I recently interviewed a number of my students, ranging from executives at large corporations to teenagers just going into high school, about what their secrets to successful English learning were. Now, I knew full-well going in what their answers would most likely be, having already put a few languages under my belt myself: dedication, motivation, hard work, time, a like of the language; the same blood, sweat and tears you need to put in to learn any skill to some degree of proficiency. No surprises there.
But what prompted me to write this post was a revelation I had while reading an article on English Experts about whether native speakers make better teachers of English than non-native, Brazilian teachers (an absurd notion, by the way). But literally, mid-sentence somewhere in the third paragraph, I realized that one thing was conspicuously, at least for me as an English teacher, missing from my students’ lists of success factors: TEACHERS!
Not a single student mentioned "teacher" as one of their secrets to success. They said, "going to class," but never their teacher. That admission prompted me to ask the question, "Do learners of English even need teachers of English?" Everyone has a favorite Economics or Biology teacher they had in high school or college that was super influential to the way they learned and to their ultimate success later on. But does anyone have a favorite second language teacher? I can't think of a single one of mine that stood out in any way as a definitive influence on my successful language learning. Isn't that a little weird, when you think about it?
Could it be that we're all that terrible as teachers that we never leave our mark? Or are we language teachers placed by students on a lower, less important rung on the educational ladder, and so not given the consideration we might deserve? Or is it that teachers of second languages just aren't that important to language learning when the other factors like motivation and a love of the language are already in place?
Let's keep it real, if you're not motivated, have no desire to learn and are unwilling to put in the work, no teacher on the planet is going to help you learn all the irregular verb conjugations. A good teacher, though, might be able to motivate you, get you interested enough that you just might put in the effort. But…I don’t know, maybe.
That lead me to another important question: at what point do we language teachers, if at all, really teach language learners anything? Are we even necessary in this digital age where you can pretty much find whatever resource you want, even native speakers to talk to, on the internet?
If you've got the desire and the drive to learn English, I really don’t think you need an English teacher at all! Sure, we can help clarify some doubts you might have on a subtle linguistic point, or pronunciation difficulties, or something like that, but learning the meat and potatoes of the language can be done without us.
I wonder if I'm too old to start a career in advertising…