On H2O, Bella and the courage to be yourself by Katarzyna Komorek

I just can’t get rid of that thought recently that the native vs non-native speaker teacher dilemma is oddly similar to the one concerning drinking water (be forgiving please, as I’m zero-waste lifestyle obsessed at the moment).

Why? Because we reached for bottled water (natives) thinking that it’s better for us than tap (non natives). Whilst it takes just a little bit of research to learn that it is not always the case. It even appears that the two kinds may and often do present the same proprieties. The tests show another funny analogy: sometimes tap is better, sometimes the bottled one is. So how did we come to believe this? Well, the answer is simple: because some strongly determined guys had great marketing skills. That’s all it is, as for water. As for native vs non-native speaker teacher dilemma it is obviously a little bit more complicated…

The “mono” myth

Have you heard of that 4 year-old Russian girl named Bella who speaks seven languages “without a prominent accent“?

Her parents “hired native tutors for each new language” and because they wanted her “to speak English like a native speaker, the mother spoke with Bella in English and Russian from birth, alternating every other day”. The parents also “organize small educational excursions with native speakers”.

But also: “The budding linguist practices English with her mother, and is tutored by native speakers for other languages”.  So there it is NNESTs: good news! Bella managed to learn English from her Russian mom! Hurrah!

Not that much hope for me though…

You see, I am a French language teacher. And, to some people’s surprise, “French” doesn’t appear on any of my official documents. Apparently, that would make my choice of profession more credible. So in order to get some recognition, I need to be passed through tests just like tap water. Now, the results may improve the image some people have of me. But no matter what I do, (un)fortunately I can’t change my own label.

But let’s get back to the Russian toddler. As soon as I heard of her I started reading because coming from a perfectly monolingual environment I can’t help being fascinated by these stories of bi and multilingual children. And the thing that stroke me was the fact that the reoccurring term in all the articles was “native”.

But wait a second! Has she even had time to become native to her mother tongue?

I believe some linguists and child development specialists would argue. But it didn’t end there.

The commentators would notice her perfect accent was particularly noticeable when she spoke French! Apparently, the French is richer (?) in accent than any other language (???), therefore the results are better when it is taught by natives. So there we are using native speakers to teach this girl who is as a result multilingual. It is even kind of funny, don’t you think?

But what are we really hoping to achieve? Maximize her chances of getting the most out of a language by using “perfect” models (that we know don’t exist elsewhere but in our heads)? Turn her into a native speaker of all of these languages? Give her a linguistic and identity schizophrenia?

I hope not.

We just want to teach her many languages at a time and that is great. And whether Bella’s a prodigy or not she also illustrates the language learning rule that the more you know the easier it is to learn even more.

But why can’t we brag we’ve done that with the help of non native speaker teachers? And will Bella be able to become a recognized language teacher in her adult life? Or does her credibility and empowerment finish on being a student?

What is the most awkward in Bella’s story for me is that the parents somehow unconsciously seem to contribute to perpetuate the message: the way to success leads through native speakers. But she still learned English from her Russian mom, didn’t she? 

The “multi” reality

Ok, I’m writing all this because I happen to be a French teacher without a French passport. Neither Belgian, Canadian, Congolese or Algerian. But what French language has got to do with Algeria? Well, yes, colonialism, sadly. Fortunately, though, it was reappropriated as a communication tool and is widely used as a lingua franca there. So could you imagine having a French teacher with an African accent?

I’ve thought a lot throughout my teaching experience about the role of the “nativeness”concept and the controversy it arouses. Some of them might be specific to the language I happen to teach. But others are common to all languages.

Just like the following question: how did it happen that we started to attach so much importance to a concept that we can’t really properly define?

The native speaker understood as a universal, ideal and original model just doesn’t exist, we know it by now. Chomsky accidentally contributed to this myth because for some reason someone understood his words literally.

It seems that the former empires saw no inconvenience because this is how they were still able to assure their cultural influence in territories where they were losing political power. The industry followed, scenting higher rates for classes with the luxury authentic, one and only “native speaker”. One could say some kind of inverted colonial import phenomenon started to happen. We used to get coffee from Guatemala. Now we send “native speakers” there.

The little Russian girl might be specially gifted but we also know we’re all born with this kind of a linguistic tabula rasa onto which our parents, our environment, school, friends etc. engrave our language patterns and habits, accents… So from scratch it is possible to engrave literally anything, from Switzertuch to Inuit and every single “native speaker” of it will be different and will also master to different extent different language skills.

And yet we are stuck on being impressed by the toddlers accent! And specifically the French one. But what if her French had an African melody? And if the small girl spoke with a Russian accent would she still be all over the news? Would she be admired with the same awe? Or would she be considered comical?

I think the right question to ask should be: would that change anything in her intelligibility and communication skills? Or would it only influence our perception of her as a language user or even a person? 

The hypocrisy of the market

By the beginning of June 2017 three major websites advertising French teaching jobs around the globe put up 159 ads, only 4 of which did mention a precise language level required for the position (twice C1 and once C2) and one of them actually referred to English, important for daily life communication in the given country of expatriation. Other than that, only “native speaker” or having French as a “mother tongue” is the language level requirement term that is used all across the globe from France to Japan. But it goes even further sometimes: one school in India does “positive discrimination” prioritizing Canadians because of Quebec year and interestingly enough, to enroll in a “bilingual” internship in New Zealand one must be a “native French speaker” but only “good level” of English is required, while the candidate is expected to teach both of the mentioned languages.

I am personally fond of “maitrise parfaite”, “maitrise totale” or “niveau d’excellence” (excellence level) terms. Now, please do tell me: do you have a diploma for this? I imagine it as a big glittery piece of sophisticated document saying “Congratulations X, you master Y language totally/perfectly”. Or “You achieved excellence level”. What now? “Game over”? Has anyone thought for a minute if this is even possible? Can anyone master  a language “totally”? It is certainly necessary for language schools to require their potential candidates be familiar with the certifications and exam grids that the language they will be teaching falls into, but it would be also fair to show them that the authors of the ads can apply these grids as well. 

The neglected reality

Just like English in all its forms, there is great variety in the French spoken around the world. Take Africa alone – the half of the French speaking population of the planet originates from there (OIF numbers) and by 2050 85% of Francophones will live in Africa. Quebec, Belgium, Haiti, Switzerland – each of them have got their own variety of French. In France itself, there are regions where the “r” is rolled in a way that a Polish speaker could totally blend in. But still, there are some varieties of the same language that are glamour and others that are considered not sexy. I believe if we dig into this subject, we will get to questions that are old as the planet. Power, politics, imperialism, dominant vs dominated dichotomy…  the reality only gets more complex.

But still, the market craves the “norm”. The ideal(istic?) language product polished and shiny as if we snatched it straight from a showcase in Paris Galleries Lafayette and yet we want to fit it in our mouth and for it to become ours, become us. Whom do we want to cheat? It would be deadly boring if everyone spoke with the same accent, don’t you think ? Instead of faking till you make it just embrace diversity and dare to be yourself.

There are 900 000 French language teachers around the globe according to OIF But how many of them are native speakers? I never excelled in maths and however approximate, the calculations can be quickly done if there are 76 millions of “native speakers” of French (Ethnologue, 2015) and 125 million (OIF, 2014) people are learning French around the world. Considering that not all native speakers left their countries with the mission of teaching their mother tongue to foreigners, who is teaching the language of Molière out there? Taking these numbers into account, are we doing any good to our students by closing our eyes to the “native speaker” idolization?

In French teaching industry, if “non nativeness” is debated it is rather in a context of insecurity of the non natives, their insufficient language competence and avoidance strategies they use in order to get by and make peace with their identity and credibility questioning. It is  high time to bring the real debate into light.

OMG! My French teacher is Polish

Let me come back to me not having an Algerian passport.

I’ve been teaching for more less six years now in different cultural and educational environments. I’ve never encountered any problem, at least up-front, from my students, would it be complaining about my passport, my identity or my mother tongue. I don’t consider it something I should be hiding away from them, nor something to be particularly proud of. I am what I am in large part by accidents of the universe. What I do find important and try to pass on to my students is that a language is first of all means of communication. It does not belong to anyone, it is there, for historical and political reasons, confined to borders of a country. If you want to use it, you learn it and you do so from active language users. And if you are discriminatory about the version of it you want to learn it will only make you poorer. Because all its different versions, colors, accents, twists is what make the language richer.

I do not even want to go into the debate about native and non native speaker teachers being worse or better teachers. Is anybody born a teacher? You learn anything in life by experience. And you’re definitely never done learning. So, I’d say don’t waste your time on choosing between a native and or a non native teacher! I agree totally with Silvana Richardson on this one:  choose a teacher who learns instead!

This is also because being a teacher is so much more than just being a successful speaker of a language, we all know it. I believe natives vs non natives dilemma should be included in curricula and explored in teacher training courses. There has been enough research so far to back it up, why not give it finally the space it deserves?

Recently I’ve been participating in a MOOC about inter-comprehension between roman languages. And I believe this is the route to follow. I think in the future we won’t be learning languages but inter-comprehension of languages from the same family. We would all do ourselves a favor if we stopped pretending right now there’s one language or one version of a language that has to be imposed as it is superior for some reasons. In general I am all for “less is more” but knowledge is certainly a field where this golden rule doesn’t apply. It’s rather the opposite: the more you know, the better! So investigate on that tap water right now!

About Katarzyna Komorek:

katarzyna komorekI’m just another freelance French teacher and aspiring activity leader interested in intercultural issues. I’m based between France and Poland and over my six years of experience I’ve taught French as a foreign language in The Netherlands, Iraqi Kurdistan, Honduras, Nepal and Russia. I have never experienced complaints in regard to my “non nativeness”, just the contrary: I believe a non native speaker teacher can really embody an example of their students’ success in language learning, inspire and motivate them by being a living proof of the fact that yes! it is actually possible to learn this thing, including the subjonctif !

But once an employer asked me if I would mind if my name was changed to “Catherine”.  “Your accent is good enough! The students won’t be able to tell.” – he argued and explained how much better for the school’s image it would be to just label me a “native speaker”… At that time I lacked the courage to be myself. And that just didn’t feel right.

References:

DERVIN, Fred & BADRINATHAN Vasumathi. (2011). L’enseignant non natif : identités et légitimité dans l’enseignement-apprentissage des langues étrangères, E.M.E. & InterCommunications sprl, Bruxelles – Fernelmont.

VILLARD Laurence avec BALLIER Nicolas. (2008). Langues dominantes, langues dominées. Univesrité de Rouen et du Havre