Remembering what it means to be a learner can be a source of great wisdom, especially in terms of language learning. Language acquisition is a delicate and intricate process. I believe that knowing how it feels to have learned another language is a lens through which many ideas can be recognized and comprehended. I believe it to be an absolutely key ingredient for individuals who wish to teach their mother tongue. Of course, any person with a mastery of the complexities of a language can teach, but only language learners can really know what goes into the acquisition of a foreign tongue. Expertise comes from experience, not just theoretical examination.
Not only is it beneficial to have learned another language for the distinct insight and empathy it provides, but it also creates a certain bond between you and your students. The understanding that you have experienced very much the same process will give students that extra feeling of support. If you learn the language of your students and demonstrate your skills, this becomes even more true; it will show that you are interested in their language, not simply attempting to insert your own. Demonstrating your skills and your flaws will seal the deal: if your students become aware that you are a language learner as well, and that you make mistakes and have difficulty just like them, and you indicate that this is normal and natural, you will gain their trust. Trust is exceedingly important because of the implications it has on creating a comfortable learning environment. Mutual understanding that results in trust fosters a feeling of comfort which very well could help students try harder, with less fear of making mistakes.
There are people, however, who believe that speaking the language of your students is not necessary while instructing English as a Second Language. Indeed, some people believe that it is better not to speak the language. In full immersion courses, where the instructor speaks only English, of course you would not need to speak any other language. To this end, it is decidedly so that individuals that cannot speak the language of their students, or in fact any other language, can be English as a Second Language instructors. The degree to which they are effective instructors is the question, however.
Knowing a language, and specifically the language of your students (considering that the individuals in your classroom speak the same language), does not put you or your students at a disadvantage. Indeed, it can give a good amount of insight as well into the way your students’ minds work; linguistic and cultural differences will influence anything from how students will form phrases, to how they will think about activities and projects, to how they view you as an instructor, along with an infinite list of other possibilities. An educated instructor will know a bit about the language, in order to know how a student may be affected by their cultural and linguistic background, and why they therefore may act and/or react in a certain way. Another perk of knowing the language of the students you are teaching is to know which words will be understood easily, such as cognates, or words that have already been integrated into their vocabulary because of the globalization of the English language.
The main question of the language in question is not, in reality, a question of knowing the language, but of when to use it if you do. The aforementioned uses of the knowledge of your students’ language are practical uses, but ones that involve no production of speech on the part of the instructor. The debate over a mother language in second language classrooms is focused on whether or not the instructor should speak to students in any other language than the one they are attempting to teach, and if so, when would be the appropriate times. In most cases, I can say with certainty that translation is not an effective method of instruction. Translation lends itself to a very rigid way of considering language, one that encourages the lateral movement of meaning from one language to the next, which is not at all how language instruction should be approached, if for the simple fact that no two languages are directly interchangeable. There is a certain time and place for translation, but other methods can easily be implemented and prove to be much more effective and useful, not only for your students’ comprehension of the term or construction at hand, but also for their overall skills of comprehension and deduction. For this reason, I believe that, to a certain point, all instruction should happen in the target language.
The instances in which you may find yourself wanting to use your students’ language are usually ones of explanation— describing the formation of a tense or grammatical point, to give directions on an activity or project, etc. Although there are these situations in which using the mother tongue may seem, or may even be preferable for the immediate cause, the theory I follow is that the more a class exposes a student to a language, the more accustomed the student will become to listening to its distinct rhythm and vocabulary, and the more students are forced to really listen and understand, the more they will retain and recognize. I have found this to be highly dependent on the level and age of your students, however.