Per­sonal Trainer

Ken Tay­lor on learn­ing English by teach­ing it

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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

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