Deliberate Practice for Language Learning: Part 2 – How to Find a Teacher or Coach

In our previous article, Deliberate Practice for Language Learning: An Introduction, we explored the overall concept of Deliberate Practice.

As defined by psychologist and expertise researcher K. Anders Ericsson, Deliberate Practice is a set of principles that, according to research, are the foundation of “the most effective approaches to improving performance” in any skill — from chess, to ballet, to surgery and modern medicine.

The first, and arguably most important of these principles is to receive effective training from a teacher or coach.

The Role of a Teacher or Coach in Deliberate Practice

In his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, co-written with Robert Pool, Ericsson describes the value of the expert teacher or coach as follows:

“Even the most motivated and intelligent student will advance more quickly under the tutelage of someone who knows (1) the best order in which to learn things, who (2) understands and can demonstrate the proper way to perform various skills, who (3) can provide useful feedback, and who (4) can devise practice activities designed to overcome particular weaknesses. Thus, one of the most important things you can do for your success is to find a good teacher and work with him or her” (Peak, 148, emphasis and numbering added)

Let’s break down these benefits point by point:

  1. Guide for Efficient Learning – Since the expert teacher or tutor has already learned what you are learning, his or her tutelage allows you to circumvent the normal “trial and error” part of learning, and instead make direct use of a tried and tested, effective learning path.
  2. Model for Performance – The expert teacher will provide you with a model of proper performance against which to compare yourself as you progress.
  3. Source of Expert Feedback – The expert teacher or coach gives you feedback based upon your own performance. Integrating this feedback into future practice will help you to improve your skills.
  4. Guide for Overcoming Weaknesses – The expert tutor knows not only how to identify your weak points, but also knows the best way to eliminate them through deliberate practice.

What is Expertise?

Before you can find your expert teacher or coach, you need to understand expertise.

Expertise is defined as “expert skill or knowledge in a particular field.”

When learning a skill such as a language, you will find that there are two principle forms of knowledge that will help you get the job done: procedural and declarative knowledge.

Procedural knowledge is innate, and is inherently difficult to put into words. For example, someone who can ride a bike has the procedural expertise to do so, but will likely be unable to describe verbally every component that goes into successful bike riding.

Declarative knowledge, on the other hand, is not innate. It must be learned outright, and therefore is much easier to put into words. Declarative expertise in bike riding would be akin knowing how the musculoskeletal, nervous, and vestibular systems (among others) work together to allow a human being to successfully ride a bike from point A to point B.

The Three Areas of Language Expertise

In the field of language learning, (or, more specifically, second language acquisition) we are concerned with three areas of expertise — one that deals with procedural knowledge, and two more that deal with declarative knowledge.

Target Language Procedural Expertise – This is knowledge of how to use your target language naturally (i.e. natively). Examples include the implicit knowledge of what feels “right” and “wrong” when using a language, including pronunciation, intonation, word choice, use of register (etc.).

Target Language Declarative Expertise – This is the knowledge of why your target language functions as it does. Examples include knowledge of conjugation and declension tables, the names and functions of complex grammar rules, and prescriptivism.

Language Learning Declarative Expertise – This is the knowledge of how to acquire a foreign language. Examples include learning strategies, methods, and techniques which can generally be applied to any target language.

If you wish to incorporate deliberate practice into your language learning, you need to find a teacher or coach that is knowledgeable in any of these domains — or preferably all three!

Who Are the Language Experts?

In line with the types of expertise outlined above, these are the most common types of experts you have available to you when learning a foreign language.

Native Speakers – These are people who speak your target language as their native language. They are “perfect” examples of Target Language Procedural Expertise. A willing native speaker can provide ideal models for you to emulate during deliberate practice.

Native-Speaking Language Teachers – These are native-speakers who have explicitly learned how to teach their language to others. As natives, they have perfect TL Procedural Expertise and will also have a large amount of TL Declarative Expertise depending on the depth of their teaching experiences.

Advanced Non-Native Speakers – These are people who learned your target language as a foreign language, but have reached a high-level of skill. Unlike native speakers, they will have had to deliberately study the grammar of the language, and so advanced non-natives will generally have a high degree of TL Declarative Expertise, and as such will be able to explain the complexities of grammar.

Expert Language Learners – These people who have learned many languages, and so are well-versed in how to learn a language effectively. To this end, they have developed their own language learning strategies and methods. Those who endeavor to teach these methods to others are often called language coaches. Even if they have not learned your target language (or even your native one), expert language learners can be relied upon for their well-developed Language Learning Declarative Expertise — that is, their knowledge of how to acquire foreign languages efficiently and effectively.

As you can see above, each type of language expert excels in one type of language expertise over the other two. However, as seen in the Native-Speaking Language Teacher example, it is possible to find experts with a high degree of mastery across two or even three of these knowledge domains.

How to Find Language Experts

Once you have determined the type of expert teacher or coach you need, you will need to track one down. Fortunately (or unfortunately), some experts are easier to find than others.

How to Find Native Speakers

Native Speakers are, at least in theory, the easiest experts to find and hire to help you learn. If you’re learning any of the top 100 most widely spoken languages on Earth, you have anywhere from 7.4 million (Konkani, spoken in India) to 935 million (Mandarin Chinese) native speakers to potentially interact with. Of course, a much smaller percentage of people in each of these groups actually work as tutors, teachers, or coaches, but for the most commonly studied languages, you will still have plenty of options.

Here are some resources you can use to locate a native speaker, or find a native language teacher or tutor.

If you’re looking specifically for an experienced, certified language teacher or tutor, we recommend:

If you’re simply looking for any native speaker to deliberately practice with, we recommend (in addition to the above):

How to Find Advanced Non-Native Speakers

Advanced non-natives can generally be found in the same places as native speakers, but not always. Most language learning websites nowadays require that their professional tutors be native speakers, or non-natives with advanced language certificates, and unfortunately, the latter is much rarer than the former.

That being said, if you still wish to deliberately practice with an advanced non-native tutor, you can find one in these areas:

Learner Communities – Most language tutoring and exchange sites boast robust communities of learners. On these sites, each individual learner has a profile page where he can list his language skills across any language he has learned. Look through these profiles to see if you can find any highly-skilled non-natives that would be willing to help you practice.

Language Schools – While most online teaching sites are trending towards exclusively hiring native teachers, many brick-and-mortar language schools skill hire advanced non-natives as well. Search Google (or your local directory) for language schools in your area that teach your target language. With any luck, they will have a advanced non-native teacher that you can hire as a private tutor.

How to Find an Expert Language Learner

Expert language learners are the rarest of all the language experts, but their numbers are steadily growing. Since 2009, there has been a growing number of individuals online who serially study languages and share their experiences. Most often referred to as polyglots (or even hyperpolyglots), these people have used the Internet as a platform to further the cause and business of language learning through videos, blog posts, courses, and the like.

Polyglots who have developed their own methods and techniques often take up the mantle of the language coach. As a coach, the teach their language learning strategies to other learners in exchange for payment.

As language coaching is still a young field, there are currently no centralized and/or standardized system for language coaching, therefore qualifications and/or capabilities are difficult to evaluate reliably. Furthermore, there are no pricing standards, so coaches can set their own prices.

If you’re looking for an expert language learner to deliberately practice with, we recommend that you look online for language YouTubers, podcasters, and bloggers you admire.

Look through their offerings for mentions of language coaching or mentoring. Even better, contact the person directly and see if they are willing to take you on as a student or coachee.

How to Identify the Best Teacher or Tutor for Your Needs

Once you’ve found a language expert that could potentially be your teacher or tutor, how do you make sure he or she is right for your deliberate practice?

You have a few options:

Check Student Reviews

Online teaching and tutoring sites often feature a review and rating system that allows students to evaluate those they learn from. You can read through these reviews to get a good idea of the teacher’s style and effectiveness.

Not all reviews are useful, however. K. Anders Ericsson, father of Deliberate Practice, recommends this course of action when vetting a teacher through online ratings:

“In reading reviews of an instructor, skip over the stuff about how much fun their lessons are and look for specific descriptions of progress the students have made and obstacles they have overcome.” (Peak, 149)

Ask Native Speakers

When you’re looking for an advanced non-native or a expert language learner to help you improve your level, it is difficult to evaluate their skills without outside help.

For advanced non-natives, if possible, it is best to find video or audio of this person speaking in your target language. Then, recruit a native speaker to make a evaluation of this person’s skills based upon that media. Native speakers are hardwired to pick out non-native speech patterns, so they will be able to tell you quite quickly if your potential tutor or teacher has a good mastery of the language.

To evaluate language coaches, you can follow similar steps to the above. The only catch is that they may not actually speak your target language, so you will have to find a native speaker of one of their target languages to tell you how highly skilled the coach is.

Contact the Teacher

In the absence of third-party evaluations, the next best way to judge the suitability of a teacher or tutor is to ask them directly.

Contact them via private message, email, phone, or in person. Once you have time to converse, says Ericsson:

“Query a prospective teacher about practice exercises. No matter how many sessions a week you have with an instructor, most of your effort will be spent practicing by yourself, doing exercises the teacher has assigned. You want a teacher who will guide you as much as possible for these sessions, not only telling you what to practice on but what particular aspects you should be paying attention to, what errors you have been making, and how to recognize good performance.” (Peak, 149)

If, after conversing with the teacher, you find their approach to be suitable for your needs, you can even take things one step further by requesting a trial lesson. This will allow you to experience their teaching style firsthand before making a full-time commitment.

What to Do If Experts Are Unavailable

Depending on your individual situation, you may find that it is impossible or prohibitively difficult to find an expert teacher or tutor that will help you deliberately practice your language skills.

In the absence of a living, breathing teacher or tutor to provide modeling and feedback, here’s what K. Anders Ericsson recommends:

“To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs: Focus, Feedback. Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.” (Peak, 159)

In the realm of language learning, such self-coaching is made especially possible with the aid of native materials — target language books, movies, podcasts, videos, and the like. Since such materials are made for natives by natives, they can be used as surrogate teachers in the area of target language procedural expertise.

By comparing your language production to that of the natives in a given resource, you will notice your gaps and weaknesses, and therefore have an indication of what skills you need to deliberately practice in order to sound more like a native.

Ericsson even provides a perfect example of this in Peak:

“Students who were trying to improve their English would watch the same English movies over and over again, covering the subtitles and trying to understand what was being said. To check their comprehension, they would uncover the subtitles. By listening to the same dialogue over and over, they improved their ability to understand English much more quickly than if they’d simply watched a number of different movies.” (Peak, 158)

No One Can Do the Work For You

As much as having an expert teacher or coach is a fundamental part of deliberate practice, it is important to realize that that person is meant only to serve as a guide for language training, and is not there to do the work for you.

Even though an ideal scenario would be to have an expert coach at every level, a learner will always spend more time away from the coach than with him or her.

Depending on how far you advance in your pursuit of language skills, there is even the possibility that you will eventually surpass the ability of any teacher or coach available to you.

Once you understand what good coaching looks like, you should be able to take up the reigns of the coach by yourself, and guide your learning independently of outside aid.

In the end, deliberate practice is ultimately the responsibility of the learner. After all, as expert language learner and coach Luca Lampariello often says:

“A language cannot be taught, it can only be learned”