Taking the E out of ELT


I have been immersed in the world of ELT for over six years now and, although it’s full of ‘linguistic immigrants’ like me, there have been times when I felt slightly worried about my non-native-speaker status. The main issue has been pronunciation, especially when drilling students but also my fear of students asking me questions about pronunciation that I wouldn’t be able to answer. I was also worried that I might not notice certain pronunciation mistakes as easily as a native speaker would.

On the other hand, native speakers in ELT have always assured me that it is a big advantage for me that I have learnt English as a foreign language myself as I am more aware of the difficulties and also know more about grammar rules going into ELT than most native speakers do.

Recently, I was given an opportunity that would test my language teaching skills on a whole new level: teaching a German evening class in a language school. Before the interview, I quickly looked up the names of the German tenses. Suddenly I knew what these native speakers meant when they said that they didn’t know the rules of their own language going into ELT.

When thinking about how teaching German would differ from teaching English, two main points stood out immediately. Was I going to use formal (sie) or informal address (du) when speaking to the students, and wouldn’t it be annoying to practise both forms all the time? The other issue is that, in English, spoken grammar is basically the same as written grammar, whereas in German, we speak quite differently to the way we write. Take tenses, for example. It’s not easy for a learner of English to work out when to use the continuous forms and whether to use present perfect or past simple. But there is a logic behind which tense is used when and most native speakers apply these rules effortlessly while speaking. In German, however, we tend to only use two tenses in spoken language. The first is the present tense (Präsens), which we use to talk about present, future and situations for which the present perfect would be used in English. The other tense is called Perfect (which looks like the English present perfect) and is used to talk about everything in the past. If you’re a German grammar expert and don’t agree with what I’ve said, forgive me, as I’m a native speaker and am only now coming to terms with how my language works …

Before my first class, I found out that, as a rule, we address all students with the informal ‘du’ so I was happy. The students were beginners and absolutely lovely and highly motivated. No questions about tenses came up and I managed to answer most of their many questions correctly and with a confident manner. So far, I’ve taught four lessons and after each lesson, I do a self-assessment. Here are the points that I haven’t been happy with and that need improvement:

Embarrassingly, I incorrectly told students that Liechtenstein shares a border with Germany and then spelt it wrong (Lichtenstein) as well as correcting one student who had mentioned ‘Lisboa’ in her homework that it was ‘Lissabonn’ in German – it isn’t, it’s only got one ‘n’. Clearly, I need to research my geographical facts better!

My boardwork was always criticised during my CELTA and has come up time and again during my little self-assessments too: It’s messy! Poor students trying to get their head round some German grammar point should not have to struggle to decipher my scribbles as well.

My worst offence is getting completely caught up in little grammar lectures, which, as my students are beginners, are all in English as well! So here we have my worst offences rolled into one: over-use of L1, too much teacher talk time and explaining rather than allowing the students to work the rules out themselves. The CELTA heart bleeds.

On the plus side, while all these are very grave teaching offences that I really need to work on, I am relieved to find that none of them (with the possible exception of my grammar lectures) is caused by or related to the fact that I’m now teaching my own language, rather than English. What a relief! I’ve also found that I’m very confident at correcting students’ pronunciation, which seems to be an advantage of teaching your native language. Although, I always shudder when I correct students’ pronunciation of ‘ich’ and hear them repeating the ‘ch’ sound back in an uncomfortably magnified version of my regional accent …



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