When I was 17, a local refugee shelter was looking for a volunteer teacher for those who could, for some reason or other, not attend the state-run German classes at present. The first person I taught there had a pretty good reason: a tiny newborn baby boy named Marvellous who was simply too distracting to just bring him to class with her. And man, am I glad for that baby – not just because he was adorable and it was fun to play with him while teaching, but mostly because this experience got me into doing something I still enjoy to this day. Currently, I teach a level B1 class on a weekly basis for a student organization that works towards helping refugees overcome language barriers.

Of course, the students aren’t the only ones who take away something from class; here are some things I learned teaching my native language:

1. Not understanding each other right away isn’t a big deal.

At first, you’ll be so nervous. You’ll try to prepare an explanation for certain things (at which point you’ll realize how hard that can be, see below), and because you’re not trained to change your explanation ad hoc, you’ll be knocked out of your stride when that prepared explanation doesn’t work because the other person is missing certain vocabulary or the sentence-structure is making it hard to follow. If you’re a bit awkward like me, you’ll look at their blank facial expression of confusion and think “oh no, they didn’t understand that! Quick, come up with something else…oh, come on! You look like an idiot right now! Dig yourself a grave as deep as possible and never emerge again!” The same will happen when they’re trying to say something and you just don’t understand – usually because of pronunciation. You’re sitting there, playing the shit-what-word-could-that-be game as you panic, “Guess it, come on! You look like an idiot right now (AGAIN)!”

But the thing is, that goes away quickly; for one, you get better at coming up with ad hoc explanations, you become more flexible and simultaneously, the person you’re teaching will get better at the language. That is, your communication both with that person and with other learners of your language improves – jackpot, right? But it’s not just that; you soon realize that they’re as embarrassed as you are, and then something great happens – the embarrassment goes away and you just start having fun with it. Teaching and learning turn into a fun exchange with quiz show elements.

2. Miming and drawing are your friends.

Yes, this is it – this is the experience that playing “Activity” with your family and friends for so many hours prepared you for. You’ll find that making the class fun will make the whole thing more enjoyable and more successful for everyone involved – and before you know it you’ll be drawing a horse tied to a church steeple to illustrate a story that you’re reading together or jumping up and down and around the classroom to visualise the correct use of semicolons (totally never happened to me…*cough*…they’ll remember this forever though).

3. You have way more knowledge than you can put into words.

“What is ____?” and “What does _____ mean?” will be the most common phrases you hear (paired with “Ah, thank you!” of course), and while you may think “oh I’ll be fine, it’s my native language after all!” you will quickly realize how many words you use and understand without being able to accurately define them off the top of your head. And often, it’s not the large complicated ones, but the short, harmless-looking words, the seemingly benign fillers that turn out to change the sentence in such a nuanced way that you have real trouble pinning down the meaning of that specific word. Two words I surprisingly struggled with in German were “nämlich” in sentences like “Ich kann nicht kommen, ich habe nämlich etwas vor” (which translates to something like “I can’t come; the thing is, I’ve got other plans”, only neither “because” nor “the thing is” are accurate translations for “nämlich” and I haven’t figured out anything about this other than that it implies causality) and “doch” in sentences expressing irreal wishes, such as “Hätte ich doch eine Jacke angezogen!” – “If only I’d put on a jacket!” On a sidenote, if anyone has a good way of explaining either of those, go ahead and let me know, because I still haven’t figured it out and my students are still waiting. In relation to that:

4. Your native language is weird.

Like, hella weird. They all are. And you never notice, because you never think about it, until someone asks you those oddly specific questions. Whether it be those little words that suddenly seem impossible to define and replace with a synonym even though you know exactly what information they convey, the hellishly complex rules of German subjunctive usage, the fact that it feels like half of the letters in French are silent and the other half are pronounced as anything but that letter, or the ridiculous rules for when to use the female singular and plural in Arabic – no matter which language you speak, you’ll keep encountering all these little things that make no sense, and you’ll keep realizing how weird it is and wondering how you never questioned all these things. And that’s beautiful. You’ll think about things you never thought about before and discover things together – you’ll get to know your native language much better as you go along, and you’ll love it. Plus, it’ll occasionally be really funny. Which brings me to the next point:

5. Some mistakes are funny as fuck, and it’s okay to laugh.

In Arabic, if you mispronounce “good morning”, you’ll greet your friend with “morning of dick!” (in certain dialects). In German, if you mispronounce “night” you’re saying “naked”, and if you mispronounce “to hear” you’re saying “whores”. Language is funny, and one of the great things about teaching is explaining the mistake to your students, laughing your asses off collectively, and then fixing the mistake. Sometimes, mistakes will reoccur (the night – naked thing is quite difficult for many people because it requires a sound that is not part of many languages), but often, the whole class laughing about it will help someone to remember and not repeat that mistake. Personally, I’ll never wish anyone a “morning of dick!” again.

6. If you think you should work on your flexibility and spontaneity, this is for you.

In some ways, teaching can be like impro-theatre. Sure, you’ll make a concept and think your lesson through beforehand, but you won’t see all the questions coming and when they do, you have to react right there and then. You’ll learn to get better at impromptu explanations and answering questions spontaneously, you’ll get more flexible in that you change and adapt your explanation according to what your students need – and, perhaps most importantly, you’ll learn to let go of your strict plan. Well, perhaps not let go entirely – you will still need to plan, but you will quickly learn to accept that sometimes, things don’t work out that way, and how to change plans without letting it bother you or your students and without completely losing sight of your goals. If you’re someone who gets very upset when their routine is disturbed, or who makes very strict plans and then flips out when something interferes with them, this could really help you in terms of personal development.

7. There’s nothing greater than leaving the room knowing you made a difference.

I have a pretty stressful week…every week. I have a lot going on – usually I like it, sometimes I don’t, but the one thing I always enjoy without fail is my weekly German class. Rarely am I so consistently present in a situation for 90 minutes straight as I am during that class, and rarely do I do anything where I can observe so directly how it affects and helps people. When I leave that classroom, I do so knowing that my students now have more knowledge than they had when they came in, they’re better prepared for exams or other goals they may be pursuing, and we all had fun together. Just today, one of them gave me a thank-you hug. We as a species like instant gratification, particularly of the social kind, so tasks where you can observe the outcome directly and even get some social recognition out of it are a pretty safe bet when it comes to looking for something that’ll make you happy. If your job is stressful and quite different from that, teaching can be a great way to balance the stress.

In conclusion: should you be teaching? Absolutely! If you have even the faintest hint of curiousity about it, be sure to do some research about organizations that support refugees in your community; there are usually several of them that are always looking for teachers for language classes. It’s a great, low-threshold opportunity to try something new from which both you and the people around you will benefit!


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