If you want to boost your language learning skills with the help of a teacher or language partner, there are a variety of options. In this article, I will outline three different types of teachers, and I will discuss the benefits and drawbacks to each one.
First, I want to quickly define a few terms:
L1: Your L1 is your native language.
L2: Your L2 is your target language, a.k.a the language you’re trying to learn.
Native speaker intuition: This is the inherent knowledge native speakers have about their own language. As a native speaker of your language, you know whether or not something “sounds right” even if you don’t know the explanation behind it.
Now that we have those terms defined, let’s talk about the three types of teachers you can seek out as a language learner.
1. Native-speaking teachers
The most obvious choice of teacher would be a trained educator who is a native speaker of your target language. In this situation, you get to learn your L2 with the help of someone who speaks it as their L1 and has been trained how to teach it. Native-speaking teachers have a wealth of knowledge, a lifetime of exposure to the language, and a lot of resources to help you. The language they teach is also deeply connected to their background and upbringing, so as a learner, you get greater insight into the target culture as well.
Teachers in this category have native speaker intuition about their language, so they are great language mentors–especially as you reach a more advanced level and start to have complex questions. Working with a native-speaking teacher is also beneficial because you get exposure to their native pronunciation of the language. Language teachers usually have at least some basic training in phonetics. If pronunciation is important to you, your best option would be to work with a native-speaking teacher who is trained in phonetics. This type of teacher will be able to help you to efficiently accustom your ear to the new sounds.
The only possible drawback I can see to having a native-speaking teacher is that the teacher might not understand why you struggle with certain aspects of the language. If the teacher doesn’t speak your L1 well, then they can’t help you draw comparisons between your own language and the language you’re trying to learn. This is where having a non-native teacher of your L2 might come in handy.
2. Non-native speaking teachers
Non-native teachers of your L2 are a great asset, especially if they share a native language with you. These teachers have worked and studied to gain mastery of the same language you are trying to learn. They have gone through exactly what you are going through, and they have come out the other side. I myself am a non-native Spanish teacher, and I can explain most aspects of the Spanish language better than I can explain my native language. This is because I have studied Spanish in much more depth.
The drawback to non-native speaking teachers, especially the ones that share your native language, is the tendency to revert to English (or whatever your L1 is) to explain things. Just because it’s quicker and easier for you to get an explanation in your native language doesn’t mean you should. The best way to learn your L2 is to learn through your L2 as much as possible. There are times when it is helpful to compare aspects of your native language to your target language, but if you do this constantly, it becomes a crutch.
If you are seeking out a non-native teacher, find one that uses comprehensible input to facilitate their classes. A teacher who uses comprehensible input speaks the target language in class most of the time, but they do so in a way that is comprehensible to learners at your level. Most teachers who use comprehensible input follow a 90/10 rule. For example, a non-native Spanish teacher who speaks English would aim to conduct 90% of the class in Spanish and 10% in English.
3. Native speakers who aren’t trained teachers
Lastly, at some point in your language-learning journey, you need to make friends with native speakers of your target language who aren’t trained teachers. Native-speaking teachers are trained to be “sympathetic native speakers.” What does this mean? Native-speaking teachers are so used to working with language learners that they understand you even when a typical native speaker would have no idea what you’re saying. Native speakers who aren’t teachers don’t have this talent, and that is a good thing. You want to get to the point where normal, everyday speakers of your L2 can understand you, so eventually you will have to branch out and find normal people to talk to. This is a great way to flesh out your language abilities. Talking to people in this category is where I have learned the most slang, jokes, and idioms in the language I’m learning. It can be kind of intimidating to be thrown into a real conversation with a group of native speakers at first, but it is hands down one of the best things you can do to improve your listening and speaking skills.
Of course, the only drawback to native speakers who aren’t trained teachers is that they often aren’t sure how to explain something to you if you don’t understand it. Most native Spanish speakers I’ve talked to have no idea why they use the subjunctive mood in certain situations. They just do. In fact, if you even say you have a question about the subjunctive in Spanish, most of them will have no idea what you’re talking about. This really isn’t a big deal though. You can always find an explanation elsewhere if you need it. When conversing with native speakers who aren’t trained teachers, it’s best just to have fun and not worry too much if you don’t get something.
Your best bet would be to have all three types of teachers at some point in your language-learning journey. You don’t have to worry about doing this right away. At different points, different people will come into your life and help you take the next step. You can still learn how to communicate quite efficiently with just one teacher and a lot of self-study. However, once you reach a certain level of fluency, you’ll want to expand your horizons. The more you study, the more you’ll realize there is to learn. There’s a quote that goes, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” The idea is attributed to Aristotle, but it still holds relevant today.
I have been studying Spanish for 20 years. I speak it well. Heck, I love Spanish so much that I majored in it in college and later did a master’s degree in the language. I got certified to teach it, and I’ve now taught it for years. Even with all of those credentials, I still consider myself a learner. I finally realize that I will always consider myself a learner, and that is fine with me. There is no contradiction in being both a speaker and a learner of a language.
I think most people who have never learned a second language assume that they’ll be done learning once they achieve a certain level of fluency. I certainly thought so. However, the more you study, the more you see how endless the possibilities are to improve your mastery. Rather than frustrating me, I’ve come to the point where I love the challenge. The language or languages you choose to study will fascinate you as your understanding grows. There are always new words to learn. There are always turns of phrase you’ve never heard before. It’s a lifelong journey but a worthwhile pursuit.