From Student to Teacher: How Can Learning Languages Shape My Teaching Approach?

Patricia Couturas, Lecturer in French and COIL Facilitator for the School of Media, Arts and Humanities.

It is easy for teachers to lose touch with what it’s like to be a learner. In my case, while years of experience as a language teacher can provide a wealth of knowledge, it can also create a gap between teachers and language learners, especially those from different generations or learning environments. To bridge this gap, teachers must occasionally approach language learning with a fresh perspective, free from preconceived notions.

In July 2023, I decided to dive back into the world of language learning to better understand my students’ experience. I chose Spanish, a language I could read and understand reasonably well but where my speaking and writing skills were lacking. I began documenting my journey in a reflective journal to record the challenges and breakthroughs I encountered, exploring various factors that influence language learning, from cognitive and emotional aspects to methodology.

Key Insights from My Learning Journey

While I improved my reading and listening skills, I faced several hurdles along the way. Understanding these challenges and developing solutions not only helped me as a learner but also informed my teaching strategies.

One significant challenge was retaining new vocabulary, especially when learning in a country where the language isn’t spoken. To tackle this, I turned to Stephen Krashen’s comprehensible input theory, which suggests that language acquisition happens when learners are exposed to input slightly above their current proficiency level. This method encourages immersion in various forms of language content, from films and documentaries to articles and short stories. However, this theory has limitations:

  • Limited role of explicit learning: Krashen downplays the importance of formal instruction and explicit learning. Although his model helped me build vocabulary over time, it wasn’t always straightforward to grasp sentence structures. For instance, the Spanish subjunctive mood has unique aspects not found in French, requiring a deeper understanding of grammar. This illustrates that explicit instruction can be crucial for learning specific grammar elements.
  • Limited focus on output: Krashen’s theory emphasizes comprehension, but producing language through speaking and writing is also essential. I struggled with speaking due to a lack of practice. To compensate, I used AI-based platforms to practice writing and pronunciation, finding that AI could correct errors and offer explanations—a useful tool for learners seeking autonomy.
  • Ignoring individual differences: The theory tends to generalize the language acquisition process, overlooking individual learning styles and strategies. As an explicit learner, I find understanding grammar helpful, but others might prefer more focus on input and repetition.

I also encountered the “production problem,” where despite understanding texts and speakers, retrieving words and structures during conversation was difficult. Several factors contribute to this issue, including the cognitive load of managing vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and communication strategies simultaneously, and anxiety about making mistakes.

Here are some approaches that helped me overcome these obstacles:

  • Spaced Repetition: I used apps with spaced repetition algorithms to review vocabulary at intervals, reinforcing memory.
  • Regular Practice: Consistent speaking, writing, reading, and listening in Spanish solidified my understanding of the language.
  • Teach Others: Explaining what I’ve learned to someone else forced me to recall and organize information coherently, which reinforced my memory. Teaching my partner Spanish helped me grasp concepts more firmly.
  • Take Breaks: Short, frequent study sessions were more effective than long, exhausting ones. This approach prevented cognitive overload.
  • Review Before Sleep: Reviewing language material before bed enhanced my memory consolidation, leading to better recall the next day.

Implications for Teaching Strategies

The insights from my learning journey have driven me to make the teaching and learning environment more inclusive. I have designed a language learner’s diary and a learning guide for my students, based on my own learning experience and theoretical explorations (see appendices below this post). These resources, along with the following strategies, aim to make language learning more effective and engaging:

  • Hybrid Teaching Approach: My method combines extensive reading and listening to expand students’ vocabulary and improve their understanding of language structures in and outside the class, but I aim to increase their opportunities for oral and written production by integrating AI and pairing students with native French speakers. (See my previous post on Collaborative Online International Learning)
  • Emphasize Individual Learning Styles: Recognizing that each student has unique learning preferences, I strive to create a more flexible teaching strategy that accommodates various learning styles and encourages students to find what works best for them.

Understanding the challenges language learners face and developing solutions not only helped me as a learner, but also informed my teaching strategies. By implementing these strategies, I hope to foster a learning environment that is both more supportive, inclusive, and effective.

Using the UK Professional Standards Framework (PSF) to ensure good practice and excellent student experience. This teaching practice outlined in this blog post is informed by the highlighted areas:

Areas of activity

  • A1 Design and plan learning activities and/or programmes of study
  • A2 Teach and/or support learning
  • A3 Assess and give feedback to learners
  • A4 Develop effective learning environments and approaches to student support and guidance
  • A5 Engage in continuing professional development in subjects/disciplines and their pedagogy, incorporating research, scholarship and the evaluation of professional practices

Core knowledge

  • K1 The subject material
  • K2 Appropriate methods for teaching, learning and assessing in the subject area and at the level of the academic programme
  • K3 How students learn, both generally and within their subject/ disciplinary area(s)
  • K4 The use and value of appropriate learning technologies
  • K5 Methods for evaluating the effectiveness of teaching
  • K6 The implications of quality assurance and quality enhancement for academic and professional practice with a particular focus on teaching

Professional values

  • V1 Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities
  • V2 Promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners
  • V3 Use evidence-informed approaches and the outcomes from research, scholarship and continuing professional development
  • V4 Acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates recognising the implications for professional practice’

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