Interview with Language Coach Noa

By August 10, 2020Interviews
Language Coach Interview

Many members of our community know and love Coach Noa from their classes! You might also recognize him from our popular Lunchtime Livestreams on Facebook (if not, you can check them out here!), where he introduces concepts from the Swedish language and conducts a fun, unscripted mini-lesson. We wanted to give everyone an opportunity to get to know him better, so we interviewed Noa about his approach to teaching, his background, and his favorite tips for learning new languages!

Let's start with an easy into - where are you from? Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I’ve lived, studied and worked in Stockholm my whole life. I studied linguistics (the scientific study of language and languages) with a major in typology, or “world languages.” I think languages and their differences are so cool that my interest brought me to Pakistan in the winter of 2016–2017 to talk to speakers of various languages there and do field research for my master’s thesis.

When did you start coaching with the SFP team? Is this something you originally imagined yourself doing?

When I got my degree and quit working as a research assistant in 2018, I had no plans to become a teacher, nor did I imagine that there was any route for me to do it. But when SFP presented that opportunity, I gave it a go, and it turned out to be the most fun I’ve ever had at a job!

What's your favorite part of being a language coach?

My favorite part of being a language coach is meeting people with different backgrounds, life experiences and ideas, sharing problems with them, and solving them together. In my two years of teaching, I’ve never ceased to be impressed with people’s abilities to learn—how to pronounce something, what the placement of a word at a certain place in a sentence does to its meaning, when to use what type of construction—just by striking up conversation or asking questions about something totally outside their understanding at the moment. It is incredibly rewarding.

In addition to teaching classes, you also work with the office team, so how does seeing the whole organization work together affect your vision of the company, the classes, and your job?

Previously, I might have thought that the decisions among the few individuals of an office team determine the outcome of an operation on the ground. But I’m humbled by the ingenuity of our coaches and customers, and have come to view the collaboration between our team and the thousands of individuals that make up our business as a process of improvement that goes in both directions. And I’m proud to be part of a team that takes input from coaches and customers seriously.

Tell us a little about your day to day as a coach. How do you prepare for your classes? Are there any special techniques you've learned for teaching language that you really depend on?

The day-to-day is basically hanging out with interesting people and learning new stuff.
I’ve learned not to underestimate the ability of a teacher’s and a student’s mutual commitment to weeding out errors from their own understanding of something, and sharing their thoughts with each other, to cause profound changes to their thinking.
Naturally, even the world’s most conscientious person is still a person, and so can have bad days, low self-confidence, a temporary fixation on other problems than learning a language, and so forth. With that risk in mind, I’ll always prepare concrete things to do—exercises, lectures, conversational topics—which lets the students breathe and come back to future lessons with more motivation and active participation. But at the end of the day, people make most progress when they’re guided by their own particular thoughts, feelings and ideas. So I try to encourage as much initiative from them as possible, and merely act as a guide myself, rather than a “ruler of the classroom.”
Apart from that, I prepare by maintaining a good mood and a sense of curiosity and humor. From there, a whole world of discovery opens up.

Things are a little different now that we aren't teaching classes in person. How has the switch to online classes affected you and your students?

I think most of us miss face-to-face meetings. The sense that something is missing from virtual meetings might stay with us for as long as we’re in this situation for all I know, but it seems to be due to surrounding factors, such as closeness with other people, timing, inexplicit information through facial gestures, body language and who knows what else.

What virtual lessons might be missing, I feel they can make up for in content and efficiency. The actual Swedish language itself doesn’t go anywhere: it’s still understandable, decodable, explainable, practicable. And we’ve all found that we’re able to teach, and learn, the actual language as if nothing is different.

Let’s hope for a return to real meetings soon enough, but let’s not pass on great opportunities to learn in the meantime!

What do you see as being the primary needs of your students? In teaching all levels, have you seen commonalities in the needs and struggles of students in different levels?

My impression is that most students think that what they need is more practice. Few think that what they need is more theory. But one without the other cannot go anywhere. You can practice saying a word, or putting it into different sentences, all day, but fail completely to understand what it’s for, how it’s used, and nuances in its meaning. Similarly, you can read up on the specific meanings and uses of a word, and completely fail to remember it or apply it.
For instance, Swedish learners at all levels tend to struggle with vowels, future-tense markers (skakommer atttänker …), the inflections of strong verbs, the differences in use between some prepositions (på and in particular), word-order differences between various sentence constructions, etc. But whatever the difficulty, it can be resolved, because it will come down to an understanding of a concept and a gradual correction of that understanding by using it and interacting with others who use it. Whether you’re a total beginner or have reasonable fluency, that remains true: difficulties are due to disconnects between your knowledge of something and its application.

You're a very skilled English speaker and experienced teacher; are there any special tips and tricks for learning another language you'd like to share with everyone?

Thank you! While I started learning English a little later in life than Swedish, I did it by similar means. I didn’t focus on the English language as an “end” in itself, but picked it up as I engaged with things that interested me. I would watch stand-up comedy and look up song lyrics, and almost catch myself understanding more of the language than I did a moment ago, without having put in the conscious effort. Slowly, I started reading books and making friends online—not to practice my English but to learn about what was in those books and about what those friends thought and felt about things—and over time, I’ve become fluent. Everybody discovers their native language by interacting with their environments in a similar way, just earlier in life and probably not exclusively online.

I should say I don’t think this process happens “passively.” You don’t learn by just opening your eyes and ears and letting your target language flow into you for extended periods of time. What I think happens is that you interact with content, which is filtered through your target language, in a way that specifically excites you. You’re more likely to discover gaps in your knowledge, consciously or not, and feel a desire to fill them when you enjoy what you’re doing. And I guarantee I wouldn’t have been as proficient in English as I am if I only ever watched comedy that didn’t make me laugh, listened to music that didn’t make me bob my head, read books about topics I didn’t care for and tried to make friends with people that didn’t want to be friends with me.

There’s certainly a place for more explicit knowledge-seeking about your target language, when you run into roadblocks. Even as a kid, I made diligent use of dictionaries and search engines to get the gist of words and constructions I was previously unfamiliar with, because sometimes, the context of song lyrics or comedy bits just wasn’t enough. But what would have helped me even more is to have a good English coach—in an actual teacher or in a friend—to help point out my mistakes and discuss with me along the way.

I also want to stress that I don’t think I was able to learn English because I was born with some special linguistics talent. Rather, my interest in linguistics was born out of my engagement with comedy and music (among other things) through English. Learning Swedish as a second language doesn’t require a specific interest in either languages in general or the structures of the Swedish language in particular. All it requires is an interest in things that can be expressed in Swedish.

It is, I think, ineffective and frustrating to decide beforehand what your method of learning Swedish is going to be, when you update all your other goals, aims and interests so frequently. The most effective Swedish courses I’ve ever given have been the ones where participants have invented their own methods, and daring to put out their thoughts about things they’re interested in at the moment, using whatever Swedish they know; where I’ve stepped in to point out errors, explain concepts, and guide them to the next logical step in their learning; and where they’ve updated their methods as they go along.

Tell us why everyone should learn Swedish when living in Sweden!

Swedes are notoriously difficult to practice Swedish with, because they’re keen to practice their English with you. But in broader society, there is a ton of information that is either mostly or only expressed in Swedish, from bureaucracy and politics to media and entertainment. Behind that wall of seemingly unintelligible gibberish, there’s an open, unique and fun culture. If you decide you want to tear that wall down, we at Swedish For Professionals will be happy to help, and I think it’s a worthwhile aim for anyone intending to stay here for some time.

Just one last thing, for fun. Any hobbies or interests you want to share with us?

I hop from one interest to the next quite frequently. I’m into all sorts of music, from old to new, Western to Eastern, jazz to hip-hop, and I make my own using digital audio workstations too. I like reading non-fiction, especially in philosophy, the natural sciences, technology, finance and history. I run, cook, play video games, and hang out with my fellow language-geek girlfriend.

A huge thank you to Noa for sitting down for this interview! Don’t forget to check out our Swedish classes for individuals here, as well as our summer Crash Courses, running during August! You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn to keep up with our latest news, programs, and resources!

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