Why non-native speakers can be great ESL teachers

My Background:
I was an ESL student in five different schools and programs in the United States, and learned English under six different teachers back in Belgium. I started my college career as an ESL student, and was awarded a TESOL certificate upon graduating. Throughout college, I tutored French, Italian, and ESL. This summer I taught at the fifth grade level at the 2012 Gonzaga University Summer Institute Language Camp for refugees. Since then, I haven’t taught due to a myriad of reasons including a desire to learn more about online marketing and the fact that most ESL job postings seek native English speakers.

These are five reasons why selected non-native speakers deserve a chance to teach ESL:

1. Cultural Shock and Frustration

Studying ESL is mainly about language acquisition, but there is a cultural aspect to the language that cannot be neglected. Cultural sensitivity and awareness are two indispensable qualities for ESL instructors. Having moved to the United States at nineteen years old, I remember the culture shocks, and can relate to ESL students when it comes to confusing idiomatic expressions, or when facing issues such as accent discrimination. In my personal experience as an ESL student, I have always had terrific experiences with English teachers, coincidentally all of them had some type of diverse cultural exposure–minor or major in foreign language or studies, study/teach abroad, immigration, and such.

2. Conjugating and Grammacating

Native speakers, can you conjugate a given verb at the present present perfect?
Learning a language is a field of study, it is a skillful art, a passion that only a few have. Trilingual in French, Italian, and English, I am currently learning Portuguese, and I simply cannot get enough. Since I love words so much, and was exposed to many languages at a young age, I fairly enjoy grammar rules, conjugation tables, vocabulary, syntax, and sentence structure. This may be weird to most people, but again, most people are not meant to be language teachers, and that’s alright. In my TESOL class, last year, during grammar and conjugation sessions, although I was a non-native speaker, I was one of the most current when it came to tenses, parts of speech, and sentence format.

3. Brave New Vocabulary

I remember learning the word “obvious”, and nothing is obvious about that word except for its definition. It all ties into this concept of remembering the learning experience, and thus being able to relate and pass it on in a genuine way. Again, I do not mean to say that L1s aren’t genuine in their teaching, and maybe there is some research out there about ESL teacher having learned another language than their own, and therefore rocking their jobs.

4. The Learning Journey

All in all, language acquisition and education is not about having the perfect vocabulary and pronunciation, it is about understanding the journey of learning a new language (and culture). I cherish my extensive knowledge of English because I am able to remember the struggle that building one sentence once was. I remember what worked for me, and I know that understanding structures takes a learner further than memorizing grammar and conjugation tables.

5. Resources

Being resourceful takes a student a long way, and the fact that I am still (and will always be) a student allows me to share my experience and tricks to my fellow students. I feel alive when I teach or tutor a language. Although French is my native language, I feel more confident teaching English. When I tutor or teach French, there are questions that I cannot answer, and concepts that I cannot articulate, because they feel innate to me. To stay on the resource topic, I don’t remember looking up basic French conjugaison or grammar, and I believe that it has made me a less articulate French as a Second Language educator.

This applies to a very small portion of non-native speakers, in no way am I in favor of ESL teachers with poor English skills and knowledge. I do believe in immersion in the classroom (L2 to L2).

Further Reading:


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