Next time you meet a language teacher, ask, “So, what language are you learning?” You should find out what the person teaches, too–and a wise answer might include whatever the person teaches–but a good language teacher should always have at least one other language she is learning herself.
First, a teacher should learn languages for all the same reasons everyone else should: to conceive of the world in new ways, to travel respectfully and joyfully, to experience neurological benefits, to enjoy the film and literature of another language, and so on.
But a language teacher has additional reasons for always being a language learner:
1. Identify with students
Few teachers remember what it is like not to understand the language. Becoming a novice learner again will provide valuable sympathy with your students and insight into their struggles. It may even help you realize that some assignments or activities you give your students aren’t really worthwhile.
2. Build rapport with students
You’ll be amazed how much your credibility and collegiality with your students can increase if you share the language-learning process with them. For one thing, you’ll show that you really think it’s important to acquire new languages. For another, it’s good for students to hear about things at which you are not a master, and that you are committed to getting better at those things.
3. Get teaching and learning ideas
You may discover activities, habits, or resources that help you as a learner that you can pass on to your students or even make regular features of your classes. (Caveat: Not everything that works for you will work for all, or even most, of your students. You still need to be familiar with research about what works for most learners, and you still need to use your own teaching experience and observations to refine your methods.)
4. Understand the taught language better
Language teachers and autodidacts like to wield Goethe’s dictum Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner Eigenen–“He who does not know foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” This isn’t exactly true, but it is certainly the case that acquiring additional languages increases one’s understanding of the one(s) one already has. I work with many teachers who make assumptions about the language they teach–especially about how like or unlike other languages it is–that they would never make if they knew an additional language. In the process, they transmit to their students either the false idea that the particular language is weird or, on the other hand, the false idea that languages are basically versions of each other, functioning in pretty much the same ways.
5. Understand language in general better
Languages exist to solve the problems of communication. Different languages do this different ways. The specifics of how they do so similarly and differently shed light on the human ability to use language and on the nature of language itself. As in (4) above, awareness of how language works will help the teacher model and transmit both specific knowledge and general attitudes about language in a way that will benefit students.
6. Become a more versatile teacher
If you know more languages, you can teach more languages. If you can teach more languages, you’re more likely to get a job, keep a job, expand a job, or be asked to train others.
I know it’s hard to make time to learn another language. Your students may feel this way, too! But it’s worth it, and it’s not as though you need to become fluent right away, or even anytime soon, to experience most of the listed benefits. Also, any polyglot will tell you that language-learning gets easier with each successive language, as you develop both a greater understanding of language in general and a set of habits that work for you.
Why not shoot for five minutes a day in your new language?