Since an email conversation I had with Big Ell, a while back, I’ve been thinking about what would be the “ideal” teacher in terms of language skills. What sort of language skills should someone who teaches ESL to Chinese speakers have? Obviously, there are a lot of variables to consider. The short list I’ve considered is as follows:

  1. The level of the students: More advanced students have less need of a teacher who can speak their language. Higher level students might have a stronger desire to be taught by a native speaker of the target language.
  2. The number of hours of study per week: The more class hours per week, the more likely an English immersion program would work.
  3. The age of the students: For college students learning a new language, few would argue against using L1 in class. For toddlers, it would be the opposite.

My students start from the absolute basics, only meet for four hours a week, and have quite a bit of homework. Clear communication with their parents is also an absolute necessity for a successful class. As a result, there’s no way whatsoever a teacher who couldn’t speak Chinese could teach my classes. Big Ell’s school, on the other hand, teaches smaller children, and meets for many more class hours per week. As far as I know, they don’t assign that much homework, either. Consequently, teachers don’t need to know any Chinese at all to work there.

Now that I’ve acknowledged how important these factors are, I’m going to set them aside and try to rank each type of teacher from worst to best. Obviously, this is pretty subjective.

  • Doesn’t speak any English: Totally useless.
  • Speaks English moderately well and doesn’t speak Chinese: the “fake American”, i.e., the Russian who knows just enough English to fake out the boss and secure a teaching job… not my idea of an ideal teacher.
  • Speaks Chinese and English moderately well: the most common teacher I’ve seen of this type is the Filipino domestic worker who takes up tutoring on the side. This sort of teacher can communicate with the students well, and teach reasonably well.
  • Speaks English fluently, but doesn’t speak Chinese: the typical fresh off the boat foreigner. This sort of teacher may be perfect for more advanced students, but wouldn’t be able to do much of anything at all for a beginner who only had a couple of hours per week of class time.
  • Speaks English moderately well and speaks Chinese fluently: most local teachers fit this pattern. They can explain grammar and usage points to low level students, answer their students’ questions and motivate their classes. They may pass some of their own phonics and grammar issues along to their students, but those same students can always address those issues later. Unless the students are advanced, this sort of teacher can do really well.
  • Speaks Chinese moderately well and speaks English fluently: most of the teachers at hard-core foreign run schools fit this mold. This sort of teacher can provide a “perfect” model for pronunciation, grammar, and usage, and is capable of explaining it all to low level students, answering their questions and motivating them. The down side is that all explanations, motivational speeches, etc… spoken in Chinese are less clear and less efficient than they would be coming from a native Chinese speaker. The market pays a premium for classes taught by this type of teacher.
  • Speaks both languages natively: Some Chinese-Americans and most children of westerners in Taiwan are in this category. They can provide a “perfect” English model, and communicate with their students with complete efficiency in Chinese when necessary. There’s no guarantee that people in this group actually are good teachers, but in terms of language skills it’s nearly impossible to get much better.
  • Speaks both languages completely fluently, and learned one as an adult:These teachers have all of the advantages of those in the category above, and one additional one. They know exactly what it takes to become fluent in a second language… and they’ve done it. In my opinion, this sort of person is the ideal that every student could strive to become and that every school could dream about hiring. The problem is, there’s a severe shortage of language teachers who have attained virtually native levels of skill in a foreign language. I mean, how many kids can “CCTV Daniel” and Dashan teach?