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Equity without myths or stereotypes by Michael Griffin

On 20th May James Taylor published a post on this blog entitled: Why I wish I was a non-native speaker of English, which caused quite a stir and a very enthusiastic response. I really encourage you to read both James’ post and the comments below it, before (or after) reading this post by Michael Griffin.

In a nutshell, James exposed the problem of discrimination against NNESTs in TEFL and showed that it is based on illogical prejudices:

“As someone from the UK who teaches English as a foreign language, the country of my birth is a huge advantage to me. As has been well documented on this blog, I am much more likely to get a job than someone from Japan, Algeria or Brazil, no matter how qualified or experienced they are. For some students, having a native speaker teacher has a certain cachet, as in most countries it is unusual and many of them think that it means they have a better teacher as a result. So both employers and students seem to think that because I’m English, I must be a better teacher, which has got to be good for me.”

In the post he argued that NNESTs are not worse teachers than NESTs, but that they actually have many strengths which the latter could never have, e.g. NNESTs can better advise students on language learning strategies. As many of us, James hopes these strengths are finally acknowledged by all recruiters and students, so that both NESTs and NNESTs are given equal opportunities of employment:

“I would rather be judged by my ability, experience and qualifications equally against anyone else who wishes to apply for the same job. It’s not to my advantage, but that’s the world I want to live in.”

While Michael Griffin shares James’ opinion that native speakers are unjustly favoured within TEFL, and that we need to start treating all teachers equally, he proposes a different approach to fight against the discrimination, which hopes to deal away with some prevalent myths and stereotypes.

Michael Griffin: “As a fan of this blog I was thrilled and honored when Marek Kiczkowiak asked me if I might be interested in contributing something here. I was even more honored and pleased when I saw one of the first pieces on the blog was an interview with Peter Medgyes which is well worth reading. Back in 2012 I wrote about some of my thoughts on what Medgyes listed as advantages of “NNEST” Teachers.

In this current post I’d like to share a more concise and maybe even more balanced view of my thoughts on the advantages Medgyes listed. I do this with full respect for Dr. Medgyes and full knowledge that his list comes from a long time ago and was a useful addition to the conversations of that time.  I am also aware what I am saying is not exactly groundbreaking and has been covered by others in much greater depth and with greater lucidity.

My excitement about writing a guest post on this blog turned into a bit of trepidation when I saw the excellent post from James Taylor last week because my post (which incidentally I wrote before seeing his) might seem to go against many of the points in his, especially at first glance. Something we surely agree on is that native speakers are often unjustly advantaged in the field and this is something that needs to change.

The final caveats before I truly start is to say I am not sure how helpful it is to continue talking in these binary terms nor I am sure exactly what terms like native speaker and non-native speaker really mean, but I will use them here for the purpose of discussion.

In “The Non-native Teacher” Medgyes shares some advantages of non-native teachers over native speaking teachers. They are as follows:

a) Only non-NESTS can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English…

b) Non-NESTS can teach learning strategies more effectively…

c) Non-NESTS can provide learners with more information about the English language…

d) Non-NESTs are more able to anticipate language difficulties…

e) Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners…

f) Only non-NESTS can benefit from sharing the learners’ mother tongue…

One key theme that emerged from the discussion on my aforementioned blog post was that Dr. Medgyes’s list might be more applicable to monolingual native speakers without training. If that is the case then perhaps the list is a bit more palatable and understandable for me.

The original list doesn’t seem to allow for native speakers who have learned another language, let alone the students’ L1, which seems both confusing and problematic. Surely an L1 user of English can be a nice model for her (as an example) Czech speaking students if she uses Czech to a high level. In this case, she is admittedly not an imitable model of a successful learner of English but is perhaps a good (and imitable) model of a language learner. The teacher I just described would, of course, also benefit from the ability to use the students’ mother tongue, albeit not as a mother tongue. By simply believing native speakers are capable of learning other languages and even the students’ L1 I think  we have called points F and A into question.

Anticipating language difficulties, as in point D, is not something only NNESTs can do, is it? I can see how knowing the students’ L1 could be helpful here but I don’t think it is the only factor. What about training? What about thorough planning? What about experience and reflecting on experience? What about a knowledge of language and second language acquisition? What about knowing our students and having strategies and techniques to know them and their abilities? I think these are key factors in teachers anticipating language difficulties and more important than the simple fact of the teacher’s L1. On a personal level I’d like to think that all those hours I spent in pain with About Language were not in vain. I’d like think that this experience and knowledge can be and has been helpful for my students.

Point E reads, ”Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners.” Sure they can be. So can men. And women. And physics teachers. And math teachers. And teachers born on Tuesdays. Or left-handed teachers. Or not. I don’t think this category makes much sense and I don’t think NNESTs have a monopoly on empathy. Could we agree that this comes down to more individual and personal factors?

Just like empathy, I don’t think NNESTs inherently have a greater ability to teach learning strategies or information about the English language. Nor do I think NESTS do. There are variations about the degree of knowledge in these areas that vary widely and wildly and are not necessarily based on the teacher’s L1. I have personally met many native speakers armed with a thorough knowledge of learning strategies and way for effectively highlighting and teaching these. I have met NNESTs with very limited knowledge in these areas. I have also met NNESTs who were convinced their way of learning English was the only way and I have watched as they forcibly and to my mind unsuccessfully pushed these ways on students. I am not indicting all NNESTS for this, because that would be silly. It is just something I have seen. I have met NNESTS with wide knowledge of learning strategies. I have also met NNESTS with an incredibly deep knowledge on the English language and NESTS without. And vice versa. And all points between.

I don’t mean to disregard or disrespect the work that English teachers around the world (the vast majority of them NNESTs) do and I surely don’t want to ignore the efforts many have made to become successful users of English. From my view, the idea that native speakers are automatically better teachers is equally as wrong as the idea they are automatically worse in the areas listed above. Likewise, I don’t think NESTS are inherently better or worse at teaching speaking or listening nor do I think NNESTS are inherently better or worse at teaching grammar or learning strategies. I don’t think anyone is a better or worse teacher based only on their mother tongue. I hope I provided at least some food for thought here without sounding like someone who is whining and defending the reputations of a group that probably doesn’t need much defending. I thank you very much for reading and I thank Marek for offering me the chance to share some thoughts here. I am looking forward to continuing the discussion in the comments.”

Michael Griffin, currently working in the Graduate School of International Studies at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, has been in the ELT field for nearly 15 years. In that time he has held a wide variety of positions and titles including cover instructor, curriculum designer, teacher-trainer, trainer-trainer, general layabout, English camp instructor, and Assistant Director. He is actively involved in #KELTchat and is an #iTDi mentor. You can read his blog here and is @michaelegriffin on Twitter.

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Sandy Paila
Guest

There are some fabulous non-native teachers around and I’ve worked with quite a few ,I am not sure why this is now such an issue , communication breakdown maybe or just a whole lot of complexes having a tiff.

Torn Halves
Member

The main argument here seems to be: Someone from one category is not necessarily better/worse than someone from the other category. True. But does this get anywhere near the roots of the problem? In my experience, some schools owners know full well that NEST teachers can be worse – far worse – that NNEST teachers, and yet a certain number of jobs are reserved for NESTs, regardless of whether that is explicitly mentioned in any job advert that might be published. Why? Isn’t it because the NEST sells? The world of English is not a world of equity. Perhaps it… Read more »

mikecorea
Guest

Hello and thanks for reading and commenting. I (the writer of the post above) apologize for not dealing with all your points. I enjoyed your overview on the business of ELT and think it is well worth reading. Regarding the post above, you write, “The main argument here seems to be: Someone from one category is not necessarily better/worse than someone from the other category. True. But does this get anywhere near the roots of the problem?” I think one point I’d like to make is that it might in fact be useless to keep talking in terms of NNEST… Read more »

Torn Halves
Member

Mike, Thanks for the reply. You highlight the idea that the NEST-NNEST distinction should be dropped (by people like those taking part in the conversation here). WE shouldn’t talk in this way any more. The impulse behind that (the impulse for equity) is respectable and not to be dismissed, but there is room here for at least one more post on your blog looking at two issues: 1. The question of strategy: Compare the civil rights movement in the US. Doubtless one or two people suggested to Malcolm X that talk of black and white should be dropped. We are… Read more »

Torn Halves
Member

Or, in other words, perhaps what is being suggested on this post is not equity without myth, but equity as myth, i.e. equity as a form of utopian thinking – the utopianism involved in assuming that we can leave the empire of English unchallenged, and as long as we all stop talking in a divisive way about mythical native speakers and non-native speakers, we will all live in an equitable harmony within that empire. The result? No one will mention “native speaker” in job adverts. But there won’t be much change in the number of jobs going to white, able-bodied,… Read more »

mikecorea
Guest

Thanks for this poignant series of comments.
“Equity as myth” hit me pretty hard! 🙂

From where I am sitting it is not about simply avoiding a label because it is simply uncomfortable or something like that.

It is also about the fact that native speaker is such a fuzzy term and non native speaker starts from the deficit.

That said, I think you points about framing it from a place of exerting change (like a movement). Thanks again.

Angie
Guest
Angie

I’m inclined to add that the concept of “Native” is confusing to me. I’m from the United States so I will use my own cultural context. Let’s say an American (caucasian) is hired because he/she is a native speaker. But what does “native” mean? His/her parents could have immigrated from Italy or Germany whose 1st language is NOT English….The teacher is about as Native as I am even though I was born in Korea and went to the states as a wee baby of 18 months and I too have immigrant parents. If you want to talk about “Native” this… Read more »

mikecorea
Guest

I think your example, Angie, relates to why I wrote, “I am not sure how helpful it is to continue talking in these binary terms nor I am sure exactly what terms like native speaker and non-native speaker really mean, but I will use them here for the purpose of discussion.” T I fully agree with you on these terms being confusing and with lots of room for different interpretations and meanings attached. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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[…] On 20th May James Taylor published a post on this blog entitled: Why I wish I was a non-native speaker of English, which caused quite a stir and a very enthusiastic response. I really encourage you…  […]

James Taylor
Member

Thanks for sharing your reflections Mike, and as you can imagine, I’m broadly in agreement with you in that there are plenty of things that NEST’s can do to make up for the differences I pointed out in my post. Language learning and training are the minimum requirements. The point of my post, however, was to embolden the NNEST’s and to give them the confidence to assert themselves and their strengths. While I like your idea of abandoning the “binary terms” that frame this discussion, I don’t see how this process of ’emboldening’ is possible without a collective banner of… Read more »

mikecorea
Guest

Thanks for the response, James. As I said in the post I was a bit leery following your great post (especially since I wrote mine before reading yours and mostly as a revamp of a post I wrote ages ago on the ideas of Medgyes, which seem to be very well connected with yours.) You wrote that the point of your post “was to embolden the NNESTs and give them confidence to assert themselves and their strengths.” It looks from here that it was successful based on the positive response your post got. Aside from the use of the NNEST… Read more »

James Taylor
Member

I’ll concede that you have a point when you say that the NNEST label highlights what those teachers are not as opposed to what they are – any suggestions for a better label? 🙂

mikecorea
Guest

Hi James, I am partial to the term “L2 user of English” but at the same time I think this could just be seen as dressing things up and trying to be over the top politically correct. One of the many important takeaways from the NNEST EVO course I took this winter was that the term NNEST is often favored as part of the movement (which I think speaks to your point about a sense of unity and self definition.) http://evosessions.pbworks.com/w/page/71049098/2014_NNESTEVO I think in the last few months I have become less sensitive to the terms NS and NNES and… Read more »

silversal
Guest

What is a native speaker?

As an Irish NEST, I’m a kind of divergent mongrel who delivers all the more clarity because of that;)

new balance 410 hbb
Guest

Hey! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog.
Is it very hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick.
I’m thinking about creating my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any ideas or suggestions?
Appreciate it

trackback

[…] article: ’Native or non–native: who’s worth more?’ misses the point slightly. As Michael Griffin has shown, the answer is neither. Both groups can make equally good or bad teachers. It’s all down to the […]

Simon
Guest
Simon

I enjoyed the blog – food for thought indeed. It would also be interesting to open this idea out to include teachers of other languages, as this is far from an ELT issue. A number of my friends, for example, have found themselves pretending to be from Spain in order to get more lucrative deals with private learners of thy language here in Moscow. This has included a couple of native Spanish speakers from Latin America (which echoes the point already made about NESTs not from traditionally recognised English-speaking nations). Unfair? Dishonest? Perhaps, but these teachers felt it was the… Read more »

Iffat
Guest
Iffat

My ELT timeline upon reflection in light of the above posts: 1) the ‘native Arab’ head of an institution in the Middle East rejects my application (without mincing his words) because of their policy to hire NESTs. 2) British Council across the road from the same institution rejects my application for want of CELTA, but lets me in on an admin position which I accept to get a foot in the door. 3) Post CELTA, British Council hires me with immediate effect. I accumulate almost three years of full time teaching experience although in a part-time teaching capacity. 4) I… Read more »

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[…] this post, but Michael Griffin – while wholeheartedly in favour of equity – pointed out some drawbacks of the approach James (and before him Peter Medgyes) had taken. Yet a different idea came from […]

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[…] Academic Directors such as Varinder Unlu, who works for International House London. This is because the two groups can bring different characteristics into the classroom, learning from each other and improving as teachers. So while NESTs might be experts in language […]

Nada Radenkovic
Guest

Reblogged this on Nada Radenković and commented:
FINALLY THE NATIVE AND NON-NATIVE TEACHERS HAVE SPOKEN!!!

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[…] I agree with Selvi (2014) and Michael Griffin that Medgyes’ question misses the point. By dividing teachers into two antagonistic and […]

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[…] help from Michael Griffin (see his post “Equity without myths or stereotypes” here), Eszter Hajdics (her talk on NNEST strengths can be viewed here), Chio Rojas and Peter Lahiff, […]

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[…] time we faced this delusion head on and put to rest, as Michael Griffin did in this article, the old question: “Native or non-native: who’s worth more?” posed by the great Peter Medgyes […]

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[…] the two groups as if they were separate entities can lead to creating even more stereotypes (read this article by Michael Griffin). After all, both NESTs and NNESTs need to undergo pedagogical training and to […]

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