Do we need to work on our English?

Following up on last month’s post, I’d like to dedicate this month’s installment to discussing the following question:

What does it mean to know a language? Or, more to the point, what does it mean for a teacher of English to know the language?

Without getting very technical and/or long-winded, it is my opinion that a teacher of English as a foreign or second language must be able to get their messages across –speaking or writing– with no (or very little) difficulty, being able to employ the most effective words, chunks and structures for the situations in hand, and do all that in appropriate register and with excellent (or at least very good, always effective) pronunciation. In other words, they must have sound knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, phonology, discourse, as well as excellent speaking, writing, reading and listening skills. They must also be able to describe what they know, i.e. be able to use the appropriate terminology to describe the language, irrespective of whether they normally use this terminology in their classes.

Jeremy Harmer (2007, 30-31) says teachers need to know a lot about the subject they are teaching (the English language). (…) Language teachers need to know how the language works. (…) a knowledge of the grammar system and understanding of the lexical system. (…) They need to be aware of pronunciation features such as sounds, stress and intonation. He also says students have a right to expect that teachers of the English language can explain straightforward grammar concepts, including how and when they are used. They expect their teachers to know the difference between the colloquial language that people use in informal conversation and the more formal language required in more formal settings.

The way I see it, having worked with English teachers for the better part of the past decade, what is described above is not always true for many teachers of English in Brazil today, and, as I said last month, the ELT area (schools, writers, teachers themselves, teacher trainers etc.) does not seem to be dedicating a great deal of time to working on this very important issue. Am I wrong?

I have discussed the issue of language teachers’ English with many of my friends and colleagues in ELT over the years, as well as with some very influential writers in the area who have been very kind to reply to my (several) emails and messages, and most seem to agree with me. Actually, nobody seems to disagree with the fact that there is very little being done in ELT today to help teachers work on their language development, and the very few courses, for example, that do exist, seem to be aimed for teachers at B1/B2 level.

One of the writers I mentioned above, whose name I will not mention for I did not ask his/her permission to do so, had this to say: ‘I suppose one assumption is that teachers at this level (C1/C2) who wish to improve their English can take advantage of the standard examinations, like CAE or CPE. (…) The feeling is, perhaps, that non-native speaker teachers should need no special treatment, and to offer it might be seen as insulting’.

I’ll go back to this next month, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the points raised here. To the non-native speaker teachers out there, do you think it’s insulting to suggest you might need to work on your English?



Harmer, J. How to Teach English. Pearson, 2007.

Higor Cavalcante

Higor Cavalcante is a teacher and teacher educator based in São Paulo, Brazil. He’s been in ELT for going on 19 years now, and his main interests in the area are language development for teachers, extensive reading, and pronunciation. He is the first vice president of BRAZ-TESOL, as well as the author of ‘Inglês para professor’, published in 2015 by Disal, and the upcoming ‘Inglês para professor 2’. Find out about his courses for teachers at

  • Luiz Otávio Barros
    Luiz Otávio Barros
    Posted at 15:05h, 19 fevereiro Responder

    Hi, Higor
    No, I don’t think it’s insulting (far from it), but I think I can see why some people might feel that way.

    I’ve been reading a lot about motivation lately (Google “Zoltán Dörnyei” if you have the time) and it looks as if we’re moving away from the notion of intrinsic / extrinsic motivation towards a broader conceputal framework which encompasses the notion of self-concept / ideal self. In other words, when you speak a foreign language, in many important ways, you create a new identity. This identity will, in turn, help determine the extent to which your experience with the foreign language will be a successful one. Now, why am I telling you this?

    When you choose a career in which command of a f o r e i g n language is one of your most critical tools, in many important ways you’re creating a new sense of identity – a new you – that will co-exist with the “existing you.” This applies to students too, of course, but to a lesser extent, since to most of them, English is just one more activity rather than a lifelong, career-defining, identity-building sort of commitment.

    So when you tell a non-native teacher that (s)he must work on his/her English, you’re assessing not only the person’s command of the language, but, to an extent, his/her sense of self too. To all intents and purposes, you’re saying that the teacher’s “English-speaking self” is still not good enough.

    I’m not advocating a policy of non-intervention, of course. Far from it. How I wish I’d gotten more feedback on my English when I started my career. Or even after I’d been in ELT for a while. Or even now! I’m just thinking out loud and trying to figure out why feedback on the teacher’s English has always been such a thorny issue, as you said.

    A lot depends on the hat you’re wearing, too, I think. Many many years ago I had lots of CAE/CPE groups full of teachers, and in that kind of setting I felt comfortable correting them / stretching their English, both in public and in private. In CELTA courses, it’s a little trickier to give them language feedback, but I still try to, mostly in private and through notes. As a manager, though, I didn’t do a very good job in that department, maybe because I was too busy putting out all the fires springing up from underneath my feet and focusing on issues that I found more immediately relevant. Those days are over, though, and what’s done is done.
    But one way or another, this is one of those big ELT elephants in the room that we hope will go away if we just ignore it, so the more often we bring things out into the open, the better.

    • Guilherme Müller
      Posted at 11:11h, 21 fevereiro Responder

      Hello, Luiz.

      I agree with your viewpoint. I also have something to add that I particularly can’t recollect whether I got to this conclusion or read it in a book.

      Plainly speaking, English teachers in general are simply students that have gotten to a higher level of knowledge concerning the language and are now able to impart what they know. With that in mind, perhaps we might need to brush up some of those concepts about multiple intelligences and apply them to teachers as well. We have to keep something crucial in mind, though: We are not just auditivie-musical-kynesthetic-interpersonal-etc learners. Instead, we are emotional beings.

      At any time given, approach someone and say he or she has done something incredible. How would this person react? Would this person like to hear more from you after suck remark? I bet so. Now, do the other way around. Say this person needs to toil a little bit more so as to achieve a higher level on something (English in this case). Would this person feel praised or criticized? I would say they latter.

      Seldom in my life have I seen a person receiving constructive feedback (criticism) and enjoying it. They usually feel disgruntled. Again, we are dealing with emotional beings.

      If you ask me, our job is to motivate them emotionally and broaden their concepts until they realize that their biggest strength and fulfillment in the ELT world are contained in developing.

      Does it all add up?

    • Higor Cavalcante
      Higor Cavalcante
      Posted at 19:39h, 19 abril Responder

      Hi Luiz,

      I’m just finishing writing my April post and I only saw your comment here now. I’m so sorry!

      The motivational aspect you’ve mentioned here is very interesting, and I completely see your point. In this month’s column – as you’ll see in a little while – I’m saying I’d probably feel bad if at this point in my career a colleague/boss/coordinator etc. came to me and said: ‘Higor, look, I think you have to work on your English, mate!’ I would, of course! My point is: That shouldn’t be enough to prevent him/her from just going ahead and telling me that, anyway. And I would, of course, expect him/her to be able to tell me just what exactly I could do to work on that, and I would be thankful.

      I also agree with you about it depending on the ‘hat you’re wearing’. It’s obviously more complicated for a colleague to dish out feedback with wasn’t asked for in the first place, and much easier – and still complicated at times – for a CPE/CELTA tutor to, one way or another, give teachers feedback on their language skills. But they must! They absolutely have to.

      Thanks for your comment and look forward to seeing you in João Pessoa next week!

  • Bruno Coriolano
    Posted at 15:08h, 19 fevereiro Responder

    Nice one, Higor. It is a very good article.

    I do not think it is insulting to suggest non-native speaker teachers to work on their (our) English? On the contrary, if there is something we should do forever is study hard in order to improve our teaching and learning skills. Needless to say, this learning and improving process must be done forever. Again… nice post.

    • Higor Cavalcante
      Higor Cavalcante
      Posted at 20:16h, 19 abril Responder

      Hey Bruno,

      Sorry it took me such a long time to write back. I hadn’t seen any of these comments here on the article, and had actually thought no one had written back. I was happy to see that wasn’t the case, though.

      There’s a new article on the way. It’ll be available in about 20 minutes’ time. 🙂

      See you in João Pessoa?

  • Guilherme Müller
    Posted at 10:46h, 21 fevereiro Responder

    Hello, Higor. How’s it going?

    To start off, I’d like to thank you for this post. We need to be surrounded and bombarded by such information on a daily-basis, or whenever/as much as possible.

    About the topic, then, I absolutely agree that our development as English teachers is of the utmost importance. Having taught for 5 years now I can share with you (and this perhaps might sound obvious) that stepping into a class with a feeling of absolute confidence and knowing the subject thoroughly is what turns teaching into mastery. I mean, we gotta be able to affirm things in class with conviction, thus studying English is a must!

    To the best of my knowledge, the fact that teachers do not accept such idea is connected with pride and some sort of lack of future perspective, I would say. Most teachers think, ‘Why should I bother plunging into books again if knowing what I now know is sufficient for me to have 10-15 groups and make a living?’. Although this is not verbally stated, this is what you can tell by their countenances when you try to persuade teachers to seek for development.

    That put, teachers that are aware and willing to catapult their careers forward by studying and evolving can be solaced by the rewards to be found on their path towards development.

    There’s always room for improvement.

    Best Regards… 🙂

    • Higor Cavalcante
      Higor Cavalcante
      Posted at 19:42h, 19 abril Responder

      Thanks for your comment, Gui. Needless to say I agree with you that working on their English skills is one of the most important teachers can do to move forward. It’s a pity they usually don’t, though.

      See you in João Pessoa next week!

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