What We (Really) Learned From Our Language Teachers

We reminisce about our best (and sometimes worst) language teachers. Looking back, what lessons did we REALLY learn?

Teachers are a big part of childhood, but only a few manage to create an impression which stays with us into adulthood. The rest reside within the recesses of our memory, awaiting recall at the next high school reunion. Cartoon characters, radio jingles, random ice cream flavors and the first pony ride take precedence over the people who taught us to read, write, add, subtract, throw and catch.

Some of my colleagues and I recently met for lunch to reminisce about our most memorable teachers. To discover whether they’re remembered out of adoration or infamy, you’ll have to read on. Are the cool, fun teachers the ones who pupils always remember? Or are the more severe and loathed the ones we can’t ever forget?

Gabriel from São Paulo, Brazil
remembers his German teacher

I met the best language teacher I’ve ever had a few weeks after moving from Sao Paulo to Berlin. It was summer in Neukölln and I was doing an intensive course of German every day from 5 till 8 p.m. The teacher was in his mid 50s, had long, curly white hair, dressed casually and had a rough, deep, hard-to-understand voice. The first thing he asked us to do was make a sentence with the word während. After this one sentence, constituting no more than 7 words, he could tell I was Brazilian. That really impressed me. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, I can tell everybody’s accent,” he replied.

Besides his ability to guess accents and his great capacity for making complex grammar rules understandable to his students, this teacher was also a great musician. He invited the students to his concerts, which were not only an opportunity to hear good music, but also to hang out with Germans and listen to German songs. Sometimes he’d even print the lyrics and bring them along so that we could follow the words while drinking our beers. He even agreed to perform at my birthday and found a venue. It was a fun party.

Lesson learned

Talk to your teachers and try to interact with them outside the classroom. Who knows, your teacher just might be the Tom Waits of Kreuzberg!

Kat from Potsdam, Germany
remembers her French teacher

My 10th grade French teacher wasn’t the best. She gave the impression that she’d much rather teach Spanish, and appeared to resent us for being her French class. She had a habit of gossiping about students, and was of the opinion that grammatical structures were “something you’ll just have to learn by heart” — like the most boring poem you could think of. This left me frustrated to the point of spitefulness. I was done with French — or at least I thought I was.

My interest was rekindled when I started working in a company with many French coworkers. I got frustrated with myself because I couldn’t understand anything when my French coworkers spoke real French. It all just sounded like a single, long, silky string of a word to me. Instead of wallowing in my inability to understand, I decided to learn French — for real, this time. I got back into the language with… Harry Potter audio books! I know the story well, so even though I didn’t understand every word, I was never totally lost. I slowly improved my listening skills, which had always been my biggest problem. And as I adore the Harry Potter books, I was able to learn without it feeling like a chore. I would eagerly return to the story, and thereby return to learning.

Lesson learned

Sometimes your best teacher can be your favorite book, movie or music genre. They are the best learning materials you can wish for and will help you to take language learning out of the classroom, making it part of your everyday life. So find something you love to do, and then do it in your target language.

Giulia from Venice, Italy
remembers her French teacher

I studied French as a second language (the first one was English) for three years in junior high school. Why French? Well, the alternative was German, which most people chose to learn for their summer job (lots of Germans holiday at the beaches near my hometown); I kind of wanted to be “different.” Worst decision ever. Not only did I never get a summer job at the beach like all my friends, but I really regretted the decision when I moved to Berlin 15 years later without knowing a word of German. That’s why kids shouldn’t be allowed to make big life decisions.

Long story short: I had the same French teacher in high school that my mom had! Not only was she very old (sorry Mom, sorry French teacher!), she also vividly remembered how my mom used to disrupt her class by laughing at unusual French sounds (that “ü” that doesn’t exist in Italian, for example). Unfortunately, I had the same habit.

My laughter not only outed me as the daughter of a loathed former pupil, but also branded me a troublemaker on my first day.

The following three years were terrifying: I never shook my reputation as the rude kid with the rude mum, and I never managed to accomplish anything other than memorizing a handful of grammar rules. It was enough to pass the class though, and as soon as I graduated junior high, I completely abandoned French. Ten years later, I decided to have an adventure and to go to Paris alone for two months; I learned more in these two months than in three years of sweating and struggling over finicky grammar rules — all by simply talking to people.

My advice for young learners

Don’t focus on the grammar rules. Study them, but use them as a basis for your practice. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes… and never choose a school where you risk meeting your parents’ teachers!

Ed from Wells, England
remembers his French teacher

I remember really enjoying the spectacle of my French lessons at secondary school. Our teacher would swoop into the class theatrically and proceed to entertain us, jumping on his desk to perform a French ditty to a crackling backing track. After twenty minutes he would extract fifteen picture boards from his desk, and we’d all recite a sentence corresponding to the image — and always the same sentence. Despite the theatre, or perhaps because of it, I failed to learn anything of use. The 15 sentences were dreadfully difficult to insert into conversation, and the ditties became increasingly embarrassing as puberty gradually enveloped us all.

The failure to understand and retain any of the information was not the greatest failure. Looking back, it was hugely unfortunate that the French language remained so foreign — it seemed so utterly irrelevant to me academically and culturally. I still ask myself how this could have been rectified. Perhaps academic relevance could have been engendered by presenting grammar as the backbone of logic within language; something to be studied and understood rather than ignored and, hopefully, absorbed. Cultural relevance is trickier. Only my peers who went on exchanges recognized the utility of their second language. For the rest of us, a helpful step would have been for the teacher to speak to us in French and create the need to understand. Most of all, however, I wish I’d had the foresight to realize the benefits of learning a second language earlier — that would have saved me a lot of time later in life!

What I wish I knew then

The most fundamental question for me at school was: what’s the point? Nothing will be achieved without a sense of need or purpose. This need has to be real — on a language exchange, for example — or fabricated by the teacher. I think this is the biggest challenge of all.

Marion from Paris, France
remembers her German teacher

Have you ever heard of the novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther? It’s a book written by Goethe in 1744 in a kind of antiquated German that nobody speaks anymore, and it’s best remembered for causing a wave of copycat suicides throughout Europe. Well, that’s how I learned German.

Imagine an old teacher with a trembling chin and no sense of humor teaching thirty teenagers by reading them a text which many German native speaker wouldn’t even understand. By the end of the year, I could conjugate just about any German verb in the past perfect with my eyes closed, but I couldn’t hold a proper conversation. Try as I might, it wasn’t so easy to drop words like “soul” and “heart oppression” into random dialogues.

Just like any group of teenagers worth their mustard, we gleefully took revenge on our embattled German teacher. His French was far from fluent and he often used us as his dictionary: “How do you say “desk” in French?” To which the whole class would answer: “Cul!” (“Butt” in French, and that’s not the worst example!). I still delight at the thought of his after class conversations with the other teachers.

What feedback would I give my teacher today?

Teaching doesn’t mean torturing, and it’s no use making children or teenagers discover German with Goethe or French with Molière. Why not use modern songs or stories? One can still get back to Classics later, after a certain level has been reached.

Cristina from Madrid, Spain
remembers her English teacher

I had this English teacher once who obviously wasn’t English. I say “obviously” because when I was growing up the teacher would almost always be Spanish and speak the learning language poorly and in a strong regional Spanish accent.

It all started when she introduced herself: “Jelou, my name is Lola”. Hmm… OK, Lola, let’s do this. To be honest (and not humble at all) my English was already pretty good. Like, so good that I would guess the lyrics of the opening theme tunes from The Flintstones, Punky Brewster and Blossom. I was 13 and I was so proud of myself because of that. While this was happening in the privacy of my own home, back in English class we were learning the colors and the past tense for the tenth time already.

I never studied because every exam was just a “fill in the gap” exercise. This particular teacher understood that my English was good enough, so she would never motivate me or encourage me to do more and take it to the next level. I was 13 and English lessons were just one less problem in the very complicated life of a teenager. When we got the results, she would go from table to table saying everybody’s grades out loud, and when she arrived at my table, she would say, “Cristina, muy bien, but I know you’re not even trying.”

What advice would I give my childhood self?

If you are good at something, don’t let an uninspired teacher hold you back. You can always graduate from good to great, and thankfully it’s never too late to do so. Just do yourself a favor and don’t be as lazy as the teacher!

John-Erik from Los Angeles, USA
remembers his Spanish teacher

When I started learning Spanish in 8th grade, I was determined to coast through it with as little effort and attention as possible. School was hard enough, and I resented the addition of a new subject. My plan was going brilliantly until Spanish III. With two years of fake Spanish instruction behind me, I was completely unprepared for a serious teacher. She possessed every trait of a classic Halloween witch (minus the green skin and pointy hat); she made fun of students, yelled more than she spoke, and everyone was terrified of her. She was also the most effective Spanish teacher I ever had. Compared to her, my previous teacher was an amateur, and the teachers who came after were charlatans. Her method was simple: She only spoke Spanish in class, and if you didn’t too, she would mercilessly tease you in front of everyone.

It was the most nerve-wracking learning environment I had ever been in, and the stress motivated me to improve simply to know what the heck was going on. I never left her homework unfinished, and I even found a neighbor to speak Spanish with on Sundays because I was afraid of a public shaming at the hands of my teacher. At the time, I hated it and gladly transferred to the “easy” Spanish teacher the following semester. Looking back, it was a terrible decision. She was undoubtedly the best language teacher I had in high school, and the only one to ever motivate me to do more than the minimum.

What advice would I give my teenage self?

You have to take language learning seriously if you want to see results. It took the scariest Spanish teacher in the L.A. Unified School District to frighten me into giving a damn, but, if you hold yourself responsible for learning a language, you can make progress without being motivated by fear.

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