Taking a Walk in the Learners’ Shoes – A Guest Post by David Dodgson

 It is my greatest pleasure to introduce the first guest blogger of Box of Chocolates  in 2011. David Dodgson is a British English teacher who lives and teaches young learners in Ankara, Turkey. I was very fortunate to get to know Dave through Twitter (his handle is @davedodgson) and the blogosphere and immediately liked his views on teaching and enjoyed sharing and interacting with him. We had a great “time working on a “joint post” for one of the Dogme Challenges, where we shared our voices in a real conversation online, discussing the topic. I follow his blog Reflections of a Teacher and Learner and always enjoy his posts, be they activities / lessons he’s done or reflections on teaching and life. He is very active in online PD with his blog, twitter, #ELTChat, presenting, etc. A great educator and person who I’m proud to call a friend. 


With you... David Dodgson! (aka @davedodgson)



One of the blogging highlights of last year for me was sharing my voice with Cecilia for a collaborative post so what better way to start the new year than with a guest post? Now, I’d like to say this is done in the spirit of sharing ideas and cross-continental collaboration but the truth is, I foolishly entered a bet with our Brazilian friend and promptly lost so here I am. :p


 Anyway, onto the post: the last ELTchat of 2010 focused on the importance and benefits for English teachers of learning another language and I’d like to expand on some of the points raised in that session here. The discussion mainly focused on two strands – how being the student of a language can assist us in seeing things from the learner’s point of view and whether or not learning and knowing their L1 can be of help.


At first glance, it would seem my experience of learning Turkish wouldn’t help me much as a teacher. Apart from a 4 week course some 10 years ago, I’ve never had any classroom instruction. I’ve also never worked with a coursebook, done any written or oral assignments or prepared for any tests. I basically learned everything I know from a total immersion situation and it was a long process. I didn’t actually learn much in the first two years as I was surrounded by other imported teachers and all the Turks I knew were students who wanted to practice English whether meeting in or out of school. It was only after I got married and settled here that I really statred to go beyond basic functional language. In a sense I was lucky that my wife’s family didn’t know much English – I was forced to develop my Turkish to communicate better with them (and free my wife from translation duty!). Now, while not fully fluent, I’m able to understand 99% of what I hear and communicate 99% of what I want to say.


So, how has this learning process helped me as a teacher in the classroom? Although I wasn’t‘formally’ taught, I believe the experience has been beneficial. I appreciate the feelings of doubt, confusion and panic that can arise when faced with lots of new language. Conversely, I also know how far you can get with just a little language (as well as lots of scaffolding and gesturing!) and this helps in encouraging my students to open up and give them the belief that they can communicate whatever thier level. There are also some personal learning strategies that I can highlight for my students. For example, upon learning (or ‘noticing’) a new word, I always look out for further examples of it in use, try to use it myself, and ask questions if I see it used in a different or unexpected way. And so, I always encourage my students to be on the look out for new words, find examples of their use and run their self-formed hypotheses by me.


While I fully agree that learning a language has generic benefits in this way, I found myself very much disagreeing with the notion that knowing your students’ L1 helps during the chat session. Before I explain why I should clear something up: I’m not saying that a teacher working and living in a foreign country doesn’t need to learn the local language. Far from it, I believe that anyone who stays in a foriegn country should make an effort to learn the language. I just find the claim that knowing their L1 makes the teaching and learning process easier debatable. After all, as I mentioned above, in the first two years I was here, I didn’t know much Turkish, certainly not at the level my students were learning English at. I never in anyway felt disadvantaged by not knowing their language.


Some people argue it’s useful to know where the L1 transfer issues come from, especially for vocabulary and pronunciation. However, I find such issues to be minor and easily highlighted. For instance, Turkish people often confuse open/switch on and close/switch off when speaking English as there is only one word for each in their own language. I’ve always found with time and repeated exposure, this kind of problem sorts itself out. Another often quoted example is “there are no perfect tenses in my students’ L1 so they find present perfect difficult”.While that may be true, it is also true that many learners of English around the world find perfect tenses difficult, even those who have an equivalent in their L1. (This discussion reminds me of natural order hypothesis, a theory which posits that language learners acquire and automise grammatical structures in more or less the same order regardless of their linguistic background).


So, when a language teacher is also a language learner, it helps in the sense that we can empathise with our students more. We can understand better their struggles, needs and feelings and give them the benefit of our experience. While knowing our learners’ L1 may offer some immediate benefits for quick translation or clarification, I don’t think it makes a huge difference. As long as you are a dedicated teacher with your students’ best interest at heart, you’ll be fine. 😉

21 comments on “Taking a Walk in the Learners’ Shoes – A Guest Post by David Dodgson

  1. seburnt says:

    Hi Dave

    I very much agree with your assessment for almost duplicate reasons and reasonings. I also recognise that knowing L1 does not really help in your teaching with regards to especially pronunciation – having taught in Korea for 6 years, my understanding of the pitfalls for them (and really any student from anywhere after that) comes from the experience of interacting with them. Having said that, I sometimes really do wish I could just go to my foreign-language brain and explain something succinctly to students that is challenging to in English.


  2. Hi Dave,

    As you already know (and we talked about this on #ELTChat and afterwards), I have slightly different views on the matter. I really do think knowing your students’ L1 is really helpful for understanding transfer issues and such. But I also concede that you (and Tyson) have a better and probably more reliable basis for issuing an opinion on the matter – after all I have only taught English to Portuguese speakers, so I don’t know much of a different reality. I still stand by my belief though – you haven’t totally convinced me – neither one of you.

    And we all seem to agree that being a language learner (whatever that language may be) is beneficial to a language teacher. And then, something comes to mind: language teachers usually have a love for languages in general, for the ability of communicating with people from other cultures. So it should be no surprise to find out most language teachers also speak more than one foreign language – would it? Or am I (again) being too positive?


  3. Adam says:

    I’m so pleased to see one of my favourite bloggers guesting on one of my other favourite blogs. Apologies here and now for not commenting more on either of your posts 😦

    I’m right with you on this one, and really wish I could put myself in the position of the learner more often than I do. I’m in the unfortunate position of having in-laws that speak great English, and it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve developed Turkish language-only friendships. This has been a good move on my part and one I’d recommend, especially to all those of us who’ve been in a country for a decent length of time and not bothered to linguistically acclimatise.

    • DaveDodgson says:

      Hi Adam,

      I’ve noticed that here a lot – the married foriegn teachers whose in-laws speak English seem to struggle with the language a bit but those whose in-laws or friends aren’t so proficient in English learn a lot faster!

  4. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Tyson,

    I guess knowing where the problem comes from isn’t what is important; it’s knowing how to deal with it that matters most. As you said, interaction with the students is key: we need to notice thier particular difficulties with the language before we can help them notice the gap. 🙂

    Hi Cecilia,

    Thanks for hosting me on your blog (and for letting me be awkward by posting something you don’t 100% agree with)! 😉

    Your comment got me thinking about the issue from another angle: Does being a language teacher make it easier for us to learn a new language? Do love of teaching and love of learning overlap or are they different? Can a poor learner be a good teacher?

    It reminds me of a joke I heard a lot from friends & family when I started teaching:

    “Those who can, do…
    …and those who can’t, teach!
    …And those who can’t teach, teach sports!” 🙂

    • Hi Dave 🙂

      Hey, I actually liked that you posted something I didn’t agree with 100% because it stimulates discussion and sharing. And it would never be mentioned in my blog otherwise. I always think it’s good to see different sides of things either to change your mind or to make you even more certain of your own position (while understanding and respecting others’ of course!). So, you’re always welcome (quite literally) and I mean it!

      As for the questions you asked…. well, I think being a language teacher does make it easier to learn another language – and maybe a little more difficult at the same time. Easier because we just understand how languages work (of course there are huge differences in structure between some), it may help you make some connections and analogies more easily. More difficult because we have a tendency… ok, ok, I have a tendency so I suppose there could be more like me around to be more picky as far as teachers/teaching goes and because we may be a bit too hard on ourselves. I don’t know… I have to sleep on it. Maybe you’ve just given me food for thought (and ingredients to a whole blog post on it).

      I don’t think a poor learner can be a good teacher but I think those who love teaching love learning. At least among those I know that is true.

      Ah! And I hope no PE teacher reads your joke 😉 LOL.

  5. Leahn says:

    Hi Dave and Cecilia,

    Thanks for the read. An interesting topic. I’ve taught in the UK with multi-lingual groups and in Spain and Thailand. When I lived in Thailand I didn’t really think I was disadvantaged teaching with no knowledge of Thai. Perhaps the question should be Did my students feel disadvantaged?

    I think that they probably did. I remember a little girl saying repeatedly Mai Ow, Mai Ow and I just pushed her along as I had no idea what she was saying. it turned out that she was telling me that she didn’t want to participate.

    I remember thinking at that point in my teaching career, that it was fine not speaking the L1 but now I’d say that it is a definite advantage. I’m with Cecilia on this one!

    It’s not just a crutch to fall back on but a wonderful tool to use in class.


    Just some thoughts


    • Yay!! One on my side!!! 🙂

    • DaveDodgson says:

      Hi Leahn,

      Sure, it can be a useful tool in class, especially for reassuring students, getting to know them and scaffolding them. I’m just saying I don’t think it makes a huge difference in terms of anticipating specific errors/learning errors. Most of those ‘specific’ issues are often more generic than we realise. 🙂

  6. Ceri Jones says:

    Hi Dave, Cecilia, Tyson, Adam, Leahn! A fascinating discussion 🙂
    I have to side with Cecilia and Leahn, I think there are a lot of pluses that come from knowing your students’ L1. This doesn’t mean you’re not a good teacher if you don’t. You can encourage contrastive analysis without knowing your students’ other languages. If you’re working in a multilingual context it’s obviously a bit of a tall order to expect a teacher to know all the languages represented in the class! The same goes if you’re new to a country or language.
    I’m intrigued by Tyson’s point about pronunciation. OK, so if we work with the same monolingual groups for a long time we do get “acclimatised” to their voices and maybe sometimes we understand pronunciation that wouldn’t always be universally intelligible, but I think knowing something about how sounds work in the learners’ languages can help too – can in fact be invaluable. I wish I’d known more about the sound systems of Japanese and Korean when I was working in the UK. Knowing how sound systems works can help so much with short cuts.
    A lot of learners trip up on sounds that they say “don’t exist” in their own language, but this is often not true. Working with Italians who have problems with consonant clusters and schwa I’ve been able to point out that these sounds do exist – not in mainstream, RP Italian, but it dialect – Sicilian has great examples of both. Students can imitate the sounds if they imitate a Sicilian accent, and can then transfer it to English. The same works for where I live in Spain at the moment. Spanish speakers have problems with “sh” and “z” sounds, they claim they don’t exist in Spanish, but the local dialect is full of them.
    Similar insights into the language can help students hone their contrastive analysis skills, and as I think it was Jeremy Harmer who said in the translation chat, as the students are translating, let’s use it, and if you’re working in a monolingual situation, then knowing the students’ L1 is certainly going to help.
    Sorry, this comment is getting far too long! One last comment for you, Dave. I’ve heard a different version of the joke that finishes, … “and those who can’t teach, train teachers” (!!)
    Thanks to both of you for a thought provoking post, looking forward to loads more 🙂

    • DaveDodgson says:

      Hi Ceri,

      One thing I’ve come across in my MA studies with regard to the ‘this does/doesn’t exist in my L1’ arguement is that even when some language rules or certain sounds do exist in the L1, the students still struggle with them! That’s why I feel knowing the students’ language doesn’t necessarily make it easier to avoid certain difficulties.

      Lİke your alternative joke ending – a bit more edgy than mine as teacher trainers are more likely to be reading this than PE teachers 😉

  7. I personally think that knowing your students’ L1 can be beneficial, both to the students and the teacher. For the teacher it can simply help maximise time in the classroom – I know which problems are likely to occur beforehand and can take them into account while planning. I am also a defensor of sometimes using the students’ L1 in the classroom, especially to clarify misunderstandings.

    As for the students – from my personal experience in Spain, low level adults and young learners simply panic when they realise that their teacher is only ever going to use English and doesn’t understand their language. Spanish learners’ experience of language learning is by an almost Grammar-Translation method and they constantly feel the need to translate everything into Spanish. It is extremely difficult to convince them that this is not the best way to learn a language. I know of many students who have left a course because the teacher only allowed English in the classroom. For young children it can also be a terrifying experience to be in a room with a stranger who does not respond to anything they say because the teacher doesn’t understand their language. As in Leahn’s case, how would you know if a child needed to go to the toilet or felt ill?

    While I try to use L1 as little as possible in the classroom, according to the age and level of my learners, I believe that being able to understand it is fairly important.

    So, sorry Dave, I have to disagree with you on this one!

    • DaveDodgson says:

      Hi Michelle,

      What kind of anticipated problems do you factor into your lesson plans? I’m just interested to see if my Turkish students have the same issues or not. 😉

      While L1 has some uses, it can cause some problems too. For example, there is no distinction between possessive have and there is/are in Turkish (var), so “I have a TV in my bedroom” and “there is a TV in my bedroom” translate to exactly the same sentence (“benim odamda televizyon var”). I’ve seen teachers get in a right mess as they introduce ‘I have…’ and tell the students it means ‘var’ and then a few weeks later, they introduce ‘there is..’ and tell the students it means …. ‘var’! And so, they think ‘there is’ is another way to talk about personal possessions.

      Another problem arises with native speaker teachers and the students’ L1. I witnessed a teacher from the UK talking Turkish to a student in the corridor recently. I believe he wanted to say “You are talking a lot in the lesson but you are not listening to me. I don’t like it, ok?” What he actually said was “Talk a lot in class but don’t listen to me. Don’t like me, ok?”! Obviously, this added to his classroom management issues rather than solving them!

      • Hi Dave/Michelle,

        Brazilian students have the same problem with possessive / existing “have” Dave… I can’t begin to explain the frustration when you come across a faily fluent student that turns to you and says he “has 15 years”. 😛 But I agree that this kind of problem can also be predicted by experienced teachers. So that knowing the students’ L1 is helpful we all agree, but maybe it’s even more helpful to novice teachers?

        🙂 (BTW Dave, I hate to be the one to point it out, but I believe most people are siding with me on this :-))

      • DaveDodgson says:

        I wasn’t aware we were supposed to be setting up camp to win supporters. 😉

        Besides, most of those on ‘your side’ seem to be pushing the discussion towards the teacher using L1 as a tool in class. My post was about whether or not knowing L1 is helpful for anticipating problems the students may have. I still stand by my belief that any transference issues are not as localised as we may think and you don’t need to know the language to know the likely difficulties they will have.

      • 😛

        I see the point you’re making Dave. I agree (especially after I got to know you and other members of the PLN and talk about this) that transference issues are not AS localized as I used to think. But I also still stand by my belief knowing the SS’ L1 does give you an advantage in anticipating, because they may not be as localized as I used to think but there are some difficulties that ARE specific…. But the best thing about all of this is that we get to talk, discuss, say what we want, reflect upon what others say and still maintain our positioning.

  8. Hi!
    fascinating post!
    I don’t see a “trackback” option on your blog so maybe you don’t know that I linked to this post (and recommended this awesome blog) and wrote my own story about it here


  9. […] Candy thoroughly enjoyed her homeland sojourn, and has returned with a timely post on English in South Africa that neatly adds to the wonderful posts on translation in the classroom by Ceri and David. […]

  10. Hi Dave, as someone who hires teachers I always thought one of the best indicators of whether or not someone will be a good language teacher is if they have learned a 2nd language successfully themselves. I’ve heard this idea echoed by other managers as well. The empahty and understanding you mention are the keys here I think.

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