we today?” That’s not actually correct. The correct way to phrase that question would be, “What day IS IT today?” Yet, everyone says “What day are we today?” and everyone understands what is meant by it. Still, you might not want your child to learn that “What day are we today?” is the standard way to ask that question. It happens more frequently than it should: native speakers teach what they know to be true, what they have learned by ear. Sometimes, that information is incorrect. They pass it on without malice or ill-intent, but the damage is already done. Foreign language instructors (whether native speakers or not) are taught to reflect at length before pronouncing anything they aren’t 100% sure is correct so as to avoid these kinds of careless errors. In other words, being a native speaker of a language is not enough to make you a good teacher of it.

It might seem like I am advocating strictly for non-native speakers as foreign language teachers — and strictly against their native speaking counterparts. That is not the case. Trained native speaker foreign language instructors are wonderful and necessary resources on any teaching team. They bring with them a set of cultural references that non-native speakers simply don’t, and simply can’t have. They are also invaluable in providing examples of grammatical structures that might not seem evident to their non-native speaking peers. That’s to say nothing of how indispensable they are to phonetic learning: there is no better way to learn how to pronounce a word than by hearing it spoken by a native speaker. Only a native speaker can tune your ear into the particular sounds of his or her own language, and only a native speaker can explain difficult concepts like diphthongs, the length and aperture of vowels, doubled versus single consonants, from a phonetic point of view that is at once grammatically sound and accessible. Finally, native speakers are the clear choice for adult learners or advanced students looking to put their foreign language to use in a more authentic, fluent way and outside the limited circuit of “communicative” classroom learning. Native speakers are the gems in the crown of a well-balanced teaching team.

Here at Triple E Travel and our adjoining cultural centre in Montreal, we understand the utility of both points of view and are careful to create content that speaks at once to North Americans’ learning habits and to a contemporary portrait of Italy. Our non-native experience is bolstered by constant contact with the country whose language we teach and whose culture we so love. This conversation between Canada and Italy, non-native foreign language instruction and native speech, enriches our lessons without adding the screen of inaccessibility. It is our most profound hope that our students find in our courses a stimulating gateway to Italy that is authentic without being authoritarian.

For more information about our courses, or if you’d like to learn more about our teaching methods or second language instruction more generally, send us an e-mail! We are always happy to hear from our readers. In the meantime, we hope this blogpost has opened your eyes to the complexity of foreign-language learning and to the inestimable value a non-native speaker foreign language teacher brings to his or her teaching team.