It might seem to you that the best source of advice for learning English would be native English speakers, correct? Certainly, many English learners often seek out native speakers of English to ask them for help with certain English language-related problems. But are native speakers necessarily the best people to turn to for help? Well, actually, a lot of the time, they’re not. Why is that? Let’s find out.
Native speakers are extremely valuable in the process of language learning, mostly because they provide you with a lot of authentic language listening input – often the kind you don’t find in formal language learning sources such as textbooks. However, it’s also true, sadly, that native speakers sometimes give out bad or even incorrect language learning advice. I’ll explain below why this is sometimes the case, and also give you some points to consider when approaching native speakers for help.
First let me start by saying that when I say advice, I am talking about two types of advice. The first type is advice about learning methodology, such as tips on how to improve your listening skills, how to use spaced repetition apps, how to read faster, etc. The second type of advice is related to specific language use, such as grammar patterns, the meaning and nuance of certain vocabulary, pronunciation and inflection, etc.
Let me start with an analogy. Imagine you have decided to participate in your first triathlon. You do have a little bit of experience – You have run in a 5km race and have cycled 100km. But you know that racing in a triathlon is completely different. You need advice on diet, training, how to quickly change at the stations, etc. So of course, you start reading about it, but you also want to get advice from real triathletes. The athlete you would probably want to seek advice from is someone who has completely many triathlons, right? Not someone who has only run a 5km race, and cycled casually, like yourself. Better still, you would probably be even happier if you found an experienced triathlete who was also a coach, as that person will also have a lot of theoretical background, right?
Well, it’s the same when it comes to language learning advice. Good native speakers to ask for help are those who can already communicate very well in two or more languages – a second language that they have not learned as a youth, but as an adult. It’s also useful if they have learned your language, because then they’ll be familiar with your particular issues as a speaker of that language. But for general language learning advice, that’s not 100% necessary.
Of course, the best type of native speaker to approach to seek help regarding language learning tips is not only a native speaker who is fluent in more than one language, but also someone who has qualifications in linguistics or foreign language acquisition as well. This type of native speaker should have the theoretic background as well as the emotional and technical experience of learning another language.
Now, when it comes to specific language use, like grammar and vocabulary, of course bilingual or multilingual native speakers of English who have TESOL-related backgrounds are also best, but you might be able to ask regular monolingual native speakers with no academic background in language learning as well. However, you have to be aware of two things:
- Most monolingual native speakers are unaware of the rules and mechanics of their own language. They learned their native language over a long period of time as very young people. They had huge amounts of language input over many years and learned by imitating. They didn’t study grammar rules, or the nuances of vocabulary use, or the stress patterns in words like “Photography.” Unlike you, they did not have to.
- When you ask for their advice, monolingual native English speakers will probably feel one or more emotions that can result in them giving you inaccurate (or false) information. For example, they might feel embarrassed that they do not know the answer and then give you a quick answer to cover it up. Or they might think about it and give you an answer based on their logic. Their thinking might indeed be logical, but that doesn’t mean their answer is correct. Or they might think they actually know the answer when they in fact do not.
Let’s say you ask a monolingual native English speaker, “what’s wrong with this sentence?”:
The brown quick fox jumps over the lazy dog.
Most native speakers will easily be able correct the word order:
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
So then you ask why, and that is where your trouble can start. Most native English speakers who have not had experience learning another language or have not gained a better understanding of their own language by studying it – something you do when you get qualifications in linguistics or TESOL – will not be able to answer correctly. They might just say, “It sounds better that way” or “speed always comes first” (not in fact true!). The real answer is that there is a set order to adjectives, but native speakers have not explicitly learned these; these types of grammar rules are internalized naturally over time by native speakers when they are young.
In most cases, the intentions of native speakers are good – they do want to help you. But you have to be careful not to accept their answers as 100% accurate.
Now, what about asking English teachers who only speak English? Or maybe they speak a little in a foreign language or two, but not to the level that you want to be able to speak in English? Surely, teaching qualifications should be enough, right? Well, unfortunately, not always.
First, know that there is a huge spectrum of teaching qualifications. Does your teacher have a certificate that she got after a 6-week program, or does she have a PhD in applied linguistics? Second, language teachers are sometimes trained with methodologies that are outdated or inaccurate. Our understanding of how people acquire a second language has changed a lot in recent years and will likely continue to change. Not all language teachers keep up to date on language learning research. Third, language teachers have varying amounts of experience.
It’s common sense, but if you have to ask a monolingual native-English speaking teacher for advice, you’re probably going to want to choose someone who has more qualifications and more experience, and who is up to date with language learning research. Be careful, as well, when you are watching “English language teachers” on YouTube. Are they fully bilingual or trilingual or multilingual? How much teaching experience do they have? What are their qualifications? Also remember to ask yourself: Am I watching these videos because the teacher is attractive, because the video production is amazing, or because the content is funny? Those things are important because they keep your interest, but at the end of the day, you have to evaluate quality of the advice given.
There is a saying that you don’t fully understand your own language and culture until you have learned another. Personally, I do believe this to be true. If you cannot find a bilingual or multilingual native English-speaking teacher, I do recommend asking native English speakers who are fluent in one or more other languages that they learned as adults. These people are likely to have an understanding of their own native English language that they acquired through learning another language. They are also better able to empathize with your struggle.
And if they know your language, they’ll be better equipped to address your particular question. And you know what? How about asking advice from speakers of your native language who are fluent in English? I bet they can help you in ways that many native speakers of English cannot.
At the end of the day, though, monolingual native speakers of English are great people to ask if you simply want to check the accuracy of your English. They might not be able to accurately identify the problem or explain why it’s not correct, but they will intuitively know if something that you said is … off.