The apprenticeship of observation

image source:

An interest in languages, combined with a few stints living and working overseas, has meant that I have played the role of language learner more than once.  These experiences have greatly informed my practice as a language teacher.  Famously, this is called the ‘apprenticeship of observation’. Teaching is a unique profession in this sense; teachers have their own experiences as students watching their own teachers teach, which influences them when they become teachers. Here are a few of the things I have felt and thought as a learner that have influenced my teaching…

I don’t care if there are some things my teacher doesn’t know. If they are willing to say that they don’t know something and do a little research if I ask a question they can’t answer, I’m happy.

I need to learn common cultural practices with the language.  I used to live in Laos, and I would say, “How are you?” in Lao when I saw people, because this is a polite greeting in English.  However, in Lao, it’s not the norm; it’s something you would likely only ask someone if they looked unwell.  I was eventually corrected, and it reminded me how language teachers are the only ones who are likely to break down and explain these unspoken rules for learners.

I’d rather know the most common way over the most correct way.  In English, I know not to use “whom” when speaking, much as I may love it.  In a language I’m learning, I want to sound like most people — until I’m an expert and can choose when to sound like a grammar nerd!

I want my teacher’s help in avoiding my native language.  If my teacher is strict about limiting English in the classroom, it is much easier for me to refuse to use it with my classmates without feeling rude.

I want specific descriptions of what I need to do to make certain sounds.  We all know it’s awkward to talk about tongues and lips in the classroom, but it is helpful.  I have experienced few things more frustrating as a learner than a tutor telling me, “No, it sounds like this – ba ba ba ba,” and then waiting for me to produce a sound I can’t even recognize.

I want practice, practice, practice.  I have never been in a language class and thought “This is too much practice.”  I have often sat in a language class thinking, “I wish I could have more practice”.

Mostly, being a language learner helps me keep in mind the bravery and endurance that is required of our students. Learning a language means making mistakes over and over and over again.  That’s tiring and uncomfortable.

Right now, I’m studying Arabic, and in a recent class I was trying to practice the possessive with my limited vocabulary. I tried to tell my teacher, “I heard your dog,” but ended up saying, “I heard your heart.”  Sigh. I’m never accidentally romantic in English! In English, I’m comfortable and confident.  As a language learner, I have to give that up.

Being reminded of the discomfort of the learning process makes me more aware of the courage my students are showing when they speak out in class, submit assignments, give presentations in front of their peers, or even make small talk when they run into me in the hallway.  Keeping this in mind helps me to be a better teacher.

Have you had an experience as a language learner that has informed your teaching?  Tell us about it!


Hi, readers! My name is Misha Gingerich. I am delighted to be involved in this idea sharing space, and hope that I can provide a useful perspective. In Ontario, I have taught English for Academic Purposes to adults, focusing mainly on grammar and writing skills, and I would gladly be labelled a grammar nerd. I have also lived and worked overseas, in India and Laos. In Laos, I taught English to adults and children while also playing the role of language learner. In addition to teaching, I have spent many years working in community building. Recently, I started a new project with a fellow teacher called Extra English Practice (EEP – We create online learning materials for students and teachers, including videos, with the goal of helping students learn while having fun.


2 thoughts on “The apprenticeship of observation”

  1. Misha,
    Thank you so much for this blog. I appreciate all the points you’ve made and will keep them in mind while teaching.

Comments are closed.