Why ESL teachers should learn another language?

People generally think that as an ESL teacher you are great at learning languages. You can pick up phrases, sentences and grammar with ease and I guess in some respect this is true. You can see the logic behind the new grammatical structure or you can see similarities between words in the two languages. I’ve been in Italy for 9 months and I’m making slow progress with learning Italian. I’ve picked up bit and pieces along the way and now can have a very, very small conversation if pushed or drunk but it’s nowhere near as advanced as I would have expected from being immersed in the language for this long. I think there are 2 main reasons for this:


  • I speak English all day at work so for 7-8 hours I’m not in a position to speak Italian except for the smallest of translations.
  • When I go out people want to practice their English with me or they think they are helping me by speaking English when I ask for something. For example, the guy at the edicola (newsagents/corner store), I go to every morning for tram tickets and ask in Italian, ‘Due biglietti, per favore?” and every morning he replies, “Two tickets?”.  I go to a bar or restaurant and order in perfect Italian..okay maybe not perfect but understandable Italian and all the servers speak to me in English, even if their English is worse than my Italian.


In Naples, I tried to take Italian classes but the teacher the school found was really bad and completely unprepared. This is a downside of teaching a teacher, they are consistently critical students. I did’t learn anything from her. Disheartened and frustrated, I thought I can teach other people a language why can’t I teach myself one. A noble thought but more difficult than I first imagined. You can do the exercises in the books but they mean nothing without a native speaker there to help you out. Since being in Turin, I’ve taken learning Italian more seriously. I’ve got a new teacher who is really good at helping me learn the language. I am by no means proficient but I feel that these lessons are helping me to cement and build on the random bits and pieces that I have in my head. Also doing these classes and learning Italian from scratch is making me re-think how I would teach a beginners class. I tend to be a talker in my lessons, beginner or advanced, and I can see now from when my teacher tries chit chat with me in the lesson how daunting it can be for a lower level student. As the learner you are so concentrated on the subject being taught that any deviation from that is incredibly distracting.


Teacher:Random stream of Italian

Me: uhhhhhhh sono canadese?

Teacher: No, I asked you what you are doing after class

Me: Oh. That’s not the class topic.


Speaking in public to strangers isn’t a problem for me, for me the problem is speaking in front of my friends or people I know. Of our little group of foreigners, I am the only one who doesn’t speak Italian semi-proficently. The others might not be perfect but they can have conversations and I can understand most of what’s being said but I feel really self-conscious to join in. It’s really stupid and hypocritical because I encourage my students to talk as much as they can and then I clam up at anything past ‘My name is’.


My friend and fellow teacher, Emer agrees that teachers learning a different language is a good thing. She thinks that students can relate to you more because you are in a similar position to them and it makes them feel less self conscious…maybe.



I was talking to one of my students before class today and he confessed to me “I’m stupid. I understand what you say but it’s difficult for me to think fast enough to respond and I have a problem remembering what tense to use”. I cleaned that quote up a bit for you readers but the idea was the same. He’s an Elementary level student but by no means stupid, he’s the head of a department in a multi-national company. I looked at him and said, “Number 1, that’s why you are here in these classes so you can learn to think/speak more quickly and Number 2, I understand. I have the same problem when I am trying to speak Italian. I understand a lot of what people say, I can get the jokes but it takes me a really long  time to figure out my response”

He looked at me in horror, “You understand Italian? So you know what we’ve been saying the whole time?”

Yes, Mauro. I know everything. EVERYTHING!

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