Proficiency Polemic

I recall being posed a question in a ‘LOTE curriculum and methodology’ tutorial during my pre-service education: “Who would you prefer as your language teacher – someone who is great at the language, or someone who is a great teacher?” At the time I agreed with the consensus, that the latter is best. Thinking back, the question didn’t ignite the debate that it really should have. I’m hoping that now, with a bit of experience and knowledge under my belt, I can get the conversation going. Here’s how I would respond now, with the benefit of hindsight.

Isn’t part of what makes a teacher ‘great’, knowledge of the content?
Studies which have attempted to measure the quality of a teacher have generally attempted to use quantifiable measures. By and large, identifying the quality of a teacher is highly subjective, and attempts to link teacher quality to student performance have been rightly criticised. Indeed, what makes a great teacher are those qualities that cannot be measured – patience, empathy, possession of a genuine desire to help students. However, at the very core of teaching are two important variables:  knowledge of the content, and aptitude in teaching it. In Languages, there is widespread agreement that ‘language teacher proficiency’ and ‘teacher language proficiency’ (terms borrowed from the NALSASS Report) are both vitally and equally important for quality Languages instruction. It is seen as a disservice to both teachers and students to trivialise one of these aspects while heavily promoting the other (Simpson Norris, 1999).  On top of that, when one of these areas is seen as weak, students quickly become disengaged (Commonwealth of Australia, 2002).

Don’t these questions just pit non-native and native speakers against each other?
While issues of proficiency and teacher quality are inevitably followed by debates about non-native and native speaker teachers, this is unhelpful. While we shouldn’t assume a native speaker is automatically capable of teaching their mother tongue, nor should we assume that a non-native speaker can (and vice versa). Studies have shown that both native speakers and non-native speakers are equally able to become quality teachers of languages (Moran, 2010). It is not the language background of a teacher that makes them a quality teacher.

So, what level of proficiency is required?
“If teachers do not have appropriate levels of proficiency, the proficiency outcomes of learners are potentially threatened.” (Crawford, 1999, p. 80). But what is an appropriate level of proficiency? What we do know is that there is a wide variance in teachers’ linguistic proficiency in Australia. A clear definition of what level of proficiency is adequate for teaching is largely nonexistent, or is vague and open to vast degrees of interpretation. The AFMLTA Standards (2005) suggest that accomplished Languages teachers “have knowledge of the languages(s) and culture(s) they teach which enables them to participate readily in interactions in the Languages in and out of the classroom. In addition, they have a developed intercultural awareness and know how to communicate across languages and cultures”. But what does this actually mean? What does it look like?

Should we accept lower levels of proficiency for those teaching beginner students?
It’s interesting that this seems to be a common opinion. I once read a teacher narrative that stayed with me (though the source escapes me now). She explained that if her older high school students asked the meaning of a particular word that she didn’t know, they could use it as a talking point about language learning, and look for ways to find the meaning of the word together. She went on to explain how much more difficult it is to explain to a primary school student why she didn’t know the word for ‘shoelaces’, for example. It’s a concrete example of this premise from the NALSASS report (Simpson Norris, 1999):

“The greatest fallacy is that you can teach a language as long as you’ve got a bit of language. If children are not exposed to excellent language teaching at primary level the chance of them electing a language at secondary is minimal.”

I’m not suggesting that non-native speakers need to be at a level similar to that of native speakers. We shouldn’t be expected to be capable of simultaneous interpreting, just like we don’t expect science teachers to be splitting atoms, or art teachers to have their work displayed in Tate Modern. But, we should be expecting high levels of proficiency.

But isn’t proficiency more than just content knowledge?
Proficiency for Languages teachers is knowledge of the content, and it has been established that this is a powerful (though not only) indicator of teacher quality and thus, student outcomes. But more than that, language is also the medium through which we teach. For our students, it is likely that their only exposure to the language is in our classroom, and so we become the sole expert interlocutor for students to engage with the language. As non-native speakers we are a model, perhaps the only one, of what a language learner can achieve.

What role should universities have in building proficiency?
While we would expect that universities who produce our Languages educators should ensure adequate levels of proficiency, the reality is that expectations from universities vary greatly within institutions, with instruction in languages ranging from 40 to 420 hours (Nicholas, 1994). A recent study quoted a senior education officer who noted that the numbers of students graduating with insufficient proficiency to pass the Qld proficiency exam was ‘a huge problem’, and that differences in quality were observable among graduates of different universities (Kleinhenz, 2010). This outlines a need for uniformity among universities and communication between universities and education authorities.

How can we build proficiency?
Achievement and maintenance of high levels of proficiency is essential for Languages teaching, and for non-native speaker teachers, improvement of their language skills is a never-ending process. It’s not like other subject content which can be reviewed and developed through reading, because we teach communication and and not facts. There was a time in my career when I was embarrassed by my poor proficiency.  That’s when I left my primary school teaching job to go and live in Japan for a year, which turned into three years. Not everyone can do this, nor have the added benefit of bringing home a husband from the target country! But there does seem to be very few opportunities for teachers to develop their language proficiency.  In the last 12 months of teaching I completed the 30 required hours of professional development. About a third of that was specifically related to my role as a language teacher, but none was related to improving my proficiency. In fact, the last time I engaged in professional development to improve my proficiency was in my first year of teaching, more than ten years ago. If governments want Languages in the curriculum, and are serious about developing quality programs, then providing opportunities for building proficiency is an absolute must.

In my opinion this is what should have been shouted loudly back at the teacher in response to the question posed. Languages education in Australia is floundering. It is the least popular subject for senior students. Well-funded programs to boost the retention rate of students in post-compulsory years have failed. Quality education requires (among other things) quality educators. If we want the state of Languages to improve, then we shouldn’t settle with a one-or-the-other compromise. Could you imagine any other pre-service education course forcing students to decide: “Would you prefer someone who is good at maths or who is a good teacher?”

I demand both.


*What are your thoughts on the role of Language proficiency in teacher quality?
*Do you think we should accept lower levels of proficiency in beginner classes?
*If you’re not a native speaker, how do you keep up your language skills?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
or in our facebook comments.


Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations. (2005). Professional standards for accomplished teaching of languages and cultures. Canberra: Department of Education, Science and Training.

Commonwealth of Australia. (2002b). Review of the Commonwealth Languages Other than English Programme. A report to the Department of Education, Science and Training.

Crawford, J. (1999). Teacher Response to Policy and Practice in the Teaching of LOTE. PhD Thesis, Griffith University.

Kleinhenz, E., Wilkinson, J., Gearon, M., Fernandez, S., and Ingvarson, L. (2007). The review of teacher education for languages teachers. Final report. DEEWR: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Moran, A. (2010). Professional standards for Australian teachers of languages: Context, processes and projects. Babel. (44)2, 4-11.

Nicholas, H., Moore, H., Clyne, M. & Pauwels, A. (1994). Languages at the Crossroads. The Guide to the Report of the National Enquiry Into the Employment and Supply of Teachers of Languages Other Than English. National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia:

Simpson Norris Pty Ltd. (1999). Language Teacher proficiency or teacher language proficiency? Environmental scan of information relating to the competencies/qualities/knowledges required to be an effective language teacher. A report prepared for the NALSASS Taskforce.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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