marek kiczkowiak, aussie english, esl teaching, tefl equity advocates, pete smissen

AE 682 – Interview: Are Non-Native ESL Teachers Better? with Marek Kiczkowiak

Learn English in this interview episode where I chat with Marek Kiczkowiak about teaching English & whether native or non-native ESL teachers are better.

Transcript of AE 682 – Interview: Are Non-Native ESL Teachers Better? with Marek Kiczkowiak

G'day you mob. Welcome to this episode of Aussie English. The number one place for anyone and everyone wanting to learn Australian English, culture, history, news and current affairs. All that jazz, all that kind of stuff. So today I have a brilliant episode for you, although it runs on the long side of interview episodes. Today I am interviewing special guest Marek Kiczkowiak. So Marek is from Poland, he speaks six languages, he is one of the most qualified English teachers that I have ever spoken to on the podcast with a CELTA, a B.A. in English Philology and a PHD In TESOL from the University of York. He currently works for National Geographic Learning as well as Université Libre de Bruxelles developing an online academic English course.

So today we have the pleasure of talking about TEFL Equity Advocates and Academy which he has set up in order to support non-native teachers of English, develop their skills and get those jobs as English teachers. And on top of that, more broadly, we talk about learning languages. We talk about polyglots. We talk about whether or not you should focus on things like grammar and pronunciation. We get into a lot of these different areas. So hang on to your hats, guys. You know, brace yourselves. It's a good episode. It's a bit of a long one, but I hope you enjoy it. Anyway, let's get into it, guys. I give you Marek Kiczkowiak.

All right. I'm going to see if I can nail this, I'm horrible with Polish surnames, although I should be good as there are quite a lot of Polish immigrants in Australia. But Marek Kiczkowiak, Kiczkowiak. Or have I just...


All right. Sorry. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today, mate. I really appreciate it. Can you tell us about who you are and what you do?

Sure, thanks for inviting me, Pete. I really appreciate it as well.

So, yeah, I'm Marek and I currently live in Belgium, but I'm originally from Poland, from a small town in the north of Poland and I currently work in Université Libre de Bruxelles. I develop courses for teaching academic English for them and I also work for National Geographic Learning, where I'm writing a closed book for learning English. And I also have my own sort of freelance venture TEFL Equity Advocates and Academy, which started out as a blog really and now it's grew into a website. I run courses for English teachers and basically the aim is to help English teachers promote equality in our profession and to teach English for global communication.

So how did you get to where you are today in terms of obviously living in Belgium? Originally from Poland, speaking fluent English, I think I saw in your bio you speak probably six languages. Is it? How did you get to here, today?

I think, you know, as a lot of people just step by step, I don't think there was anything kind of magical to it. I mean, I as all Polish people, I started learning English in school. And I had private classes, I mean, at that time. I'm not that old, but I was born just before the communism fell. So when I went to school, a lot of teachers, you know, that the level of English was unfortunately still low because for 50 years, no English had been taught in Poland.

But to be fair, their Russian was probably pretty good.

I mean, all the Russian teachers were kind of made into English teachers.

So I also had private classes in language schools and stuff like this. And yeah, at some point I got to like studying English and other languages. And I went to do what we call English philology in Poland, which is linguistics, English language, cultural, literature, but also teaching English pedagogy. So I did a B.A. in it, then I did a CELTA, which is the Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults. I did that and then I decided to see the world and teach English abroad.

So was it that you wanted to teach English first and foremost, or was it that you wanted to see the world first and foremost?

I started teaching English in university part time as a student, and I already discovered I liked it. But there was definitely this thing that I really wanted to travel and go somewhere, somewhere far away and see the world. So I think these, I can't say which one was stronger, but definitely there's drive to kind of see the world pushed me to leave Poland because I could have stayed teaching English in Poland.

But I chose not to, then I taught English in several different countries. I was in Costa Rica, in Spain, in Hungary, in the UK and now I'm here in Belgium. So and along the way, I also did the DELTA, which is the Diploma in English Language Teaching, and then most recently a PHD in teaching as well. So it's been sort of like, a step by step journey. I think if you had asked me when I finished university, if you had asked me then, well, are you going to do a PHD and work in a university in Belgium? I would have said, "you must be crazy".

It wasn't something I wanted at that time of my life, when I was 20, I wanted other things and then sort of along the way, as you grow up, you kind of, your vision of life or your profession changes and you want other things as well. So I think that's how it's changed and yeah, and I also, along the way, I kind of I developed also a desire to learn other languages. So, I had English and German in school and I started learning Spanish as well. And it kind of became part of my passion really in my free time learning other languages.

This is something I wanted to ask you about. I was going to ask you later on, but we've just gotten into it. What was the process like when you learned English compared to learning some of these other languages? Because I kind of, to frame it, that I kind of have this chip on my shoulder about so-called polyglots because a lot of them tend to be English native speakers. And I feel like they don't appreciate the difference between learning a foreign language when it's kind of like fun, it's a hobby. You can use it to travel versus, say, someone like yourself learning English where this is no joke.

It's going to really help my career. I'm potentially living in foreign countries like Britain, like Australia. So I feel like they're not necessarily the same thing. And I feel that when I'm trying to learn French or Portuguese, I mean, a lot of people who are French or Portuguese learning English, and I sort of see us as different animals. Did you see learning English as very sort of different from, say, learning Portuguese or French when you were doing it?

I think it was very different because of how I was learning it. So, I mean, I started learning English in public schools when I was seven in the first grade and, it was never fun at any point. And, I was going to language schools as a teenager and was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do in my free time, be in a classroom and learn English. I wanted to do other things, hanging out with my mates and things like that. And learning German as well in high school, it was never fun at any point. It was just having to learn it.

Also, I think, there was a lot of, it was very traditional, it was a lot of grammar, grammar, grammar you know, rather than communication. So I think these were the main differences when I was learning English, I had no idea or no feeling that it would ever be good for me to learn English, because also at that time, the internet was slowly kind of moving in. But a few of my friends had internet.

We didn't really watch YouTube or Netflix didn't exist and stuff like that. So you were basically surrounded by Polish and there were no other languages around and you didn't see any need that all of a sudden you might need English in the future. That kind of, I think now perhaps for the generation that's now in school, it's completely different because they're surrounded by English, whether they like it or not. And all jobs require English. Right? So I think maybe it's slightly different now.

But that's something I've noticed where the most advanced English learners that I tend to meet aren't necessarily the most motivated. And like, oh, I just love English and I love reading in English, I love Netflix. It's more I'm disciplined as hell and that's what's gotten me to my level. Whereas I find a lot of, even with me learning Portuguese because I can kind of take it or leave it. It's not my life isn't on the line, I treat it differently. What do you think the roles are in terms of motivation versus discipline in learning a language like English?

Well, I think to reach a high proficiency level in any language, you need to be disciplined and motivated and conscientious unless you do it as a child. Right? But other than that, I mean, it's not that polyglots mights kind of, it might seem for the outsider that it's all fun and games for them, they basically and that's what I do, I'm speaking from experience as well. You find fun and enjoyable ways of learning the language, but you need to do it every day. You can't just make it fun, but not be conscientious about it because then it's going to take five times as long. Right?

So it's just I think that it wasn't fun for me to learn German in school because it was all grammar, grammar, grammar. I was reading text from the textbook I didn't want to read. I was listening to fake recordings of fake German speakers and stuff like this. Whereas when I'm learning Dutch now, I make it fun for myself. I go and watch a football game with my friends and drink a beer. I use apps for learning English because I like it. I will watch YouTube shows that I like. I don't choose stuff that I don't like. So it's still hard work, I think, but it doesn't feel like it because you're doing stuff that you like in that language.

So what was your process like going through I guess with English? The different teachers and the different ways in which it was taught, you said you started from a sort of grammar focus, traditional basis. Did your English suddenly take off when the teaching style changed?

I think throughout it was I mean, there were some teachers where it was more communicative, probably in language schools, it was more communicative than in the state schools. Also because in state schools then, the teachers are obliged to do tests and exams and things like that. You have more students in the classroom and things like that. But I think my English really, really took off when, kind of when I was in my late teens and I started being interested in, I thought, oh, maybe I would study English and it started to become a little bit more fun I suppose, it was more of an intrinsic motivation, but I think that the teaching style differed depending on the teacher a little bit as well.

Yeah, I guess I wanted to attach that to TEFL Equity Advocates and Academy and how you guys are obviously supporting foreign speakers of English as being, you know, good quality teachers, if not better than many native speakers of English who end up teaching English. But I wanted to know, yeah, are there certain ways of teaching that are much more efficient too, obviously?

Mm hmm. Yeah, I mean, I think it all comes down to your proficiency level, your skills as a teacher, your experience, right? Your qualifications. I think these are the base and your personality as well in the classroom. But these are the basic things that make a good or a bad teacher.

Obviously, if you have a teacher whose proficiency level is lower than your own as a learner, that's a problem, right? Or equally, you could have a teacher who is incredibly proficient but doesn't know how to teach, right? There is all sorts of different variables.

I consider myself that at times for a long time when I was beginning. I'm like, yeah, I teach English. But then I was sort of coming to that realisation of, no, I create content that people use to teach themselves English. I don't feel comfortable calling myself an English teacher because a lot of the time they know more about the grammar than I do even as a native speaker because I've never had to learn it.

Yeah, I mean it's the same for me in Polish, or even in Spanish. Like I've forgotten a lot of the grammar that I learned and in Polish, I mean we did study grammar in high school and things like that. But I never think about it. So I also find it interesting that, for example, in English when students ask me, so, "Teacher, how else can I use this word? Can you give me some examples?" I come up with examples like this just because I've been asked this question a million times, whereas in Polish for my girlfriend is learning Polish at the moment and sometimes she asked me, well, "how else can I use this word?" or "what are the co-locations?"

And I'm like, "I'm not sure.. Let me think about it?" It's just because nobody has ever asked me this question. So I find it interesting as well that it's perhaps not you know, it's not only a proficiency in the language, but it's also your language awareness.

It's a skill that you've developed, right?

I think so. You develop it through your, I suppose, degree. If you do a masters in teaching English or something like this, you will develop a lot of language awareness through also studying and analysing the language and then also being in the classroom. Your experience contributes to it because, your students keep on asking you the same questions and after say ten years of teaching English, you've had most questions that students come up with, and then you've got these answers, you've got all the examples and things like that. So that makes a huge difference as well.

So why are English learners and English schools and even content creators like myself obsessed with talking about the native English speaker or the native English teacher?

I think because on the face of it, it makes a lot of intuitive sense, if you see what I mean.

I mean, you know, if you ask anyone, who would you like to learn Chinese from? A Chinese teacher or a Polish teacher? That everybody will say a Chinese teacher, right? There is something that intuitively makes sense about it. You know, we all seem to think that a native speaker of a language is the ultimate goal and speaks the language flawlessly, has the intuitive feel for the language and so on. Right? We could go on for a long time that there are all these, there is this halo effect. I think about native speakers.

But then when we start looking more deeply into it and I'm sure we're going to go into that. It starts making much, much less sense. But I think on the face of it, it doesn't make a lot of sense. And that's why it's just an easier to market product. I would say and also in some countries like Poland in the early 90s or still Italy, Spain, France, unfortunately, there are a lot of local teachers whose proficiency level is rather low. Or what happens is in Poland, for example, the teaching profession is so badly paid that a lot of people who learn really good English in university, who maybe even study to become English teachers, they decide to go into business because they can earn five times as much.

So what happens, especially in smaller cities or in worse schools, is that you get people who can speak a little bit of English and they become English teachers. Right? That obviously creates I think when students have these teachers for years, they kind of think all non-native speakers are like that. They can't teach me anything.

So it becomes like a stereotype?

Yeah, I think so. I think so. And before going live, we talked about stereotypes about other people, we all have stereotypes. Whether we like it or not, pick any country, that you want and you will have stereotypes about good and bad stereotypes.

It sucks so hard because evolutionarily it makes sense to have those stereotypes because I think it's that false negative versus a positive negative. Right? Where if you hear a tiger in the woods, it's much better to assume it's a tiger and it not be. Then for you to assume it's not a tiger and for it to be a tiger, right? That's why we have all of those assumptions. I see a black person and I have certain assumptions. I see an Asian person at certain assumptions. But yeah, it sucks that it's very hard for us to get past. But obviously that's a big part of with teaching English and not just assuming that non-natives are not good teachers.

Yeah and I think also what's fuelling this demand I think it's also the way the schools advertise themselves that obviously, further fuels the demand. It's kind of a chicken and egg question, what came first? The demand from clients or advertising? But I think once they start, it just creates a vicious circle in a way, because if you have a language school and for the last 10 years, your unique selling point has been we have native speakers, you can't all of a sudden change this because obviously students, your clients will be disappointed. I mean, I often give the analogy of, imagine going into an Apple store and you want an Apple phone. You've wanted an Apple phone for the last five years. And they tell you in the store that sorry we don't do Apple phones anymore we only have Huawei.

Is this a joke? It's not that Huawei is a worse phone, it's a fantastic phone. But it's not what you've been promised. Right?

It would be like going to a Bruce Willis film and it's a romantic film instead of an action packed thriller.

Yeah, exactly.

Like what is this?

So I've spoken to quite a few directors and they're kind of, they're honest about it as well, that they're saying that, "I think we've created a rod for our own back". Well, we've fuelled this demand and now we're trying to change things and give all teachers equal opportunities. But it's really hard because now all our students want native speakers. But it's because we've been using this as a unique selling point for the last 20 years.

That is screwed up, right? It's almost like a medicine that doesn't work. And you're like "guys stop buying it, stop buying it". We sell it because they buy it and they buy it because we keep selling it. You know?

So what is currently being done? What are you guys doing at TEFL Equity Advocates and Academy to try and break this vicious cycle?

Well, I tried to raise awareness as much as possible. And, for example, through weekly blog posts, podcasts like this one, going to conferences and meeting school directors and talking to them, helping them. A lot of them do want to change their recruitment policies, it's just that they are not sure how to do it.

So they are aware of it.

Yeah. I think in the last five years or six since I started the website and the movement, if you want to call it a movement, a lot has changed, especially in terms of awareness. A lot of people in our profession are really aware that this is a problem and we need to do something about it. But, now how do we go about doing something? But in some countries, like Spain, for example, a lot is changing now. So there are more and more schools who recognise that, hiring someone just because they are a native speaker and they have a four week crash course in teaching English.

It doesn't make any sense. It's not going to help the students improve their English. You need to hire somebody who is highly qualified, experienced and proficient. And also a lot of school directors start realising that they've been basically limiting their recruitment to a small percentage of all English teachers that are available, for example, in the EU, because probably 80, 90 percent of all the teachers probably around the world are non-native speakers.

And obviously, they're missing out on probably the most important metric there, which is quality of teaching as opposed to which home country do they have or what's their accent or where did they grow up?

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, if your main hiring criteria is the teachers first language, then surely you're missing out on some incredibly highly qualified, experienced teachers who will make your school much, much better.

So what is it that makes a good teacher, whether non-native or native? What sort of attributes should people listening to this podcast who are currently getting lessons or going to classes, what should be the things that they try and look out for in their teacher, whether native or not?

So, for me as a polyglot, I wouldn't say number one, number two, number three, but one of the most important things is that the teacher has learned another language.

Why is that not focussed on? Sorry to interrupt you there, but that really grinds my gears. The other day, I was watching a video from a pretty popular language, English teaching person on YouTube and they were saying, "I'm an expert in teaching languages, I'm an expert in English learning, except I've never learned a foreign language". And I was just like, you know how it's like I've you know, I'm an expert in running marathons, I've just never run one. It blows my mind that more English teachers aren't pushed to do that or push themselves like, that's a big part.

That's a big motivation for me to learn foreign languages like French and Portuguese, because I want to have experienced what my students have experienced through learning English and understand the pain, at least even if they're at a much higher level. Right? So why don't we hold a lot of English teachers to that sort of account? That level of skill and skill set?

Absolutely. For me, it should be one of the basic criteria, really, that you've learned, and I don't mean that you have to become completely proficient. But, at least you have to become fairly fluent in a language. I mean, it's a good analogy with my return. Imagine going to the gym and you get a new trainer and the trainer is showing you how to do push-ups and stuff like this, but they have never done a push up.

"I only use the other machine where I do them like this, I don't actually do push ups, but this is how you would do them."

Yeah, exactly. "I read this book the other day, you know, and that's you know, I can show you the drawing. That's how you're supposed to do the push-up."

"But how come you don't do it?"

"Ain't nobody got time for that!"

Yeah. I think look out for teachers who have learned a foreign language who are actively trying to learn foreign languages. I think that's really, really important because as you said, it gives the teacher the kind of an insider's perspective into what it's like to learn a language.

I had answers to questions all the time when people started asking me, how do I learn the present? Perfect. It wasn't go and look up the stuff online or go to a book.

I could actually give them meaningful information about how I learnt the equivalent tense in Portuguese or in French. What exercises I would do, how I would try and, you know, research it or learn it or apply it. And that tended to be a lot more fruitful than just pointing them in the direction of "go watch this 10 minute video and you'll be sweet".

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I'd say that the second important thing is obviously qualifications. I wouldn't want to learn a language all or train in a gym from someone who maybe is very, very fit. But they don't have any education in physical education. I haven't done a degree in it or they haven't done a good training course, because it can be dangerous. There's a lot of myths about training in the gym and a lot of exercises that turn out to be dangerous. So I think, you want a gym trainer who's fit, who's exercising themselves, but who's also got some education in sports. I think that's really important.

It's the same here. I think you want a teacher who has some training or some education in teaching English and courses like CELTA and Trinity Certs. There's nothing wrong with them but you also have to know that a lot of teachers do a four week course and after a four week course they are qualified teachers? Think about going to a lawyer who's just done a four week course and qualified.

I don't know of any other profession where the entry level is so low. I'm not saying don't learn from teachers. I'm not saying that. But I think it's something to consider. That a lot of teachers only do a four week course and that's it.

I guess the hard part is that they are fluent in the language. Right? Like without trying to break the analogy of the lawyer, it'd be like they were really good in the court but they just went into autopilot whenever they went into court. There was no studying beforehand or helping work out your case. It would just be let's show up and we'll get it done. Fingers crossed.

Yeah. It's, four weeks is barely enough. It's a crash course really. The third thing could be experience as well. That would be another thing that I'd say is important. Obviously, teachers who have more experience, they might be better teachers as well.

That's not to discourage you from studying with someone who is just starting out, they might be a great teacher, they might be very passionate and you together might work really well. But experience would obviously be another factor that you want to consider. And then the teachers qualifications, experience, skills. That was another thing I wanted to say, skills. So, proficiency level in English if you're high level, you want a teacher who is very high level in English.

I mean, if your English is, if you're just a complete beginner, you don't need somebody who's completely proficient. You could very well study from someone who's intermediate. Another thing I think that's really important and you shouldn't overlook is your specific needs. So what do you need English for? Say, you've just moved to Australia and maybe you're going to act for a company where you're going to give a lot of sales presentations. Well, you don't want just any English teacher, I think you want someone who has experience teaching people how to give sales presentations.

They don't necessarily have to have experience in business, previous experience in business, they should be a qualified English teacher, but at the same time, they should have experience teaching other English learners how to achieve the things that you want to achieve. If you want to pass an exam, look for a teacher who's got a good track record preparing students for that exam. I think that's much more important than what a teacher comes from.

I know that you're an IELTS and PET examiner, or at least you were in the past.

I was.

What do you think of certain English teachers who say "don't study for the exams, just study English"? Because I hear both sides quite often and my advice to people generally to put myself on the line is study to pass the exam, don't study to try and just broadly improve your English because it's less effective way of passing what's on. You can have horrible English and still smash the exam, whereas you can have amazing English and do horribly on the exam, which is why natives quite often get six point five on the IELTS right?

I mean I guess it depends what's your goal, right? If your goal is to pass the exam because you need it for VISA reasons, then you need to study for the exam. There's no way around it because if you have your English can be fantastic, but you will still get a lower grade because you don't know anything about the exam. If your goal is to improve your overall level of English, I probably wouldn't choose to study for the exam. I would do other things personally, it doesn't motivate me. Having said that, I did the proficiency exam, the C2 exam both in English and in Spanish and it definitely allowed me to push my language level to yet another dimension.

How do they differ from IELTS and PET for example, those C2 exams?

The much more general English. In English is the certificate of proficiency in English. It's also done by Cambridge. It's on a certain level, it's on C2 level, whereas IELTS is all levels, you can get A1, you have the complete beginner or complete proficiency, it depends. IELTS is much more academic, whereas the certificate of proficiency in English is much more general English.

I mean I say general, but the things that you learn, your average native speaker on the street will have no clue what that is. They might have seen that word once in the life in a novel by Charles Dickens. But that's the sort of language that you learn, I remember when I was in Costa Rica at the time and I was preparing for the Spanish proficiency exam and I would just kind of ask people, ask my friends from Costa Rica if they knew what that word or phrase meant and most of the time, they would just say, "no, that doesn't exist". I was like "Yeah it does exist. I just learnt it yesterday for this exam".

"You're learning useless stuff. Nobody knows that word."

I saw you holding a book in your image on Facebook that was by Christopher Hitchens how have you gone with his English? That is a freaking nightmare for anyone, I am PHD educated and I would highlight probably two or three words a page in Christopher Hitchens books.

Yeah. It's a different level of, a different English that you're learning, I suppose that you're not going to need for your daily life. I think that's another point again, if you want to learn the language effectively to identify what your goals are, do you need to give business presentations or do you want to interact with, you're already in Australia, and you want to interact with your Australian friends on an informal level? What do you want to do? Because you can't learn their language. It doesn't exist, it's impossible to learn everything.

Even for me right? So what would your advice be? You imagine you've got a twin that's coming to Australia tomorrow and doesn't speak a lick of English. Speaks barely anything. What would be the sort of trajectory or plan of attack that you would put them on to get to your current level or even my level in Australian English? What would be the sort of plan?

Yeah, I think, what I normally do when I start with with a new languages is, for example, to start with the most kind of common icebreaker questions, things that I would want to ask out of people like "where are you from?", "What do you do?", "What are your hobbies and stuff like this?" I'll write these down and then start a language exchange immediately as well. As soon as you can. At that point, if you don't speak any English or any of the target language, you need someone as well who can speak one of the languages that you speak so you can translate and stuff like this.

Would you recommend finding a non-native speaker of English who is also learning English or perhaps at a higher level to practise with?

Absolutely. Why not?

I think that would be, if you can find someone who is from the same community as you are, say you're from Poland. Find another Polish person who's been living in Australia for a very long time and they speak Australian English very well because they will also be able to explain to you what it was like for them, support you and so on. Someone who hasn't gone through that process won't be able to do that. So that could be very important, especially at the beginning. But you could find an Australian person who speaks one of the languages that you do, to help you translate at the beginning.

So I think tip number one would be to write down the kind of the most useful questions that you want to ask people, start a language exchange immediately and find things that you enjoy doing and try doing them in your target language. So in English. So say you like watching cooking shows, right? Go and do that in English, even if you don't understand much. Start with it. Put on subtitles and watch that in English as much as possible. Another thing to do that a lot of polyglots I think do is for example, if you like books, but it also works with films and series. Pick something that you've seen or read many, many times.

Yeah that's why Harry Potter is so, so popular with polyglots, right?

Yeah, absolutely. Because then you will know the characters, you know the story, you know what's happening. You probably even remember what people say in each scene.

That was the key to me. What have I got here? L'Ordre du Phénix.

And I remember reading these all these Harry Potter books in French when I was going hard on French and just being like, "oh man, this is so easy". You don't realise how many these words are new because you remember what's going on, the context and everything and you're just like, "oh, yeah, that's right". So it is a great way of picking up and sort of zooming through these things and doing that reputation, right?

Yeah, absolutely. And and yeah. You know, try to try to find a routine as well, like how you can insert the new language into your daily life. So for example, you could I don't know, say you commute every day for half an hour. You say that every day in the morning you're going to listen to a podcast or read your Harry Potter book or watch a YouTube video. Do 10 minutes of Memorise or Quizlet or something like this to learn. New vocabulary, whatever that is but, try and make it fun as well.

What would you say, though, to those people who are saying, "I'm doing all this stuff and I'm not getting anywhere, what do I need to do?". Because you were saying before doing the C2 exams in English and Spanish, you weren't at the level that obviously after having studied for those exams you got to. A lot of the English speakers and my students who listen to the podcast give me those sorts of questions. "I've been here for five years and my English still sucks", "I'm listening to your podcast. It still sucks".

What is the way for them to get out of that intermediate plateau where I assume they are to get to an advanced level? Do they need to do something like just do one of these exams even if it's useless and they don't need it for anything to just push them to take that final leap?

I think it's difficult to generalise because we kind of have to go case by case. I mean, how often do you use English in your daily life? Because you might be living in Australia, but maybe you're surrounded by other Polish speakers, and you don't use it that much in your daily life. I think that there is a level where you kind of need to try and push yourself. So what you need to try and do is, if you're if you're that kind of intermediate, upper-intermediate level, you can probably say everything that you want to say, but you need to push yourself. So you need to try and write down some new expressions and use them, for example. Be it in speaking or when writing an email or whatever. Try to imitate other people, so imitate the people that if you want to speak like them, use the same expressions, and actively try to push yourself because there is a certain level where you kind of feel like, well, I'm not making any progress.

And also, I think when we were talking about polyglots before, it does feel for other people when they look at polyglots, they think, "well, these people are just incredibly talented" or it just happens magically. Because you look at somebody like Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal, you think like, wow, "I can never be like them. That's just impossible".

Would it be someone who's a decathlete or something? Right. It's not just someone like Roger Federer, who's an amazing tennis player, someone who could do 10 different sports for very high level.

Absolutely. Yes. But I think the point I wanted to make is that it doesn't happen overnight and it doesn't happen without kind of studying in the sense that maybe you sit down every day and you do half an hour of memorise to learn 20 new words or something like this. I mean, unless you have some incredible memory, you're not going to pick it up just just magically.

This is sort of like what you were saying about the non-native and native speakers. Do you think that English learners and language learners have been sold to many of these, "be fluent in three month" courses or just listen to a podcast to get fluent and so they think the process is actually a lot easier than it really is and don't appreciate how much they do have to just get down, study and grind to get those upper echelons.

Yeah, perhaps. Perhaps there is that as well that, I think the reason why a lot of those courses are sold as like, it's going to be easy and fun because a lot of people have learned the language in a very painful way. So, I think it can still be fun. But you have to do stuff in the language. I mean, unless you completely immerse yourself. So that means basically 24/7, you watch films, you read books and you speak as well in that language and you write, you're not going to see that much improvement because, again, let's say you come back to my example of Spanish, over the last.. when did I do the proficiency exam? It was in 2011. So it's been almost 10 years. I don't think my Spanish has got any better. I would say that now if I had to do that exam, I might fail. And it's because I'm not actively doing anything.

It would be exactly the same for Roger Federer not training tennis or even just having a hit on the weekend, but not doing deliberate practice to try and maintain such an athletic level of that thing. He's going to drop off straightaway too. He probably doesn't train for two weeks, he's probably going to be in trouble, right?

Yeah, absolutely and perhaps, you hit the nail on the head that with deliberate practice, it's not that Roger Federer just plays tennis.

He would just go out on weekends, and that's how I got to where I am.

Yeah maybe he needs to improve the spin on his forehand or something like this. And he will do a thousand hits of that, and learning language is different from learning a skill. But it's a skill.

What is a skill though, right? There are a lot of parallels.

Yeah, I think there are and so say you want to be better able to have very fluent, informal, colloquial conversation with your Australian friends. Well that's your target practice. Listen to those conversations. Write down some target vocabulary that you're going to use and use them. Don't be afraid to make a fool out of yourself. Maybe Australian people will laugh with you because you'll use it wrongly or you said it wrongly. But then you will remember and try again and try again and that should be your focus. If you just kind of listen to podcasts or read books, that's not going to improve your informal colloquial conversation abilities. Right?

You may be able to understand a lot more, but you're doing a lot of passive practice. You're not implementing it. It's like watching tennis instead of actually playing it. Right. Like, yeah, I can see all these moves. Yeah, but you can't hit them back. So some rapid fire ones. These are some clichés that get thrown out all over the internet. Native/non-native English, teacher wise. Embrace your mistakes. Should you be doing that?

What do you mean by embracing a mistake?

Quite often a lot of people will say you need to learn to love your mistakes. That's what's going to help you improve your English. Do you think that that's a good message to be sending? Does it make sense? Is there something deeper in there that people aren't really articulating very well?

I think it broadly again depends on your current attitude to mistakes, and how many mistakes you make. Because if your attitude is I don't care about mistakes and you make a lot of mistakes, to such a degree where it impedes communication, then you clearly need to pay more attention to them. On the other spectrum, you obviously have people who pay so much attention to being correct that they're afraid to speak because they're afraid of making mistakes.

That's paralysis from analysis, right?

Yeah, exactly. So I think you want to be somewhere in the middle when it's important, pay attention to your mistakes. Try to write them down. Don't beat yourself down that you've made a mistake. We've all made terrible, terrible mistakes foreign language.

I think that comes back to the deliberate learning point that you're making before where the mistakes.

You don't need to love them or hate them, but you need to use them as a chance to learn and improve and then focus on deliberate learning where say, for instance, with my wife, we speak only Portuguese at home. And every time, well at least most of the time, when I don't know how to say something, instead of just saying the English word in a Portuguese sentence and inserting it or trying to scribe it or ask her, how can I say this? I won't just avoid my mistakes or try and hide from them. It's more like trying to embrace that and just be like, "look, I don't know. How do I say this?", "look, I don't know. How do I say this?"

Yeah absolutely. I think the most important thing is don't beat yourself down. Don't be frustrated that you've made a mistake. Equally, don't pay so much attention to your mistakes that it stops you from speaking. It depends what level you're on as well.

Have you ever made a mistake, Marek?

Of course!

Have you ever had someone heard you make a mistake and say, you are an idiot and your English sucks?

I can't remember with English, but I can remember a very embarrassing mistake in Spanish, for example.

But still did that not just break the ice. That sort of like "oh it's funny".

Because that's what I'm trying to get at here is that I have a lot of friends who say I want to make mistakes because I don't want people to get angry at me or frustrated or criticise me for my English. And I just don't ever see that happening. I don't ever feel that if you make a mistake with me, my first reaction isn't, "oh, my God, this guy's a frickin moron". It's "this guy isn't speaking his native language. We'll give me a pass" you know? So that was sort of the point I was getting at there.

I think, most people, especially if you do language exchanges and things like that, most people are incredibly friendly.


Nobody's going to laugh at your mistakes.

What about the line? "Don't learn grammar. Don't ever focus on learning grammar."

I don't know. I mean I think we're speaking with kind of like imperatives and we're making it black and white. For example, here in Belgium, in Flanders, in the Flemish part of Belgium. People start learning English when they are 12 in school formally, right? By that time, everybody is fluent in English. I mean, here it's like in Scandinavia, everybody, literally everybody, speaks very, very good English.

To pause you. Sorry. Why is that? Why is that? I'm sorry.

I'm trying to get it out.


And so all TV here is subtitled. There is no dubbing, dubbing doesn't exist. So when I was working here in the University of Leuven, I would ask mission. I was so amazed with their English and I would ask "How on earth did you learn that? Where did you pick it up?" And they would be like "I really don't know. I can't tell you."

They're a little bit like native speakers that they don't know anything about the grammar of English. You tell them you should use present perfect and they look at you as if you're from Mars. They'd have no idea what you're talking about. They're all incredibly fluent. I think it comes down to this incredible amount of exposure as young children and teenagers. That's where it comes from.

So you can reach very, very high degrees of proficiency without studying any grammar. And there is little evidence in second language acquisition research that deliberate study of grammar has any long term improvements on your accuracy or that it leads to acquisition.

What really leads to acquisition is incredible amounts of exposure to that language, for example. Practice in the sense of doing meaningful tasks in that language.

I think another problem that there is with teaching grammar is say for if you learn French like that. But I hope you didn't.

A lot of the time the teacher will make you conjugate the subjunctive for all persons.

And from memory they won't even say write it out they'll be like, say them now, you know.

But you don't need to know it. I mean, you don't need to know the subjunctive for all persons, for all verbs, because you're very unlikely to use it.

But this is the Pareto Principle, right too where it's not a linear sort of distribution of how often every single word or every grammatical tense or whatever in a language is used. It's not all equal across the board. It tends to be that 20 percent will be used 80 percent of the time and then the rest tails off pretty quickly. I found the same in Portuguese. I'm constantly asking my wife, ironically, I'll say to her "is this the right way to say it?" And she'd be like, "Yeah. You said it fine." And I'll be like, how did I learn that? I don't remember studying that. And I've just picked it up somewhere. But also, I'll ask her about, you know, technically I should be using the subjunctive here, right? And she'll just be like "no one does that, like ignore the rule, get out of your grammar book and just talk".

Yeah. I mean, when grammar practice will be helpful is when you've identified that you have a problem that leads maybe especially to a communicative breakdown which stops you from doing what you need to do in English. So then that can really help you that, you've identified. OK. I don't know how to say the second conditional, I want to talk about an imaginary situation. I want to say if I had a lot of money, and you don't know how to say that. Well, then you can focus on that structure. But again, you don't study it for five hours for all the possible verbs and stuff like this do the ones that are most common, I think, and most useful to you. So that much more focussed grammar practice when needed, I think is more effective.

I kind of treat it like a video game where when I'm playing, if I get stuck somewhere and I repeatedly can't get past a certain level, I'm not just going to throw the game out or ignore it. I just look it up on YouTube or I do some research to try and find the answer so that I can get through it and move on. And I kind of treat it the same way if I keep coming up against a certain thing that I'm trying to say in Portuguese or French, and I keep making the mistake or even just second guessing myself in the moment, thinking, I don't know how to do this. That's when I go away and stop practicing it or look it up and then try and utilise it. I do some Anki or whatever repetition exercises and then I find quite often I'm out of that sort of, I'm over that obstacle within a few days or weeks.

Absolutely. I think that's great.

What do you think in terms of pronunciation, we'll finish up shortly, but how much emphasis needs to be put on learning pronunciation, especially if you're a non-native English teacher? Because I'm sure that a lot of teachers worry a lot about how well they can pronounce, English just as much as their grammar or sentence structure, right?

Well, I think you need to have intelligible pronunciation and by that I mean that you have a clear voice and you're easy to understand to a wide variety of speakers and from the learners perspective, if you're wondering, well, can I learn good pronunciation from a non-native speaker? Shouldn't I get a native speaker teacher? I think you have to bear in mind that there's a lot of second language acquisition research that shows that the vast majority of the adult learners will never be able to reach native level of pronunciation, that you will never be able to pass off for a native speaker.

Why would you? That shouldn't be the goal. Right? Your goal shouldn't be to mimic.

I'm saying it because I know that perhaps well for some of your listeners and I've heard it a lot from students they do want that, a lot of people want it.

It's the same for me, French or Portuguese. I'm constantly criticizing myself but having to remind myself, my ultimate goal isn't to be mistaken as a Brazilian or mistaken as a French person, it's to get my ideas across and communicate clearly right?

Yeah, absolutely. Because, I mean for example, with my Spanish or with my English, you know, there are times where for the first minute or two people can't identify where I'm from, but then eventually they'll ask you, "So where are you from?" Not necessarily thinking that you're a non-native speaker, but well, what are you going to say at that point? You're going to pretend you're from Australia. Well, you can tell them I'm French, I'm Polish.

That'll screw with them, you'll just say I'm Australian with this thick Indian accent.

So I think, your accent is just a natural part of who you are as a user of that language. And there's no reason to be ashamed of how you sound. So, you sound French when you speak English. Well, you are French, if that French accent doesn't make you less clear that's fine there's no problem with having an accent. I think the goal should be intelligible pronunciation and you can learn that from a native or a non-native speaker it really doesn't matter.

Well it's the same with native speakers. If I go out into rural Australia, I will meet people who have very thick accents and it takes me a while to acclimate and get used to them.

But also I get frustrated if I can't understand them and they are Australian and it's the same with foreigners learning English. I don't get annoyed because they have the slightest accent, even though I can 100 percent understand them. I would get annoyed and frustrated, not necessarily with them, but with the situation. If their accent was so thick that communication was impeded and I couldn't understand what was going on, and I think that's what, yeah, you need to just make sure you get out of the woods out of that part, right. To be able to communicate and you don't have to worry about pulling yourself to the point of being an Australian or mistaken for an Australian or an American or whatever, right?

Yeah absolutely. It's changing your accent completely, it's like changing who you are in a way. And you might have heard that quote from David Crystal, who is a famous, very, very famous English linguist. Probably the most famous one in the English speaking world and he once said that there's only one type of people who need to completely be able to get rid of their foreign accent. And these are spies.

And they still get caught.

They still get caught. It's a matter of life and death. Right?


You don't want to get caught with a foreign accent. For everybody else, I mean, it really doesn't matter. But I get that feeling that, I think when I was learning English and then Spanish, I did aim for trying to sound like a native speaker.

And there is you know, there is this kind of I don't know, it's a nice feeling with sometimes people can tell where you're from. But now my attitude is completely different. When I'm learning I now have to speak a lot of French and because I go to work in Brussels. My aim is not to speak like them. As long as my pronunciation is clear and they are able to understand me, I'm fine. I have a Polish accent. I'm Polish after all.

So I'm not going to hide behind a fake Belgian or French identity. Right?

It must get pretty confusing, though, after your sixth language, you know.

Final question, what advice would you have for any of the listeners that are learning English, listening to this podcast and thinking now after this conversation, I might actually try and become an English teacher?

Well, go for it. Go for it. I love teaching people and I think it's a great, great profession to be in. Get trained up and why not do it? There's so many possibilities. You can stay in your home country, you can travel the world. There are no limits, really. You can teach online.

And it's an amazing feeling when you're helping other people improve, I think I'd love any kind of teaching, not just teaching a language. But it's amazing when you're working with somebody and you see how they progress every week and how they get better. So, yeah, no, I think go for it if that's what you want to do.

Where can they find your resources which are specifically created to help such people become good English teachers?

So you can visit my website, and that's where I host a weekly blog. There are resources for English teachers, PDF guides, lesson plans and they're also training courses and webinars.

Brilliant. Well, Marek, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I really appreciate your time.

Thanks a lot Pete.

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