Teachers are Learners Too: Identity and Linguistic Insecurity in the Second Language Classroom


Oh no.

One of my students has just asked me a question about Spanish grammar that I can’t answer.

How is it that I felt so confident and accomplished with my Spanish if I don’t even know whether to use ser or estar in this particular context? Both mean “to be,” but using the wrong one gives away your “non-native speakerness” instantly. I studied the distinction in first, second, and third year Spanish classes, but I’m still not sure. What do I tell the student?

What can I do but tell the truth? I say that I am not sure, but I will check before next class. A part of me is aware that I have just shattered the illusion of the “all-knowing teacher.” Imperfection exposed, I worry that my students will think I am a fraud.

Self-perception is a powerful thing, and it turns out that many language teachers and learners feel insecurity when using a language that is not their first. We worry about making mistakes or not being seen as “on the same level” as native speakers, a fear which Mitchell, Myles & Mardsen (2013) show is not entirely unfounded (p. 275). Teachers worry that these mistakes may compromise our legitimacy as language instructors.

According to Aneta Pavlenko (2009) and Elizabeth M. Ellis (2016), a dominant way of thinking in second language acquisition research is to categorize people as “native speakers” (NSs) or “non-native speakers” (NNSs) with reference to whether a language is their first. While it seems a simple distinction to the untrained eye, both researchers problematize the dichotomy in their studies of TESOL teacher identities. For one thing, Pavlenko’s study shows that it leaves language learners striving to meet a standard of “nativelike proficiency” that often proves to be an unreachable goal, making second language users consider themselves to be perpetual learners, and as such, they question their competence to teach, much like I did in the instance above.

Another problem with looking at speaker identity through the NS/NNS lens is that it it oversimplifies and miscategorizes speakers’ actual linguistic experiences. Both Pavlenko and Ellis note that a “native” speaker is traditionally considered to be monolingual, and Pavlenko adds that the typical native speaker of English is considered to be white and middle class. The last time I checked, people did not have to be white to learn English as a first language, nor did they have to be monolingual or even a native speaker to teach it (thankfully!). Not only does the NS/NNS way of thinking fail to capture a much more diverse reality, but it reflects racialized ways of thinking and idealizes grammatical perfection (nativelike fluency) over communicative competence.

How does one overcome such a way of thinking?

Thankfully, there are researchers who advocate for other modes of thinking. In 1991, Vivian Cook put forward the notion of multicompetence. Based on Cook’s work, Pavlenko describes multicomptence as pertaining to “anyone who uses more than one language for particular purposes at some point in their daily lives” (p. 262). The emphasis is less fixated on grammar and more communicative. For me, this means that even though my French is quite basic and there are still gaps in my Spanish, I may consider myself multicompent in these languages rather than holding myself to the impossible standard of fluency indistinguishable from that of a first language speaker. The effect is encouraging and has a growing influence on my teaching practices.

In fact, Ellis argues that her studies reveal that teachers’ previous language learning experience is of far more value to building teacher identity and shaping classroom practices than a NS/NNS distinction. This means that the multicompetent (or plurilingual) experiences of teachers have an impact on how they teach—if they will take the time to reflect on them (2016). In my teaching, the effects can be as simple as offering my empathy and patience to a student who is struggling (because I’ve been there), and I strive to offer students a positive experience in which they can be excited for ground gained rather than held down by feelings of incompetency.

Ellis also points out that even monolingual teachers have distinct language learning experiences which can be drawn upon. Thus, the notion of multicompetence does not just have theoretical importance; rather, it has practical implications for the classroom practices of all language teachers. I believe that giving language teachers and students a basis on which to form more positive linguistic self-perceptions has tremendous potential to impact learning factors such as motivation.

Have you ever questioned your competency as a language user or teacher? Is the concept of multicompetence compelling as an alternative way of viewing your experience as a language learner/teacher? Most importantly, how should these more nuanced ways of thinking feed into language teachers’ practices? I would love to hear from you!


Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and December 31, 2017, any comments made on posts to this site may be used for research purposes. The identity of the person who posted the comment will be kept anonymous. For more information about the study, please see the About page. By commenting, you consent to participate.




Ellis, E. M. (2016). “I may be a native speaker, but I’m not monolingual”: Reimagining all teachers’ linguistic identities in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 50(3), 587-630.

Mitchell, R., F. Myles & E. Marsden. (2013). Sociolinguistic perspectives. Chapter 9 of Second language learning theories, 3rd edition (pp. 250-284). Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Pavlenko, A. (2009). “I never knew I was bilingual”: Reimagining teacher identities in TESOL. Journal of Language, Identity, & Education 2(4), 251-268.


(2016, Sept. 13). Effective mind tricks to overcome insecurities. Narada. Retrieved from: http://naradanews.com/2016/09/effective-mind-tricks-to-overcome-insecurities/

4 thoughts on “Teachers are Learners Too: Identity and Linguistic Insecurity in the Second Language Classroom

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