Isn’t that just the classic signifier or a stupid, or at least uneducated, person? How could they possibly confuse these two antonyms? And of course this mistake is especially ironic as it’s related to education and learning. However, if you’re the type of person who likes to make themselves feel smarter by noting how people make this mistake but you don’t, perhaps you need to rethink how wrong these people actually are.
You see, the two words aren’t quite as distinct as you might think. The word teach comes from the Old English word tæcan, which meant show, declare, warn, or persuade. However, there existed another Old English word, læran, which meant teach, instruct, or guide, and this is the origin of the modern word learn. And while you can see the similarities between the respective meanings of tæcan and læran, it’s curious that the meaning of læran is a little closer to the specific meaning of teach as we know it now.
At this point, you might say that this is one of those cases of a word’s original meaning drifting and evolving over time. Yes, perhaps 1,000 years ago a word that looked like learn meant teach, but now we all clearly know the difference between learn and teach, or at least we should know! Perhaps, but it’s interesting that in other modern languages we can still find words that look like learn, but mean teach, or can even mean both. The verb leren in Dutch, for example, mainly means teach, but can also mean learn. And even though in French the difference between apprendre (learn) and enseigner (teach) is generally quite clear, they can be interchangeable in some contexts. We can find a similar blurring of lines between the concepts of teaching and learning in other languages like German, Norwegian, and Serbian.
What’s to explain this then? Surely the two words are complete opposites, and therefore we couldn’t possibly find any common ground between them. It would seem so, but every concept contains some element of its opposite, if only to help define it by contrast. Light can’t exist without darkness, good without evil, and so on. And you can’t teach someone if they don’t want to learn. In a more practical sense, if you want to teach, you need to learn first. You need to learn the various techniques required to teach, but more importantly, you need to learn what you want to teach. This is simply so you know whatever it is you want to teach, so you can pass it on to your students. But more importantly, and this is something I’m not sure every teacher realises, if you’ve learned something yourself first, it helps you understand the perspective of your students, and therefore give them what they need.
When I was training to teach English, that was certainly my experience. Even though prior to the course I’d already considered myself a grammar nerd, what I found most valuable were the lessons wherein we did grammar exercises from textbooks, and basically learned the grammar for ourselves. It really opened my eyes to show me how little I actually knew about English, and helped me imagine what it might be like to be an English-language student. Even when I’d finished the course and started teaching, I was still learning on the job, as the course was intensive but short, so I couldn’t learn everything. For most English-language teachers, their first time teaching a particular grammar point involves spending a lot of time reading up on it, and making sure they can answer any questions that might come up from the exercises in the lesson. And even then it never really goes well the first time, because you can’t figure the grammar out just by reading about it. It’s only by being in the classroom and helping the students figure it out that you finally get to really understand it. That’s when you finally really learn English grammar: by learning it alongside your students.
Now, I wouldn’t say I learn so much about English by teaching anymore. Certainly I understand all the key aspects of the language, though I’ll occasionally notice some little pattern here or there. Still, though I’m not so obviously learning about teaching or English anymore, I don’t see such a clear distinction between teaching and learning. The way I approach teaching now is that I have a certain understanding of the English language, and I want the students, as much as possible to share that understanding. And I try to help them get to that stage by replicating the ways that I’ve come to understand the language. Ideally, they’d end up seeing the language the same way I do, noticing its patterns and peculiarities. In that sense then, teaching and learning aren’t so different, as I want the students to learn and understand the same way I did (while also considering of course that everyone learns in a different way, and adjusting for that). It’s about opening people’s eyes in the same way that yours have been opened, with the teacher’s role being to guide them gently towards that goal.
So perhaps someone’s not so stupid if they use learn instead of teach. Perhaps they just haven’t been as influenced by convention in seeing a distinction between the two words. Unless they’re an English teacher and they tell students that teach and learn mean the same thing. That might be a case where it’s not ok!