This was originally posted on February 19, 2014 at

Following up on last month’s post, I’d like to dedicate this month’s installment to discussing the following question:

What does it mean to know a language? Or, more to the point, what does it mean for a teacher of English to know the language?

Without getting very technical and/or long-winded, it is my opinion that a teacher of English as a foreign or second language must be able to get their messages across –speaking or writing– with no (or very little) difficulty, being able to employ the most effective words, chunks and structures for the situations in hand, and do all that in appropriate register and with excellent (or at least very good, always effective) pronunciation. In other words, they must have sound knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, phonology, discourse, as well as excellent speaking, writing, reading and listening skills. They must also be able to describe what they know, i.e. be able to use the appropriate terminology to describe the language, irrespective of whether they normally use this terminology in their classes.

Jeremy Harmer (2007, 30-31) says teachers need to know a lot about the subject they are teaching (the English language). (…) Language teachers need to know how the language works. (…) a knowledge of the grammar system and understanding of the lexical system. (…) They need to be aware of pronunciation features such as sounds, stress and intonation. He also says students have a right to expect that teachers of the English language can explain straightforward grammar concepts, including how and when they are used. They expect their teachers to know the difference between the colloquial language that people use in informal conversation and the more formal language required in more formal settings.

The way I see it, having worked with English teachers for the better part of the past decade, what is described above is not always true for many teachers of English in Brazil today, and, as I said last month, the ELT area (schools, writers, teachers themselves, teacher trainers etc.) does not seem to be dedicating a great deal of time to working on this very important issue. Am I wrong?

I have discussed the issue of language teachers’ English with many of my friends and colleagues in ELT over the years, as well as with some very influential writers in the area who have been very kind to reply to my (several) emails and messages, and most seem to agree with me. Actually, nobody seems to disagree with the fact that there is very little being done in ELT today to help teachers work on their language development, and the very few courses, for example, that do exist, seem to be aimed for teachers at B1/B2 level.

One of the writers I mentioned above, whose name I will not mention for I did not ask his/her permission to do so, had this to say: ‘I suppose one assumption is that teachers at this level (C1/C2) who wish to improve their English can take advantage of the standard examinations, like CAE or CPE. (…) The feeling is, perhaps, that non-native speaker teachers should need no special treatment, and to offer it might be seen as insulting’.

I’ll go back to this next month, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the points raised here. To the non-native speaker teachers out there, do you think it’s insulting to suggest you might need to work on your English?



Harmer, J. How to Teach English. Pearson, 2007.

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