Today, we’re going to be talking about a topic I feel deserves more attention – should we get a teacher or not when learning a new language? If so, when should we start working with a teacher?
Teacher…or no teacher when learning a new language?
Alright, hey guys, welcome back to another episode of Language Diary. I realize it’s been a really long time between the last and this episode, but I had a good reason – I moved countries. But anyway, that’s probably not why you’re here today, you probably wanna hear about this topic. And what I’d like to share with you guys would be some thoughts on the role teachers have to play in the language learning journey. So I’ve been on both sides of the equation – I’ve taught languages before, and I’ve been a student of languages in various capacities, so – excuse me – I would like to, I guess, explore and share a couple of my experiences being both a teacher and a student.
Let’s start with me being a teacher. So for me, I guess, I wanna talk a little bit about the students that I worked well with, or I felt that got something useful out of our lessons, and the students I didn’t work as well with (sorry, ran out of time on this one!), or who didn’t seem to get a lot of value out of our sessions.
The main, I guess, distinction between the two groups of students was that the group of students that got a lot out of the sessions, or who were satisfied with what we’ve learned in class – and this is irrespective of level, this is not to do with whether a beginner, it’s like if you’re more advanced, you’ll get more – it’s not like that. I’ve worked with students across the entire spectrum of ability, but the important thing was that the group of students that was satisfied, they usually had a very clear idea in terms of what they wanted to achieve in the session.
So for example, I remember I had a student who was learning Cantonese, and I think he was American. Actually I can’t tell, he was going to come to Hong Kong for a period of time because apparently, his wife was from Hong Kong, and so they were visiting and he wanted to do a bit of preparation.
And so, he focused specifically, he said, “I wanna focus specifically on food, like how to order food, you know, various scenarios that I might get into, in a restaurant, and all that.” And so we did a couple of sessions, and after that, he didn’t continue.
But that was fine. Because I knew his objective right from the very start, and we accomplished that, throughout the course of our, I think it was like six sessions or something like that.
And, another example was with a higher level student. This particular student is a mother. She is half Canadian, half, well Cantonese, I guess, half Chinese. And so, she’s already kinda like a fairly native in Cantonese, but she lacked the more specific vocabulary because she’d like to pass it down to her children. And so, every lesson, she’d come to me, and we’d discuss various topics, it could be, we talked about gardening terms in Cantonese, about fairy tale terms in Cantonese. That was quite tough – there were certain things that were fairly difficult to translate.
So again, we didn’t have a huge number of sessions – I think we had, we did maybe eight, ten sessions or something like that spread out over the course of a period of time. But she accomplished her objective.
So the clearer you are about what you want to learn during your sessions with your teacher, the better and the more fulfilled you’ll be.
And so that would be my share from some of my sessions with some of my previous students.
I guess, I might just share one more story. I was very satisfied with one student in particular as well. This student wasn’t learning Cantonese per se, but he was learning Mandarin. We didn’t have that many sessions either, right, and what he really wanted to do was just to have a refresher, he wanted to keep his Mandarin alive, pretty much.
And you know, we got to talking, and it was fairly fluid. So in other words, I didn’t actually help that much per se, because he was already fairly fluent in it. But once again, he had an objective, right, he wanted to maybe meet different people in Mandarin and talk to them in Mandarin, and he wanted to keep it alive, and we were able to have a conversation in Mandarin – again, he accomplished his objective.
So one again, it’s not even about how much you learn, your objective can be something entirely different. But it has to be clear. And it has to be something you really want. So that would be another story I’d pile on.
So let’s go to the other side of the equation to when I was a student. So at which point in my language learning did I feel the need to have a teacher?
Well, I think that if you’ve read any of the stuff I’ve written before, you’ll know that I’m not generally a huge advocate of getting a teacher right from the very start. I don’t think it’s very effective because getting a teacher right from the very start, your teacher’s gonna be going through the real basics with you, and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, you could easily learn those basics yourself, and you can do that a lot more effectively. All you need is to find a really good resource to help you go through these basics, maybe through a dialogue course, or maybe like a good basic Cantonese grammar text. You don’t need extensive grammar, but you do need some of the basics, especially for a grammar heavy language, for example, with conjugations, declinations, things like that. Or you’ve got honorific language, you know, then you do need to have like an idea.
But if you have good materials in front of you, that you can use, you could use that in place of having a teacher, because, think about it – isn’t it a waste of lesson time to have someone teach you something you can do yourself? And that you can probably do so a lot faster?
Just go through a nice guidebook, and the exercises, and you’re good, you’re golden. The only exception to that rule, I think in the beginning, for me, would be pronunciation, because there’s no feedback. A book can’t teach you pronunciation, you can’t hear how you pronounce certain words in Cantonese (sounds). So that’s when you probably need a teacher.
So for me, I usually, for the most part, I got a teacher when I had all of these fundamentals down. So when I’m at around a B1-ish level, so I’m fairly comfortable constructing sentences, I can understand what the teacher’s saying, and I wanted to really start doing conversation, I wanted to talk in the language (and that’s usually not my priority, because I don’t really get the opportunity to talk a lot – for me, my objective is more in terms of understanding, reading, and to a certain extent, writing – speaking is not as important as these areas, which might be different than other people).
But for me, I get a teacher, when I feel I need to have a conversation, I wanted to get a little of that in, and see how well my personal training or learnings have paid off. Are what I’ve learned as effective as I’d previously thought? Maybe not. Or maybe it was even better. (That usually doesn’t happen.) But I can get a real sense in terms of my level.
So I guess to kinda summarize, you should get a teacher, I’ve written down a couple of examples here, when you need someone to guide you through conversation, because that’s something you can’t do with a book, and I don’t recommend doing friends, I don’t recommend doing language partners. Neither’s a very good solution to having conversation (practice).
When you need pronunciation practice. Again, feedback – you can’t do that with a book or resource.
You need someone to check over stuff you’ve written, or maybe through something you want to present, then you need someone to give you feedback – a native speaker, and someone who’s hopefully trained or at least patient enough to hear you out and give you feedback on it.
When you might not understand a very specific Cantonese grammar point, and you need practice, like understanding, and then drilling it afterwards.
Or maybe at a higher level, you need a teacher to be a little bit stricter with your use of words, or maybe your grammar’s a little bit flakey, then that’s when you need someone to impose those standards on you, because it’s hard to do it on your own. And old habits die hard, after you’ve done it for a while.
Another example I might share is, I once worked with a Cantonese student, who was fantastic, he’s possibly the best student I’ve ever worked with in terms of proficiency. Like, he was watching films and using vocabulary that was like at a native level, but his pronunciation was really off. So he might, in the future, decide to improve that because it’s such a shame, right, he could speak so fluently, and he had such a large vocabulary that probably matched that of a native speaker. But his pronunciation didn’t reflect that. So that’s something he might wanna consider doing.
So on the other side of the equation, the times you should not get a teacher (IMHO anyway). Again, a couple of examples I’ve written down.
You want to go through a curriculum, like a textbook or something, WHICH YOU CAN DO BY YOURSELF, something that can replace your teacher. You should not get a teacher.
You want to go through phrases or vocabulary topic by topic and need someone to introduce you to it. Again, you can read a phrasebook by yourself, and you can construct phrases by yourself, even if they’re not particularly native, if you make yourself understood, to me, in my books, that’s good enough. Again, not necessary to get a teacher to do that, right.
If you want to learn the basics, like grammar or the alphabet. Stuff you can go through very, very easily on your own and in a fairly short period of time. Do not need a teacher!
If you’re doing conversation practice, and you find yourself going through the same topics over and over again, and you’re really not making progress, maybe that’s when you might consider dropping conversation sessions with your teacher for a while, and working a little bit more in terms of your input and output.
So that’s all for today in terms of content. And the action item for today would be, well split into two categories.
First of all, if you already have a teacher, ask yourself just two questions: first of all…do you really need a teacher? Are you making progress with your teacher? If you feel that you do, are you maximizing the effectiveness of your lesson? In other words, are you doing things during the lesson that you can’t do on your own? I think that’s something that’s really important.
Second of all, if you don’t have a teacher, should you get one? Do you think it’s time to introduce having someone else to kinda watch over you? Or be your conversational sparring partner? If so, if you think it’s right, what do you wanna do in the lesson? How do you wanna format it? Do you wanna do like loose conversation? Structured conversation based on maybe an article you’ve read, or something you’ve heard? You wanna do listening practice, you wanna do a little bit of writing practice and like get feedback? What do you wanna do? And then you wanna have the teacher correct you along the way, something that’s very important.
So that’s about it for today’s episode. Two more things to announce. Next time we’re going to be doing something a little bit different, very exciting. We’re going to be talking about, we’re going to be doing a comparison from a perspective that no one else, I believe, has done before between the four Asian languages that I’m myself familiar with: Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. So that’s something I hope you guys can look forward to.
Second of all, I’ve been getting requests from some people to actually do this series in Cantonese, I guess since this is a Cantonese devoted channel, so, if I get enough requests or if I get enough like emails and interest from readers saying, “you should try doing this”, I might consider doing that seriously. Currently, there is some interest, but I’d like to see more interest. And you can of course, show your interest and by extension, support for this channel, by giving this video a good ol’ thumbs up, and of course, subscribing to the channel, if you haven’t already done so, by clicking that red button somewhere below here, I hope, and the bell button afterwards to stay up to date with the latest videos and announcements.
Alright, excuse me for ranting on – that’s all from me for today, hopefully I’ll see you guys next time. Thank you so much for tuning in and yeah, cheers.
- If you already have a teacher, ask yourself two questions
- Do you really need a teacher?
- Are you maximizing the effectiveness of your lessons? (i.e. are you doing something that only a teacher can do with you?)
- If you don’t already have a teacher
- Should you consider getting one? (i.e. are you at a point where you need feedback?)
- If so, how do you want to format each lesson? (loose conversation, structured based on an article / video, prepare a presentation and have the teacher correct you, etc.)