Teacher language development: I’m starting with the woman in the mirror

Inspired by Higor Cavalcante’s webinar for BrELT

“Hi, my name is Natalia, and I have a problem with prepositions* in English.”

“Hi, Natalia.”

We all have our sore spots in terms of language proficiency. Hopefully, they change along our language learning history, as we study, practice the language, learn more, find other areas that need improvement, address those, and so on, so forth. However, to better work on our language difficulties, first we need to recognize they are there. It’s high time we came out of the less-than-perfect language closet.

(Because hey, nobody has perfect language proficiency, not even native speakers of the language. The idealized native speaker some linguists still speak of simply does not exist in flesh and bone. Take me for example: a monolingual speaker of Brazilian Portuguese until the age of 10, I sometimes struggle to communicate with my Paulista co-workers using my Carioca lexis and accent; Brazilian Portuguese pragmatics seems to elude me; and, as I am sure you will all relate, my L2 English interferes with my L1 Portuguese and I end up saying things like “fiz uma decisão”.)

In other words, we always have room for improvement: in phonetics, structure, vocabulary, pragmatics, fluency, new topics, other dialects, other registers, metalanguage, etc. And since we teachers earn a living from helping other people learn, it’s only fair we keep on learning, too.

What happens, however, is quite the opposite. Teachers sometimes adopt ostrich tactics with their own language proficiency. We may be aware we need to work on our language, but we sweep it under our truly overwhelming workload, lack of resources, fear of inadequacy or its opposite: thinking our proficiency is already quite adequate.

All very true, but before we completely write off our language development, I’m sure there’s something we can do. Cintia Rodrigues put forward a few suggestions in her great article for Braz-Tesol’s 2nd 2015 Newsletter and Ricardo Barros has also written on it following Higor’s inspiring webinar, but there are two other aspects I would like to touch on:

1)    You don’t need (much) money to keep improving.

When people tell me they have no money to improve their language proficiency, I find they usually mean they cannot afford a proficiency exam. Indeed, exams can be quite costly, especially now that the pound and the dollar are worth a lot of our meager hard-earned reais. However, even though proficiency exams are great motivators – and look even better on our CV –, what matters most is having the language proficiency at that level, not the piece of paper that substantiates it.

And to work on your actual proficiency, there is no shortage of authentic material nowadays if it is input you are looking for. The internet is full of free resources such as authentic texts, videos, podcasts, and the like. Access to TV series and movies is inexpensive. Even second-hand bookshops sell English novels nowadays.

If you are looking for explanations about the language, you will almost certainly find them online, too. Most of the good dictionaries have free versions (Oxford, Collins, Cambridge, Macmillan, Merriam Webster, and Longman). You will even find a Thesaurus or two and, although no collocations dictionary I know of has made the transition to the virtual world, the internet itself is a corpus we can check. Grammar explanations are also out there (e.g. British Council), albeit simplified. In addition, Cambridge English Teachers offers a five-hour grammar course to (even non-paying) members at no cost. Also, if you work at a half decent language school, it may boast a library with grammars and all sorts of dictionaries — which, in my experience, are sadly underused!

2)    You don’t need that much time.

If you will allow me a mental exercise, picture a person who cooks well, but nothing too sophisticated. This person dreams of cooking like a chef in a cookery show, to become a soft-spoken Gordon Ramsay if you will. Now guess what, because of her job (let’s say it’s a she) with a wholesaler, she visits restaurants every day and is friends with tons of chefs who wouldn’t mind teaching her a thing or two. She has got all she needs (an almost literal case of “faca e queijo na mão”!), so it would be a shame if she left her job none the wiser.

Isn’t that what most of us do with our fellow teachers? Tell me how many English language teachers you know, face-to-face or online, and I will tell you how many learning opportunities you are letting slide. Maybe you consider some of your colleagues less proficient than you, and others more, but they will all certainly know something you don’t, be it a word, a collocation, a rule, or even some language trivia.

Now in your network of English language professionals, how many do you talk in English with? How many do you ask to proofread what you write? Out of those, how many would you be OK with if they suggested a more precise term for what you paraphrased? And then how many would you feel comfortable enough with to correct a mistake they have made or to allow them to correct one of yours?

If your mental number is not zero by now, you are likely to be a notable exception.

Let us stop being shy or overly afraid and take advantage of the resources we have at hand: each other! Maybe we really don’t have two hours a week to study language (on top of planning lessons, reflecting on our lessons, marking homework and tests, studying methodology and education, etc.), but we certainly have that coffee break with our co-workers or some time online with other teachers (remember BrELT? Now there’s also a community that gathers English teachers who want to learn language from each other.). Do use what you have! Sure, have your coffee and let your hair down a little, but also be open to learn with the next person. There is no real reason why we cannot alternate being each other’s more competent peers.

Above all, if it is true there is a language proficiency problem with Brazil’s English teachers, let’s start solving it by working on the proficiency of “the (wo)man in the mirror.” 


*Not just prepositions, but let’s stop here for the sake of brevity.

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Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

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