I just wanted to quickly talk today about a common misconception I see amongst beginning language learners, and that is that native speakers make good teachers of their own language.

Imagine trying to teach someone English (or whatever your native language is).  See what I mean?

Alright, if you still don’t get it, think of it this way: recall all the various problems and questions you had regarding the way things were said and why (grammar, syntax, why this word means that, etc.) while you were trying to learn German, or any other foreign language you’ve attempted in the past.  Now, could you answer similar questions about your own native language for a non-native speaker who was trying to learn and understand it?

For me and most, the answer is a very quick and definitive “No!

Why

Because they either never learned why things were done the way they are or they’ve forgotten.  They just learned that this is how you say whatever it is you want to say and that’s that.

Look at the way children learn languages (and no, this doesn’t mean that’s the best way for an adult, please not this debate again): they listen and repeat until they get it right.  They don’t stop and say “Wait…why do I have to say it that way?”, because they have no frame of reference to serve as a reason to ask that question.  What I mean is that the reason you ask that question is because what you’re learning, the way you’re learning to say something in your new language, contradicts or compares unfavorably or strangely with how you know to say it in your native tongue.

What Native Speakers Are Good for

Telling you whether or not you got something right and, if not, how to do it right.  That’s it.  They’re extraordinarily good at that.  They’re an excellent feedback mechanism.

And make no mistake, I’m not at all belittling their value – native speakers are probably the single most valuable language-learning resource their is.  One of the most useful things you can do to improve your target language is take what you know (or think you know) and present it to a native speaker, by using it to try to communicate with them, like “Here, what do you think of this?”.  And then they’ll tell you what they think of that, of your German (if they’re a native German speaker), of your Spanish (if they’re a native Spanish speaker), and they’ll find all the little errors and even odd-sounding things (that aren’t quite incorrect but just “sound funny”) that you said and not only tell you that they’re wrong but also, even more useful, tell you how to fix them!  How fantastic is that?!

But don’t mistake them for professors.  They’re not professional tutors or teachers just because they speak the language.  They can’t directly teach you the language, they can only do so indirectly by correcting what you have already learned elsewhere.  But that’s the thing: you have to give them something to work with.  They can’t give it to you themselves, they wouldn’t know where to start (would you? with English?  if you were starting from scratch with someone who didn’t speak a lick?).

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Cheers,

Andrew