Students prefer ‘native speakers’

Whenever I get into discussions with people in ELT about job ads for ‘native speakers’ only, one of the most common replies I get is that it’s all driven by market demand, so until we change students’ perceptions, there’s little that we can do to persuade schools to hire teachers based on merit rather than passport or mother tongue.

This argument has been repeated so often by so many that it’s become one of these ELT unquestionable ‘truths’ (such as catering to learning styles enhances learning, vocabulary is best learnt through lexical sets, etc.) which we accept as given.

So in this post I want to look at the market demand argument to see whether it stands up to scrutiny.

I will argue that students don’t necessarily prefer ‘native speakers’, but that they prefer good teachers.

Students prefer ‘native speakers’

On the face of it, this assumption is pretty solid. However, when you start looking at research evidence, you’ll see that there is little to support it.

And there has been plenty of research done on the topic all over the world. It’s not possible for me to look at all the studies in detail (this would probably take a whole book), but I’ve selected as many as was feasible for this post.

To make it easier to digest, I’ve divided the research findings into several bigger groups:

  • students appreciate ‘non-native speaker’ teachers
  • students value skills an characteristics unrelated to teacher’s L1
  • students’ find teaching effectiveness far more important than ‘nativeness’
  • students would like to be taught both by ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’
  • the preference for ‘native speakers’ (or lack thereof) is not fixed
  • the labels themselves might be part of the problem

I’ve also reviewed some of the findings in this video. Below the video is a more detailed summary.

Students Appreciate ‘non-native Speaker’ Teachers

  • Mahboob (2004), who analysed students’ essays on the topic of who is a better teacher: ‘native’ or ‘non-native’, found that ‘native speakers’ received 29 positive comments and 12 negative ones; in contrast with ‘non-native speakers’ who received 69 positive comments and only 6 negative ones
  • In a survey of 643 ESL students of ten different L1s, Moussu (2006) found that 87% thought the ‘non-native speaker’ teacher teaching them was a good teacher, while 79% would recommend having classes with a ‘non-native speaker’ to their friends
  • University students in Hong Kong reported that they enjoyed studying with ‘non-native speaker’ teachers and overall had favourable attitudes towards them (Cheung and Braine, 2007)
  • In Korea, 64.8% of students disagreed that English should only be taught by ‘native speakers’ (Chun, 2014)

This suggests that ‘non-native speakers’ should not be dismissed out of hand because many students do seem to value what these teachers can bring to the table.

students value skills and characteristics unrelated to teacher’s l1

  • Chinese students have been found to prefer teachers who were knowledgeable, patient and empathetic (Cortazzi and Jin, 1996)
  • In Thailand, Mullock (2010) reports that students valued highly teachers who were knowledgeable about the language, proficient and able to maintain good rapport
  • In my own PhD study involving students in Poland, the four characteristics that participants found to be the most important in a good English teacher were: proficiency, ability to convey knowledge effectively, ability to motivate students and having good rapport with students.

This probably means that if as a director of studies you really want to cater to your students needs and preferences, you might first survey them to find out exactly what they value highly in English teachers and then hire teachers which exhibit these traits or skills.

Students find Teaching effectiveness far more important than ‘nativeness’

  • Walkinshaw and Duong (2012), who studied 50 learners in Vietnam, asked participants to decide whether they found ‘nativeness’ or a particular teaching skill or characteristic (e.g. qualifications, friendly personality, teaching experience, etc.) to be more important. Interestingly, in ALL cases (apart from pronunciation) students valued the teaching skill or characteristic more highly than ‘nativeness’.
  • In my own unpublished PhD I asked Polish EFL learners to list 7 most important skills and characteristic of an effective English teacher. Not a single one listed ‘nativeness’. When I then surveyed students, ‘nativeness’ turned out to be the least important characteristic of an effective English teacher on a list of 10.
  • Similar results were obtained by Ali (2009), who studied EFL students in the Gulf Countries. One of the participants emphasised that:

“teachers should be selected because of their skills, qualification, and dedication, not the (…) English country they lived in” (Eiman, email interview quoted in Ali, 2009, p. 49).

Students Would like to be taught by both ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers

  • In Spain, 70.2% of university students expressed a preference for being taught by both groups (Lasagabaster and Sierra, 2005)
  • In Hungary, 82% percent preferred such a mix (Benke and Medgyes, 2005)
  • In Polish high schools, 95% would ideally like to be taught by both ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers‘ (Kula, 2011)

This suggests that hiring a mix of ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers would better reflect the preferences of the students than hiring ‘native speakers’ only.

The preference for ‘native speakers’ (or lack thereof) is not fixed

  • Pacek (2005), who analysed ESL students in the UK, showed that while at the beginning of the course over 30% were concerned that their teacher was a ‘non-native speaker’, a mere 2% expressed any concerns near the end of the course
  • The more students knew about the lingua franca nature of the English language, the more positive they were towards ‘non-native speaker’ teachers (Jin, 2005)
  • Students who had used English in English as a Lingua Franca contexts (i.e. in multilingual, international contexts where many speakers are other ‘non-natives’) were less likely to see ‘native speakers’ as the only sources of correct English or linguistic authority ( Wang and Jenkins, 2016)
  • Pressure from parents can also cause a preference for ‘native speaker’ teachers (Subtirelu, 2013)

This shows that educating students about the global spread of the English language, as well as exposing them to successful ‘non-native’ users of the language and good ‘non-native speaker’ teachers might contribute towards diminishing the preference for ‘native speakers’.

The labels themselves might be part of the problem

  • Aslan and Thompson (2016) asked ESL learners to rate different qualities (e.g. ability to motivate them) of the teachers that were currently teaching them. In order to avoid possible unconscious bias against ‘non-native speakers’, the researchers did not use the labels ‘native’ or ‘non-native’, so the students simply had to rate how good their teacher was without associating this rating with one of the labels. When results were analysed, it turned out that statistically there was no significant difference between how high (or low) the participants rated ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers on the different skills and qualities. In other words, in the eyes of the students the ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers were equal.
  • McKenzie (2008) highlights that only the recordings of ‘native speakers’ who participants correctly identified as ‘native speakers’ were rated highly. In other words, when students KNOW we’re listening to a ‘native speaker’, they’re more likely to respond to their pronunciation more positively than they would otherwise
  • Watson-Todd and Pojanapunya (2009), and Kramadibrata (2016) show that there is a discrepancy between the explicit and implicit attitudes students exhibit towards the two groups. In both studies they also show that non-White teachers are rated less favourably on their pronunciation and teaching skills

This suggests that a profound unconscious bias might be in play, possibly influenced by the ideology of native speakerism.

Conclusions and practical implications

The research reviewed here shows that there is little evidence to suggests that the vast majority of students prefers ‘native speakers’ regardless of everything else.

It is clear that many students appreciate ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. It is also clear that quite a few would like to be taught by both groups.

There is also little doubt that there are numerous other skills and qualities which students value more highly in English teachers. In other words, it seems to me that deep down what students want are good English teachers.

If you are a school director, I completely understand that you might be worried about hiring ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. I hope that this post might reassure you that students’ preferences are much more complex than an unequivocal preference for ‘native speakers’.

I would also suggest that asking the students who they prefer: a ‘native speaker’ or a ‘non-native’ is the wrong question to ask. What it’s likely to elicit is a response based on prejudices, myths and biases caused by native speakerism.

What is vital to do as a result is to talk to our students and discuss this issue with them. Rather than immediately succumb to pressure from students or their parents, I think it is important to first talk to them. To reassure them about the quality and professionalism of ALL your teaching staff. To strongly support the ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. To ask students to give the ‘non-native speaker’ teacher a chance.

I’ve talked to numerous school directors who do these and much more and who do not give in to parents’ or students’ demands.

And it seems to work very well for them. Their schools are doing well. The vast majority of students are happy. The students who initially complained and then continued having classes with the ‘non-native speaker’ teacher are still at the school and are happy.

So I completely understand that customer satisfaction is fundamental for a director of studies.

But if we really want to respond to our students’ preferences, we need to go much deeper than simply asking them if they want a ‘native’ or a ‘non-native’.

We need to ask the students what personal qualities they find important in an English teacher. What skills do they value highly. What are their specific learning needs and goals.

And then choose (or recruit) the teacher that best fits this profile.

References

Ali, S. (2009). Teaching English as an International Language (EIL) in the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) Countries: The Brown Man’s Burden. In F. Sharifian (Ed.), English as an International Language: Perspectives and Pedagogical Issues (pp. 34–57). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Aslan, E., & Thompson, A. S. (2016). Are They Really “Two Different Species”? Implicitly Elicited Student Perceptions About NESTs and NNESTs. TESOL Journal, n/a-n/a. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.268

Benke, E., & Medgyes, P. (2005). Differences in Teaching Behaviour between Native and Non-Native Speaker Teachers: As seen by the Learners. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-Native Language Teachers (pp. 195–215). New York: Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-24565-0_11

Cheung, L. Y., & Braine, G. (2007). The Attitudes of University Students towards Non-native Speakers English Teachers in Hong Kong. RELC Journal, 38(3), 257–277. https://doi.org/10.1177/0033688207085847

Chun, S. Y. (2014). EFL learners’ beliefs about native and non-native English-speaking teachers: perceived strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 35(6), 563–579. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2014.889141

Cortazzi, M., & Jin, L. (1996). Cultures of learning: Language classrooms in China. In H. Coleman (Ed.), Society and the language classroom. (pp. 169–203). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jin, J. (2005). Which is better in China, a local or a native English-speaking teacher? English Today, 21(03), 39–46. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0266078405003081

Kramadibrata, A. (2016). The Halo surrounding native English speaker teachers in Indonesia. Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 5(2), 282. https://doi.org/10.17509/ijal.v5i2.1352

Kula, J. (2011). Postawy polskich uczniów szkoły średniej wobec nauczycieli rodzimych i nie-rodzimych użytkowników języka angielskiego. Studium przypadku. (MA). Jagiellonian University, Kraków.

Lasagabaster, D., & Sierra, J. M. (2005). What do Students Think about the Pros and Cons of Having a Native Speaker Teacher? In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-Native Language Teachers (pp. 217–241). New York: Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-24565-0_12

Mahboob, A. (2004). Native or non-native: What do the students think? In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and Teaching from Experience. Perspectives on Nonnative English-speaking Professionals (pp. 121–148). Ann Arbor, MA: University of Michigan Press.

McKenzie, R. M. (2008). The role of variety recognition in Japanese university students’ attitudes towards English speech varieties. Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, 29(2), 139–153. https://doi.org/10.2167/jmmd565.0

Moussu, L. M. (2006, August). Native and Nonnative English-Speaking English as a Second Language Teachers: Student Attitudes, Teacher Self-Perceptions, and Intensive English Administrator Beliefs and Practices. Purdue University, Lafayette, IN.

Mullock, B. (2010). Does a Good Language Teacher Have to Be a Native Speaker? In A. Mahboob (Ed.), The NNEST Lens: Non Native English Speakers in TESOL (pp. 87–113). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Pacek, D. (2005). “Personality Not Nationality”: Foreign Students’ Perceptions of a Non-Native Speaker Lecturer of English at a British University. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-Native Language Teachers (pp. 243–262). New York: Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-24565-0_13

Subtirelu, N. (2013). What (do) learners want (?): a re-examination of the issue of learner preferences regarding the use of “native” speaker norms in English language teaching. Language Awareness, 22(3), 270–291. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658416.2012.713967

Walkinshaw, I., & Duong, O. T. H. (2012). Native- and Non-Native Speaking English Teachers in Vietnam: Weighing the Benefits. TESL-EJ: Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, 16(3), [no pagination]. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244014534451

Wang, Y., & Jenkins, J. (2016). “Nativeness” and Intelligibility: Impacts of Intercultural Experience Through English as a Lingua Franca on Chinese Speakers’ Language Attitudes. Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics, 39(1), 38–58. https://doi.org/10.1515/cjal-2016-0003

Watson Todd, R., & Pojanapunya, P. (2009). Implicit attitudes towards native and non-native speaker teachers. System, 37(1), 23–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2008.08.002

Are ‘native speakers’ better pronunciation models for our students?

This is an important question.

Not only because the answer will determine how we teach pronunciation, but also because it lies at the very core of the ‘native speaker’ fallacy, or the belief that a ‘native speaker’ is always a better teacher, which is so rampant in our profession.

Our gut feeling might suggest that yes, of course a ‘native speaker’ is the ideal pronunciation model (and by extension a better teacher). This is for example what one teacher said in a FB discussion on this topic:

When I learned German or French, I looked for native speakers, because a huge part of language learning is understanding the accent and intonation, and only a native speaker can provide that.

Discuss! 😉

This is just one example, but this comment is by no means an isolated one. I’ve seen countless similar ones over the years.

There is quite a persistent belief, not only among students, but also language teachers, that a ‘native speaker’ speaks correct, right, natural, original (pick your adjective) pronunciation, while a ‘non-native speaker’ has a bad, incorrect, foreign, intelligible, unintelligible (pick your adjective) pronunciation. Therefore, the former clearly makes a better pronunciation model and teacher.

However, the difference between teaching/learning English and other foreign languages, such as German or French, is fundamental. After all, English has gone global. Call it a lingua franca, an international or a global language, but the fact of the matter is that ‘non-native’ users of the language outnumber ‘native’ ones by probably 5:1.

This means that your average student is much more likely to interact with a variety of speakers from different countries for whom English is not their mother tongue, than with ‘native speakers’.

How then do we as teachers help our students be clearly intelligible in these lingua franca encounters? Which pronunciation model should we teach? That is, which pronunciation model will be the most widely intelligible?

For some of us, our gut feeling might still be telling us that a standard ‘native speaker’ pronunciation model is the best choice. That it is this model that our students should strive for to be more intelligible in international settings.

However, just how accurate is our gut feeling?

The other day, completely by chance, I stumbled across this article by Smith and Rafiqzad, published in TESOL Quarterly, and entitled English for Cross-Cultural Communication: The Question of Intelligibility. The article is interesting for three reasons:

a) it’s almost forty years old, but it seems to have gone pretty much unnoticed

b) it’s the only example I know of such a large-scale study into intelligibility in international contexts

c) it can shed some light on our gut feeling about pronunciation models.

In a nutshell, the authors surveyed 1386 people from 11 countries to check their ratings of intelligibility, which they defined as the “capacity for understanding a word or words when spoken/read in the context of a sentence being spoken/read at natural speed” (p.371). The listeners came from a variety of different disciplines (the authors don’t specify which), but all of them could be described as “educated by a majority of their countrymen” (p.372).

The recordings came from speakers from the US, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, India, Hong Kong, Nepal, The Philippines and Sri Lanka, all of whom spoke an educated variety of English from their country. The speakers were asked to prepare, read and record a short speech which would be appropriate for an educated, but not specialist, audience in their home country.

Intelligibility was rated with a closed test which consisted of the transcript of the recording with words removed from it. The listeners had to complete the gaps with no regard being paid to spelling.

Which speaker do you think came out as the most and the least intelligible?

Discuss! 😉

The researchers made two predictions. The first was that the ‘native speaker’ from the US would be the most easily intelligible across the board. Second, the familiarity with the accent would also increase the intelligibility. In other words, a Malaysian speaker would be more intelligible to a Malaysian listener than a to a Sri Lankan one.

Both hypotheses turned out to be false…

Let’s start with the second assumption. Only in two cases (Korea and Japan) did the listeners find their countrymen more intelligible than all the other speakers. This is surprising as you’d expect that the more familiar you are with the accent, the easier it would be to understand it.

Even more surprisingly, the US ‘native speaker’ (who spoke with a standard General American accent) was consistently among the least intelligible speakers. In fact, on average, the listeners were only able to complete the close test with an accuracy of 55%. The ratings from the highest to lowest are as follows:  Sri Lanka 79%, India 78%, Japan 75%, Malaysia 73%, Nepal 72%, Korea 68%, Philippines 61%, United States 55%, Hong Kong 44%.

Another surprising finding is that the listeners were also very poor at identifying the ‘native speaker’. In nine out of the eleven countries, less than 40% of the listeners identified the ‘native speaker’ correctly.


Side Note: I’m giving a FREE training entitled “How to teach pronunciation with confidence as a ‘non-native speaker'”, where I will share with you all my tips and tricks that will boost your confidence a s a’non-native speaker’ and allow you to successfully teach your next pronunciation class. Register below via email:

Or FB Messenger:

 


So what does this mean for us in ELT?

First, I think one very important implication is that we need to reconsider the idea that a ‘native speaker’ model of pronunciation is always by definition the most intelligible, and therefore one our students should aim for. While this research was conducted in Asia, it seems clear that standard ‘native-like’ pronunciation doesn’t guarantee intelligibility in international contexts. As the authors themselves put it, “[s]ince native speaker phonology doesn’t appear to be more intelligible than non-native phonology, there seems to be no reason to insist that the performance target in the English classroom be a native speaker” (p.380).

Mind you, I am not saying that any ‘non-native speaker’ is now by default a better model. However, what I am suggesting is that an INTELLIGIBLE speaker, regardless of their accent, place of birth or first language, is a better model.

It is a shame that the researchers did not attempt to analyse the recordings to identify which pronunciation features might have contributed to or reduced intelligibility. However, there is more recent research (Deterding, 2011; Deterding & Mohamad, 2016) conducted in a similar context, focusing on speakers from South East Asia, which seems to confirm Jenkins’ (2000, 2002) Lingua Franca Core proposal. Namely, it turns out that pronunciation features such as word stress, vowel quality, voiced and voiceless , weak forms and features of connected speech are not important for intelligibility. On the other hand, consonants, vowel length, nuclear stress and consonant clusters are crucial for intelligibility.

Second, we’re often told that students prefer ‘native speaker’ teachers. Researchers have also found that students tend to rate ‘native speaker’ speech more favourably (He & Miller, 2011; McKenzie, 2008; Scales, Wennerstrom, Richard, & Wu, 2006; Scheuer, 2008). Nevertheless, it seems that at least the participants in Smith and Rafiqzad (1979) study were not able to identify the ‘native speaker’ correctly. Similar observations were made by Pacek (2005), Scales et al. (2005) and McKenzie (2008). In fact, the latter highlights that only the speakers who WERE identified as ‘native speakers’ were rated more favourably.

As various authors note, it is very likely that students idealise ‘native speakers’ and their pronunciation. So when they say that they prefer ‘native speakers’ or ‘native-like’ pronunciation, it isn’t necessarily any real ‘native speaker’ or any real ‘native speaker’ pronunciation, but rather the imagined and idealised one.

It is very likely because we’ve (or at least certain very powerful institutions) worked very hard over the years in ELT to promote, maintain and spread native speakerism (Phillipson, 1992). We’ve also worked very hard at promoting the idea that ‘native speaker’ pronunciation is more intelligible, more correct, better (pick your adjective). We’ve also entrenched this belief through the use of standard ‘native speaker’ recordings in course books. I’m certainly guilty of the latter two.


Side Note: I’m giving a FREE training entitled “How to teach pronunciation with confidence as a ‘non-native speaker'”, where I will share with you all my tips and tricks that will boost your confidence a s a’non-native speaker’ and allow you to successfully teach your next pronunciation class. Register below via email:


Or FB Messenger:


So what do we do?

It seems to me that we have two options.

We can continue promoting the belief that ‘native speaker’ pronunciation should be the ultimate and only goal all ‘non-native speakers’ (teachers and students alike) should aspire to. It shouldn’t surprise us then, however, if the vast majority of students fail to achieve this goal. It also shouldn’t surprise us if they feel bad about their own pronunciation and about having a foreign accent. Nor should it surprise us if our students continue preferring ‘native speaker’ teachers.

Option 2: we can try to move beyond the ideology of native speakerism towards a more inclusive, international, lingua franca view of the English language which would place emphasis on research findings and on intelligibility in international contexts. This shift in perspective might allow us to better help our students to be more intelligible. It might also raise our students’ confidence when speaking in English by raising their awareness of the fact that they can achieve global intelligibility without having to worry about approximating ‘native-like’ pronunciation and without having to lose their accent. Finally, it might help us further chip away at the ‘native speaker’ fallacy that’s still so widely spread and deeply rooted in ELT.

Which one do you pick?

Discuss! 😉

References:

Deterding, D. (2011). English Language Teaching and the Lingua Franca Core in East Asia.

Deterding, D., & Mohamad, N. R. (2016). The role of vowel quality in ELF misunderstandings. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 5. https://doi.org/10.1515/jelf-2016-0021

He, D., & Miller, L. (2011). English teacher preference: the case of China’s non-English-major students. World Englishes, 30(3), 428-443. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-971X.2011.01716.x

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language : new models, new norms, new goals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2002). A Sociolinguistically Based, Empirically Researched Pronunciation Syllabus for English as an International Language. Applied Linguistics, 23(1), 83-103. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/23.1.83

McKenzie, R. M. (2008). The role of variety recognition in Japanese university students’ attitudes towards English speech varieties. Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, 29(2), 139-153.

Pacek, D. (2005). “Personality Not Nationality”: Foreign Students’ Perceptions of a Non-Native Speaker Lecturer of English at a British University. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-Native Language Teachers (pp. 243-262). New York: Springer US.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scales, J., Wennerstrom, A., Richard, D., & Wu, S. H. (2006). Language Learners’ Perceptions of Accent. TESOL Quarterly, 40(4), 715-738. https://doi.org/10.2307/40264305

Scheuer, S. (2008). Why Native Speakers Are (Still) Relevant. In K. (ed. and foreword) Dziubalska-Kołaczyk & J. (ed. and foreword) Przedlacka (Eds.), English Pronunciation Models: A Changing Scene (Vols. 1-476 pp., pp. 111-130). Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang.

Smith, L. E., & Rafiqzad, K. (1979). English for Cross-Cultural Communication: The Question of Intelligibility. TESOL Quarterly, 13(3), 371–380. https://doi.org/10.2307/3585884


Side Note: I’m giving a FREE training entitled “How to teach pronunciation with confidence as a ‘non-native speaker'”, where I will share with you all my tips and tricks that will boost your confidence a s a’non-native speaker’ and allow you to successfully teach your next pronunciation class. Register below via email:


Or FB Messenger:


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

Who is qualified to teach English? by Amy Thompson

The answer, of course, is someone who is a competent user of English with specific training in the field of language pedagogy.

Why, then, do we still see job advertisements requesting that the applicants be native speakers of English? Is this a lack of understanding on the part of the employer?

Perhaps.

Is it discrimination against particular demographics?

Most definitely.

Arguably, companies who will only hire native English speakers to fill teaching positions are selling an image to their customers – an image of an “authentic” product in their eyes; the companies promote it, and the customers buy it.  However, the instances of “image over quality” are abundant. Galloway (2014) tells the story of a multilingual Eastern European who was required to take on a fake American identity for her job in Japan.  My bi-racial former MA student was not allowed to take part in a marketing campaign for the language school where she worked in China because she looked “too Asian.” A friend’s husband was only offered a job teaching English in Eastern Europe by telling them he was from “America” (South America, in fact, but the employer didn’t bother to dig deeper).

One oft-used argument of hiring native-speaking teachers is so that students will have a good model for pronunciation. However, results from Levis et al. (2016) refute that argument with finding that “there was no significant impact of teachers’ language backgrounds on students’ overall improvement of comprehensibility and accentedness” (p. 22). Similarly, findings from Huensch and Thompson (2017) indicate that “many students in this FL context did not perceive their instructors’ nonnativeness as an obstacle to successful pronunciation instruction” (p. 17). Thus, in cases when both English (i.e. Levis et al) and languages other than English (i.e. Huensch and Thompson) are the target languages, there is evidence that both native and non-native speakers are successful at teaching pronunciation.

Is it the case that this obsession with native English speakers is driven by the potential English language students, or is it the misguided attempt at authenticity on the part of the companies offering English language instruction? What can be done to promote the idea that “native speaker of English” and “English teacher” aren’t synonymous?

One way of approaching this point of inquiry is to ask students. This asking, however, has to be done carefully, as to avoid what’s known as a type of “linguistic priming,” which means to include terms that would sway answers one way or another. In other words, how do you ask students what they think about native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) and non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) without mentioning the term “native speaker” or “non-native speaker”?

Aslan and Thompson (2016) set out to do just this. In a series of carefully constructed questions involving teacher characteristics, 76 responses were collected from ESL students taking classes at an English language program that, at that time, employed 23 NESTs and 19 non-native NNESTs (i.e. an almost balanced number). A semantic differential scale inspired by Gardner’s AMTB was used.  Each item was composed of two opposing adjectives, such as these examples below from the original article: Attitudes toward students – approachable vs. unapproachable; Teaching style and practice – tolerant vs. strict; Personality – nervous vs. relaxed.

The results?  Of the 27 adjective pairs, there was only one significant difference: the students found the NNESTs to be significantly more creative that the NESTs.  Otherwise, there were absolutely no significant differences.

The conclusion is that when the politically and culturally charged terms of “native speaker” and “non-native speaker” are not mentioned, students are likely not to perceive a difference in the quality of their English language instruction between these two groups of instructors. And, indeed, why should they if the hiring entity offers employment based on qualifications as opposed to the native language of the employee?

References:

Aslan, E. & Thompson, A.S.  (2016).  Are they really ‘two different species’? Implicitly elicited student perceptions about NESTs and NNESTs. TESOL Journal. Early View, 1–18. doi:10.1002/tesj.268

Galloway, N. (2014). ‘I get paid for my American accent’: the story of one multilingual English   teacher (MET) in Japan. Englishes in Practice, 1(1), 1-30.

Huensch, A., & Thompson, A. S. (2017). Contextualizing attitudes toward pronunciation: Foreign language learners in the United States. Early View, 1 – 22. Foreign Language Annals. doi:10.1111/flan.12259

Levis, J. M., Sonsaat, S., Link, S., & Barriuso, T. A. (2016). Native and nonnative teachers of L2 pronunciation: Effects on learner performance. TESOL Quarterly, 50(4), 894–931. doi: 10.1002/tesq.272

amy thompsonAmy S. Thompson, Ph.D. (Ph.D. Michigan State University, 2009) is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and currently the Associate Department Chair in the Department of World Languages at the University of South Florida.  She is also currently the graduate director for the Ph.D. program in Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS), teaching a range of graduate level theoretical and methodological courses in applied linguistics. Her primary research interests involve Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition and the interaction of these IDs and multilingualism. In conjunction with these topics, she also incorporates ethical issues regarding perceptions of native and non-native speaker language teachers. Examples of her research can be found in journals such as the Modern Language Journal, TESOL Quarterly, Foreign Language Annals, and the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. You can read more about her and her research here.

The Beauty and Horror of Explaining Mixed Conditionals (Among Other Grammar Points) by Madeline Castillo

One of the most misused grammar forms is the mixed conditionals, and this is not really much of a surprise. The use of one verb tense in a sentence is already difficult, so imagine having to put together two verb tenses in one sentence — it’s almost a nightmare!

For most ESL teachers, myself included, a mixed conditional sentence is a classroom conundrum. I have seen how it transforms into a total horror show as you try to explain not only how the sentence is constructed, but also what it means. I have watched as my students’ faces scrunch up in confusion when I mention how these situations or conditions (mostly imaginary) affect results (either in the past or the present). I have looked for signs of me second-guessing myself as doubt sets in.

The last bit, perhaps, is the worst. More than the form or function of any grammar point, the biggest challenge for a ‘non-native speaker’ teacher is the fact that any explanation you give can easily be trumped by a ‘native speaker’ teacher’s “That’s just how it is.” Even though some tend to have a less structured ESL background, ‘native speakers’ are usually preferred to non-native English speakers. In the ESL industry, there are many instances when one’s value as a teacher is primarily determined by ethnicity, and not knowledge, experience or skill. The privilege of having been born in a ‘native English-speaking’ country has long been a standard and not having the ‘right’ nationality, a stigma. As a result, gifted and proficient teachers are sidelined for less experienced and less effective ‘native’ individuals.

However, ‘non-native speaker’ teachers know mixed conditionals well, not just because we studied them in school or because we teach them in class. We know this lesson topic well because we have learned to live with a few conditional questions ourselves: Would I be more credible if I had been born and raised by parents whose primary language was English? If that company I applied for saw me as a native English speaker, would I have gotten that teaching job? Had I been born in the US or the UK, would I be a better English teacher?

Almost a year ago, I joined Learntalk, an ESL startup, and was tasked to create a written grammar exam for our teachers. As it is a way for us to check our overall proficiency is as a company, everyone had to take the test. Most were pretty happy with the results – save for my boss. Born and raised in the UK, he thought that he’d be one of the few who’d ace the test. When he got the results, they were pretty mediocre, with some of our teachers scoring higher than he did! What’s remarkable is that we are all Filipino ESL teachers: all ‘non-native’, different backgrounds, same passion. That incident was one of the many instances that prove that it doesn’t really matter if you’re a ‘native English speaker’ or not. Knowledge has never been just skin deep, and never will be.

I’ve been teaching English for more than six years now, and mixed conditionals are still a pain to teach. Students still get confused occasionally and at times I still doubt my own understanding. However, there is comfort in knowing that my grasp of conditionals and English grammar is just as good as my understanding and acceptance of my own self as a teacher.

madelineMadeline Castillo is an ESL teacher, lifestyle writer and dancer from the Philippines. She has been teaching English to both children and adults for more than six years now. In 2016, she joined Learntalk, an EdTech startup that harnesses technology to give students a fully immersive language learning experience without the need to travel and live in a distant country, while at the same time providing all the grammatical rigor of a classroom setting. The company operates in three segments, providing language training to individuals, corporates and education institutions around the world.

Culture, native speakers and teaching English

‘Native speakers’ know the culture.

They can provide students with cultural insights about the English language.

And this is what students want and need to master the language.

This is an argument that comes up time and time again to justify why ‘native speakers’ are better teachers, why they are preferred by students, and why so many recruiters prefer to hire them over ‘non-native speakers’. Naturally, the argument also presupposes that ‘non-native speakers’ lack the cultural insight into the English language, and probably can never obtain it. At least not to the degree a ‘native speaker’ has.

Let’s pause for a second, though, and ask ourselves:

  • How would you define target culture, especially as far as language teaching is concerned?
  • What does culture mean in relation to the English language?
  • If our students are much more likely to use English with other ‘non-native speakers’, what’s the point of learning anything about the target culture (as you defined it above)?
  • Is learning about the target culture necessary to become fluent in a language?
  • Does knowledge about the target culture make you a more skilled user of the English language (consider its global use)?

I address some of these questions in this extract from my BBELT 2017 plenary:

Now over to you:

  • How would you answer the questions above?
  • What’s your take on culture, ‘native speakers’ and teaching/learning English (or any other foreign language for that matter)?

Really interested to hear what you think, so do get in touch in the comments section below.

If you’d like to further explore the ‘native speaker’ debate and its practical implications for teaching English, you might be interested in my on-line courses Going beyond the ‘native speaker’ model in ELT. Implications for teaching, training and materials writing, as well as Understanding the global nature of English. Practical guide for English teachers.

What does a red phone box have to do with learning English in 2017? by Richard Willmsen

[From the editor: this post was originally published on Richard’s blog here and is republished here with his full consent]

One of my roles in life involves testing the English language to make sure it’s working properly. It’s in this capacity that I get to fly down to Mérida for a few days, eat sopa de lima and cochinita pibil in nice restaurants, and pay a visit to an excellent language school. It’s easy to find because it has a red phone box outside. Everyone I meet there is friendly and seems competent. The owners (both English, in their thirties) greet and chat to the students as they arrive; they seem to know their names and both speak very good Spanish. As for the teachers, they are young, cheerful, and seem to be mostly English.

The school, which goes by the name of the London Academy and has been open for around two years, is “the only British language school in Mérida with 100% qualified British teachers that offers a true British cultural experience”. The images on the walls show cool young people enjoying themselves in London. It’s unlike a lot of  ‘British’ schools I’ve worked at in the past in that there’s a refreshing lack of photos of Beefeaters and the Royal Family and the atmosphere is by no means austere and reserved as it is in some anglophone learning environments. Entering the school I worked at for several years in Lisbon was like going to the dentists: staid, forbidding and snobbish. The school in Mérida is selling an updated version of the UK. It certainly needs to stand out, because there are a lot of schools in that particular suburb. When I walk round the block I count another four. Some seem to be part of chains and most are selling themselves on cost: low prices, discounts if you pay upfront for online classes and year-long courses.

Ultimately it’s a question of marketing. What the London Academy is selling is a tourist experience. For the students (or at least for their parents) the school is a corner of a foreign field. They will be immersed in the classroom in an English-only environment with a representative of the target culture. What the teachers get is a reasonably-paid job and an experience of living abroad, one which gives them the chance to learn some of the language and, if they’re lucky, become friends, or possibly very good friends*, with some of the locals. Nowadays in the world of English language teaching this is quite a retro model. It is based on the promotion of the assumption that the teacher is a monolingual native speaker with no or little knowledge of the host culture. Bringing a new cohort of teachers over every year is very expensive at a time when there is more competition from schools which use other images and associations to promote the learning of English.

There also seems to be a growing recognition that the language study trips abroad business is similarly a branch of tourism. The school I worked at for several years in London has just been bought up by a language travel organisation. It is true that there is no easier environment to learn and teach in. The students get some experience of interacting in an English-speaking setting and they also make English-language friendships with each other. This doesn’t mean that they start watching Eastenders and spend every night down the rub-a-dub. Rather they bond over their dislike of the food, the absurd rents they have to pay and the hangovers they picked up (and the fellow students they didn’t) in bars and clubs where most other customers (and the staff) are also there to improve their English. This is perfectly natural; after all, on holiday, you tend to make friends with other tourists rather than the locals. Some students do arrive with the impression that it’s all about becoming “English” (which is a useful marketing illusion), but they soon knuckle down to the more important and less confusing task of developing an English-speaking life. It’s far more important for Mehmet, who lives in Istanbul and deals with Chinese people on the phone, to understand Wei Wei from Shandong than it is for him to understand what Russell Brand says**. As for the teacher, their job largely involves creating a environment conducive to social and cultural exchange, with their role a mix of tour guide, cultural mediator, facilitator and occasional counsellor.

Sadly, thanks to a combination of international competition in the education market, arbitrary and ill-thought-out changes to visa rules and the global economic situation, the language school industry in the UK (and London in particular) has taken a hammering over the last few years, with very well-established places going to the wall and the survivors getting snapped up by international concerns. It is also possible that over the next few years the international marketing of British English by institutions such as the British Council will encounter difficulties in a world which no longer views Britain as vibrant, mobile and welcoming but rather as insular, hostile and closed. Whereas most marketing of English courses tends to sell an image of mobility – in the words of an advert I saw recently, ‘Where can you go if you don’t know English?’ – all this talk of shutting borders is designed and destined to do permanent damage to one of the very remaining industries which the UK still dominates.

Another major change in the world of English language teaching is a shift away from the notion that native speakers automatically make better language teachers. That’s not to say that the assumption is by any means dead. Browsing websites advertising teaching jobs in Mexico recently I was shocked by the number of ads looking for ‘native speakers’ and specifying ‘no experience necessary’. I’d imagine that most people learning a language would want a teacher with experience. But the rationale for this never was pedagogical. Again, it’s more to do with marketing, to the extent that one term commonly used in China for a foreign teacher is ‘dancing monkey’. Anyone ‘foreign’ will do as long as they don’t have a Chinese face or name.

There seems to be growing acceptance nowadays that the best attribute a teacher can have is the ability to teach, regardless of where they happen to have been born. The spread of English as a lingua franca has led to a growing recognition that it does not ‘belong’ to any one national group. Indeed, it helps to have consciously learnt the language you’re teaching. Having done so gives the teacher insights into the learning experience which allow them to give their students shortcuts and to identify potential pitfalls and misunderstandings. Non-native teachers also make more realistic role models, as the old joke about an English learner saying that when he grows up he wants to be a native speaker acknowledges. Plus it’s also true that a ‘native’ level of English is not a desirable goal. In international settings it is often British, American and Australians who have most difficulty making themselves understood, given their reliance on irony and idioms which may be lost on people who don’t share their cultural background. The trend is partly driven by economic changes – although native speakers are more profitable, non-native teachers are cheaper – but it has a positive effect as better teachers find it easier to get work.

The notion of ‘native speaker’ is problematic in any case. I’m one of them, yet there are lots of lots of ‘foreigners’ who use(d) ‘my’ language better than I do: Conrad, Nabokov, Zizek and Varoufakis all spring immediately to mind. My Italian wife writes things in her job that are much better than anything I could produce***. The idea that a ‘native speaker’ is an exemplary model has given way to a focus on proficient, competent or expert speakers. Similarly, the category of ‘mother tongue’ speaker does not take account of people who grew up speaking one language at home and another at school. Ultimately, nation state and language are just not a very good fit, especially in relation to English.

I myself found out quickly in Portugal many years ago that in a monolingual EFL classroom it’s the monolingual teacher who has problems expressing what they want, especially when dealing with teenagers. Students know their own culture and can communicate perfectly well with each other. Hence they can run rings round a teacher who has little training and almost no experience of inspiring learning and imposing discipline. Such a relationship depends partly on the personality of the teacher and partly on their ability to assert their authority over the language on the basis of their national identity. Anyone who has taught in such a context will recognise the frustrations described by George Orwell in his story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘. It is all too common for fledgling (and sometimes veteran) EFL teachers to develop the attitude of a colonial policeman and to dismiss the ‘natives’ as lazy, stupid “evil-spirited little beasts” who are out to “make (your) job impossible”.

This doesn’t mean that teaching and learning is impossible in such a context but where it does take place it tends to be by accident. My own ‘teaching journey’ has taught me that any meaningful educational experience has to be based on cultural exchange. Every teacher who sticks at it works out eventually that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. The model I’ve been describing is about trying to impose one identity on another. What must take place instead is a recognition and validation of each others’ identities. This involves drawing on the students’ expert knowledge of their language, their experiences, expertise and social roles rather than dismissing all of the above and relying instead on a combination of communication games, bullying and luck.

I would like therefore to put forward five suggestions for roles that EFL teachers can usefully adopt in a monolingual teaching/learning environment:

  1. The students’ knowledge of their own language is an essential classroom resource. This means that both the teacher and the students sometimes need to play the role of translators. It also implies a ceding of control and a certain amount of humility on the part of the teacher. My students know their own languages better than I do and sometime meanings have to be negotiated and dictionaries referred to. This has the advantage of reflecting real language use; in any given human interaction where more than one language is involved discussions over corresponding forms, functions and meanings are ever-present and sometimes other authorities have to be invoked. Clearly there are activities where this is not appropriate, and the teacher needs to establish when and why only the target language should be used. In a cooperative environment with purposeful activities students will be happy to go along with this.
  2. Tip number 1 implies that the teacher should speak or be learning the language of their students. There are, bizarrely, language teachers who have no experience of learning another language or who have never done so successfully. Such teachers are not able to understand and relate to the frustrations and ritual humiliations their students are exposing themselves to. Several times in my teaching career I have been put on the spot by a student asking me to perform a task I have asked them to do. Such experiences have helped me to reflect on how useful and how ‘doable’ the activity I’m imposing is. Once, with a class of Italian teenagers who were traumatised by the prospect of their Trinity Exam, I did the task myself in very imperfect Italian, getting them to play the role of examiners. A light bulb went on. They realised that they didn’t need to be completely fluent and that it was fine to make mistakes as long as they basically made themselves understood. They all went on to pass the exam. In order to be a teacher you also need to be a learner. This is a role no teacher should ever stop playing; there are always new things to learn.
  3. If you are teaching in another country you are also a model of someone immersed, out of their depth, occasionally thrown in at the deep end, experiencing anxiety, and sometimes losing face. Your ability to articulate these feelings and reflect on those experiences in English will be better than that of your students****. This involves drawing on your own experiences.  This paragraph itself could generate a very useful lesson for students struggling to articulate their own experiences with the language. It doesn’t mean that the teacher is an exemplary language learner but as someone who learns and also thinks about language a lot you do have insights to offer.
  4. A teacher needs most of all to be a teacher, with a range of approaches and techniques to suit each particular class. Hence our role is not that of an oracle on our language and culture. Both students and teachers have gaps in their knowledge of the world. That is fine. A classroom can be a very useful place to identify things that we don’t know and to figure out how we can find out. It very often happens that I learn new things in English*****, and when that happens I point it out to my students. As a language teacher I know that some students fail to understand that one’s command of a language is never total. Pointing it out by using yourself as an example helps students to recognise that their English need not and can not ever be ‘perfect’. I am there in the classroom because of my teaching experience and ability, and not as a proxy for the Queen or for Cambridge University.
  5. Teachers should also facilitate sharing of emotional experiences. We can help the students visualise their learning experience and identify specific examples of progress. One excellent way to do this is to explore learning metaphors: are they on a journey, climbing a mountain, working out in a gym, hanging out with some friends once a week? In tackling such themes the teacher is playing the role of a counsellor. In order for this to be effective the teacher needs to work constantly on creating an encouraging and forgiving environment based on an ethic of cooperation rather than on shaming people who make mistakes.

These tips are written with the teaching of English in mind. Some of them also apply to other languages. For example, I can’t say that the list of characteristics of various French supermarkets I spent ninety minutes learning in an intermediate French class a few years ago has helped me a great deal when talking to recent Senegalese immigrants in Rome. The same applies to Spanish and to an extent Portuguese; there’s not much point learning to lithp or to use o senhor appropriately when you’re off to live in Mexico or Brazil. Some other-language courses I’ve encountered have confused language competence and grammatical knowledge, with little room for error and a very narrow definition of success. The teaching of English does have something to offer language teaching in general given that there is simply more practise and research taking place.

It’s different with, say, German, Italian, Japanese or Finnish, since almost all speakers of these languages are from those countries or have spent time there. Then learning things like the names of personalities and radio advertising jingles is important. At the moment I live in Italy, where what hinders my comprehension most is a lack of knowledge of the (admitedly very complex) culture. It is, however, only one of many possible experiences. In past I’ve tended to assume that my own learning experiences are the only or the ultimate model, which is clearly not the case.

Several years ago in London there was a best-selling book/CD for English language learners called ‘Get Rid Of Your Accent‘. The cover featured a woman who looked like Agatha Christie and sounded like Lord Reith’s elocutionist. As David Crystal points out, learners do need a pronunciation role model but the notion there is one way of speaking is absurd. People certainly need to have a command of Standard English, but in a globalised world intelligibility is the main issue. The same goes for local varieties of grammar. A former colleague used to teach his newly-arrived elementary students to ask everyone they met “What do you do work-wise?”, a question guaranteed to draw a blank look from Akiko from Kyoto. It can be useful to teach students to understand local accents in questions like ‘wotjado?’ and ‘naamean?’, but it’s pointless and unfair to ask them to speak in that way. Sometimes over the years my lessons have been about making students talk just like me. That,to briefly use a particularly British English term, is bollocks.

* In some cases, very many very close friends.

** Mind you, there’s a wonderful story about teaching TEFL from the man himself here.

*** This is not meant to suggest that I have a number of wives from different countries. Maybe I should ask her how to rephrase it to make it more clearer.

**** If it isn’t, you may have wandered into an INSET session by mistake.

***** Such as how to spell ‘bizarrely’.

richard-willmsenI’m an DELTA-qualified English teacher and IELTS examiner from the UK and I’ve taught in Ireland, the UK, Portugal, Spain, China and Mexico. I’m currently working at a university in Rome. I post regularly about EFL, languages, politics and whatever else takes my fancy at www.infinite-coincidence.com.

 

Native Speakers aren't better – so don't believe it by Elly Setterfield

[Note from the editor: this post was originally published on Elly’s blog here and is republished here with the full consent of the author]

When I started my blog The Best Ticher, I foolishly assumed that I was writing for an audience like my younger self: British (or perhaps American), relatively young (maybe one or two years out of university) who’d taken a TEFL course at least in part because it seemed like a good idea… and then who headed abroad to teach reluctant and terrified. I’ve realised however as my readership has grown that this is only a small part of my audience; there are lots of you out there who are non-native English speakers, working in your home country or trying to navigate the tricky world of visa applications  and not having ‘the right’ passport.

A couple of weeks ago, a teacher emailed me asking for advice (you can do that by the way – my email is on the ‘About’ page). As I highly doubt she’s the only one in this position, my answer evolved into this blog post. So how can a non-native speaker teacher feel more confident speaking English in the classroom?

Students want native-speaker teachers, don’t they?

The honest answer here is ‘not necessarily’. It’s become almost standard practice for language schools to advertise their native speaker teachers as a selling point, and this has a knock-on effect. Schools tell their students that they should want to learn from native-speakers, that native-speakers are better, online teachers sell themselves first and foremost as being native speakers… and so it’s hardly surprising that students have taken this on board. ‘Native English speaker’ has become just another marketing buzzword (as highlighted by the online advert I saw earlier this week: a ‘native English speaker’ advertising their services as an English teacher, written in what was, at best, intermediate level English). To some extent, yes, students want native-speaker teachers… but this is because they’ve been told to, rather than down to any kind of factual research.
Let’s not forget that in many countries, the profile of the ideal ‘English teacher’ extends to cover far more than native language. A friend of mine (white, native English speaker, South African) was asked to lie to students about her nationality and tell them that she was British. Fantastic teachers I’ve worked with who happen to not fit the ‘fair-skinned’ ideal have had their expertise as teachers questioned and been rejected by students on account of the colour of their skin. The world of TEFL (and TEFL recruitment) is unfortunately unethical and discriminatory… and it’s only slowly that this is starting to change.

All of this paints a pretty damning picture – but as mentioned, the situation is changing. In 2011, International House stated that their schools would no longer specifically recruit native-speaker teachers, and more and more jobs boards (and recruiters) are starting to reject the principle that native speaker equals more desirable teacher.

If you’re interested in some more in-depth reading (and what to see for yourself exactly what students thing, Ahmar Mahoob’s paper offers some real food for thought, including lots of direct quotes from students. You’ll see that in some cases students regard non-native speaker teachers as better than native speakers!

In my experience, students’ first priority is to learn. As long as you’re a good teacher, who cares what your native language is?

For a more detailed analysis of the ‘native speaker preference’ check out Andrew Woodbury’s excellent article.

Don’t native speakers make better teachers?

Think of a renowned scientist or academic. Are they necessarily equipped to go into a school and teach their subject? The same holds true for English teaching. Teaching encompasses a whole range of skills aside from just ‘knowing the language’ – if you’re ever in any doubt of that please watch this comedy sketch by Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington. Would any lesson you teach be more appropriately graded, better structured, and have better explanations than what these guys come up with? Then you already have proof that you’re a better English teacher than someone whose sole qualification is to be a native speaker.

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Designed by @teflninja

I’ve spoken English my whole life – but had to work hard throughout my first couple of years of teaching to understand grammar in such a way that I could present it and explain it to my students. It’s all very well to be able to say ‘this is correct, and this isn’t’, but in order to teach a language you need to understand the nuts and bolts of it. Here, being a non-native speaker can actually be a huge advantage, as you’ve likely had to learn the language in a similar way to your students! As a non-native speaker of English, you’re automatically going to have a greater insight into what students are going to find challenging, what they’ll be confused by and what’s actually pretty straightforward. A native speaker will have to research all of those things – or find them out through trial and error.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some excellent non-native speaker teachers throughout my career, and one thing that’s always struck me is how inspiring they can be for their students. At my first school, our Director of Studies was a non-native speaker – who had started her English studies as a child at the very school we worked at. How encouraging is that?! As a non-native speaker, you have the ability to show your students just what they can achieve – because you practise what you preach every day.
As a final note, if you still needed some more evidence that being a native speaker makes you a better teacher, check out what my students said. From time-to-time I always like to ask my students what they think makes a good teacher (I repeated a version of this activity recently with my adult elementary class) – and whilst they have said ‘you must speak English’, no student has ever specified that a good teacher must be British, or American, or even a native-English speaker.

How can I feel more confident?

Hopefully realising that your students don’t necessarily want native-speaker teachers, and that being a native-speaker doesn’t automatically qualify you to be a better teacher is already making you feel more confident. But what can you do to give yourself an extra boost?

  • Fake it til you make it. There’s a lot to be said for acting confident, even if you don’t always feel it. Using positive body language, rehearsing what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, and even simply going into the classroom with a positive outlook can make a real difference in how confident you appear – and ultimately how confident you feel.
  • Build your confidence in the language. It should hopefully go without saying that as teachers, we should never stop learning. Consider studying for an exam (maybe IELTS or CAE/CPE), and above all, practise, practise, practise. As you grow more confident in using the language in general, it follows that you’ll grow more confident in using it in the classroom too.
  • Experiment, be yourself, and have some fun. Being able to laugh at your own mistakes helps! I asked non-native speaker friends and colleagues for advice while writing this post, and this was some of the best advice I was given. Remember that being a teacher is so much more than simply your knowledge of the language, and your students will appreciate your being yourself.

You can find some more tips on how to be a more confident teacher here.

But what if I make mistakes?

I’ll let you into a secret: I make mistakes too! From my early attempts at grading language where I realised I was missing out articles and actually saying things that were grammatically incorrect, to the sleepy coffee-free Monday morning not so long ago where I spectacularly stuffed up a grammar explanation… we all make mistakes from time to time.

If you do make a mistake, be honest about it – much of this advice also holds true here. Then take a deep breath and move on; the absolute worst thing you can do is to beat yourself up over it.

What can I do to improve my English?

First of all, think about what you’d recommend for your students! Teaching gives you a real advantage here, as it means you have a much clearer idea of what works and what doesn’t. If you’re still looking for some advice, here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Practise! It probably goes without saying, but to confidently use English in the classroom, the key is practise, practise, practise. Although reading and writing in English will doubtless be helpful, I’d recommend focusing slightly more on speaking and listening, as these skills are what you’re going to be using in class on a daily basis.
  • Watch films/TV/listen to the radio or podcasts. Depending on your work context, it might be difficult to get lots of exposure to fluent spoken English. The internet is your friend! I recommend to almost all of my students that they find films or a TV series they like, and regularly watch them in English. If TV isn’t your thing, how about listening to the radio or English-language podcasts – you can even do it while you’re at the gym, on public transport, or doing the housework.
  • Use English as much as possible. Put all your electronic devices into English, write shopping lists/to-do lists in English, even switch your ‘internal monologue’ into English and talk to yourself (either in your head or out loud) – exposing yourself to the language as much as possible will make you feel far more confident in using it.
  • Teach ‘mock’ lessons. This might be a bit of a weird one, but hear me out. In teaching, some of the language we use can be quite different to what we encounter in every day life, and the only real way to practice it is by teaching. This can help you to rehearse parts of explanations or giving instructions for a task. If you don’t have a willing friend or family member that you can teach a small section of something to, I find both pets and teddy bears to be helpful substitutes (with the added advantage that they don’t answer back!).
  • Take a course. If you’ve got time and money available to you (let’s face it, no one went into EFL teaching in order to get rich), you might want to take a course. If you want to take something that’s specifically aimed at English language teachers, here are some offered by TEFL Equity Advocates, as well as this one by Future Learn. There’s also a recording of a great webinar on language development for teachers here.

How do I get a job with the ‘wrong’ passport?

As a Brit I’m all too aware that I’m not in the best position to offer advice – but I can point you in the direction of people who can.

TEFL Equity Advocates – this is an absolutely fantastic website, full of advice, articles, and resources. This site has been the source of several of the articles I’ve linked to in this post, and I wish I’d been able to link to even more of them! For your sanity I won’t, but please, if you do one thing, check out this site.

If you’re a regular user of Facebook, you might want to check out their official facebook page, or this group for non-native speaker teachers.

Although it might seem like you’re fighting a losing battle, please don’t give up – keep fighting. Hopefully one day in the not too distant future the TEFL world will become one of equal opportunity for everyone.

elly-setterfieldElly Setterfield is an English teacher, blogger and writer. She has taught in private language schools and primary schools in Russia, the Czech Republic and the UK, and is passionate about helping new teachers feel happier, less stressed and more confident in the classroom. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys cooking, running, spending time outdoors and crochet. She blogs regularly at thebestticher.wordpress.com, and tweets @thebestticher.

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

Reflexión: lecciones aprendidas después de dos años contratando profesores de inglés no nativos

[note from the editor: this post was translated into Spanish from this article also published on the blog by Andrew Davison by Marina Escalada]

Mi experiencia en cuanto a trabajar con profesores de inglés no nativos (NNESTS en sus siglas en inglés), comenzó hace poco más de 2 años, cuando empecé mi negocio, Learn English Budapest. No somos una escuela de idiomas al uso, sino una agencia que pone en contacto a profesores de inglés con estudiantes de toda la ciudad. Cuando comencé, la meta era ofrecer una alternativa moda a los folletos y a anunciarse en foros de expatriados.

Durante los primeros meses, yo, al igual que otras muchas escuelas tristemente aún siguen haciendo, tenía una opinión negativa de los profesores no nativos. Asumía que los profesores nativos eran, simplemente, mejores a la hora de enseñar el idioma.

No fue hasta que fui contactado por Marek Kiczkowiak, fundador de TEFL Equity Advocates (Defensores de la Igualdad en TEFL), que realmente tuve la oportunidad de cuestionar mi opinión sobre el tema.

Lo que empezó como un intercambio de correos sobre el tema de nativos y no nativos (NESTS/NNESTS*) se convirtió en un experimento por mi parte. Decidí empezar a aceptar a NNESTS en mi equipo para ver que resultados obtenía y tan sólo unas pocas semanas después, me di cuenta de que había estado cometiendo un error al no contratarlos.

En aquel entonces, compartí un sumario de mis conclusiones en una entrevista. Hoy, vuelvo a estar aquí y me complace anunciar el lanzamiento de mi nuevo sitio web, Teacher Finder. Es el mismo concepto, excepto que esta vez pondremos a personas en contacto con profesores de idiomas en más de una docena de ciudades alrededor del mundo. También nos expandiremos incluyendo nuevos idiomas: Español, Italiano, Francés, Húngaro, Arabe y Alemán, entre otros. Por supuesto, los profesores no nativos son bienvenidos.

Para todos aquellos que se dedican a la gestión de agencias o escuelas de idiomas y que tengan dudas sobre trabajar con NNESTS, comparto aquí algunos de los resultados observados durante los últimos 2 años.

LA MAYORÍA DE ESTUDIANTES VALORAN LA EXPERIENCIA MÁS QUE LA LENGUA MATERNA

Cuando se trata de enseñar, es obvio que las requisitos más importantes son, la habilidad del profesor a la hora de explicar el tema y, obviamente, enseñar. Esto es particularmente cierto en cuanto a profesores de idiomas. En un mundo donde la lengua franca internacional es el inglés y el número de hablantes no nativos empieza a sobrepasar el de nativos, es ridículo pensar que los no nativos no pueden ser tan buenos profesores como los “elegidos”, que han nacido en un ambiente donde se habla inglés.

LOS ESTUDIANTES NO EXIGIRÁN UN PROFESOR NATIVO SI NO LES DAS LA OPCIÓN

Por supuesto, “nativo” sigue estando imbuido de un cierto estereotipo y, dada la opción, la mayoría de personas aún optan por un nativo. De hecho, solía haber una casilla en el formulario online de Learn English Budapest donde se leía: “¿Quieres un profesor nativo? Si/No. No es de sorprender que la mayoría de personas marcasen la casilla “nativo” o lo dejasen en blanco.

Decidí quitar esta casilla y reemplazarla con la siguiente pregunta dirigida a los estudiantes: “Describe como sería tu profesor perfecto”. Durante los siguientes meses, resultó evidente que los estudiantes no buscaban a alguien que fuera nativo. Estaban más interesados en encontrar a un profesor que compartiera sus intereses y pudiera explicar ampliamente el tópico en el que están interesados.

A partir de ese momento, no me ha contactado ningún estudiante para quejarse de haberle sido asignado un profesor no nativo de inglés. La mayoría están encantados al ver que los NNESTS pueden explicar gramática complicada (a menudo, mejor que los hablantes nativos) y establecer analogías con sus idiomas nativos.

LOS NNESTS PUEDEN SER MÁS DINÁMICOS

Uno de los factores que más favorece a los NNESTS es que tienen experiencia propia de haber aprendido el idioma. Poseen una gran comprensión de lo que los estudiantes están pasando y de cuáles pueden ser los mayores obstáculos para alcanzar la fluidez.

Su propia experiencia del aprendizaje del idioma, ha menudo les ha enseñado algunas técnicas innovadoras sobre cómo explicar mejor y entender inglés. Cuando pregunté a mis profesores cuales eran los consejos y trucos que les son de más ayuda a la hora de enseñar inglés, en seguida vi que los NNESTS eran los que sabían mucho más acerca de la manera de mejorar sus habilidades lingüísticas, (y las de sus alumnos).

LOS NNESTS TIENDEN A TENER MEJORES RECURSOS PARA LA ENSEÑANZA

De nuevo, ya que los NNESTS han pasado por la inmensa tarea de llegar a hablar otro idioma con fluidez, han explorado las posibilidades, dentro del panorama de recursos de aprendizaje de idiomas, para encontrar los mejores. Mientras que los NESTS cuentan con el lujo de poder contar siempre con el recurso de ser hablantes nativos y poder elaborar “recursos” improvisados, los NNESTS normalmente, cubren ese espacio preparándose mejor las lecciones.

También son los que comparten con los estudiantes más métodos de aprendizaje alternativos a los libros y les ayudan a mejorar más rápidamente el manejo del idioma. También he observado que, por norma general, también hacen más esfuerzo en crear sus propios recursos y combinar estrategias diferentes para encontrar la mejor manera de enseñar a cada alumno.

CUANDO SE TRATA DE ENSEÑAR A NIÑOS, LOS NNESTS, A MENUDO LO HACEN MEJOR

Cuando rememoro mis días en la escuela y las clases de idiomas que nos daban, no puedo acordarme de, ni tan siquiera, un profesor de idiomas nativo. Cuando se trata de principiantes y niños, la habilidad de explicar el idioma en su idioma nativo y limitar la presión que el estudiante siente, es irreemplazable.

Cuando era joven y estudiaba mis primeras lecciones en español, no hubiera podido sobrevivir frente a una persona española oyéndome imitar su idioma; por lo que he aprendido de los comentarios que recibo de los estudiantes, a menudo, estos se sienten igual cuando están empezando. Los más avanzados puede que se sientan cómodos siendo expuestos a más presión, pero los niños no suelen progresar en ese entorno.

CONCLUSIÓN: MIENTRAS QUE LOS ESTEREOTIPOS LIGADOS A LOS PROFESORES NATIVOS CONTINÚAN, LOS NNESTS ESTÁN, A MENUDO, MEJOR PREPARADOS PARA ENSEÑAR INGLÉS.

Incluso en Teacher Finder aún tenemos gente pidiendo profesores de inglés nativos pero, muy a menudo, no presionan sobre el tema. También hemos conseguido explicar con éxito los beneficios inherentes en el aprendizaje con profesores no nativos de inglés.

Diría que una de las ventajas de tener a un NNEST enseñándote, es que entiende perfectamente por lo que estás pasando como estudiante del idioma. Al haber pasado por el mismo esfuerzo frente a las cuestiones gramaticales, entiende lo que se necesita para poder explicar claramente las normas. Esto es particularmente importante con los niños, quienes pueden desanimarse si tienen a un profesor nativo.

A pesar de que, desafortunadamente, me tomó un tiempo llegar a darme cuenta, ahora se que los NNESTS pueden estar mejor equipados y preparados para enseñar que los profesores nativos. Al final, lo que realmente les importa a los estudiantes es encontrar a alguien con quien puedan conectar y que haga del aprendizaje del idioma algo ameno, indistintamente de si son nativos o no nativos.

andrew5041Andrew Davison es el fundador de Teacher Finder y también disfruta escribiendo y viajando en su tiempo libre. Vive entre Londres y Budapest.

*NEST(S): siglas en inglés de “Native English Teacher-s”. En español, Profesor(es) Nativo(s) de Inglés.

NNEST(S): siglas en inglés de “Non-Native English Teacher-s”. En español, Profesor(es) No-Nativo(s) de Inglés.