There are many reasons why we go to language classes. One of the more important reasons is that we are seeking feedback from the teacher to let us know if we are getting any better at the language we are learning. This is the way most of us were taught languages at school, so it is not surprising that as adults we fall back on what we know.
However by overemphasising the importance of the teacher what we are doing is not placing due importance on the feedback we are getting ourselves every time we open our mouths, or to the input that we have access to through various media.
I’ll give an example here about my work with a client. He is a Mandarin Chinese speaker with some fluency and control of English, but he has wanted to improve his pronunciation. I have helped him with some issues he has had directly, in a way not that dissimilar to how I showed how I helped a Vietnamese girl make her English pronunciation and spelling better.
However, with some issues, I purposefully decided not to directly help him at all. Instead, I talked to him about the importance of improving his listening of himself and of others. This conversation needs to be understood in the context of my working with him in ways that demanded that he be more attentive to what he sees and says. ( what I mean by that can also be seen at the link above). So we isolated a number of words that he felt he had some problems with. I then told him not to look at texts, dictionaries, online etc for help. Rather, to focus on listening for these reasonably high-frequency words when he is watching TV, talking with people, etc etc
Over the next few weeks, he asked me a number of times if he was improving. Every time I responded with, “what do you think?” He soon gets the message that I was not going to help here. I did remain of course attentive to his pronunciation of these words. At first, there was no noticeable change, but with time, I did notice that he had made improvements to 2 of them. What was more noticeable to me that I discerned that his English was getting better in other ways. It was always not that clear how, but I saw he was paying more attention to things, more aware of himself, that is looking for feedback. There was a change of mindset and attitude, so now rather than believing and expecting that only others can correct what he does, he was now paying more attention to what he saw and heard. He was becoming more careful, self-correcting more, etc. All very good signs. Once he noticed that he can make his English better, without my help, that disempowering attitude of continually looking to others for guidance in learning started to change.
I share this example here to illustrate the point that we all have been gifted with powers that enable us to discern whether what we say sounds like what we hear. The problem is that we have not been encouraged to display these powers, instead we have grown accustomed to waiting for others to decide whether what we say is okay or not. We need to grow out of this “habit” so we can recapture the powers we all have, and which we all displayed learning our mother tongue. And this way our speech can become better than just okay!
Teachers can have a place in the life of a language learner, but their place is best fulfilled when they lead learners to a place where they can once again be the powerful language learner we all were. Then we will be able to learn from every interaction we have, from every exercise we do, not always waiting for teachers to tell us whether we have learned something or if our language is better in some way.