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!

January: this month I have…

  • Been grateful to Channel 4 for a trek through the Himalayas with Levison Wood, turning back time with Deutschland 83, and helping me to practise my French with Kabul Kitchen. All worth checking out (if you can access them where you are).
  • Begun collecting teaching materials to take with me to Kyrgyzstan.
  • Said goodbye and good luck to a good friend and old teaching colleague, who has now moved to Kabul, Afghanistan.
  • Been overwhelmed by the number of readers I’ve had. The most popular post by far was this one on board games in the EFL classroom – in case you missed it the first time. And thank you for all the attention!
  • Started an office Lotto syndicate – because it’s always good to have a Plan B! £34 won so far…
  • Missed out on BETT (just no time!), but enjoyed reading all the tweets and summaries floating around the internet.
  • Seen Daughter in concert.
  • Uncorked my homemade blackberry gin with the neighbours. How very civilized…
  • Taught my first lesson of 2016 at FELLOW.
  • Treated myself to far too many nice things (gig tickets, Lebanese food, new home ware) with the excuse that ‘it’s January’.
  • Spent a week in Moscow, catching up with old friends and showing more recent ones a bit of my favourite city.
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Red Square, Moscow

December: this month I have…

  • Been trying to get in my ten per day. And largely failing. But more on that to follow…
  • Spent too much money on tickets to live music and comedy events in 2016 (uh-oh!).
  • Been fascinated by LingoRank – an analysis of TED talks by CEFR level. Is the end of publisher-made video nigh?
  • Learned more about the prison system on a visit to the Dana (formerly HMP Shrewsbury). I can’t recommend it enough.
  • Wondered whether I am the project manager’s favourite editor.
  • Been planning my trip to Moscow next month – my first visit to Russia since I moved back to the UK in 2012!
  • Given some of my family members the gift of helping someone else, thanks to CARE’s micro-finance programme, Lend with Care.
  • Been reflecting on Ed Pegg’s analysis of disruptive innovation in ELT – and wondering why I still haven’t taught myself to code.
  • Finished my first course of swimming lessons! My biggest achievement this year.
  • Started listening to the new series of Serial with the amazing Sarah Koenig.
  • Finally mastered double crochet!

And who knows what next year will bring… have a wonderful New Year, and see you in 2016!

November: this month I have…

This month I have…

  • Been published in the Guardian! Can you spot my travel tip…? Hint: I should’ve done a copy edit.
  • Laughed out loud and contemplated life’s big questions with Aziz Ansari’s Master of None.
  • Entered this competition in the hope of winning a return visit to my beloved Switzerland.
  • Caught up on some old episodes of This American Life. Check out August’s two-part series ‘The Problem We All Live With’ for an eye-opening discussion of racial integration in American schools.
  • Been reading about Russia’s educational reforms on The Pie (my new favourite international education site).
  • Used (overused?) Facebook’s ‘save’ feature to capture all the interesting teacher tips that have popped up in my timeline.
  • Followed Simon Reeve through Ireland in his latest BBC documentary.
  • Been exploring the topic of millennials in the workplace, thanks to great articles on Forbes, Pew Research Center, and PWC.
  • Hosted old and new friends from the USA, UK, and Spain (and been promised a mini break in Costa Brava next summer!).
  • Been contemplating whether to start 2016 with a bullet journal.
  • Been dreaming about summer in Kyrgyzstan. Only a few months to go!
  • Not slept as much as I should have done…