Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | December 27, 2008

When English is a second language of a teacher

English is not my mother tongue, and I wish to say a few words to fellow sufferers who, like me, are forced to strain their voice cords by giving lectures in a foreign tongue to audiences of up to 200 students.

 I came to Britain already having had some serious teaching experience. It was obvious for me that I had to take special care of quality of my English and I sought advice from a professional teacher of English. She videotaped one of my lectures (strongly recommend!) and helped me to identify two key issues: articulation and projection of voice.

 These are interesting points. Many mathematicians frequently “talk to the blackboard”, forced to combine talking with writing long formulae on the blackboard. I always liked to look at the audience, but here it became clear that I had to entirely exclude even occasional “talking to blackboard”. My English was sufficiently blurred by a different pattern of articulation of my mother tongue, so to hide my lips from students meant to further impair communication. I took the advice very seriously and soon realised that the best way to separate writing on the blackboard from speaking was to follow simple rules:

  1.   I try not to speak when I am writing. 
  2. When I have to say something, I stop writing and press the chalk against the board immediately at the end of a phrase or a formula, so that later I am able continue my writing exactly from the point where I stopped. 
  3. Then I turn to the audience — keeping right hand with chalk in it on the board (I am right-handed). 
  4. I use this movement to free my diaphragm and rib cage and fill my lungs with air — the outstretched arm helps me to take in a proper breath. 
  5. Then I speak, looking at the audience, making eye contact and projecting my voice into the lecture theater. (A side remark: calm relaxed breathing means confident speech. In a large lecture theater, students’ independence is suppressed by crowd dynamics, and they are much more receptive to non-verbal and subconscious clues in communication. Good breathing technique is the first step to mastering crowd control. By the way, the chalk pressed against the blackboard at the end of a unfinished line perhaps plays the same role as a watch on a chain or a wand in hands of a stage magician — it works as a focus of the audience’s attention and emphasises that the lecturer remains in control.)

I believe that over almost two decades of my work in Britain I delivered some decent lectures, but I felt that my voice cords were under constant strain. This is why I arranged a session with a professional voice coach. It took her less than a minute to diagnose the problem. She asked me to pretend standing at a blackboard and say, as I usually do in the lectures, a few opening words — in English and then the same phrase in my native tongue. The problem was obvious – in English I was speaking in unnaturally low voice, much lower than I normally speak in my native language. This puts a strain on voice cords. Some exercises recommended by the coach (and even more so – a simple awareness of the problem) helped.

 Therefore my advice to my colleagues (especially non-British ones):

  1.  Even if you feel that your lecture technique is OK, propose to the Staff Development Office that they do something useful instead of their usual Powerpoint training and request them to arrange a one-to-one session with a professional voice coach.
  2. You may find that it is best to avoid whiteboards — felt pens are made for writing by hand and wrist; small movements of fingers and hand suppress breathing. When writing with chalk on a blackboard, we move the whole arm, which assists the proper ventilation of lungs. The worst thing that you can do is to write on a transparent film directly on the plate of an overhead projector — it is very difficult to avoid reducing your voice to a whisper. 
  3. Try to videotape and watch your lectures (but be prepared for a shock!). 
  4. Teaching is not a science, it is art. Moreover, it is a performance art. Some lessons of theatrical acting (basic stuff – posture, voice, stage movement) would really help.


  1. This is really good advice that I will be putting into practice in a year when I start teaching. I’d love to see more posts like this with advice for teachers of mathematics.

  2. Thank you for this post – it’s useful even for those who do have English as their first language.

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