Language Teachers Must Be Language Learners | TROLL 020

Olly Richards here, back again with another Rule of Language Learning, and today I have language teachers firmly in my sights.

And the question is: Do language teachers have to be language learners?

Can you teach someone the language, if you don’t learn languages yourself?

It’s a valid question, wouldn’t you say?

And you have to ask yourself…

If you're an ambitious language student, and you're going to place your time, trust and money in a teacher…

Wouldn't you want it to be someone who actually knows what it's like to learn a language? Someone who understands what you're about to go through?

You see, coming with my “polyglot” hat on, I ask myself this question, and think, well, with everything that I know about what goes into learning a language…

All the myriad things I’ve learned over the years about language learning…

How could you even begin to pretend that you can teach someone else a foreign language if you haven’t been through the process yourself? If you haven't learnt another language to a high level, and regularly learn languages yourself?

The Mystery Of Language Learning

The fundamental issue seems to me to be that language learning – the process of learning a language – happens in very very mysterious ways.

You never really know when you actually learn something.

To use the lingo, you never really know when “input becomes intake.”

TROLL 020 quote olly richards

You can learn a word, or a piece of grammar, in a language lesson. But it may take many days, weeks or months before you feel like you really, really know it.

Do you know that feeling? I'm sure you do.

Indeed, as many people have observed, languages can’t be taught – they can only be learnt. And so if a language teacher is going to be effective, they surely have to be able to understand this mysterious process in order to guide their students through it.

If all language teachers were also language learners then everyone would live happily ever after.

Or would they?

Is it the case that any language teachers who aren't language learners should just pack up and go home?

Well, not quite.

You see, if you wanted to break my case apart — publicly shame me for my prejudicial views, as is the trend these days — then the question you should ask is:

Is it correct to try and teach the same way that you learn?

Take a second to think about that question.

Is it correct to teach the same way that you learn?

Here's the thing…

Ask me what makes me a successful language learner, and the characteristics I would point to are:


That's not normal!

I am not a normal person. Let it be heard! 🙂

And here is the big thing — and the thing that people like me really have to acknowledge — that although successful language learners like me have developed language learning techniques and strategies that do work incredibly well for us, I suspect that you’ve got to have the levels of motivation and time commitment that I have for these techniques to work for you.

The things that people like me do to learn languages are not going to work if you only do it for 15 minutes every other Tuesday, and are bored out of your mind when you do it.

The reality for students in most language classes is that language learning, for them, is not a “life or death” thing, and so they are simply not prepared to spend inordinate amounts of time doing it.

They also enjoy… I don't know… gardening. Whatever normal people enjoy. Base jumping. So they're going to spend time doing other things.

The Imperfect Situation Of The Language Classroom

So right from the beginning, in a language classroom, we are dealing with an imperfect situation.

And the real question is not actually: “What is the best way to learn a language?”

The real question is something more akin to: “What is the best that we can hope to accomplish given the imperfect situation and limited resources of the students?”

It's pretty devastating when you think about it.

And so when you put it that way, maybe it’s not actually necessary for a teacher to be an accomplished language learner.

Maybe my earlier criticism of language teachers being more like professional classroom managers is in fact a strength.


professional teachers

Because professional teachers are very good at working with students in the classroom environment and making good use of the time – motivating students, giving them the chance to speak, giving them homework to continue outside class.

In this admittedly imperfect situation, it stands to reason that a language teacher who doesn't learn languages themselves can most likely do some good.

So… it would seem that in the end – on balance – language teachers don’t have to be language learners.

But there’s something very unsatisfactory about all this.

It’s like everyone’s compromising.

Punching beneath their weight.

I think we should. And this feels almost like a moral problem.

The Teacher As Guide And Mentor

You see, as any teacher knows, so much of your job as a teacher is about emotional support in different ways. Whether it’s motivating a class to study, whether it’s about counselling students on their progress, dealing with their frustration at never-ending grammar errors.

And of course the students who you care about most – the ones who really try, and really want to learn – they turn to you for support and advice at the most difficult times.

And if you accept this role of guide and mentor on their language learning journey, then however skilled you may be as a professional teacher, I just don’t see how you can live up to this trust and expectation from your students … if you don’t know what it’s like to learn a language yourself!

Call me old fashioned, but I just don’t think It’s right.

I think that's quite enough for today… if you have a friend who’s a language teacher, why not share this post with them and see what they think?

But until next time, just remember:

Language teachers must be language learners.

So go on then… call me old fashioned. Or call me whatever you want… the comments below are for you to let me know exactly what you think!

Related Articles