The Benefits of a Nonnative Teacher

In addition to the myth that it’s impossible for adults to “really” learn a foreign language, a widely held misconception about language learning is the notion that beginners must learn from native speakers. Many are willing to allow that a nonnative English speaker could make as good a teacher as a native speaker, but fewer recognize the pedagogical advantages offered by someone who has learned the target language as an adult and can understand what it looks like from the student’s perspective.

In the ELL classroom, we often encounter questions like: Why is it correct to say I am going to school but wrong to say I am going to home? A native speaker has to think about this: Is there a reason we drop the to before home, maybe something to do with the fact that you can attend, in theory, multiple schools but can have only one true home? Or is it because it just “sounds better”? Or maybe it’s just a random exception, but then, which one is the exception and which one is the rule?

Someone who learned English as an adult can tell you immediately that I am going home is a random exception, and that to is the rule when you are going to a specific, named place. The only reason I, a native English speaker, know this is that a similar exception exists in German: Ich bin zu Hause. When I asked my German teacher (a nonnative English speaker) about that sentence, she asked, rhetorically, “Why is it correct to say I am going to school but wrong to say I am going to home?”—having learned this very thing in school.

With some effort, you can generate sentence pairs that demonstrate the opposite case, where a native speaker feels inclined to call the difference a random exception when in fact there’s a grammatical rule in play. Here’s a test question that I’ve encountered in various forms:

I think dogs are awesome. I think cats are OK. Circle all correct sentences:

  1. I like dogs more than cats.
  2. I like dogs better than cats.
  3. I like more dogs than cats.
  4. I like cats less than dogs.
  5. I like cats fewer than dogs.

The answer is choices B and D. Most native speakers see nothing wrong with A, because it’s something that we actually do say, but according to a strict interpretation of the rules of English grammar, A is wrong for the same reason that C and E are wrong: more is for comparing quantities of things, but like expresses a binary preference. By an even stricter interpretation of the rules, you can argue that choice D should have worse instead of less, but the prescriptivists who write Korean standardized tests of English grammar have moved past that archaism even as they’ve resisted allowing choice A.

Native English speakers who teach in Korea are often given test questions like these, along with the answer key, and asked to explain the correct choice. Because the answer key disagrees with our intuition, we tend to grasp for an explanation and fail. On the other hand, a Korean teacher can reference the textbook page that discusses more than and better than and be done with it.

You might argue that memorizing these kinds of formalisms falls short of actual language acquisition, and you would be correct—language learners need also to engage with authentic texts and audio, experiment with the target language in roleplay scenarios, and practice speaking freely without worrying about errors. But teaching the more than/better than distinction, even if the student will eventually discard that rule as they encounter English in the wild, is useful because it primes the student’s awareness of the different kinds of comparisons available in the language.

Consider: You can allow choice A in the above question, but then students will ask why its parallel, choice E, is wrong, and you’ll teach them the fewer than/less than distinction, but then you’ll have to explain why there isn’t a more than/better than distinction as well. Yuck! It’s better (more?) to avail beginners of a consistent set of principles that mostly work, while maintaining a mental inventory of exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions, in case a smart kid asks a good question.

Most native teachers long to do away with multiple-choice questions like the above. At best, they make for interesting illustrations of how English grammar is a moving target and there’s no universal set of rules obeyed by all English speakers everywhere forever. At worst, they make for frustrating illustrations of how English grammar is a moving target and there’s no universal set of rules obeyed by all English speakers everywhere forever. A nonnative speaker, who can detach herself from personal feelings about what constitutes “natural” English, can distinguish between language usage and test-taking strategy. A savvy test-taker, confronted with the above question, doesn’t have to know whether I like dogs more than cats is admissible in Korean Standard English; she merely recognizes that this question is “about” the more than/better than distinction and eliminates choice A because standardized examinations test rules, not exceptions.

Now, native speakers can learn to speak abstractly about grammar like nonnative speakers do, but it’s an acquired skill, just like algebra. While it’s theoretically possible for a native speaker to deduce the rules of his language’s grammar from first principles, a speaker who learned the language as an adult learned those rules at the same time, whereas native teachers like me have to scramble through Google to find answers or make up rules that seem right at first but collapse upon inspection.

I have learned a great deal of Korean from native speakers, but my foundation in the Korean language was established in a class at the UW taught by an American. After that, I had Korean professors and TAs who had invested considerable time in learning to speak about Korean, and they understood the utility of abstract grammar because they had relied on it themselves in learning English. To the extent that I’m good at Korean now, I attribute my success more to the many opportunities I’ve had to carefully examine Korean grammar and etymology than to my friendships with native speakers. That part’s just fun.