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A Native Speaker of English Goes Nonnative

Native English speaker Shannon Sauro's foray into teaching German gives her a practical perspective on nonnative-speaking teachers of English. See Yujong Park's Out of the Box article, "Will Nonnative-English-Speaking Teachers Ever Get a Fair Chance?", Essential Teacher, March 2006 (pp. 32-34).

One semester, I was given the opportunity to teach a beginning-level class of bright, motivated, well-prepared adult language learners. My syllabus was preset; my colleagues were amiable and supportive; the textbook was colorful, engaging, and well-supplemented; and for the first time in my teaching career, I had full access to a well-equipped computer lab. Yet I found myself in unfamiliar territory. For the first time, I was not teaching my native language, English, but found myself a nonnative-speaking teacher of German.

My experience as a nonnative-German-speaking teacher was equal parts challenging and rewarding, but most especially enlightening. Though I have worked closely with and read accounts by nonnative-English-speaking teachers (NNESTs), this hands-on experience has given me a practical perspective on the challenges they face, the strengths they bring to the language classroom, and the online resources available to all language teachers grappling with gaps in their linguistic or cultural knowledge.

Unanticipated Challenges

As an English teacher, I had worked alongside highly competent NNESTs whose enthusiasm and professionalism obscured just how much additional effort they put into creating authentic-sounding materials, contextualized test items, and engaging discussion and essay questions in their second language.

For me, class preparation in German took more deliberation and forethought as I could not produce spontaneous example sentences or scenarios as easily as I could in English. Test designing was particularly arduous and time-consuming: I stretched my lexical limits to create suitably challenging definition-matching exercises, and my sociopragmatic knowledge was pushed when I tried to contextualize grammar items.

My pedagogical training in TESOL had taught me the necessity of good preparation, but my experience as a nonnative-speaking language teacher broadened my awareness of just how much time it takes to plan lessons and design assignments in a second language.

Appreciable Strengths

One of the strengths often attributed to nonnative-speaking language teachers is a deeper understanding of the difficulties their students face in learning the target language. This is ascribed to the teachers' own experience of learning the language at hand, sometimes further enhanced by sharing a native language with the students.

This was the case in my German class, where most of my students had the same native language as I did and thus struggled to master the same grammatical and phonological intricacies of German that I had had to overcome. Thanks to my own experience as a German language learner, I came equipped with a full arsenal of tricks and tools for picking apart and remembering the nuances of German grammar and for approximating German pronunciation.

Resources for Overcoming the Gaps

Perhaps the richest insight to come out of my teaching experience was my firsthand quest for online resources to help overcome the gaps in my cultural and linguistic knowledge. In addition to Web sites dedicated to language teaching, the plethora of authentic multimedia materials available online helped my lesson preparation and grading when there was no native-speaking expert to consult:

  • Pronunciation help in the form of audio files linked to online dictionaries modeled the unusual pronunciation of borrowed words.
  • QuickTime videos posted by a university linguistics department (see University of Iowa 2005, helped me teach and contrast the production of certain sounds in German with similar sounds in English.
  • When giving feedback to students on their essays, Wikipedia's German version ( helped me identify the German equivalent or gender of proper names and culturally specific U.S. events that one would not find in a dictionary (e.g., the Champs Elysées, the FIFA World Cup, the U.S. Civil War).
  • Search engines such as Google ( helped me confirm or disconfirm my nonnative intuitions on collocations and subtle differences in the function of similar grammatical structures.

Switching Sides Can Open Your Eyes

ESOL teachers are encouraged to learn a foreign language as a form of professional development that will heighten their understanding of the issues facing students. But building empathy for students is only one item in a toolkit of professional development strategies within TESOL. Just as learning a foreign language helps language teachers develop empathy for what students are going through, teaching a foreign language as a nonnative speaker can give teacher educators firsthand experience with the challenges and strengths unique to the nonnative-English-speaking prospective teachers they work with.


University of Iowa. 2005. Phonetics: The sounds of English and Spanish.

Shannon Sauro (, editor of Compleat Links, is a PhD candidate in educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States.