Are foreign language teachers born or made? An age-old quandary.

Are foreign language teachers born or made?

In this essay I will put my effort into unveiling the aloof truth behind a well-known foreign language teaching-related quandary that sits the wider nature versus nurture debate: Are foreign language teachers born or made?

In the attempt to answer that question, I will first define who a foreign language teacher is. Second, I will mention some professional and personality traits that a foreign language teacher should feature, according to both specialized literature and personal insights. Finally, I will draw a conclusion intended to be enlightening and thought-provoking for those who might want to conduct further research on this topic.

To begin with, let’s agree on a definition of what or, better said, who a foreign language teacher is. Foreign language teachers enable students to speak, comprehend and write in a foreign language. Having said that, I would like the reader to bear in mind that I am not talking plainly about ‘teachers’ but referring to great, high-quality ones since there is a huge difference between people who are employed to teach foreign languages but deliver poor performance and people who effectively channel the students to learn. I appeal to the reader to think about the latter since paying attention to the former would be irrelevant to this essay.

A foreign language teacher is first and foremost a person and a teacher, thus it is necessary to mention what personality traits a teacher should feature. According to research on what makes a great teacher (Bain, 2004; Young, 20009; Peterson-Deluca, 2016;  Raudys, 2018) the personality traits and interpersonal skills most valued by students and peers in teachers are as follows:

• to be flexible, optimistic, self-reflective, progressive, and innovative;

• to build effective rapport with students and teachers and through a passion for teaching;

• to excite a passion for learning in their students through skilful facilitation, using 21st-century tools;

• to go beyond the classroom as a collaborator with colleagues;

• to have an inner desire to improve themselves;

• to build relationships and facilitate lifelong learning;

• to collaborate with families, peers, and the community;

• to show appreciation and enthusiasm for cultural differences;

• to inspire others to achieve their potential;

• to understand the complexity of the teaching and learning environment;

• to have consistently high expectations for all students;

• to recognize and adapt when they aren’t getting through to students;

• to address the needs of the whole child.

Evidently, there is a strong connection between such qualities and the way learners perceive the effectiveness of their teachers (Yildizbas, 2017). In addition, those instructors who match the characteristics listed above are likely to tackle the affective filter hypothesis effectively. This hypothesis suggests that affective variables might prevent or allow language acquisition to happen, as the learner can be ‘open’ to the input or not (Krashen, 2013).

Therefore, personality traits, like the ones listed above, seem to be mandatory for someone to become a great teacher. Such characteristics are, in part, influenced by a person’s genetic make-up. This is something inherited from birth (Mc Gue and Bouchart, 1998 ).  Research suggests that heritability estimates from twin and adoption studies of variables such as IQ, personality traits, and even social attitudes are at times quite substantial (Mc Gue and Bouchart, 1998 ).   Due to this, the contribution of a person’s genetic composition, albeit small, might have some influence on how good a teacher they are perceived to be, and as our genes are supposedly fixed, there is a prima facie to suggest that a person’s nature governs, in other words, a teacher may be born, not made.

Nevertheless, despite some effort, there are a limited number of confirmed linkages or gene associations for behavioural traits (Mc Gue et al., 1998).   Taking account of this, we risk overestimating the genetic impact on a person’s teaching capability.

Moreover, personality is also influenced by our primary and secondary socialization which includes the influence of our parents, teachers, environmental variables, childhood experiences, social relationships, and both local and national cultures (Mc Coy, 1990). All of these factors belong to the field of nurture rather than nature. (Chery, 2019) While biological and cognitive factors are likely to contribute to personality development, society takes part in the process by setting standards of behaviour, establishing values, prescribing appropriate ways of interacting, and determining the identity of roles within society.

Having referred to the personality traits with which teachers should have been born or have nurtured during their lives, I will proceed to talk about those professional competencies that a foreign language teacher must possess to become a great teacher.

Most language teachers and researchers would agree with the statement that foreign language teaching is a vast and intricate field to delve into. To be a highly competent practitioner, teachers must study – they must be aware of, and hopefully master, a wide variety of methods, approaches, theories and overlapping concepts – and this might underpin, or not, their daily performance in the classroom. Great teachers must be able to take the most fruitful decisions and apply the most suitable strategies to address different students’ needs, considering such learners’ learning styles and own characteristics, so that they can achieve positive outcomes. Such expertise is acquired through formal training and innumerable hours of study and practice.

Furthermore, there are plenty of worldwide cases, in which non-native speakers (NNS) become teachers of such a language. Undoubtedly, this adds a lot of effort, hard work and study for future and in-practice teachers, as they not only have to learn the teaching theory mentioned above, but they must also master the language and find ways of engaging with it on a regular basis. Moreover, they should familiarize themselves with a whole new culture, since teaching about culture can be truly beneficial in fostering critical thinking and creating the opportunity for students to acquire the target language through higher levels of engagement (Tasker and Wolf, 2018). On the other hand, we can find native speakers who conduct classes and can provide detailed information about the culture, but they might lack pedagogical preparation.

In addition, as foreign language teaching features a dynamic nature (e.g. changing paradigms) as the language itself does (e.g. the number of words added each year or online linguistic behaviour), teachers must be continuously acquiring knowledge and improving their performance and skills. Therefore, continuous professional development is paramount for foreign language teachers to be up-to-date and to be able to achieve the best outcomes and make the most of their classes. Once again, study and dedication are crucial parts of being a great foreign language teacher. According to Cara Candall (2015), ‘highly effective schools and institutions foster teacher development through the provision of modelling and actionable feedback’, whether or not the trainee has completed a teacher training program. (Candall, 2015).

In consequence, even though some teachers claim that ‘they have a gift [that] drives them to teach’ (Malikow, 2006) and even if we took account of the benefits of having certain personality traits, which not only suit but also enhance a teacher’s career, it would be unfair and inaccurate to neglect the efforts teacher make in studying, researching and practising so that they can successfully deal with the multifaceted nature of foreign language teaching. These substantial efforts imply that foreign language teachers are made, not born.

Further, psychological studies suggest that bilingual people, especially those who acquired the language post-childhood, tend to change personality when speaking in their second language (Chen and Bond,  2010). This assumption leads us to reconsider the NNS who becomes a teacher of a foreign language. If the conclusions of these studies spoke the truth, and bilingual people change their personality, it would be fair to state as a corollary that an NNS teacher of a foreign language is not, by any means, born, but made. Nonetheless, this suggestion is highly susceptible to further research and reflection.

To sum up, in this essay, by investigating and analysing the nature/nurture dichotomy and considering which factors influence a person’s ability to be a highly competent foreign language teacher, it might be concluded that a teacher is made, not born. On the one hand, there is not enough evidence of the genetic impact on a person’s teaching capability nor is there any certainty about the fixed nature of genes. Additionally, personality is further shaped through socialization, which is an ongoing, lifetime process. This suggests that those attitudes and skills needed to be a foreign language teacher can be acquired post-birth. On the other hand, we have plenty of evidence that foreign language teachers need formal training and continuous professional development to achieve even the minimum levels of competency.

Finally, and for the sake of clarifying my last sentence, I will mention myself. I am a non-native English speaker who teaches English as a foreign language. I used to believe that I had inherited from my mother, a teacher herself, a natural gift for pedagogy. This may be true to some extent, but what is undeniable is that during my life I have dedicated great effort to be able to teach this language. I am aware that I am not a great teacher yet, but I believe by committing myself to the endeavour of becoming an excellent one, I can be the living example that a great foreign language teacher is not born, but made.

Rafael Rodríguez Mangas
English teacher at Inacap La Serena, Chile
MA in Professional Development for Language Education by NIL
(Norwich Institute for Language Education) in partnership with the University of Chichester

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