Language Death: The Case For Lifetime Language Maintenance for EFL Teachers

You can “lose” your language. After you learn a language, you must maintain your ability to use a language. Without maintenance, a learned language will wither away and die. Let there be no doubt about that.

Language death is a constant threat to English Language Teachers in Chile. In fact, if you are a non-native teacher of English as a Foreign Language, anywhere in the world, you must actively practice your language if you want to maintain your language proficiency.

Language Death

Communicative competence, or better said, competency in a foreign language that one has learned, is not something that remains forever after you achieve a successful score on the First Certificate in English (FCE) examination, or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

To put this very simply: A successful test result is a lifetime achievement, yes, but only a “snapshot” of a particular moment in your life. It does not reflect your current ability, capacity, or proficiency level.

Again, a language must be maintained. “Language death” is what happens when a language is not used, is misused, or is in disuse.

So let’s imagine you graduate from university with a successful Cambridge Advanced English (CAE) certificate. You are good for life, right? Your level of English has been validated for your entire career as an English Language Teacher, right?


If you begin to teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL) to students in the 5th and 6th grade, trust me, you will not be using advanced English vocabulary or grammatical structures with those students. Your level of English will have to be adapted to the needs and linguistic stage of development of your students. We can agree on that.

Let’s go forward in time. It’s two years later. All you have been doing for the past two years is teaching 5th and 6th graders. How’s your English? Is it still CAE? Or has your ability decreased to the level of FCE?

Let’s repeat the process. It’s 5 years later now. All you have been doing is teaching English to 5th and 6th graders. How’s your English? Is it still FCE or has it dropped to PET?

Let’s repeat the process. It’s 10 years later. All you have been doing is teaching English to 5th and 6th graders. Are you still at the PET level? Or is KET now? Lets be honest and ask: Can you even still speak English?

Language ability is a product of continuous maintenance. It is very real. Like any well-trained muscle it can be wonderful, a thing of beauty, something to be admired. However, like any muscle that is not regularly exercised, it can decline, decrease in size, atrophy, decay, wither away, and die.

Now, I have to ask you for your judgement. Is it enough to simply require teachers of English as a foreign language to successfully complete a language qualification such as FCE, CAE, CPE, TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC, etc?

I think it is obvious that high standards for English Language Teachers language competency must go beyond achieving a successful score on a one time exam, taken once in a lifetime. Language ability is not valid for life.

Teachers must be required to recertify their language competency at regular time intervals, at least every two years.

Without such a policy, language death will nullify whatever benefits are gained by requiring university English pedagogy training programs to train future teachers to a high level.

Language Death is the Elephant in the room.

This is a critical issue that must be addressed at the same time that universal standards for graduates of English pedagogy training programs are addressed. Failure to do so will be evidenced by an unexplainable lack of progress in student achievement.

The question will be: What happened? Why are all these highly qualified, linguistically competent teachers not able to have a positive impact on the learning of English?

The answer of course will be a simple one: It’s because there is no mechanism in place, no policy for continuous professional development that requires teachers to demonstrate linguistic competency on a regular basis.

Language Death is caused by the inability of teachers to maintain their language competency over the entire course of their career as a teacher. Language competency, or knowing the English language well enough to speak, read, write and understand spoken English, is not a permanent condition.

To prevent language death, and the negative consequences of this phenomenon, teachers of English as a foreign Language should be tested by the Ministry of Education, or some other governmental examining body, every 2 years, as a minimum.

Failure to pass such a test should result in disqualification to teach.

Chile may be experiencing a severe shortage of trained, qualified EFL teachers, but before we knowingly allow teachers who can not even speak English, to teach English, we should simply stop teaching English.

We can always find something more productive to occupy the students’ time…

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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