Seven things I’ve learned about language teaching

Posted on 31/01/2012


Hard to believe, but I’ve entered year eight of being a language tutor. First I taught Spanish and French to adults in London; now I teach Spanish, French and English in Brussels, in my little town nearby and worldwide via Skype (if “worldwide” can be defined as, basically, Brussels and London, with the potential for everywhere else).

I like to think that I’ve grown and learned about being a good teacher in that time, and about what works and what doesn’t for language learning. Here are some of my thoughts.

1) Almost everyone who wants to progress in a language is capable of doing so

I have taught, probably, hundreds of people in the last seven years. Of all of those, only one was what I would call a lost cause. He tried, he really did, but a few weeks in he was still saying “naaaan” instead of “non” (yes, he was American, but don’t be drawing conclusions about Americans based on that) and I was a little relieved when he moved away.

2) How fast you progress usually has almost nothing to do with natural talent

It’s exciting, as a tutor, when you get a new student with a wonderful accent or a great grasp of the fundamentals of grammar. Great, you think to yourself, this one will be fluent in no time. And yet, those are not the ones who make great strides, unless they also happen to be the ones willing to put the time in between lessons. They are overtaken almost every time by those with determination, motivation and discipline.

3) Everyone is different

I always sort of knew that, which is why I’ve always advertised my lessons as flexible, personalised tuition. It’s what makes it fun, too, watching how different people learn. Some like to painstakingly go over every word of a dialogue and ask challenging and fascinating questions about etymology. Others jump right in and start speaking, and the best way to help them learn is by correcting them as tehy go.

4) Variety is important

As a tutor, it’s easy for me to get stuck in a rut – always using the same books, for example (usually because I’ve found books that work well), or always formatting lessons a certain way. It’s good – both for me and my students – to do something different once in a while, and I’ve had fun exploring flash cards, Scrabble, and exercises involving extensive use of Post-It notes (“learning that sticks”, one of my students called it).

5) Skype lessons are great 

Skype lessons are a great resource. They enabled me to keep some of my favourite students when I left London, and now they save me a lot of time and travelling. My students feel the benefit of that: the prices are lower; there are more timeslots are available.

6) But face-to-face lessons are better

Still, nothing can replace physical contact, and the variety I mentioned is trickier with Skype. (Note to any app developers out there: could we please have Words with Friends  and  Scramble with Friends in French and Spanish?)

7) Laughter is important 

Most people learn better when they are relaxed; I know that I teach better that way. It’s fantastic when I find a student I really click with and we can laugh together at the absurdities of French (and there are many).

What have you learned about teaching or language learning lately? I’d love to hear some of your tips.


— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.
Posted in: Uncategorized