As someone who’s learned and taught a ton of languages, I understand pretty well what makes a good teacher.
Spoiler alert: it isn’t having certificates or even an education in this field. Both are completely unnecessary.
These days, people have the comfort to learn a language from their own bed. Sign up to one of the popular exchanges like iTalki and you can learn almost any language at a very low cost. Yes, the good old classroom education and group courses still exist but “learning online by talking to a native speaker” is en vogue.
I’m no exception to this and I’m going to share my extensive experience of what makes a good language teacher/coach/partner and how you identify one. Even as teacher, I don’t always follow my own guidelines since teaching tends to become pretty damn boring and can be a mindless task. My experience is that a good student can work with a bad teacher, if the student can give directions and has a very clear understanding of what he needs. However, even a great teacher cannot make a poor student brilliant by a stroke of magic.
All the points I’ll give are true for the online 1-on-1 format that most people use nowadays. In a classroom, a few different elements come into play as well, and the dynamic in a group tends to be different anyway.
With that being said…
#1 A good teacher has a GENUINE interaction with you
A mistake many teachers make (I’m lazy and no exception) is to just ask students questions. Cause more speaking = more language production = good, right?
But that’s not really how we communicate in our normal lives. If someone asks me questions all the time and wants to know my opinion about this or that, I’ll become pretty irritated after a while. At the very least, I’ll get the feeling that this isn’t a normal interaction and ask myself why this person wants to know all these things.
Real communication is a two-way-street, i.e. a dialogue. It maybe goes A-B-A-B-B-A-A. But it’s not A talking all the time and B being in interview mode. Teachers are often afraid to “talk too much” or “speaking is the key to success, so student must speak”. Unless the student has a really basic level though, you can have a decent conversation and give input yourself. I very much want my teachers to speak because I get to listen to them and it gives me the feeling of being heard, not just answering questions to produce language.
Actually entering a conversation makes you more likeable and the student benefits from it as well. Plus, this isn’t really limited to learning a language. The old saying “people like to talk about themselves the most” is true, but only the most narcissistic people want to talk about themselves exclusively.
Look for a teacher that has a dialogue with you, not just a monologue.
#2 The teacher is flexible
Personally, I seek out teachers for different purposes. Sometimes, I need conversation practice. Sometimes, I need corrections. Or feedback Or explanations.
A good teacher can adapt to that and work with anything you throw at him. Having a plan is helpful and improves the interaction, but in real life you also don’t enter every verbal interaction with a plan. You just roll with it. The same is true here, especially since the person speaks the language at a higher level than you do, so the playing field is never level.
This requires experience though and is only comes with time. A novice will find it hard to give competent feedback or come up with a quality interaction on the fly.
#3 They can identify a student’s weaknesses
All students are the same and always have the same problems:
- I don’t know enough words
- I don’t understand the grammar
- I cannot understand what native speakers are saying
A student can immediately tell if a teacher is quality simply by the type of questions they ask before the “learning” even starts (assuming they have a common language to communicate). No good teacher just starts just like no good doctor would just start treating you without even identifying what’s wrong with you. First, we need to find out what the problem is and how we tackle it. I always interview new students extensively to find out what’s up. Question I ask (and your teacher should ask you) include:
- What’s your motivation for learning X?
- What’s your history of learning X? Where, how long, how?
- What’s your goal and the timeline on this?
- Do you have daily contact with the language and if so, how much? Why not?
- What kind of skills do you need and what kind of language do you use?
- How much time will you invest in this?
- What do you think how much time it will take you to reach your goal?
- How can I help you best?
- What kind of interests do you have outside of this? (identify topics that don’t bore them)
Maybe even a few more that I cannot think of right now. First 30 minutes should always be spent on this.
#4 Has good language awareness – knows how to explain stuff
The difference between a native speaker and someone that can help you to learn something is that the latter person can explain why something is the way it is. Speaking a language well or fluently doesn’t mean you can show someone else how it’s done just like a good footballer isn’t necessarily a good manager. You need to be able to abstract the knowledge and transfer it to someone else, which is a skill in itself.
That’s where language awareness comes in – aka “why do we say it this way”. This comes in many forms:
- Why do we use certain grammar in a certain situation
- “How/Why do they say […] in X?”
- Knowing common word combinations
- Knowing the appropriate tone for a situation
- and many more..
Usually people with a formal education in this field or extensive teaching or learning experience are good at this. If you can throw the “why do they say…” question at a teacher and he can come up with a quick answer, that’s a good sign.
#5 The person is likeable
This one’s really the most important. Unless the person is cool and you actually like them, you’re not going to have a good time. Learning a language takes an extensive amount of time and that’s better spent with someone you are cool with.
That doesn’t mean your teacher needs to be your friend but common interests help. At the very least, the person should be able to talk about anything and especially the things you like, i.e. they should be a good communicator. This also ties in with the first point of not only asking questions but actively listening and giving own input. Also, input is different from just mimicking what the other person is saying, which is a communication tactic, but can be identified as not being genuine by someone who knows it.
In short, a good teacher is a good communicator and a likeable person, ideally with some experience of learning themselves. Technical knowledge helps, but it ‘s really secondary.