Why is the term ‘non-native speaker’ so problematic? by Sulaiman Jenkins

I’ve had a lot of fruitful discussions with Marek Kiczkowiak and Andy Hockley as of late, and it was from our dialogue that I was encouraged to inject another perspective into this international conversation on native speakerism.

As a Black American, a ‘native speaker’ of the language, and a graduate of some of the US’s most prestigious academic institutions (Amherst/BA, NYU/MA), I have both enjoyed the privileges of native speakerism while simultaneously sharing some of the struggles of my ‘non-native’ teacher colleagues. For that, I felt it imperative that I join the discussion, helping my peers realize that they are just as talented and capable (in many instances, more so!) than anyone holding a US, British, Canadian, or any other Inner Circle passport.

I’d like to eventually talk about my personal experiences with what I term ‘perceived’ native speakerism in a later blog post. But for now, my primary concern is discussing why we urgently need a more constructive, empowering term to describe native speakers of languages other than English.

In a recent article I wrote about “a powerful plenary session …[in which] Richardson (2016) reminded us that the term, ‘non-native’ has been and continues to be offensive to many professional English language instructors…offensive….because it ‘asserts what [people] are by negating what [they] are not” (Jenkins, 2017). The use of the term “non-native” perpetuates the stereotyping of TESOL professionals and research has shown that the recycling of this term in professional circles leads some ‘non-native’ TESOL teachers to feel inadequate. She asked in the session, ‘How is it possible that it is still a legitimate term in our professional discourse in 2016?’ (Richardson 2016).

That question reminded me of a similar issue in the US about a derogatory term for Native Americans that a particular sports team continued to use even though many Native Americans had repeatedly stated it is highly offensive and petitioned to have it removed. If the people to whom the term is referring are upset and offended by it, then it reasons that it should not be acceptable to use it, right?

Furthermore, in TESOL is there any academic currency to using descriptors (i.e. ‘non-‘) that affirm an identity by confirming what it is not? In describing myself as a ‘non-Canadian’ and ‘non-Republican’ speaker of English, are these descriptions helpful, in the least, in providing meaningful information about what my capabilities in language teaching are? Even more basic than that, could one discern what my nationality is? What my political affiliation is?

The ‘non-’ identifier simply indicates that I’m not a Canadian citizen nor a Republican, but it doesn’t provide any information beyond that: and it certainly doesn’t indicate my level of core pedagogical or theoretical competencies, things that I would assume are much more important to a recruiter hiring qualified candidates.

As such, we really need to (re) consider an alternative, meaningful and constructive term that more accurately and congenially accounts for “over 80% of the teachers of English in the world” (Richardson 2016). I mean, it is 2018! The success of the Me Too movement shows us that rapid change is possible to break molds that have been in place for decades.

For decades in ELT, scholars have been calling our attention to the contentiousness of using such terms, acknowledging that they are indeed problematic (Holliday and Aboshiha 2008). Jenkins (2000) in her analysis of English as a Lingua Franca stated that referring to a ‘native speaker’ of a truly international language “cannot be acceptable or appropriate for a language that has passed into world ownership”. She also stated that “it is entirely inappropriate, indeed offensive, to label as ‘non-native speakers’ those who have learnt English as a second or foreign language” (Jenkins ibid: 9). In a study by Holliday (2005), one professional pleads for “avoid[ing] using the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’…[for]…these terms are imprecise and misleading’ and that ‘as long as we use the ‘non’ as a descriptor, such teachers will be perceived as lacking in something essential and therefore of less value” (Holliday 2005: 160).

Consequently, in trying to delegitimize the usage of such terms, scholars have flirted with a number of alternatives (Jenkins 2000; Selvi 2011), but as Selvi mentioned, we seem to be “a long way from reaching consensus about whether to adopt any of these labels” (Selvi 2011). Though there may not be consensus about new labels, that still does not validate using the ‘native/non-native’ dichotomy as “legitimate term[s] in academic discourse” on the grounds of “the practical convenience of maintaining the distinction” (Moussu and Llurda 2008, p. 318).

I would add that we subtly endorse discriminatory practices when we continue to legitimize and perpetuate the very terms that promote this division. We must be cognizant that “every language user is in fact a native speaker of a given language (Nayar 1994), and therefore speakers cannot be divided according to whether they have a given quality (i.e., native speakers) or they do not have it (i.e., non-native speakers), based on whether English is their first language or not” (Moussu and Llurda 2008, p.317).

Thus, we need a new framework, a new construct, that accurately describes teachers whose mother tongues are languages other than English. That framework should address the following features:

  • Mother tongue of a TESOL professional, where such identification has some academic, pedagogical, or professional relevance
  • Usage and ability to manipulate the language and not simply “speaking” it (I’m not just a speaker of English, I actually teach it, write it, read it, etc.)
  • Competency and fluency in the English language (to what degree said teacher understands the language, can articulate its rules, can accurately utilize a wealth of vocabulary, etc.)

I truly believe that if we can begin with relevant descriptions, then we can more easily dispel archaic notions of ‘native’ vs ‘non-native’ speaker teachers and move closer to eradicating discrimination.

Sulaiman Jenkins earned his MA in TESOL from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education. He has been in the field of ELT, most notably in Saudi Arabia, for more than 14 years. He has also contributed to academia by way of publishing numerous articles in top peer reviewed journals. He is currently working at an engineering university in Saudi Arabia and is also a Senior Research and Activism Contributor for Turnkey Educational Group’s Research and Activism blog.

 

References:

Holliday, A. 2005. The struggle to teach English as an international language. Oxford University Press.

Holliday, A., & Aboshiha, P. 2009. The Denial of Ideology in Perceptions of ‘Nonnative Speaker’ Teachers. TESOL Quarterly, 43(4), 669-689. Available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/27785049 (accessed February 23, 2017)

Jenkins, J. 2000. The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, S. (2017). The elephant in the room: discriminatory hiring practices in ELT. ELT Journal, 71(3), 373-376.

Moussu, L., and Llurda, E. 2008. Non-native English-speaking English language teachers: History and research. Language Teaching, 41(03), 315-348.

Nayar, P. B. (1994). Whose English is it? TESL-EJ 1.1, F-1.

Richardson, S. 2016. The haves and the have nots. IATEFL. Available at https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2016/session/plenary-silvana-richardson (accessed February 7, 2017)

Selvi, A. 2011. The non-native speaker teacher. ELT J 2011; 65 (2): 187-189. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccq092

A NNES in a NES World by Laura Brass

Everyone reaches a point in their life when they ask themselves who they are, whether they are at a major crossroad professionally, emotionally, spiritually, or find themselves reeling from a dramatic event that became their wake-up call. To me, this moment came a few years after I had immigrated to Canada, when my husband and I decided that it was time we went back home to Vancouver. To my surprise, once back in Vancouver, I came to the realization that home was no longer home. Time for me to push the pause button and look at how far I have come since I first set foot in Canada and ask myself who I have become.

Standard English, World Englishes, and My Languages

Sounding different in English seemed to point to my otherness, so when I came across Kachru’s (1986) model of English circles, I thought it was as good a starting point in my quest for who I am as any. He distinguishes between countries and languages that belong to the:

  • (a) inner circle (e.g., the UK, the US, Canada, Australia) where English is the first language (L1);
  • (b) outer circle (e.g., Singapore, India, Philippines, Kenya, etc.) where English is an official language;
  • and (c) expanding circle (e.g., Brazil, China, Japan, Turkey, etc.) where English is taught as a subject in school.

When I was living in Europe, I taught English as a foreign language (EFL); in Canada, I teach English as a second language (ESL). Same subject, different names.

Standard English is represented by fixed grammar rules and formal written norms used mainly for institutional purposes (e.g., exams, business meetings, etc.), whereas non-standard or spoken English is characterized by a more flexible lexis used for communication purposes. The latter allows for varieties of the same language, which are oftentimes frowned upon because they break with the standard language. Shunning these Englishes from the standard English community does not make them vanish from thousands of worldwide second language (L2) speakers’ active vocabulary. While the need for the written form to keep its constancy to avoid linguistic chaos is understandable, the spoken form should be allowed more freedom (Brass, 2016).

Another point worth noting is the separate Englishes within L1 countries. There are definitive and obvious differences within the English language when one crosses the US or Canada. For instance, “Don’t bleve nutting ya ‘ears and only ‘alf ya sees” is a Newfoundland saying for “Don’t believe everything you hear” or “If I had my Druthers” is a southern American saying for “If I had my way.” Even single words can be a part of the regular dialect in some areas and non-existent in others. How often do you think that Manhattanites use reckon in their daily conversations? L1 countries have many different Englishes very much based on geography, socioeconomics, race, and religion.

My languages, apart from my mother tongue, can be summed up as the good, the bad, and the ugly: English, French, and Latin. I started learning French one year before taking up English. Does it mean that French is my second language and English is my third?

I preferred English, so soon I became more proficient in it than I was in French. Does this make English my second language, pushing French third?

For over a decade now I have thought in English, communicated in English, and written in English 95 % of the time. Does this mean that English has become my first language?Can a mere five percent make such a huge difference?

A friend of mine was born in England, moved to Belgium when he was just a few months old, grew up in Canada from age three to fourteen, then lived in Israel for five years, relocated back to Belgium, and now has returned to Canada. Which one is his first language: French, Flemish, Hebrew, or English? He is fluent in all four.

Having learned my L2s in a dual program relying on the audio-lingual and grammar-translation methods, code-switching played a major role in my second language acquisition (SLA). Whenever I was lost for words in L2, L1 would come to the rescue and vice versa. To this day, I constantly switch from one language to another, although I think more in English these days because I speak it at home and at work. Culturally, I feel more Romanian than Canadian, which is a deeper aspect of my personality and frame of mind.

What does that say about me, linguistically, sociologically, and psychologically? That there are two distinct languages which make up two distinct identities? That there is a split of identities or, on the contrary, a blend of multiple identities?

On Being an Immigrant in Canada

An immigrant myself, originally from Romania, I am a non-native English speaker (NNES); I made Canada my home in 2008. After having my education, work experience, language proficiency, age, funds, and adaptability assessed by a points system, I was deemed eligible for the express entry pool under the Federal Skilled Worker program (Government of Canada, 2017). Six months after submitting my application, I received the letter in the mail: I had been given the green light to live and work in Canada – to become a Canadian.

Exhilarated by the prospect of starting anew, little did I know back then what being an immigrant entailed. According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1995), immigrant refers to “someone who comes from abroad to live permanently in another country” (p. 712). A landed immigrant or permanent resident can work and study, but they cannot vote or get a Canadian passport; it is a temporary status until they become citizens. Ng and Estable (1987) point out that the term, which initially encompassed all foreign-born individuals, is now used with a different connotation: “The common-sense use of ‘immigrant women’ generally refers to women of colour, women from Third World Countries, women who do not speak English well, and women who occupy lower positions in the occupational hierarchy” (p. 29). From experience, I can attest to the fact that in everyday conversation, immigrant highlights the difference between NNESs and their native (NES) counterparts.

As far as language is concerned, the concept of non-nativeness negates rather than asserts the speaker, which brings us to the paradox of “highly educated immigrants who drive taxicabs and pizza delivery vans, bewildered at the new reality of life in Canada that falls short of its promises” (Cervatiuc, 2009, p. 255). The author attributes this situation to the lack of English proficiency; based on my personal experience, I tend to disagree. In fact, English proficiency is one of the mandatory criteria to be eligible to immigrate as a skilled worker (e.g., General IELTS examination). Once skilled worker immigrants land in Canada, they realize that due to their foreign credentials they will not be able to perform the jobs that they are qualified for. A paradox and a conundrum.

At the other end of the spectrum, the country allows non-skilled NNESs who buy considerable property to get status and yet they live on social services, which speaks to a different kind of non-nativeness. In a cosmopolitan city like Vancouver, British Columbia, where the real estate industry has been booming, allowing lots of foreigners to enter the country via buying property, new identities are being shaped and with them closed-up communities of people who do not speak English at all.

There seems to have been a shift from language to financial benefits reserved for a particular category of foreign non-Canadian investors who take full advantage of the perks Canada has to offer. Is a new fast-growing NNES category already heavily influencing the labor market? Are educational credentials becoming obsolete in major Canadian centers? Is English losing ground in Canada or is it just another language-money-power game?

On Shaping Identity as a NNES ESL Teacher in a NES World

In an attempt to figure out who I am now, I decided to take a closer look at how language and identity work for or against NNES English as a Second Language (ESL) professionals. I browsed through the extant literature that explores immigrants’ (successful) stories. A trend, a leitmotif, seems to transcend: Everyone has a story that follows a similar pattern. Whether people leave their home countries because they have to (as is the case with thousands of recent Syrian refugees fleeing to Canada and all over the world) or because they want to, hoping to make a better future for themselves and their families (as is my case), immigrants leave the familiar behind embarking on a journey into the unknown and self-discovery.

Unlike Canada, where people of various ethnicities live in close vicinity, in my home country, former communist Romania, people from other countries were kept at bay, hence everyone looked the same or at least everyone I knew. Growing up, I never thought of otherness and never questioned nor doubted my identity. Having lived in Canada for eight and a half years, the apparently innocuous question, “Where are you from?” to this day takes me by surprise.

My initial answer, “I am from Romania,” is accompanied by different explanations that start with but as if I have to explain my reasons for being here, which makes me feel guilty for not being a NES. The impostor syndrome (Cuddy, 2015). The sin of being born outside the inner circle (i.e., an English-speaking country) weighs heavy on the NNESs’ shoulders. I have learned first-hand that the stigma of being a NNES in a NES country does not vanish in time.

In Canada, the constant need to ask, “Where are you from?” is a phenomenon that has turned a simple ice breaker into an ice maker. According to Ramos (2003) and Selasi (2014), it speaks to relations of power (or lack of it). Many were the cases when my answer to “Where are you from?” generated the following, “Oh, Budapest is the capital city, isn’t it?” No, it isn’t.

Not knowing where to place someone’s country of origin on a mental map can make the person being asked feel powerless. I wholeheartedly embrace Selasi’s (2014) suggestion to ask, “Where are you a local?” instead, which shifts focus on where life occurs, not where it started. “I’m Canadian but my parents come from Romania” sounds as if I am trying to explain myself and why I am here; “I’m a local of Vancouver and Targoviste” relies on personal experiences that no one can take away or deny.

Selasi (2014) goes on to explain that, because countries appear (e.g., Timor-Leste) and disappear (e.g., Czechoslovakia), they cannot define our identity, but experiences can: “All experience is local and all identity is experience.” (Selasi, 2014).

A revelation. I was born in Romania, briefly studied in the UK and worked in the US, and I am currently residing in Canada. I do not live in Romania, the UK, or the US anymore, but I remember the experiences that I had while there; they have shaped me into who I am. While some aspects of my identity are presently dormant, others have become more prevalent these days. I constantly forge a new identity from the already existing multi-layers. Fifty shades of Laura.

Identity is a complex and complicated matter. It is my unique barcode or fingerprint. I have changed over time and so has my identity. To quote Bruce Lee (c. 1966), “When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.”

A few years after immigrating to Canada and going back home to visit family, I saw everything different; it all seemed changed: “We can never go back to a place and find it exactly where we left it, something somewhere will always have changed, most of all, ourselves” (Selasi, 2014). I found myself mixing Romanian with English words within the same sentence. Romanglish if you will. At times, I felt lost in translation and caught up in between two completely different worlds and languages, which echoes Norton and Toohey’s (2011) argument that identity is a site of struggle.

As far as my newly acquired Canadianness is concerned, I am drawn to it and distanced from it at the same time. This ambivalent sense of self has resulted from good and bad language experiences that I’ve had over the past decade.

In identifying with Vancouver, I don’t want to cut away from my past, leaving behind part of my identity to embrace a new one. My grandmother used to say that no matter how far one travels, they carry their sorrows and joys with them.

While I admit that there must have been a void that made me think relocating could fill, it is important to stay in touch with my roots. The desire to know and understand myself is fueled by the need to come to terms with my Romanian heritage and my current Canadian existence. In trying to answer Khayatt’s (2001) question, “Who is entitled to determine who we are?” (p. 79), I have come to realize that I want the freedom to be both a Canadian and a Romanian.

Final Thoughts

Little did I know when I packed my life, said goodbye to family and friends, and bought a one-way ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia, that being a NNES ESL immigrant female teacher in Canada was no easy feat. Looking back, it seems both brave and foolish, but if I were to do it all over again, I would not hesitate.

I have learned through trial and error to add rather than discard the newly formed layers of my Canadian identity and not feel stuck between two cultures and languages (Gardner, 2012). Now I see what Greene (1998) means when he urges us to recreate ourselves and our image rather than allow others to define us: I am more than a nationality.

I am a local of two distinct worlds, a by-product of my own experiences, a citizen of the world born in Romania, adopted by Canada, a passport holder of the European Union, a member of the Commonwealth, and a language chameleon.

References:

Brass, L. (2016). Same person: Different languages, different identities? (Unpublished paper). Vancouver, British Columbia: University of Calgary.

Canada: Who can apply: Federal skilled workers (2017, July 14). Government of Canada.  Retrieved from http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/immigrate/skilled/apply-who.asp?_ga=2.119077322.273954601.1502841759-1696982595.1500423967.

Cervatiuc, A. (2009). Identity, good language learning, and adult immigrants in Canada. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 8(4), 254-271. doi:10.1080/15348450903130439.

Cuddy, A. (2015). Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges. New York: Little, Brown, & Company.

Kachru, B., B. (1986). The alchemy of English: The spread, functions, and models of non-native Englishes. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Khayatt, D. (2001). Revealing moments: The voice of the one who lives with labels. In James, C. E., & Shadd, A. (Eds.), Talking about identity: Encounters in race, ethnicity, and language. (pp. 68- 83). Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines.

Lee, B. (2013, July 12). Be like water. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APx2yFA0-B4&t=6s.

Ng, R., & Estable, A. (1987). Immigrant women in the labour force: An overview of present knowledge and research gaps. Resources for Feminist Research16(1), 29-33.

Norton, B., & Toohey, K. (2011). Identity, language learning, and social change. Language Teaching, 44(4), 412-446. doi.org/10.1017/s0261444811000309. 

Patel, H. (2013, June). Who am I? Think again. [Video file]. Retrieved from      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPhHHtn8On8.

Rundell, M., Fox, C., Gillard, P., Jackson, T., O’Shea, S., & Nichols, W. (Eds.) (1995). Longman dictionary of contemporary English. Essex, England: Longman Group Ltd.

Selasi, T. (2014, October). Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local. [Video file]. Retrieved from  http://www.ted.com/talks/taiye_selasi_don_t_ask_where_i_m_from_ask_where_i_m_a_local#t-5969.7

Laura Brass Pic[17541]Laura Brass has an MEd in TESL from the University of Calgary, Canada, a BA in Education from the University of Pitesti, Romania, and is TESL Canada and TESOL Ontario certified. With over 15 years local and international experience under her belt, she has taught English to diverse learners for varied purposes (e.g., EFL, ESL, EAP, CAE, IELTS, TOEFL, etc.) in the public and private sectors. A language learner herself, she embraces a student-centered approach that keeps the students’ needs at the forefront and focuses on fostering autonomous L2 learners. She is interested in language and identity, multilingual acquisition, ESL curricula design, digital literacies, etc. You can view samples of her teaching materials at www.laurabrass.weebly.com. Her article, “Eleven Unexpected Lessons of Research Writing,” was recently published by the Canadian Journal for Teacher Research: http://www.teacherresearch.ca/blog/article/2017/07/30/333-eleven-unexpected-lessons-of-research-writing.

Native-speakerism and the complexity of personal experience: A duoethnographic study

‘Native speakers’ are better at teaching speaking and should be given conversational and high level classes, right? They can’t tell a verb from a noun, though, so don’t ask them to teach any grammar.

‘Non-native speakers’ know the grammar better and since they know the students’ L1, they should teach lower levels, right? They’re never proficient enough, though, so don’t give them advanced groups.

Stereotypes, misconceptions and prejudices about ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers such as the ones above are rife in our profession. If you join any discussion on the topic, you’re bound to see more than one.

When we talk about native speakerism, we also frequently think that it always benefits ‘native speakers’. They get better jobs. They’re paid more. They get to travel around the world. However, this is just one side of the coin.

While native-speakerism has gained much attention in recent years, the complex ways in which it influences the lives and career trajectories of individual teachers has often been overlooked. So in this newly published paper Robert Lowe from the TEFLology podcast and Marek Kiczkowiak from TEFL Equity Advocates show how things such as geography, teaching context and personal disposition can affect the influence that native-speakerism has on the careers of teachers. The paper is titled “Native-speakerism and the complexity of personal experience: A duoethnographic study” and was published in the journal Cogent Education. In it, they take an innovative dialogic approach where the voices and personal experiences of the two authors come to the fore.

The article is open access which means anyone anywhere can access, download and share it completely for free. You can read the article here, or by copying and pasting this link to your browser: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2331186X.2016.1264171

And if you enjoyed it, please Tweet it, Facebook it, Instagram it: social-media it around. And leave us a comment here too. We’d love to hear what you think.

Reference:

Lowe, R.J. & Kiczkowiak, M. (2016). Native-speakerism and the complexity of personal experience: A duoethnographic study. Cogent Education 3 (1): 1254171. Available on-line: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2331186X.2016.1264171

NS and NNS identity: issues of self-confidence, language ownership and authority.

Two days after Silvana Richardson’s brilliant plenary: The Native factor (read more about it here), there was an equally fascinating Q&A session. However, since it was impossible to address all the questions posed by the audience then and there, Silvana and I decided we would continue the discussion on this blog. We gathered all the questions and divided them into four groups according to the emerging topics:

  1. NS and NNS labels: a false dichotomy? – read the questions, the comments, and join the discussion here.
  2. Proficiency: is there a minimum level for a language teacher? – read the questions, the comments (99 and still counting), and join the discussion here.
  3. NS and NNS identity: issues of self-confidence, language ownership and authority.
  4. What can we do to advance equality in ELT? How can I get involved.

This is the third post with questions on the topic of identity, issues of self-confidence, language ownership and authority. We’d like to invite you to answer the questions below in the comments section. We’ll then gather the answers and post a follow-up article also including our comments.

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  1. The NNEST voice is an incredibly powerful source of quality exposure for learners in low-resource environments. How can we encourage NNESTs to value it?
  2. How can we cope as NNESTs when stakeholders want students to learn native speaker accents?
  3. How to overcome self-esteem and self-confidence problems many NNESTs face?
  4. What about NNESTs teaching away from their home countries? Where do they fit in the NEST and NNEST debate? What is their status?

Next week we will post the remaining topic on what you can do to support equal professional and employment opportunities for NS and NNS in ELT. So if you’re interested in continuing the discussion, stay tuned. Follow the blog on Twitter, FB or via email so you don’t miss any of the discussion. You can also read the questions, comments, and get involved in the discussion on NS and NNS labels: a false dichotomy here, and on Proficiency: is there a minimum level for a language teacher? here.

And if you’re interested in reading up a bit on NS and NNS issues, native speakerism or English as a Lingua Franca, check out the Reading List section with links to academic publications that are freely available on the internet. If you prefer to watch something, check out Videos section for a selection of talks and interviews.