Transparent Language Blog

Teach Me! Aren’t You a Native Speaker? Posted by on Dec 21, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Uniquely Incapable

As language learners, we’ve all had the following conversation with a native speaker of our chosen learned language:

You: Harbladarba harbala darbalbarada.
Native speaker: Mmmm…that’s not right, actually, sorry. The right way to say it is harbladarba harbala BARbalbarada.
You: …why? I thought darbalbarada is conjugated in the 4th-perspective punctual form in this case.
Native speaker: Huh? I dunno. It just sounds right.

In fact, not only have you had this conversation, you’ve probably also been the Native Speaker in this situation, as well! The fact is, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you can also teach that thing.

This is unfortunately a truth across most educational systems – often times, someone will be hired as a teacher because of the experience they have in a certain area, while their actual teaching ability goes untested. They arrive in the classroom, dozens of hours of practice and knowledge and expertise under their belts, and yet they stare at their students, suddenly realizing they have no idea how to actually communicate that knowledge and expertise to other people.

Teaching is very different from knowing.

It’s for this reason that I say, regular, run-of-the-mill, untrained native speakers make the worst teachers. All they can tell you is what they think is right, based on their gut instinct – and as we all know, we don’t always speak our native languages that well! I’m constantly making rookie mistakes in English (“me and him went out last night”, “I’m doing good, thanks”, “I’m done” … all grammatically incorrect, sad to say), so I might not be the best person to ask for grammar help. My gut instinct is probably just some weird colloquialism.

Instead, to be of any use to anyone learning your native language, you have to learn how to teach it. You have to take your language apart and see what makes it tick. Just because you can drive a car, it doesn’t mean you can teach someone how it works! You yourself have to learn how it all comes together, before you can inform anyone else.

So if you’re learning a language, unless you’re just looking to improve your conversational speech and colloquialisms, seek out someone who is also learning that language, but is way better than you are. They’ve been where you’ve been, they’ve stumbled where you’ve stumbled, and they know the answers to your questions, often before you even have them. These are the best teachers–the only ones better are native language learners who have learned how to teach their language, who can separate what’s “right” and what’s “said.”

Then, when you overcome those difficulties with the help of such a tutor, make those mistakes and learn from them, it’ll be your turn. You’ll be ready to turn around and help teach the next language learner, the next person in line behind you, hoping to learn.

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Helen:

    This is so true! If I hadn’t actually been trained to teach both my native tongue (English) and my second adopted language (French) I would have been lost!
    Teaching can be a vocation but it doesn’t always come naturally in my opinion.
    I enjoy your blogs very much. Thank you!
    All the best!

  2. James Darwin:

    Absolutely correct, though I’ve never heard of “often times”. “Often” is an adverb, not an adjective. It already relates to time so the word “times” is superfluous. Perhaps it is a colloquialism from somewhere?

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @James Darwin Probably just my own crap native English. See? This is why I’m not qualified to teach anyone anything.

  3. Leslie Tabarez:

    Being a native speaker and saying things don’t “sound right” doesn’t mean they aren’t right. A perfect example in English would be people saying “I should of went.” for “I should have gone.” If you ask a native speaker who is accustomed to the first version if the second one is correct, he/she will say it doesn’t sound right, even though it is right.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Leslie Tabarez Great point. They’re only used to how it “sounds,” which isn’t always the way it is. And if you say it to them the correct way, they’ll say, “yeah, but no one says it that way.” No one THEY know, anyway!

  4. Hugo Bentancor:

    So it follows that the best language teacher is a trained one who can speak two mother tongues as a native, right? I guess, being proficient in both languages (your students’ language and the language you are teaching) and knowing how to teach makes you the best teacher out there, but having two mother tongues is rare, though.
    I think this is pretty similar to a translator’s dilemma: ¿who is the best translator of medical stuff, a doctor with some translation skills or a translator with some medical knowledge? Professionals who are equally (highly) qualified in both medicine and translation are rare, to say the least. It seems you cannot have the best of both worlds!
    Thanks Malachi for your great blog!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Hugo Bentancor Really good point, regarding translation. Reminds me of the terrible 1998 movie “Armageddon”: why would it be easier to teach a bunch of redneck drillers how to be astronauts than teach trained astronauts how to drill? >.<

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