If you didn’t catch my post about my ACTFL proposal, Dismantling the Myths that Prevent Proficiency, you’ll need to back up a bit and read this.
Myth #1: A speaker who isn’t proficient can be a language teacher (or, “I have a degree in this; of course I’m qualified.”)
Photo by Susheela Willis
I remember when I went to interview for my first teaching job. I went into the administrator’s office and he introduced me to a woman from Mexico who had been doing some cleaning for them. She barely spoke English. So I spoke to her in Spanish for a bit.
Here’s the twist–this woman had had some sort of cancer in her head and had had a surgery to remove it that involved removing the palate from her mouth, and she then had a prosthetic palate, which she was not wearing that day. Try speaking a language that isn’t your native tongue to someone without a palate. That was tough.
I later found out that the admin had been testing me, so to speak, to make sure that I was proficient. Whew. Glad I got some communication across–I’m sure he can’t fathom how difficult that was.
My second interview wasn’t like that. There was not a word of Spanish spoken at any time. No, that’s not true–the principal did take me and my husband to a Mexican restaurant and I voluntarily spoke Spanish to the waiter. But it wasn’t part of the interview.
In each of the last two years we have had to hire a Spanish 1 and 2 teacher at my school. I could not believe how many applicants we got for the job who could not communicate in Spanish. I took one applicant out to lunch on the premise (she knew this) that the lunch would be conducted in Spanish, because everything else about her seemed right and I needed to check her proficiency. Her listening proficiency was fine; she could understand nearly everything I said. But speaking–oh my. I finally told her she could switch to English when she wanted to tell me something involving frustration and opinions that pushed her language too far. She was making mistakes we work on in Spanish 1 – gender and number agreement and the like, without noticing or self-correcting.
A few years ago at the annual fall conference of the Kentucky World Language Association (our awesome state language teachers’ association) I went on their ‘immersion dinner’ with a lot of other Spanish teachers. The concept was to go and speak only Spanish with all our colleagues. I sat at dinner with three other teachers, two native speakers and one other American woman, a teacher here in my city. We ended up switching to English or translating quite a bit for her because as she said, she “couldn’t speak Spanish” as well as we could. Really, she couldn’t carry on a conversation. This Spanish teacher couldn’t speak above a survival level of the language. What must her classroom be like?
Why do people who cannot speak a language proficiently think they can teach it?
Because we’ve led them to believe that. Because they grew up taking language classes in which the teacher doesn’t speak the language. Because we think language teaching doesn’t work anyway and so the most important thing a teacher does is motivate students to study abroad, because that’s the only thing that works. Because apparently they got through college only listening and doing pre-planned speaking projects. And that’s how they think it’s taught.
So my question is this – if the way they learned and plan to teach didn’t make them a proficient speaker – why do we think it will for anyone else?
I truly apologize if this sounds harsh, but for the sake of the integrity of our profession, if you can’t speak the language well enough to proficiently negotiate your way through a conversation beyond “where’s the bathroom” and “I have three black dogs,” get out of language teaching. If you are an administrator looking to hire a new world language teacher, find a proficient speaker to interact with applicants before they’re hired. Otherwise you’ll just be digging our hole deeper.