What do students think and feel about Native Speaker English? by Steve McVeagh

Why is this important? 

Six years ago, during postgraduate study, I first considered the idea that Native Speaker English (NSE) might not be the one English model to rule them all. I read Bhatt and Pennycook  on Singaporean and Indian English, and others, and Modiano and Jenkins  on universal concepts like EIL. There was support for the orthodoxy in Kuo, and Timmis notably brought students’ views into the discussion.

In these times of extensive choice, it should be possible to provide different approaches and models for different students, depending on their reasons for learning the language. Yet I wasn’t convinced this was happening in classrooms around the world. I felt much of this debate was taking place in academic circles, while students performed in a separate sphere. While educators obviously need to discuss what is best for learners, this should be intertwined with awareness of what drives those learners. I wanted to delve deeper into this.

What was investigated?

My research was titled “Are learners’ attitudes to Native Speaker English compatible with their expected use of English in the future?” I had a questionnaire of 11 multi-choice questions, some with subdivisions, answered by 74 English learners. There were five questions on students’ feelings about NSE, and how much these were reflected in their use of the language. Three more probed expected future use, the other three related to learning histories. Results from these latter two groups of questions were cross-tabulated with those concerning attitudes, to look for patterns that may have explained the existence of beliefs.

More than anything, the data revealed the need for further investigation. If a final answer to the title question was required, it would be negative.

I found no clear link between what students had done, or intended to do, and how they felt about, or used, NSE. There was overall, but not overwhelming, support for the traditional view placing NSE atop the mountain of models but there was no clear correlation with any specific conditions to suggest factors that influenced that view, or alternative ones. I will return to the significance of this lack of definitiveness later.

Before that, a look at the results.

Attitudes to NSE

I wanted to see if learners worked towards NSE in their practice. In Q1, respondents were asked to choose which one of three sentences they felt most akin to. 52% went for the evidently pro-NSE option: “When I use English I always try to use it like a Native Speaker.” The other options were the opposing “I don’t try to use English like a Native Speaker.” (19%), and the more centrist, EIL flavoured “When I use English I use what I think is best for the person I am using it with.”(29%)

Q2 surveyed respondents’ (dis)agreement with several positions – “NSs use the correct style of English” (66% agreed); “NSE is only important for use with NSs” (64% disagreed); “Using NSE makes speaking English harder for NNSs” (59% disagreed). These around two-thirds majorities were still less than I had expected, based on my classroom experience.

I wondered if the pro-NSE feelings I had heard expressed so often had been given uncritically whereas here there was deeper consideration of the topic. That there was stronger support for pro-NSE views, in Q2’s results, than for NSE use, in Q1’s, may hint that how learners actually use English doesn’t always match their stated beliefs about the learning process (although this analysis was later contradicted somewhat– see Q11).

Expected future use

The next question started looking at the future for reasons for attitudes. There was roughly a half-half split for those who expected to live in an NS country, and those who didn’t. The more noteworthy point was that future plans seemed to have no bearing on views of NSE. The 52% of NSE-aligned users from Q1, and the ⅔ of pro-NSE views from Q2, were replicated across both groups in Q3. One might expect the respondents showing pro-NSE attitudes in Qs 1 and 2 to have made up the bulk of those bound for NS countries. Yet there was just as much support for NSE as prestige from those not intending to live in an NS culture.

This theme was repeated in much of the subsequent results. Indeed, it was probably the outstanding point.

Another question concerned whom the respondents expected to use English with. Most chose either a mix, or “mostly NSs”. A few chose “mostly NNSs”. Again, the 52% pro-NSE score from Q1 was more or less repeated across each of the fields. Those choosing “mostly NSs” had not expressed more pro-NSE views than those choosing “mostly non-NSs”. So, if we assume an ideal route from (non)NSE-centric use and practice to participation in (non)NSE culture, we would conclude from this that attitudes to NSE were not compatible with future use.

There were several questions – one on how much they expected to use English at work/ socially/ consuming media, and two on learning correct grammar and idiomatic English – that all returned very one-sided results. They expected to use English everywhere, and wanted to learn all facets. There was no value in cross referencing these results to look for patterns among different sub-groups.

Possible reasons from the past

Q8 saw the focus shift to the past. It asked who respondents’ teachers had been, and found a roughly equal split of NSs and NNSs. Again, when analysed in conjunction with results for Qs 1 and 2, no clear differential appeared. The NSE-imitating 52% from Q1 went up to almost 60% for students with more NSTs, and down to below 50% for their counterparts with more NNSTs – an expected direction of movement, perhaps.

However, support both for NSE’s being “the correct style”, and for saying it doesn’t “make communication harder” was less likely among those with more NSTs than among all respondents – probably an unexpected direction of movement.  The idea that NSE is only important when communicating with NSs was unaffected – results for this part of Q2 were closely replicated across all sub-groups of Q8.

Question 9 asked where people had learned English – the bulk had done so in NNS countries. Question 10 focused on learning activities – realia, L2 only classes, learning about NS countries. The main theme continued –scores from Qs 1 and 2 were reflected across nearly all the different response fields. There was one deviation – among those who had learned in “mostly NS countries”. 63% of these always tried to use NSE. Comparing this with the 52% figure from Q1 suggests some environmental influence, this time adhering to the “ideal route”.

Attitudes to NSE (again)

Q11 returned to the topic of views of NSE. 54% said it was easier to communicate with NNSs. Less than half of these (23% of all participants) said they always try to use NSE. A tick in the box for the pro-intelligibility model, perhaps?

Maybe, but 88% of all participants said they prefer to communicate with NSs.

So, a discrepancy between what is easier and what students prefer. It might be that students like to test themselves in tougher waters, presumably in pursuit of the holy grail of NS proficiency. This, though, is at odds with a comparison of the first two questions’ returns, showing more people value NSE than always try to use it.

What next?

So, a mixed bag element to the final piece of analysis, to add to the absence of obvious factors shaping students’ thoughts and actions about the English they use. There wasn’t unfettered love for NSE, nor wholesale dismissal of it. More tellingly, there was no obvious commitment towards practising that which would best suit their futures, while examining backgrounds did not reveal prominent influence either. Yet all this is, in itself, revealing.

If students are not acting in accordance with how they have been taught, or with what they hope to achieve, or, even, what they claim to believe, then the systems that are teaching them are surely not running as smoothly as they could.

For all the academic arguments about NSE, EIL et al, it seems students are ploughing on none the wiser. Discussions regarding what model is best for students to learn will doubtless continue, but they’ll fall short in their impact if the learners are disconnected.

At the very least, there are clearly other factors affecting their views and actions in this area. We need to know more about their hopes, desires, and motives. We can form ideas about what is best in relation to students’ intentions, but these should be partnered with knowledge of why they feel something similar or different. Knowing more about where they’ve come from, where they’re going, and why, is vital to helping them on their journey. A good deal more research in this area is required.

About the Author

Steve McVeagh has previously taught in India, Japan, Thailand, Turkey, and Spain. He has an MA in English Language Teaching, in which he studied socio-political and cultural factors around native speaker English, and this remains a main area of interest for him. He is now teaching online, with students from all around the world.

Link to questionnaire

Link to results

References:

Bhatt, R.M. (2001) World Englishes, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 30, pp 527-550

Pennycook, A. (2008) English as a Language Always in Translation, European Journal of  English Studies, Vol. 12 (1) April, pp. 33-47.

Modiano, M. (2000) Linguistic Imperialism, cultural integrity and EIL, ELT Journal, Vol. 55 (4)  pp339-346

Jenkins, J. (2002). A sociolinguistically based, empirically researched pronunciation syllabus for English as an International Language, Applied Linguistics, Vol. 23(1), pp. 83-103.

Kuo, I. V. (2006) Addressing the issue of teaching English as a Lingua Franca, ELT Journal Vol. 60 (3) pp. 213–21.

Timmis, I. (2002) ‘Native-speaker norms and international English: a classroom view’. ELT Journal Vol. 56(3)pp 240–9.

5 thoughts on “What do students think and feel about Native Speaker English? by Steve McVeagh

  1. Shannon Storey says:

    I find this paragraph particularly interesting:

    “However, support both for NSE’s being “the correct style”, and for saying it doesn’t “make communication harder” was less likely among those with more NSTs than among all respondents – probably an unexpected direction of movement. The idea that NSE is only important when communicating with NSs was unaffected – results for this part of Q2 were closely replicated across all sub-groups of Q8.”

    From this, I gather than many students who have had NSTs – that is, those who have opinions influenced by personal experience – have discovered that first language does not guarantee quality of teaching. I am wondering if the second sentence is a sign that these better-informed respondents have also discovered from experience that NSs tend to be less patient interlocutors than NNSs. Both these findings would be well worth deeper investigation.

  2. Carrie says:

    „Native speaker teachers tend to be less patient interlocutors”
    How can anecdotal generalisations like this help the debate?

  3. Steve McVeagh says:

    It would definitely be worth investigating the extent of negative consequences of teachers’ being employed purely on NS credentials. My earliest roles were acquired on that basis, before I’d properly trained, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my students compared me unfavourably to well qualified, experienced NNSTs they’d had, with possible repercussions for overall feelings towards NSE. I’d also suspect my results owed something to students who hadn’t had a lot of exposure to NSTs continuing to hold the traditional view that NSE is best, regardless of the situation.

  4. Philip Tsirtsonis says:

    Very interesting research Steve. I was wondering; have you written it up as a paper that I might be able to obtain? I’d like to see whether it could be useful for my thesis, and how I might reference it.

    Also, I’m performing similar reach myself, and am still recruiting students to complete my survey (online). Perhaps some of your students might be interested?

    If you’d like to help, my email is p.tsirtsonis8776@student.leedsbeckett.ac.uk.

    Kindest regards,

    Philip.

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