Ken Taylor on learning English by teaching it
Ken Taylor: Sonata, you are a dance teacher in London. You work very intensively with students in English, most of them native speakers. It would be interesting to discuss how you got to the stage where you could speak and teach in English with confidence and to large groups of people. Sonata Petrauskiene: It took time. Although I had trained as a dance teacher in Lithuania, I had very limited experience in teaching before arriving in the UK. And I spoke very little English when I first arrived. I had studied Russian and German at school but not English.
Taylor: How did you manage in the beginning?
Petrauskiene: At first, I socialized only with other Lithuanian and Russian speakers. Then I decided I had to learn English and enrolled in English courses at a further education college and got a job in a sandwich bar to support myself. Slowly, I was able to put the language I learned on the course into practice in my work. And I certainly learned the language of sandwiches!
Taylor: That’s the advantage of studying a language in a country where it is spoken. You have lots of opportunities to put what you have learned in the classroom into practice. If you don’t have that opportunity, the next best thing could be an intensive language course in a country where the language is spoken. Petrauskiene: But my language was still very limited. Then, suddenly, I was offered the chance to do some dance teaching. I had taken my young daughter to dance lessons and the owner of the school found out that I was a trained dance teacher. He persuaded me to start teaching there.
Taylor: How did you feel about teaching British people in English?
Petrauskiene: I was really scared. I kept my job in the sandwich bar in the daytime in case it all went wrong, and started teaching small classes — kids, beginners and couples learning a dance for their wedding.
Taylor: Did you know the vocabulary you needed for that?
Petrauskiene: No. But luckily, I could demonstrate what I wanted my students to do.
Taylor: That would work well when teaching dancing. But I’m sure it works well in other situations, too. Many
non-native speakers avoid taking on roles that require them to instruct or train others because they are worried about making language mistakes. They forget that practical demonstrations are very powerful training tools. By showing your competence in the skill you are teaching, you give your students confidence in your know-how. Petrauskiene: It was a gradual process. I thought at first that teaching the kids would make few demands on my limited English. But in fact, they were often very shy, so it forced me to do a lot of the talking. I realized that my students were often much more nervous than I was. They were also more tolerant than I expected of any mistakes I made.
Taylor: I think that’s true generally. Many of the students I teach speak English very well but are held back by the feeling that people are judging the quality of the language they use. But most people are tolerant of non-native speakers. They know the effort this requires.
Petrauskiene: I certainly had the feeling that I was being judged at the beginning, too. I was very worried about making mistakes.
Taylor: A lot of my work involves giving people the confidence to communicate without worrying about any mistakes they make. How did you overcome that feeling?
Petrauskiene: I think the real breakthrough was when the dance school owner suggested I take an exam for dance teachers run by the International Dance Teachers’ Association. I had to study in English and in detail what you needed to teach for all the different dances. It was a self-study course. It was very demanding but I began to realize that I knew more than I thought and that I could actually do it. And when I got stuck, I could get help from the owner of the school. Taylor: Sometimes, people ask me what to do to improve their professional English. I recommend that they go on a course in their business area that is run in English. They learn new professional skills and, at the same time, learn the language to go with it.
Petrauskiene: The dance school gave me another demanding task. They asked me to teach two of the younger teachers how to pass the exam I had only just taken myself. That really forced me to explain things clearly.
Taylor: Learning by teaching. That’s an excellent way to improve your language skills. Petrauskiene: Last year, I gave a talk about some aspects of Latin dances to a large audience at a workshop in central London. There were some very experienced teachers and dancers in the audience. I was very nervous beforehand and would have loved the opportunity to get out of doing it. But it went really well. I’ll happily do it again now.
Taylor: That’s great. We need to push the boundaries sometimes and do things we feel nervous about. When we succeed, it gives us an enormous confidence boost. Petrauskiene: I now feel very confident when speaking and teaching, even though I know I’m not perfect.
Taylor: Do you still try to actively improve your English language skills? Petrauskiene: Yes. I read newspapers and watch the news on TV. Sometimes, I put English subtitles on. Then I can see how a word is spelled and hear how it is pronounced at the same time. I write on social media and use my phone for messaging, too. So I often look up the vocabulary I need.
Taylor: That sounds great. I recommend to my students that they should do exactly as you do. As we said in the beginning, it’s all about building confidence. Petrauskiene: That’s right. And now I have the confidence to do something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve started a course in psychology and counselling. I teach dancing most afternoons and evenings. Now, I study for my course most mornings. And it’s going well. I feel I can manage the demands it places on my English. In fact, I really enjoy studying in English now.
“I realized that my students were often much more nervous than I was”
Taylor: Good for you! The worry and nervousness you felt when you started teaching must seem a long time ago now.
SONATA PETRAUSKIENE is a dance teacher based in London. Originally from Lithuania, she teaches British dance students at all levels. Some of her students dance competitively, while some take dance exams and others just dance for fun. She is now doing an intensive online course in psychology and counselling.
KEN TAYLOR is a communication consultant, personal coach and author of 50 Ways to Improve Your Business English (Summertown). Contact: Ktay[email protected] com