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Why teach English as a foreign language?
Posted on Monday, September 17 @ 07:15:50 EDT
Topic: Translation Education

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What's in it for me?

I taught English as a foreign language for the first time as part of my university degree, when I was a language assistant in a French lycée. I went on to complete my degree in English and French and became a lectrice in Lille University, France. I have also worked as a teacher on summer camps in England and as a teacher of general and business English in Spain. This may seem strange, when you consider that my ambition has always been to become a translator, and that I have never wanted to teach.

It is easy to see the benefits of teaching English in a foreign country. You get that precious exposure to the language and culture of your chosen country whilst being paid for the pleasure. Unfortunately many employers are aware of this and pay minimal salaries, knowing that teachers will always be available, and putting up with the flipside of finding that teachers rarely stay long in one post. Most TEFL teachers abroad tend to be language enthusiasts, brushing up their skills in a language they have already studied or worked with, or learning a new language. All TEFL teachers abroad are culture enthusiasts who want to get to know a new country in a way that you never will unless you work there.

But what are the benefits of the actual process of teaching English? How can teaching help you become a better translator, indeed a better user of your own language?

Seeing the language through the eyes of a foreigner is a fantastic learning experience. Suddenly you find that all those words that you take for granted need explaining. When should you say hi and when should it be hello? What is paradise? What’s a shudder? The teacher has a number of resources available for explaining vocabulary- mime, drawings even translation and the dictionary in lower-level classes- but perhaps the most important skill is the constant ability to explain and paraphrase. In English. Because for the translator, having good French, Russian, German etc is one thing, but if it isn’t coupled with very good English the translations will never be of the highest possible standard.

And of course, it isn’t only the meaning that’s important. The student needs to know when to use the word. Collocation is just as important, if not more so, than meaning. Dictionaries are often excellent at giving meaning, but many (not all) fall short when it comes to telling you when to use the word. This is then the teacher’s job. Take the phrasal verb ‘fall out’. The average TEFL teacher could give the definition ‘to have an argument’. The good TEFL teacher could give a sentence to contextualise this, for example, ‘He fell out with his sister because she wouldn’t give him the ball’. The excellent TEFL teacher however, would give several sentences to explain the verb, as well as saying that it is normally used to talk about children or couples, not so much to talk about business, and that it normally implies a period in which the people will not be speaking to one another. They may also give the colloquial noun phrase ‘a falling-out’ and explain that this phrasal verb is not used in American English. And still not have even touched on register. The ability to do this, not only when they have prepared the lesson at home for three hours and know the vocabulary inside-out, but also when a student asks them for a specific piece of random vocabulary, perhaps one that they have come across in their own work, is crucial to the TEFL teacher, and is a extremely useful skill for the translator also.

Grammar is probably the area that most new native TEFL teachers find difficult, simply because they have never learnt English grammar. Whilst they are able to explain the French conjugation system or the Spanish imperfect subjunctive, because they learnt to do this from scratch at school, they cannot do the same for their own language, and this is true for translators too. Could you explain when the present perfect is used? What is the difference between ‘I am playing football on Saturday’ and ‘I will play football on Saturday’? When do we use ‘for’ and when is it ‘since’? And what does ‘during’ mean? Whilst as a native speaker you may use all of these forms correctly, as a TEFL teacher you learn exactly why you say what you say. And you iron out the mistakes, often due to dialect, in your own use of the language. Until I became a teacher I had never questioned the phrase ‘I was sat there’ used by myself, my family, and indeed everybody I know. In fact it is of course grammatically impossible, and should use the past continuous, ‘I was sitting there’.

TEFL teachers, like translators and interpreters, often complain of a certain amount of contamination of the target language. Translators find that false collocations, even invented words, seem normal, a situation which is worsened when they spend a long period away from their native country. Teachers find also that mistakes that are commonly made by students start to sound normal, and that they start to question their own use of the words. Both must make sure that they continue to have contact with natural, correct English, in order to retain their own English skills.

The knowledge of English gained by teaching English as a foreign language perfects the translator’s work, allowing them more freedom, flexibility and confidence in the language. Seeing the language through a learner’s eyes is a precious experience for the translator, and one that is already enjoyed by many. Vocabulary and grammar can be learned in books, alone at home, but it is the student who really forces the teacher to constantly question their opinions, their use of language, and their choice of words.

A period of TEFL teaching, whether at home or abroad is a fantastic opportunity for the translator to improve their use of English, which, although it is sometimes forgotten, is possibly the most important skill of the translator, and the one to which, sadly, we often pay far too little attention.

By julietbec | Published  07/31/2007

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