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Those who have studied languages realize that looking-up individual words cannot convey a language in the correct manner. Becoming fluent means being able to verbalize ideas ; not learning technical rules and identifying the Past Predicate Indicative.

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Should Your Language Teacher Be a Native Speaker?

by Nathalie Fairbanks

When you are looking for a teacher or tutor to help you learn a language, is it important that he or she be a native speaker?

Just because Mariana was born and raised in Guatemala doesn't make her a great Spanish teacher. What differentiates a Spanish teacher from someone who's merely a native Spanish speaker is experience in getting someone up to speed in speaking and understanding Spanish, and hopefully a few tricks that will make learning Spanish easy and efficient for you. Needless to say, even trained educators can be poor teachers.

If you have a choice, what should it be?

Here's how you should ideally spend your language study time:

- 35% practicing with exercises and listening passively
- 15% with a teacher, asking questions
- 50% speaking practice with real people.

In a way, whether you're studying with people "live" or listening to canned conversations, all of these people are your teachers.

Of the time chunks described above, which ones should be spent with native speakers? Let's look at them one by one:

1. Practicing with exercises and listening passively (35%)

Most of these materials should be recorded by native speakers. I do make an exception here for audio courses such as Michel Thomas or Pimsleur, which prompt you to answer questions and formulate sentences. I don't know that there's another way for a beginner to understand the prompts if they're not in English.

What I'm adamant about is the passive listening part. (That's when you play a track of your CD or MP3 file in the background on low volume while you concentrate on something else. That track should be something you've studied and that you understand when it's spoken slowly.)

ALL of these recordings should feature native speakers only. There should be no English prompts, no English titles, not even one English word. It's the only way to create a separate space in your brain for the new language. Also, you'll easily pick up an understandable accent.

2. Asking your teacher questions (15%)

This will most likely be an "in-person" time, where you meet a teacher in a classroom, virtually or on the phone.

There's something to be said for a Spanish teacher who's a native English speaker. She has gone through the process of acquiring Spanish and is fluent, meaning she has spent time living or working in a Spanish-speaking country. Knowing that she has mastered the language and jumped all the same hurdles you're facing is very motivating. Even better, she knows precisely what the make-up of those hurdles are!

Learning Spanish will bring different challenges to an English speaker compared with a Chinese speaker. Meanwhile, Ms. Native Speaker has no idea why a particular aspect of Spanish is so hard for you to "get." She can't look at Spanish with the eyes and ears of an English speaker. Most native speakers have blind spots where non-native speakers see obvious trouble spots. This person will answer the questions you've brought to the table. They'll mostly be grammar questions, and some questions about expressions, idioms and cultural aspects of the language.

For the grammar questions, it really doesn't matter if your teacher is native or not. Someone who's spent a fair amount of time in a Spanish speaking country should be able to answer your other questions as well.

You're very lucky if you get a native Spanish speaker who also knows English well AND is trained in language pedagogy. It's the best of both worlds and it has a price!

3. Speaking practice with real people (50%)

For speaking practice, I'd say that you'll be OK speaking to a fellow student at first to get your patterns down. The great thing about a non-native speaker is that usually their vocabulary is somewhat limited and you won't encounter all the flowery words that a native speaker pulls out of nowhere. You'll actually get to have a "basic conversation" with someone who understands what a "basic conversation" is.

I've witnessed some very amusing conversations between French language learners, where--just like twins--they had developed their own island of the French language, invented structures and started using odd words that no native speaker would use. Does it matter? No! You're communicating. When communication is happening, mistakes and weird grammar are completely irrelevant.

Once you master the most common structures and are able to use them without thinking about them, find a native-speaker environment. The rough edges of your spoken Spanish will get ironed out over time, and you'll add lots of useful expressions.

© 2009 Nathalie Fairbanks

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