Language Learning for Academics Part. 1 : Choosing your Teacher

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By Emily Sieg and Willi Barthold            

Learning a foreign language while pursuing a Master’s or PhD can be a difficult challenge. The amount of work and commitment it takes to truly master even just the basics of a foreign tongue seems especially overwhelming when you are busy with coursework, comps, teaching, or research. However, language learning can be of great benefit beyond just fulfilling your program’s requirements, since it not only offers the opportunity to immerse yourself into a different culture and become more aware of the meaning making capacities of language but might also help you to receive research fellowships abroad and enhance your research abilities. This two-part post will thus try to offer some assistance for academics that seek to learn a foreign language, may it be for the purpose of research or simply to broaden your personal and professional horizon as a scholar.

As graduate students enrolled in a German PhD program, we – the authors of this post – not only have a good grasp of typical graduate students needs and interests when it comes to language learning, we also would like to share with you our experience as instructors of German who often have PhD and Master’s students in their classes. Since one of us is a native speaker of German and the other a native speaker of English, in this part we would like to discuss the differences between taking a course with a native or non-native speaker of the target language and the pros and cons of each, in order for you to be able to assess what you want or expect out of a language course and help you choose the right one. 

If you are in the luxurious situation to be able to choose between a native and non-native speaker as your teacher when you pick a language class, your first intuition might tell you to go with the native speaker. Who would know a language better than someone who grew up speaking it every day in the country in which it is actually used? Knowing teaching practices and styles of native and non-native speakers, however, makes this choice a less obvious one. In fact, native and non-native teachers bring in very different perspectives and qualification when it comes to teaching and these differences can become both advantages and disadvantages for your language learning experience, depending on your individual needs and preferences.

Let’s start with the native speaker as usually most people’s first choice. The advantages are quite obvious, as the native-speaker usually not only has a good command of the language in all its varieties, but, as a member of the foreign discourse community, will also be able to shed light on the various cultural contexts in which the language is used in specific ways. The native speaker will teach you colloquialisms that the textbook does not know, enrich your learning experience with real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the use of language in context, and provide you with a sheer endless vocabulary knowledge that allows you to gain an understanding of not only one but multiple ways to achieve communicative purposes in the target language. This high degree of linguistic flexibility comes with a high degree of accuracy regarding assessment and error correction. The native speaker sees and hears every mistake. It is an old saying that one learns by making mistakes, so this accuracy will raise your awareness of areas in which you still need to improve and thus will have a positive effect on your language acquisition process. 

The high attentiveness to mistakes, however, might also very quickly turn into nitpicking, which brings us to some of the disadvantages of the native speaker and areas in which the non-native speaker can shine. While the latter might be lacking some of the abilities that we have just outlined as features that distinguish the native speaker, the non-native speaker in contrast will be better able to give you feedback on your performance in the foreign language that prioritizes aspects that are most essential for meaning making. In other words, this means that while the native speaker might see more mistakes and easily gets hung up on them, the non-native speaker knows which mistakes need to be pointed out at that particular moment in your learning process and which will stop occurring by themselves once you master the most essential literacy skills. Not limited to instances like this, it is precisely the personal experience as a learnerof the foreign language that the non-native speaker is able to draw on in order to scaffold your language acquisition productively. Native speakers often lack essential theoretical knowledge about the grammar of their own mother tongue, simply because they never had to study it consciously. The non-native speaker, on the other hand, went through the same learning process as his students at one point in his life and should thus have a comprehensive command not only of grammar rules but also of how to convey and instruct them most effectively. 

When just starting a language, it thus may be to your advantage to take a course with a non-native speaker. While the complex language used by the native speaker can be a great source of inspiration, some students might prefer the non-native speaker’s pragmatic language use that allows him to single out the most essential words and phrases without overwhelming students with an unmanageable sea of choices. Furthermore, what the non-native speaker might lack in comparison to the native speaker’s comprehensive knowledge of the language is often impressively compensated by their precise knowledge of grammar choices. Yes – your non-native speaker might make mistakes that the native speaker would not, but if you want to know how to avoid mistakes, the non-native speaker will more likely be able to advise, whereas the native speaker will say “no, we just don’t do that.”

We hope that this post has given you a new perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of both native and non-native language instructors. In the next post, we’ll discuss some strategies for language learning to help you once you’re already in the classroom.