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What do people mean when they talk about ‘language’?

What are the three language systems? How do you feel about your language knowledge?
What does it mean, what do you need to know about language to be an English language teacher? Well, you need to know how language is used, and that means knowing the grammar of English. When I started teaching, the one book I had packed in my trunk was my grammar book. Yes, absolutely. Well, when I started Teaching - even actually after I’d finished the CELTA course that I did - I knew very little about grammar. I think actually it’s a disadvantage that we have as native speakers that we don’t learn grammar at school. So we have to learn it like a foreign student has to learn it.
Whereas I think non-native teachers have an advantage over us because, of course, they’ve learned grammar as they’ve learned English. But when I started teaching, I knew very little grammar. But it is so important to be aware that it’s so important that when you’re preparing your lessons, you learn about it. And you use a good grammar book or nowadays, you can go online and learn about the tense or the structure that you’re teaching from a resource. But grammar is really, really important. Other things that are important? Well, I think vocabulary is very important. I agree.
Because if you know a lot of vocabulary, if you know a lot of words - they’re the content words in sentences - and you can get your meaning across, and you can get what you want. Yes, absolutely. You can say ‘‘shop’’ and people will know, or you can go ‘‘shop’’, and people will know you want to go to the shop perhaps or you want to buy something in a shop. So when we talk about language, we talk about grammar, we talk about vocabulary and pronunciation. Pronunciation. Those are the three things that teachers need to know about. I think it’s not enough to just speak the language to be, I don’t know, a native speaker.
You need to care about the language, and you need to have an interest, and you need to be well informed. Meaning, form, pronunciation. I love pronunciation, I love different accents. So whenever I have to teach pronunciation, I get really excited because I can use different videos and get them to pronounce things in a different way. But also context. So when is the language used? When are they going to actually use the modal verbs in real life? It’s an exercise of self-reflection to actually think about when they’re going to use a language. So creating opportunities for them to use the language in real life. As a teacher of English, your tool is English.
And so, you need to know how to use that as a tool in the class. So while I agree that it’s a native language to many of us, I don’t think that that’s necessarily on its own enough to make a good teacher. You have to know how to make that language accessible to and usable by the students in the class, no matter what their level. So I think you have to have a very great knowledge of English. And not only of how English works, but also the meta-language, the names for things and how to refer to the different things that we do in English.
Being a non-native in English - at least non-native teacher - I think I learned the grammar. And I think knowing the grammar of a language is key for me. And I think it helps building the structure around your teaching skills. Grammar is definitely important because it brings you the structure of the language, and understands the rules, and why and the exceptions. And speaking different languages yourself, you can also understand the links and understand why your students are thinking this way. For example, I have German students. And I can better understand why they think this way versus Spanish students. And I would say OK, you’re now thinking in Spanish. You’re just translating.
But think in English, don’t think with your language one.

Watch the video with Monica, Marie Therese and other teachers talking about ‘language systems’ and about what we mean when we talk about ‘language’. As you watch, answer these questions:

  • What are the three ‘language systems’?
  • What do Monica, Marie Therese and the other teachers say about each of them?
  • You’ll be able to check your answers in the next step.


    How do you feel about your knowledge of the ‘language systems’? Which do you feel most confident about and which do you feel less confident about? Use the comments section to tell us.

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    Exploring the World of English Language Teaching

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