A Non-Speaking Native Teacher

I recently learned of a website with some questionable messaging about accent and native speaker models of pronunciation. The site presented itself as something of an advocacy group fighting accent discrimination, but their messaging actually reinforced some of the selfsame problems they claimed to combat, concluding that the solution to accent discrimination was accent reduction.

I briefly engaged with their Twitter account, articulating as best I could what was wrong with their approach. When I saw a few days later that TEFL Equity Advocates had gotten wind of the site, I was glad, and I commented to that effect. Marek then asked if I’d be interested in blogging on the topic. My response was this:

“While I definitely have some strong feelings on the matter, I don’t think I’m the right person to write this one.”

I wrote that reply quickly and without much forethought. After the fact, though, I reflected: That was really—like, really—uncharacteristic. Most of the time, my opinion is forthcoming, whether it’s been sought or not. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my urge to express my opinion is often compulsive, bordering on the pathological. If opinorrhea isn’t yet a word or diagnosis, it ought to be, in my entirely unsolicited and unqualified opinion.

But then so why did I shy away from sharing my opinion in this case?

I believe firmly in the power of advocacy, and the issue of equity in ELT is one that I’m passionate about, that I’ve written about before. I’m also pretty damned sure I know how to lay out for this dude precisely why his website is so frigging offensive. So what gives? Am I losing my edge? My nerve? Going soft in my old age?

I sat there in the lounge at O’Hare, awaiting my flight out after TESOL 2018, and thought back on what it could be that informed my reticence. The more I reflected, the surer I felt that I’d made a good decision. But why?

What I came to realize is that something in me, in my notion of what advocacy is and ought to be, has changed.

It’s a shift that reflects another that (I now know) has been happening in the world of activism for some time, since long before the message really got through to me: Passion for a cause doesn’t always translate to ad-vocating (speaking for) as loudly and as often as possible.

Sometimes as activists we take on the role of an advocate; others it’s better to adopt the stance of an ally, which comes with a language all its own. Sometimes being an ally does mean speaking up, but a whole lot of other times it means sitting down and shutting up. If you’re passionate enough about social justice that you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance that you already know this and the reasons for it.

I was born with nearly every privilege there is.

This has given me the confidence and voice and platform to speak my mind whenever I please, invited or un-. People with the same privilege profile as me have been doing an outsized share of the talking and writing and decision-making for most of recorded history, generally to the exclusion of other voices. Righting that imbalance will necessarily mean that those of us who take for granted our right to voice our opinions whenever we like need to not talk quite so goddamn much.

No matter how strong my opinions may be, there are others who are better positioned to speak about certain issues, in terms of their expertise, experience, and identity. If we profess to be allies, a massive part of that role is listening and learning, referring to and deferring to those other voices. The language of being an ally is still relatively new to me, so I won’t get in over my head; read more on this from people who know what they’re talking about here and here and here.

This does not, of course, mean that I never speak up.  These days, I find myself asking some questions before I speak up in a conversation that isn’t exactly “my” fight:

  • Have I been asked to speak up?
  • Am I the most qualified voice available to speak on this matter?
  • Has what I want to say already been said?
  • If I speak up, does that mean speaking over someone else?
  • If I do not speak up, will someone else?
  • How could my identity be informing my perspective on this topic?

Et cetera. This is hardly exhaustive.

I’m stubborn and vocal by nature, so I still fail my own test regularly (studies suggest that an increase in skull density is symptomatic of opinorrhea). I’m also in the early stages of understanding and accepting this concept, so I’m sure I haven’t put this in the best terms possible. I’m certainly not telling anyone else what form their activism ought to take. I just want to share a stage in the evolution of my own views. I’m sure I’ll reread this in two or three years and smack myself for some clumsy definitions and half-baked ideas. So be it.

I’m speaking up now because I haven’t heard much about the language of allies in the TEFL equity conversation, and I think maybe that should change.

Anyway, I’ll shut up for a bit now, and if you’re like me, maybe you will too.

rob shephardRob Sheppard is the founder of Ginseng, an online English school that proudly hires highly skilled teachers irrespective of L1. He is also co-chair of the Adult Education Interest Section at TESOL International.

6 thoughts on “A Non-Speaking Native Teacher”

  1. txbluebonnet

    Through all the decades I have served as an advocate in my communities, I have consistently shared the mantra of “Sharing Your Voice” because I believe that is the root of all advocacy.

    Today, I received an email from TEFL Equity Advocates and Academy wherein they proposed the thoughts that Advocacy is “the art of speaking or perhaps shutting up”. Shutting up? Okay, perhaps there is the addage most folks believe in that there is a time to speak and there a time to wait for the time to speak to make the most impact. The fallacy on that addage falls on the question of when is the exact moment that will make the greatest impact? And, how will we know when this is the exact moment that I should speak up?

    To answer that question, I have to go back to the days that I was an officer of a domestic violence support group here in Austin, Texas, where in a member came into the group’s meeting and voiced how “wronged” she felt she had been and how “violated” she felt. She further explained that a well-known woman’s magazine had connected with her to get her story to share in the magazine. She was excited that they wanted HER story bad enough that one of their writers had contacted her. It took so much to finally muster up and tell her story because this would be the very first time she shared her story publically. She knew that she would need to tell her story to be that moment of change for so many others to help whoever was reading the magazine at that time. She gained her strength and met with the writer and spilled all the beans of the story to the writer — only for the writer to say, after spending hours and hours talking to her over the phone for the story, “how old are you?” and saying “I’m sorry. You don’t meet our demographics so I can’t send the story in.” The writer’s perceived demographics was the teens to young adult, whereas this incredible person had had a subscription with this magazine for decades. The story this person was spilling her guts about was about when domestic violence began for her, which was in the demographics. Just because she didn’t have technology (cell phones, etc) available to her, the writer felt that it wouldn’t resonate with the perceived readership demographics. What the writer didn’t realize was that, for survivors to be in a position to feel safe to tell their story, the survivors had to wait until their life is without the threat of the abuser to come back to enact more revenge and harm. The confidence of the survivor must feel that they can tell the story without enacting the memories that affected not only her, but those family and friends around her. She had to get personal permission and validation from family and friends to finally tell her story — and that was yanked from underneath her when the writer ignored what it took for the survivor to tell the story and claimed that it wouldn’t fit the demographics based on her judgment. Needless to say, the survivor cancelled her long subscription she had for decades with that magazine because she no longer felt valued as a reader and a person.

    This was the moment of change for me in my advocacy world and I got her to come on my radio show, Beyond Words Live! (a platform for survivors to share their voice in their own words), via BlogTalkRadio. She thanked me after that sharing because I had validated her feelings, allowed her to speak, and gave her space to share her story in a way that she could feel safe. In fact, many times when I had various survivors on my show, I would allow them to choose whether or not to use their real name — after, it is not as important that they share who they are as it is for them to feel safe enough to share the story.

    The email ended by stating, “Righting that imbalance will necessarily mean that those of us who take for granted our right to voice our opinions whenever we like need to not talk quite so much.” I couldn’t disagree more.

    About a decade later after my Beyond Words Live! began and the survivor finally feeling safe to tell her story, I am proud of the youth getting involved in telling their stories, standing on the legislative lawns (both at the State and National levels), and voicing what they feel “wronged” by, what they feel should be done, and asking for their voices to be heard — after all, they are the voter constituents of tomorrow. I do feel, though, that as parents and teachers we are responsible to continue to empower them through educating them the “what’s the next step?” that will allow them to continue to have their voices heard. And, as advocates we have a due diligence and responsibility to encourage all voices to be heard — no matter at what stage of life they happen to be in. All voices are intended to be respected and heard. When we do that through space and empowerment, we finally add extra meaning behind the first three words of the U.S. Constitution, “We the people…”

    To take away from the film, Dirty Dancing, “Never put Babe in the corner!” Likewise, there is no right time to suppress and “shut up” the voices needing to be heard.

    To hear Charlotte’s story, click on this link. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/oralhistory/2011/06/11/meet-charlottewith-a-story-to-tell

    1. Hi there,

      First of all, thank you for your response. It sounds like you are doing some wonderful work in your field, and I commend you for that.

      I have to admit, I’m sort of at a loss as to how your post serves as a response to mine. You seem to have badly decontextualized and misrepresented two paraphrases only to use them as a segue to your story, which has very little to do with either the spirit or the content of my message. I have to wonder whether you actually read it.

      I’m not sure where you got the line “Advocacy is ‘the art of speaking or perhaps shutting up,'” but those are not my words. Even a cursory reading of my post would make it clear that the “shutting up” that I am referring to is (as I have stated, unequivocally) the shutting up of the privileged in situations where others are more qualified to speak and there are limited opportunities to speak. Your work raising up the voices of survivors is light years away from what I am discussing in my post.

      Let me try as best I can to contextualize my main point within the field you are talking about. I care about domestic violence. It’s not my field, but I do care about it and have done some very limited work related to it. Not too long ago, I served as leader of a community-based non-profit serving the immigrant population in my community. In that capacity I collaborated with two of the area’s domestic violence prevention and response orgs to bring their services to our population. When I would go to meetings with various people from these organizations, I was generally the person in the room with the least personal and professional experience with domestic violence. Again, I care about the issue. But when I am in a room full of women who are experts in the field, mine should not be the dominant voice at the table. When asked, I will certainly speak up. When I feel that I have a unique perspective to offer, I will do so. When I have the opportunity to use my own voice to raise or extend the voices of others, I do so. If I am in a situation where someone needs to speak up and none are forthcoming, I will certainly step up. But as the unqualified man in the room full of experts, my role is primarily to, yes, shut up and listen.

      I wish this was so obvious as to go without saying, but it is not. I regularly see people who leverage advocacy efforts as an opportunity to launch into ‘virtue signaling’, making the conversation not about the issues and the constituents, but about themselves.

      Back in my field, English language teaching, there is suddenly a great deal of advocacy around the issue of discrimination against non-native speakers. I care about this cause. But I am also surrounded by people who are vocal, qualified leaders in the field, and are themselves non-native speakers. When my voice can be of assistance to the cause, I am happy to contribute it, but native speakers should not be the voices dominating the discourse around this issue, any more than men should be dominating the discourse around women’s bodies.

  2. I think if one has an opinion, one should speak up; fruitful engagement requires understanding one’s own biases and any relevant backgrounds/biases of the interlocutors. The act of expressing one’s opinion and ultimately forming a sound argument require experience and reasoning skills that are difficult to development if one simply remains silent.

    1. Hi Benjamin,

      I certainly agree that understanding one’s own biases is very important, and that engaging with the issue is important. I came to the very opinions that I expressed in this post through active engagement with the issue.

      I am not in any way saying that we should “simply remain silent” or that we should keep our opinions to ourselves. But expressing your opinion is not synonymous with advocacy, which generally involves organizing around a cause, using platforms of power to shape discourse and policy.

      On the internet, there is space and time enough for all of us to exchange our ideas freely, and to, as you suggest, come to a deeper understand the issues and our stances toward them. On the internet person’s voice does not displace another person’s voice. But at events like TESOL or IATEFL, or in publications that carry some authority—platforms like these have a great deal of power to shape the discourse, and they importantly have limited space for voices—here, we need to be wary of talking over, of displacing other, more qualified, voices. If you have a panel on non-native speakers in the field, and that panel is dominated by native speakers, you probably have a problem.

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