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How Being a Bad Language Learner Helped Me be a Better ESL Teacher

Before becoming a Language Assistant with Meddeas, I spent four years teaching in Philadelphia. The students I met there were impressive and inspiring in many, many ways. Perhaps one of their most impressive achievements was being mostly or completely bilingual. Many of the students I worked with spoke both Spanish and English completely fluently. Others spoke Spanish and were in various stages of learning English. After four months of living in Spain and training as an ESL teacher, I can now appreciate more than ever their intelligence and capacity for great things. Because let me tell you, learning a new language, while worthwhile and world-expanding, is NOT for the faint of heart.

ESL teacher
With my youngest students!

My Recent Eye-Opening Experience as an ESL Teacher (Intern) in Spain

I have been teaching ESL to children ages 5-8 here in Madrid, at a private bilingual school (Colegio CEU San Pablo Sanchinarro). The students here are taught around half of their daily subjects in Spanish, but also receive language instruction in English. They also take several core subjects (natural and social sciences) completely in English as well. By the time students here reach ESO (the Spanish equivalent of high school), they have the ability to speak, write, and read English at an impressive level.

Getting to be a part of students learning another language is exciting and challenging simultaneously. I have not formally had an ESL teaching experience before, so this year with Meddeas has prompted me to look into and try out many new teaching techniques and ESL teaching materials for helping language learners acquire vocabulary and grammar in fun, meaningful ways. Somewhat ironically, however, the most helpful thing to me in learning how to be an ESL teacher has been my continued journey to learn Spanish.

The First Weeks: Waking Up My English-filled Brain

ESL experience
Exploring Spain

I came to Spain with vague memories of high school Spanish and a couple of months of frantically using Duolingo to review vocabulary, as well as a tiny English-Spanish dictionary (which I have never once used, by the way. Save your money!). The disparity between practicing Spanish in the comfort of my home in the United States, and landing in Barcelona in late September with a serious case of jetlag and the accompanying culture shock, was intense.

Despite having a fairly good grasp of the basics of the Spanish language, as soon as I was in positions where I needed to communicate, it was as if all memories of vocabulary and sentence structure went out the window.  I regularly found myself staring blankly at friendly Spaniards who had asked me a question and were patiently awaiting a response, while I thought, “uhhh….what?” (Not surprisingly, one of the first phrases I mastered was “¿puedes repetir?”/“can you repeat?”). The good news is that, in my experience, Spaniards are gracious and kind when it comes to language learning. They are willing to repeat themselves, more slowly, and wait patiently while your tired, English-filled brain, works to put together a response.

Speaking Nonsense (and Fun): “¿Puedo ‘Mascotar’ a Tu Perro?”

I’ll never forget one of the first interactions I had in Spain. I was walking from my Airbnb in Barcelona to a restaurant and saw a man with a super cute dog. I’m a sucker for a cute animal (okay, ANY animal) and I really wanted to pet this dog. If I was in America, I wouldn’t have hesitated to go up to the man and say hello and ask if I could pet the dog. But I wasn’t sure if that was culturally appropriate here, and furthermore, I didn’t have words for what I wanted. I remembered that the word for “a pet” is “mascota”, and in my jetlag-addled brain, I decided that the verb for “to pet” MUST be “mascotar”. So, with this (entirely incorrect) idea in mind, I marched up to the guy and asked if I could “mascotar tu perro”.

This is nonsense and means nothing in Spanish, and I’m sure the poor guy was seriously confused. But he saw my intent, figured it out, and kindly gestured that I was free to pet the puppy. Later I looked it up and realized I had spoken nonsense. It was embarrassing. And, it was only the first of many moments where I would make mistakes or be unable to communicate properly what I needed to say.

Applying My Spanish Practice to the ESL Experience in the School

ESL classes
With the other language assistant in my school

Fast forward two weeks to my first days as a language assistant in Madrid. Having ESL classes full of very young language learners was difficult at first; despite their enthusiasm and energy (and the Spanish teachers having given them strict instructions to listen to the language assistant!). The joy and energy of my students made teaching them such a fun experience.

However, the first few weeks here, I noticed a common problem my students shared. When they didn’t know exactly how to say something in English, they were unwilling to try to say it. Experimenting with words and putting together phrases, even incorrectly, is an important part of the language learning process. However, many of them were unwilling to do so because of embarrassment or simple shyness.

It was difficult to teach or interact with them with this idea blocking them. Sometimes, I admit, I was frustrated. But then I remembered my experiences here in Spain. Especially that first month of consistently feeling confused and unsure of how to express myself; even for the simplest things.  If I felt that way, as an adult who had studied the language previously, how must my tiny students feel?

The Ligh-Bulb Moment: Gaining Empathy

Having this moment of realization and empathy was so critical for me as an ESL teacher. Now, when my students are unsure of how to say something, I truly understand where they are coming from. Indeed I encourage them, instead of becoming frustrated or feeling helpless. This change in my perspective has changed a lot about how my ESL classes run. In fact, I know it will change how I teach in the future, when I eventually return to Philadelphia and teach ESL students once more.

The best part of this experience so far, has been the grace and kindness I’ve experienced from Spanish people who encourage me as I fumble around trying to learn their language. It’s amazing how much of kindness and respect can be communicated, even when you don’t have words in common. Smiles, gestures, and even grammatically incorrect sentences or phrases, can go such a long way. I feel like my experiences here in Spain, and with Spanish people, have given me the gift of true empathy for language learners: an empathy that I am trying to pass on, as I gain practice as an ESL teacher with Spanish children. Whether we are teachers, students, or both, we are all still learning, and need grace from others as we go along!

2016/17 Posted by Sarah G.

If you enjoyed this ESL teacher’s training experience, don’t miss out the following articles:

  1. Teach English Abroad: 5 Things to Get You Started
  2. My School Kind of Day
  3. 4 Websites that TEFL Teachers Should Use for their ESL Lesson Plans
24 August, 2018

13 responses on "How Being a Bad Language Learner Helped Me be a Better ESL Teacher"

  1. Wow, I feel like this sums up exactly how I felt during my early months in Spain and, indeed, even now! I definitely feel like by learning a language myself I am gaining empathy for my students, like you said. I have also started to understand how their minds work when they make mistakes in English. For example, if a student says: “I win money by having a job” rather than using the verb “to earn”. I’ve now learned that in Spanish there is only one verb for our two verbs, “ganar”, so it is really easy for them to make this mistake!

  2. I really enjoy the honesty in this article (and how well written it is). I think it’s definitely helpful to recall one’s own struggles learning a second language to put ourselves in our student’s shoes. Empathy is really important to have as a teacher and since we’ve all been the student before, it can be really helpful to think about what former educators did in our classes that both helped and hindered us.

  3. This article is really well-put and I have felt all the same things as being both a language teacher and a language learner. I have been learning Spanish during my time here too and have had difficulty with some things and can therefore see where my students would struggle (like with the way they use tener for age and we don’t). But we can bring that to the classroom and be empathetic and say “look guys, I know you say it this way in Spanish so it’s normal to make mistakes…”. We can also look back to our own language teachers in school, reflect on what we liked and didn’t like and bring that to our own classes. And of course as you said, empathy instead of frustration is one of the most important things we can bring, especially if the students are learning a language through that language alone (I never had to do that in school and it is a huge feat!)

  4. Very well said! I have been finding the same – in fact, the more I attend my own Spanish lessons, the easier it is to empathise with certain difficulties my students encounter in class… I find that learning to say the words you *do* know in order to express yourself is a habit, which I encourage students to activate every time one of them refuses to speak (or to speak in English). When they start expressing what’s in their head, even in a circumlotuitous way, I give them lots of encouragement to show them they are doing well! This is the only way to improve.

  5. I felt very similarly when I first arrived here, having little to no Spanish knowledge! I definitely think it helps with understanding and having compassion and patience for the students because you, too, have had to try to learn another language. I definitely think this is beneficial for the students that you can sympathize with them!

  6. totally agree with this. I took spanish classes last year here in Barcelona and just watching the teacher execute her lesson plan while being on the other side of it was really interesting. It honestly helped me get new ideas and strategies for my own conversation classes. She was patient and kind and dedicated to helping us and I think empathy is totally key to teach ESL like you have said.

  7. Your experience is so relatable, thank you for sharing! Being empathetic toward your students and understanding their difficulty learning a new language can make being a teacher so much better as you’re put into their shoes trying to communicate in Spain! I’ve had a similar situation, although I studied Spanish in University I have found that the accent in Andalucía is difficult to understand, so patience and practice are key!

  8. I don’t think a day goes by that I talk to one of my students and think “I totally understand.” On a few occasions, I’ve been in conversations with teachers who say “I don’t understand why they don’t understand this!” And I chime in with the “because *this* is what they know in their language and the same strategy doesn’t apply in English.” For example, the dreaded phrasal verbs. They are absolutely impossible to just simply memorize without constant usage. One and done won’t cut it for these kids. I’m happy to be an LA where I can help them revisit some of the simpler language to master it fully.

  9. Absolutely my life! I love your ‘mascotar’ interaction! I was mistaking a ‘boniato’ (sweet potato) for ‘bonito’ (beautiful) for a while… the fruteria guy thought I was a bit strange but it’s a fun memory now hahaha.

    It’s so true that empathy and patience are key and something else I have found that I really hate when I’m speaking is when people interrupt me mid-sentence to correct me… Of course I want to be corrected but I would prefer them to wait, which I have started applying when I teach my own students and have noticed now they’re not as apprehensive to try and put more complex sentences together. Win win!

  10. I really like how you opened up about your language learning experience! I think many students think we expect them to be perfect in the English language but as you’ve pointed out here learning a language requires mistakes and errors. When I see students having a hard time with English I tell them that I empathize with their struggles because I am also learning another language and I often make mistakes with Spanish! Letting them know that their own teacher even makes mistakes allows them to see that it’s a process to learn a new language and that making mistakes is okay as long as they try to recognize why they made the mistake and make an effort to learn from what they’ve done.

  11. Hahaha this is so true!! Not only am I absolutely mindblown by the levels of english at my school, but I feel like I’m learning English all over again….and how complicated it is! My poor students!!

  12. Hahah I love this article! It’s so funny and relatable. I totally agree on how learning English in university does not at all match up to learning it in Spain. I thought I knew at least a basic level of English as I had taken 3 Spanish classes in college, however when I landed in Spain, what came out of people’s mouths sounded like gibberish. Throughout my time here I’ve been able to learn a lot of Spanish, and even improve on my English skills! I’ve learned so much about the differences between British and American English and have been able to comprehend grammatical structures much better. Knowing English and being able to explain why English works the way it does is really different.

  13. I agree completely! I have learned a great deal of both Spanish and English since arriving. One of my biggest struggles is the fact that British English is taught in schools and I am from the United States so sometimes the spelling and grammatical structures are different. The other day in class I forgot the word “overalls” in English and had to search it because my mind was completely blank. My students thought it was extremely funny and we were able to have a great discussion about how everyone makes mistakes and forgets things sometimes. I have found that knowing Spanish has been extremely helpful with my older students as I frequently catch them talking about other things that are not relevant to class and I can steer them quickly back to what they are supposed to be working on. Being bilingual is definitely not easy, and I think our students watching us learn and make mistakes helps them feel more comfortable making mistakes themselves.

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