FAQ: Why should a Native Speaker English Teacher need to know grammar?

When I wrote in a recent post and the ensuing comments that I think Native Speaker English Teachers should be expected to have a high standard of grammar knowledge, I got a fair amount of pushback. 

Many suggested that I was wrong. That Native Speaker English Teachers don’t need to know the grammar because native speakers don’t learn the grammar and they can use the language perfectly well.

This claim overlooks two important points.

1. We actually do learn grammar in English speaking countries.

When suggesting that grammar study is not a necessary part of EFL learning, the argument usually revolves around the fact that “native speakers” are the highest standard of English users and yet they do not need study to grammar, so neither should an L2 learner. 

There are two mistakes here. First of all, L2 learners are not L1 speakers, and we would be wrong to treat them as the same thing. But it is also simply wrong to claim that L1 speakers do not learn grammar.

Though so many graduated adults appear to have forgotten, young L1 speakers growing up in L1 countries do go to school and attend English classes, which are a combination of literature and language studies, and in these classes, they learn English grammar.

2. We’re typically not all that good with our own language. 

Those who argue against my suggestion that teachers should be expected to learn English grammar often labour under the illusion that, while “Native Speakers” might not be able to explain the language, they can use it perfectly and that’s what matters. But that is, of course, far from the truth.

Scan social media and take a look at your friends’ updates. It doesn’t take 5 minutes to see that grammatical and lexical errors abound. Your and you’re, there and their, should of instead of should have, incase and atall and a ‘grate’ many more.

The reality is that Native speakers do learn English grammar at school, and even then many of them are not even that good at it. So when it comes to choosing our teachers, I suggest that we don’t pick from the pool of casual language users but that we seek qualified, competent professionals instead.

A Story

I renovated my own home. I paid for people to install toilets and a bathtub and to tile the bathrooms. Almost everything else I did myself, from painting to electrical wiring; fitting sinks, taps and showers; building and installing furniture throughout the apartment including the kitchen complete with stove, oven, lighting and more.

I did a pretty good job. The paint in most rooms is very nearly evenly spread with a few dark or light areas here and there and the odd bump or lump and occasional patches that were missed, but most of these are unnoticeable (as long as you’re not my wife).

The furniture is all Ikea, so building it’s not exactly carpentry that we’re talking about here, but it was fairly arduous, and it took about a week, all told, to build and install the entire apartment’s furnishings. Upon completion, it was mostly level; level enough that drawers don’t slide open or pencils don’t roll off table tops, anyway. The doors and edges are mostly flush, I’d say to perhaps 80% accuracy. Maybe 70.

The taps and shower fittings are all great now, but I had to redo a couple of them several times to completely eradicate drips and get everything working the way it was supposed to.

And so on and so on. On the whole, I was and still am very proud of the work I did.

But would I be a good candidate to go and teach professional painters and decorators, plumbers and electricians? I hope your answer is no.

Teaching as a Profession

L1 speakers of any language, but we’ll be discussing English here primarily, we might perhaps call amateur users. They use the language every day and quite adeptly too. They get by very well. But they cannot talk in any depth about the language they use—not that they need to—and they often make errors, though not particularly harmful ones. All in all, they use the language just fine.

But just as we should want a master carpenter to teach carpentry and a master plumber to teach plumbing, we should want a master language-er to teach language.

The average native speaker of English is far from a master of the craft. They can use the language well enough to be effective, but if they were to teach it, they would be incorporating a great many errors into their teaching. This would mean that the starting point for the students would be less than accurate. If we then assume that a certain percentage of any teaching is misunderstood, misinterpreted, misremembered or else just forgotten, then we see that we’re setting our students up to fail by teaching them inaccuracies from the get go.

Not to mention inaccuracies internalised at the early stages of learning are very difficult to rectify at a later date even once they become explicitly known to the learner.

It’s a bit like the bad habits one picks up when driving. And if you learned from your parents before taking professional driving lessons, then you’ll likely remember your instructor being frustrated by some of the practices you had picked up from your parents and working hard to drill them out of you.

Mastering the Craft

Teachers should be masters of their crafts. Master doesn’t mean 100%. But at the very least, it means that a teacher should be more than the average, casual user. 

And what makes all of this so much more frustrating for me is that other subject teachers do not even have this conversation. In any other subject, from Science to Art, Maths to PE, it is simply assumed that the teachers will be masters of their subject matter. Not to mentioned competent classroom teachers.

But for some reason, in EFL to expect the same is apparently to ask too much?

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