Aside from my personal taste, I think there’s one great things about learning new languages for a foreign language teacher. It’s the best way to experience what’s like to be learning a language. I don’t remember how I have learned my mother tongue (like many of you). I don’t remember what it was like when I first met English (maybe I have a very short memory). I don’t remember how I felt at each stage of learning either of the two. But I do remember how I have learned my third languages because I’ve learned to monitor my learning.
When I was a senior at a college of education, my professor told us English majors to read and translate a paper into Russian about foreign language pedagogy, saying: ‘Experience what it’s like to try to read unfamiliar alphabet; Feel how difficult it is even to consult a dictionary. ‘ It WAS tough. I didn’t expect it would be that difficult to just copy a sentence, and I understood how students would feel when they find it hard to tell b from d. This was my first conscious memory of trying to learn unfamiliar alphabet. And I enjoyed observing myself gradually getting used to it.
There’s another interesting memory of learning Korean. For quite a long time I found it difficult to speak Korean while I didn’t have much difficulty understanding spoken Korean. I wondered why and suddenly realized I unconsciously used English word order and sentence patterns when I tried to speak Korean, whose syntax is totally different. And I told myself to use Japanese sentence patterns when making Korean sentences. That worked dramatically. I hadn’t imagined it would be that easy and comfortable to speak a foreign language whose syntax is similar to that of L1. And this was the first time I really understand how Japanese students would feel when they are struggling to make English sentences (since I don’t remember what it was like when I was trying to learn the English word order and sentence patterns).
Keeping learning new languages helps me understand how students feel at different stages of learning (‘She might be feeling like I feel when I try to speak French’, ‘His English seems to be at the level of my Chinese’, etc. ). It helps me to be patient when they’re having difficulty (e.g. I remember how difficult it was to just repeat a sentence in a new language until I was ready), and to think of how I can help them. I just have to keep in mind that students may feel uneasy and even demotivated where a ‘freak’ like me would be thrilled or excited.
Besides, monitoring my learning itself is quite interesting in that I can experiment with different ways of learning a language. I ask myself: Is it good to listen to songs in the target language, and if yes, how? Will I forget what I think I’ve learned if I stay away from it for a long time? How long will it take before I feel used to the sound of this new language if I just listen to it when I commute? How effective it can be to practice speaking to myself? How effective it will be to read or listen to a story I’ve read or watched/listened to in Japanese? How tough it will be to keep ‘reading’ something too advanced?These informal experiments are exiting enough to be worth trying, and help me a lot when I try to advise students, to encourage or relax them when they feel frustrated.
To conclude, I strongly believe it’s useful and quite exciting for a language teacher to keep learning new languages. What do you think? (I know this is not an effective way when you want to master a particular language 😉 )