Why speaking Russian made me a better English teacher

This week the British Council republished an old post from 2013 across a couple of their social media accounts. Graham Hall and Guy Cook’s study of own-language use in ELT (available here) is well worth reading if you can spare an hour or two (or jump to p26 for their summary of findings!).

L1 in the classroom has a bad rep. When I was doing my CELTA course, use of L1 was actively discouraged. I didn’t really think too much about this at the time; I didn’t speak the L1 in question (Ukrainian), and I imagined that one of the draws of the private language school was the promise of ‘immersion’ during the class. Although I didn’t know much about language teaching methodology at that point, I had studied languages for long enough to know that immersion = good, and translation = bad.

Fast forward to the start of my teaching career: I was in Moscow and, what’s more, I had moved to Moscow in order to improve my Russian. I was desperate for the immersive experience that had been missing during my university studies in the UK – so I understood why my students were so keen to be taught by a native speaker. More on native/non-native teachers to come from me at another juncture…

Earlier this month, Lizzie Pinard wrote a blog post for the British Council called ‘Why learning Thai made me a better English teacher’. It made me pause – and now, here’s why speaking Russian made me a better English teacher (in, er… Russia):

  • I could draw comparisons. Russian only has three tenses; English has… many more. Fortunately, Russian has aspects (imperfective and perfective), and these can be very helpful when it comes to explaining perfect and imperfect tenses.
  • I could translate. I much prefer teaching vocabulary by showing words in context, and glossing in English, but sometimes the classes moved too quickly. Why hinder a student’s flow when they need a word to continue a story they’re writing? I certainly quick-fired a few translations across the class.
  • I could understand students’ mistakes. If you know a student’s L1, you can often untangle their lexical or syntactical errors more quickly and, usefully, anticipate them when you are planning and delivering your lesson. There’s nothing like staying ahead of the game!
  • I could build a rapport. It’s definitely possible to build a rapport with someone without sharing a common language. However, I found that adult students in particular felt more at ease once they knew that I spoke their language. If beginner students were struggling, they knew that they could take a time-out and clarify a point in their own language. My experience of language learning was also useful when teaching students who were anxious or lacking in confidence: I could reassure them that I had been in their position as well, and I’d made it through.
  • I could laugh at myself (and my students could laugh at me). I’m sure that we’ve all chuckled at our students’ mistakes on one occasion or another. It’s certainly a great equalizer when they can laugh at you instead. During my language-learning journey I have proudly told a class that I had wet myself (note to self: word stress is very important in Russian), and asked a travelsick young student if he wanted drugs (again: ‘medicine’ and ‘narcotics’ are not interchangeable po-russki). And guess what? My mistakes – stupid as they might have been – showed my students that it’s OK to say the wrong thing sometimes. Because it really is! And what’s more, it’s inevitable…

I can’t imagine moving to a country without speaking at least a few words of the native language, or intending to learn. That said, it seems to be the norm and it makes me wonder how different other non-L1-speaker teachers’ experiences have been to mine. Now I’m editing and teaching ESOL in the UK, one of the most interesting aspects of my classroom experiences  has been listening to students whose L1 I don’t understand – and trying to work out as much about their native language as I can.

Короче, L1 в классе – это здорово!

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