One valuable life experience which has helped me so much throughout my professional development as an ESL teacher is learning a second language, which in my case was Czech language (ouch, it’s a painful one). I’ve thought about this a lot and I really feel that learning a second language helped me improve my English teaching skills in a number of ways. I’d like to share my thoughts on the reasons why below.

(1) Empathy

From a teacher’s perspective, I believe that it’s valuable to understand the emotional struggles that come with a learning a language. And one great way to do this is to actually put yourself in the shoes of a language learner. When you’re in a language class from the perspective of a learner, you get to know the feeling of making mistakes, the challenge of expressing your ideas clearly, making sense of the grammar rules, pronouncing words the right way, getting embarrassed, and feeling nervous to speak. This experience can then help you improve your communication with your students and give you an idea how to respond to the difficulties they have. And most importantly, you’ll have a better sense on how to help them overcome these struggles and challenges.

While I don’t think that you necessarily have to learn a second language in order to have empathy as a language teacher, I do feel that being on the other side provides you with a humbling experience that can be of value for teaching.

(2) Getting good ideas for lesson activities 

When you take foreign language lessons you get the opportunity to see first-hand what kinds of activities work and don’t work. Think about it as killing two birds with one stone – you’re learning a new language but also learning new teaching techniques and activities. Try to be aware and even take notes of what activities your teacher did with you that you thought were helpful, useful, interesting, engaging, effective, as well as ineffective, boring, too hard, etc. Ask yourself – what helped you improve? What was effective for you? Then you can take these activities, adapt them and/or improve them for your own lessons. I’ve collected many ideas from my teachers when I was learning Czech language. I then flipped these ideas around to use with my students. This helped me save lesson planning time and also gave me solid material.

I remember one great speaking activity my teacher made for me. I had to choose one person I admired. Then, she had cards cut up (about 10 – 15 ), each card with a different verb written on it. She then told me to choose any 5 cards. I had to make questions to ask this person in an interview, and each question had to include one of the 5 verbs I chose. We went through and corrected my mistakes in each question, and then she took the questions and asked me each. I had to answer the questions from the perspective of that person I admired. I remember it being fun and useful for me and so I turned around and did the same with some of my students. It turned out to be a great speaking activity and my students loved to practice their speaking in this way.

So don’t forget to take notes on what your language teacher does with you and what works well. The next two points only apply to teachers who are learning or have learned the native language of their students, but I believe can still give you good insight.

(3) Personal & Linguistic Connection

TED-Ed has a great video about the benefits of a bilingual brain which explains how bilingual people can usually be divided into three different categories:

Compound: The learner is typically very young when they start learning / using a second language. They use their native language and second language both at home and at school. They process the world around them in both languages. There is no separation.

Coordinate: The learner uses their native language in one environment (at home, for example) and then uses the second language in another environment (at school, for example) so both languages are separated according to which environment they’re in.

Subordinate: The learner typically learns a second language by filtering it through their first language (translating, memorizing grammar rules, and then using these concepts in a real-world context.)

If you have adult students, there are high chances that some of them fall in the subordinate category, filtering English through their first language. This basically means that as they speak English, they are translating from their native language, and as they listen to someone speak English, they are translating it to their native language. This is how communication and understanding generally work for a subordinate bilingual.

So if you have students in the subordinate category, then learning and reaching a high level of their native language can help you communicate more accurately and clearly with them. If you understand the grammatical and phonetic structure of their language, then when they speak and make mistakes, you know why they’re making those mistakes and what they’re trying to convey.

You’ll also be able to facilitate the filtration process for them through translation. Although translation is often looked down upon in the classroom, check out a great blog post by an ESL teacher in Prague, Kamila Linkova who quoted one expert named Peter Newmark. He’s an English professor of translation at the University of Surrey, who suggested that translation can be beneficial to language learning in terms of accuracy, clarity, and flexibility. Chances are your lower-level students will have a tougher time understanding the following phrases if they are defined or explained in a foreign language, as opposed to translated to their native language:

  • It’s not worth it.
  • Cut me some slack.
  • He’s really on a roll.
  • He got taken advantage of.
  • I’m drawing a blank.
  • That doesn’t ring a bell.
  • Let’s get to the point.

It can take you much more time to explain how to use these idiomatic expressions than it is to simply translate them to your students’ native language. Often it’s much more effective to just translate them, and additionally go through definitions and examples of these expressions in use in English. It’s also important to point out that you don’t have to (and actually you shouldn’t) constantly use your students’ native language throughout the whole lesson. But you might see how effective and helpful it can be to be able to communicate with them in their native language from time to time.

Furthermore, if you know their native language, you’ll gain a better understanding how they think, why they used the wrong word in the wrong context, and how the grammatical structure of their language works. There’s been many times when my students weren’t able to think of a word in English, they say it in Czech, and then I’m able to translate it immediately for them. This helps them process the language and connect with it more efficiently.

(4) Learning about the cultural topics that matter

Language is known to be the heart of a culture. When you take foreign language lessons, you’ll probably learn a lot about the culture of the country/countries where that language is spoken. When you do this, you’ll get a very good idea about what traditions, sports, hobbies, films, people, holidays and a range of other things that your students know a lot about, want to talk about, and really hit their heart. When students have an emotional connection to the learning content, they tend to be more motivated to speak their mind about it, which always makes for a good language lesson. And when you learn a second language, a lot of these special cultural topics will be integrated as part of the lesson. In return, this gives you great material to turn around and use for teaching topics in your lessons.

There’s been a few topics that we’ve studied in my Czech language courses that taught me something special about the culture. I remember talking specifically about mushroom picking and a Czech businessman, Zdenek Pelc, and his vinyl production company in the Czech Republic. After interesting discussions on these topics in my language lessons, I decided to make some lessons plans for my students on the same topics. I found some good videos on these in English and made a mushroom picking lesson plan and vinyl lesson plan. My students loved working on these topics because they could relate personally to them. They were engaging for the students and it introduced a lot of new and useful vocabulary terms relevant to the topics.