When asked what makes an outstanding language teacher, most learners in one research repeatedly said that it was a teacher who has profound knowledge of subject matter. What is the subject matter of ESL and EFL teachers? It is both proficient knowledge about language and no less proficient knowledge of the language itself. Methodology and linguistics aside, learners often seek a teacher who knows a language well (exceptionally well) (Thornbury, 1997).
When we talk about native speakers (NESTs), most of them have exceptional knowledge of the language, but many lack proficient knowledge about language. Non-native language teachers (non-NESTs) on the contrary quite often are well-informed and educated about how language works and how to teach it, but frequently lack confidence in using the language itself, or have a problem with language proficiency. We are going to focus on the latter.
Why do we forget language?
Imagine an Olympic champion in athletics who hasn’t practiced for 10 years. And then, after 10 years of relaxed non-athletic life, he decides to compete in the Olympics again, but without any preparation or training. Well, technically he is still an athlete. However, if he tries competing after 10 years of not doing anything about his previous skills, the results will most likely be quite disastrous.
Now, back to language teachers. For most non-NESTs, an active learning stage of the language finishes after graduation from university. The level they got at that point is the level they go into the profession with. We may assume that if they are English language teachers and deal with the English language – i.e. their subject matter – on a daily basis, their level might not progress, but also will not deteriorate. Right? Well, not exactly!
One of the modern linguists Stephen Krashen once proposed a so-called input hypothesis, which was illustrated by the formula ‘i+1’. Although he was widely criticized and his hypotheses were considered controversial, let us have a look at this particular one. His theory postulates that a person learns a language only when receiving input from other people who speak the language and that this input must be largely, but not fully, understandable, or “comprehensible.” If this comprehensible input is just slightly above the level of the individual learner (the ‘i’ in the formula), there will be a situation of ‘plus one’, and the language can be learned (or rather, according to his theory, acquired). Without ‘i+1’ there will be no progress (Krashen, 1982).
Now, let’s think about what English language teachers have to deal with in their everyday context. The most input non-NESTs get is negative related to the language level they already have. What happens is the reversed model of Krashen’s hypothesis, something that can be called ‘i-1’ (Luskow 2012). While spending a disproportionate amount of time with speakers who cannot produce new and qualitative comprehensible input, teachers’ level first enters the phase of stagnation, which gradually falls into deterioration. Thus, without new ‘i+1’ comprehensible input non-NESTs often find that their language skills become ‘rusty’ and they cannot recollect, use and finally even recognize items they once knew (to say nothing of acquiring something new).
As sad as it is, this situation does not make non-NESTs worse than NESTs and does not mean that they are doomed to lose their language level and become incompetent. This merely suggests that they need to increase ‘i+1’ comprehensible input and constantly stimulate themselves intellectually.
What can be done to prevent language decay?
Once we have established what happens when language is not practiced and teachers do not get enough higher-level comprehensible input, it is time to consider some preventative measures against language stagnation and deterioration.
There are many ways to get comprehensible input having a decent Internet connection and enough motivation. Reading books and shorter passages, watching films and TV series, listening to lectures, videos and audiobooks, – it’s all clear and well-known. We will focus on a few unusual ways of getting comprehensible input.
Massive Open Online Courses or just MOOCs are a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of your language as well as learn something interesting, new and useful. The best thing about them is that they are mostly free. Learn how to eat healthily, create your own website, look after the elderly and other practical topics by watching videos, doing tests, and most importantly – communicating with fellow learners and educators in English throughout the course. You can find a topic that interests you from the list of MOOCs on different platforms.
We all use social networking websites, regularly scrolling through the newsfeed, reading and liking posts, sharing our own, and spending hours a week doing just that. We can do that in English, too. Try out Reddit, an American social news aggregation, web content rating, and discussion website. It is entirely in English and has posts on a variety of topics, a lot of jokes and memes, short videos, and interesting content. Check your comprehension of modern Internet English, learn slang, challenge yourself with decoding puns and cultural references, and enjoy communicating in the comments section. This group might be of particular interest for language learning purposes.
Play computer games and learn language by immersing yourself into different contexts and situations. Learn topical vocabulary about the household, farming, mining and surviving, college life, Scandinavian mythology, and many more. If you don’t want to play, watch others doing it. Every game has a huge community of followers and fans, who play the games, comment on them, review them, etc. With the help of these communities, you can train your ear to distinguish different accents, like American Southern, regional British, Australian, and the like. You get vocabulary chains in a bundle, clear context, and free entertainment (which is a good addition to self-study).
Apart from watching videos on YouTube and spending time on films and TV series, a good alternative might be streams on Twitch, a live streaming video platform. Even if you miss a live stream, you can always watch the recording in the archive. They broadcast esports, gaming videos, video tutorials, talk shows, and creative content. You can listen to it on the background while doing something else, or watch closely, it’s up to you. It provides real-life up-to-date language, an opportunity to communicate with other spectators and a streamer through a live chat and watch something you are interested in.
Finally, an unusual way for English teachers to keep their language at the level is to have lessons with a teacher. It does not necessarily mean having lessons with a NEST, another more proficient and qualified non-NEST will do. Lessons with a teacher bring organization to your self-study, discipline you with clear syllabus and curriculum, give you practice through homework and an opportunity for output during the lessons. The problem is that most courses and lessons are designed for an average language learner, i.e. someone who is not a linguist and does not have deep knowledge of the language as English language teachers do. Therefore, it is desirable to find a course designed especially for non-NESTs.
To find out more ways to get comprehensible input and get more examples and materials, check out our webinar Language environment for ESL teachers.
Also, feel free to join our 90-hours course Developing linguistic competence of an ESL teacher, specially created for ESL teachers who would like to improve and maintain their language level and linguistic competence. It covers all the aspects of language and all the skills, but the main competence is speaking. The choice of topics will help you improve your expertise in order to be more knowledgeable when teaching these topics to your students. The advantage of this course consists in regular lessons with English-speaking certified tutors, teacher-relevant and interesting materials, and the opportunity to get a standard certificate of advanced training valid in the Russian Federation.
If you are interested, you can find out more here. Join us now as the lessons start very soon 😊
Over to you! How do you maintain your language level? Have you tried any of the ideas from the article? Would you like to try? Let us know in the comment section down below.
- Krashen, S. (1982) Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
- Lüskow, R. (2012) “The level happens.” Non-native English-speaking teachers’ views on learning, using, and maintaining English. Ph.D. Dissertation. Universität Rostock. Available at: http://rosdok.uni-rostock.de/
- Scrivener, J. (1997) About language: Tasks for Teachers of English. Cambridge University Press ELT.