Being a Language Learner-Teacher

One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages opens every door along the way. -Frank Smith

I’ve worked almost exclusively with L2 English students since I began teaching back in 2009. But, I’m just now coming to understand the benefits of being a particular kind of language learner while also being a language teacher; namely, the kind of language learner that has to make semi-regular use of their L2. It opens unexpected pedagogical doors and facilitates the human labor aspect of language teaching in new ways.

When I had started teaching, I had studied Japanese for four years. But, I never had a reason and opportunity to make regular use of it. It was really just a class that I went to that I performed rather well in. So, I had experience with language learning, but I didn’t see how it connected to my work as a language teacher—at least not beyond the reactionary, yeah this is hard, but we’ve all got to do it. 

Now that I live and work in China the majority of the year, now that I’m not just learning Chinese but being forced to use it to carve out some semblance of a life here in Shanghai, being a language learner has taken on new relevance to my practice as a teacher. First, let’s look at one of the pedagogical doors that it has opened for me.

Here, I’ll write with you…and I’ll do it in my L2.

At NYU Shanghai two-thirds of the classes that I teach are writing courses. And, since my training and research has centered on L2 writing. I typically teach large groups of Chinese L2 students. I find that in these classes, just like in my classes in the States, there’s a nervousness around writing in a second language. Often my students are afraid that they can’t do it well, or fluently, or accurately, or that they don’t have anything worth saying. Simply put, there’s a considerable affective barrier in place before they even set their fingers to their keyboards. They think that their English simply isn’t good enough to be able to say anything interesting.

As I’ve gained in Chinese proficiency over the years, I’ve been able to start using it as a pedagogical tool in the classroom. So, in those early weeks of the class, as we’re coming up on our first writing assignment, I’ll do an in-class writing with my students. And, I’ll tell them. Ok, I know you’re nervous about writing in English. I know you’re worried about your language skills. How about this. Let’s try something. You write this exercise in English; I’ll do it in Chinese. Then, we’ll compare. So, I’ll write with them in Chinese. Now, my Chinese is bad. If you want proof, just check out the post from Monday, April 10, 2017. Before they even share there work, I’ll show them my writing. There will be a few oohs and ahhs but after they start reading there are more groans and chuckles. Then, I ask them how much they wrote—it’s usually much more than I got done. Then, I ask them to consider my L2 writing. It took me the same amount of time to write less, and I did so in very, very simple language—and with the help of Baidu fanyi. Then, they share. As they share, I remind them that while their writing might have some linguistic errors—and the occasional rhetorical one—they wrote more than I did on a complex topic and while using more context appropriate lexical tokens. Simply put, they did way better. So, they have nothing to worry about. Besides, if their writing were perfect, I’d have no job.

Human Labor

I find that being a language learner-teacher also helps with some of the emotional/human labor that we as ESL teachers often carry out for our institutions. Working with language learners means working with a population that is not only under great cognitive strain as they adapt to the university, but also under great affective strain as they face challenges that their native-speaking peers might not be facing—and some of the affective strain comes from constantly negotiating meaning in a second language.

Being a language learner-teacher means that I remember, very vividly, these challenges; because I’m going through them along with my students. They’re struggling to perform an intelligent student identity in English; and, I’m struggling to perform a barely competent public identity when I go to the store and try to make small talk with the clerk as she rings me out at the grocery, or as I haggle with the tailor about the price of new shirts.

Also, being language learner-teacher reminds me that language learning is not linear—it’s not ever forward, ever better. There are false starts; there are regressions; there are silent periods. I share with them my struggles of readjusting to Chinese after I’ve been in the U.S. for a few weeks. I tell them about the days where I just can’t “Chinese” so I hide in my house and avoid interaction. I find that because I’m going through these things with my students in my own L2, it makes it easier to empathize and to be compassionate about their struggles.

Of course, this then hits up against my ingrained pragmatism. And, then, I remind them. Sometimes we just have to do it and see what happens.

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