learning by teaching

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Learning to Teach, and Teaching to Learn

I’m so happy to welcome my friend Sahar, a.k.a. The Wandering Jew, on Runaway Daydreamer. I was delighted when he offered up a guest post on his experiences about teaching his mother tongue to others and learning from it. I’ll leave you in his hands…

What is the best way to learn a language? I’ve tried various methods with varying degrees of success over the years. My spoken Italian came on pretty quickly from six months of immersion, whilst my German is nothing less than scheisse after a year and a half of university lectures, and I have no words for how inexcusably poor my Dutch is after a few months of now-abandoned Duolingo practice; at least, no words for it in Dutch.

This year, I had my first opportunity at trying what Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger termed “Docendo discimus” – learning by teaching.

A word of caution: this technique doesn’t work with learning a language from scratch. Rather, it’s useful for fine-tuning and developing a language with which you have some fluency, but not complete mastery.

The Hebrew Challenge

I spent this year as a teaching assistant in Italy. Technically I was an English assistant, but there were three students who wanted to learn Hebrew, and nominally Hebrew is my mother tongue (although very much my second in terms of fluency). After a year, I’m still not sure exactly why they wanted to, but then again, many people ask me “why Italian?” and I don’t have a good answer for them either, so I just accepted it.

The problem is, while Hebrew is, as I mentioned, my mother tongue, I learned it from hearing it as a child, and later as a new oleh [immigrant] to Israel aged 13.
As a result, I simply never bothered with most of the grammar rules, which are unnecessarily complicated anyway, preferring instead to just learn by rote.
English is similar; if you ask most English people to explain the “past perfect” or “present simple” they would have no idea what you were talking about, even though they use them all the time. It’s automatic.

Back to Hebrew grammar though, and to take just one example of the complexity, Hebrew doesn’t have vowels. Instead, it has a series of dots and dashes under the letters to indicate which “vowel sound” they make (so for example, to indicate whether a “d” should be pronounced “do”, “du” or “da”).
Written Hebrew though almost never includes these dots and dashes, because they are only used to teach children, and are then removed in grown-up literature.

To a foreigner, this makes learning to read like one of those fill-in-the-blanks psychology tests. Imagine trying to teach someone a basic phrase in English without vowels… “hll, my nm s Jhn, nc t mt y” It’s more cryptic crossword clue than reading practice.

Learning by Teaching

The most valuable gift that learning by teaching gives you is making you think about not just *what* the correct way of saying something is, but *why*. Every language learner will, at some point, have come across the teacher who, when questioned about why something is the way it is, replies “that’s just the rule”.

The fact is, the “why” is the single most important question for development, hence why small children learn by asking it all the damn time. Once you understand the why, it’s like finding a master key instead of needing a large keychain; it opens up every other word that follows the same rule.

Another side-effect of learning by teaching is that you find the quirks in your language. In Hebrew, for example, the plural form (masculine) is formed by adding the letters “im” to the end of a word. So et [pen] becomes etim [pens], or kadur [ball] becomes kadurim [balls].

Yet words that have no plural at all in Hebrew, also often have “im” at the end of them. Why, for example, is our word for life, chayim, in the plural, even though it is only ever singular?

These quirks which we take as read raise all sorts of questions, such as: why does the verb lehagid [to say] have an infinitive and a future, but no past or present (there is a synonymous verb, lomar, that is used for past and present)?
These are questions I had never considered, but learning the answers helped to improve my own Hebrew. And every language has them, once you start exploring.

As I said at the start, a certain level of fluency is required for this. But it can work even without, by learning in pairs or in a group. Learning with a friend, for example, where you take turns being the teacher and teaching new concepts to the student (where the “student” has to rely solely on your explanations), is one way of making this work.
Who knows, maybe if I’d been forced to teach my friends German instead of learning it in a dreary classroom far too early in the morning twice a week, I could be blogging in German today. I consider it a missed opportunity… schade.

About the author:

Sahar, better known as The Wandering Jew, is a writer and blogger who loves travelling, and tends to divide his time between Italy, Israel and the UK. He has written for the Jewish Chronicle of London and the Jewish Week of New York among others. Follow him on Twitter @WanderJewBlog, and he’s just added a Facebook page too, so like the page here: www.facebook.com/WanderingJewBlog/

Don’t forget to tell him that Chiara sent you!

Chiara Grandola

Hey there! I'm Chiara, also known as Claire on the language learning community. I'm deeply in love with any form of art, different cultures and... guess what?! Yes, languages!