Once in a while, an inservice English teacher from a part-time course I am teaching would say to me: “Paul, after teaching for a few years, I think my English has not become better. In fact, it has become worse.”
A few days ago, a former student said in an email to me: “Paul, I found that I have become much more stupid after working as a teacher for a few years. All my time is spent on marking and on tedious admin stuff. Though I still want to educate the kids, I really don’t have time to think, reflect, or read up. There is only output, but no input.”
First, the question about deteriorating command of English. This is quite a common perception among teachers, especially when they compare their classroom English with the oral activities they undertook in university: giving oral presentations, and taking part in tutorial discussions. I guess this perception will be even stronger among English teachers in primary schools.
It may be true that English teachers’ proficiency in giving oral presentations and taking part in academic discussions may get a bit rusty due to a lack of everyday use. But skills are skills: think about cycling, driving, typing, swimming, etc. When you pick up a skill again and give it some intensive practice, your previous competence will come back quickly. So I don’t think English teachers need to be overly worried about ‘losing’ their previous oral proficiency.
In fact, they may have improved in other areas of communicative competence through daily use: such as organising the content of their presentations; scaffolding their explanations; getting the audience involved, and providing feedback.
The same is true for academic writing. The last time they wrote an academic assignment might have been a few years ago. But again, it is a skill that can be picked up again quickly with some conscious practice.
On the other hand, English teachers’ language awareness will very likely improve, thanks to occupational needs. When they set test and exam papers, and when they mark compositions, they often have to look up dictionaries and grammar books to check that a certain word or sentence structure is acceptable. In comparison, university students seldom take the trouble to check their vocabulary or grammar, or will simply fall back on language they are sure about.
English teachers need not worry about their English regressing, as far as occupational needs are concerned. But there is another dimension to the issue. Last week, I was interviewing some of the applicants to next year’s MA ELT programme. Two interesting points came from some of the candidates:
- We should not settle for a level of subject knowledge that is just enough to meet our occupational needs.
- We should love the subject (in our case, English) that we teach.
These points are thought-provoking for all of us ELT practitioners.
English is not a dead language; it is evolving all the time. English is not simply a set of rigid rules. What is appropriate (or for that matter, ‘correct’) English depends on a variety of sociolinguistic factors.
If we love the English language, we will be curious to keep up with the changes, and eager to enrich our understanding of real-life language use.
But here also lies the paradox: Where do overworked English teachers in Hong Kong find the time to work on their own English? This is the point that my former student made: There is only time for output, but no time for input.