As a Chinese language learner, and an English language teacher, I have come to realize something important: knowing what you teach is not enough, you also need to know how to teach.
Many people assume that knowing a language is enough to be able to teach it, but people forget that the learning process is different for adults than it is for children who learn their first language. Someone once told me, “if you teach English in Mexico it should be easy, just start with the ABCs and move from there.” I assume the person said so because when we are children the first thing we learn is the alphabet.
A long time ago, some friends from China would offer to teach me Chinese. They would be excited to share what they knew, and began presenting common phrases and translating them to English. But in a short amount of time they struggled to explain the concepts behind the grammatical rules, the connotations, and the contexts in which the phrases are commonly accepted. One of them got a book to learn how to teach “foreigners” (people who don’t speak Chinese and come from a non-Chinese country. I bet they thought that all they needed to do what to share their knowledge and that I would automatically take it in.
As I took graduate courses on teaching English to speakers of other languages, I got acquainted with a multitude of theories on teaching languages. I learned about the differences of teaching students of different ages, levels, and even anxiety levels. I saw how context also mattered in terms of language learning goals: Does the student want to improve conversation skills, job skills, academic skills, etc? Is the student learning the language to pass a test or just as a hobby? What is the learning style that the student is most comfortable with? Visual, verbal, aural? How can I create course and lesson plans that cater to the student’s needs? What kind of materials should I use for the lessons? How can I make my classroom more student centered and less teacher centered? How can I measure student progress?
Today I was able to meet with a Chinese tutor who has years of experience, and who has developed a teaching philosophy based on acquiring a strong sense of the fundamentals before progressing to vocabulary building. Her way of teaching seems to fit with my language learning needs, and I sense that by attending her sessions I will improve as an English teacher, since I will also learn from her teaching style. As a language learner myself, I will be able to empathize with my English language students and have an intuition about how to deliver lessons in ways that can be useful to them.
I can sense that I still have a long way to learn to master the art of teaching, and that the journey has only begun. But along the way, I will maintain a sense of appreciation for the skills that are required to teach, and to learn, the language of another nation, culture, and ancient heritage.