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

Per Aspera ad Astra by Lina Gordyshevskaya

I did not really plan to be an English teacher. As most things in my life, it happened by accident rather than according to some plan.

I was fresh out of the university (Edinburgh) holding an MA in Scandinavian Studies, and I had no idea what to do with my life. There was an offer from a university in Sweden for a master’s programme in the same field, but I had been postponing making a decision whether I should accept it or not. I did not want to study for two more years and write another thesis, you see.

Finally, I made up my mind: I would go to Japan and continue learning Japanese, my recent hobby. Meanwhile, I would teach English since I had already been doing it for some time but voluntarily, and enjoyed it. The future finally seemed bright, and I could not think of any potential problems to face. How naïve I was…

To equip myself with some methodological knowledge and to raise my employability, I took a TEFL course in my hometown in Russia. In Japan, I started with a kid entertainer job (chatting to kids in English while they were waiting in the queue for the activity), which I did not like and escaped as soon as I felt I just could not take it anymore.

Finding a teaching job was tough: most schools seemed so cool with their websites filled with pictures of people in business suits laughing together; I was simply afraid, I did not feel qualified enough. And Kobe itself just did not have many opportunities.

I managed to become a substitute teacher at some small eikaiwa teaching a couple of days per month (if I was lucky). In April, I started a second job, with guaranteed hours. I was promised to get 15-16 hours, and I was really happy. However, I only got 6. When I asked why, I was told that many parents were not satisfied with me being new and young, so they signed their kids up for other teachers’ classes. Nothing was said of my non-nativeness – yet.

While teaching those 6 hours a week, I realised that teaching young learners was not really my thing. It was ok, but it did not inspire me. I decided to take a break – and CELTA. It blew my mind. Literally. It gave me that self-confidence I lacked before. I moved to Kanto and started looking for a job that would be suitable for my post-CELTA teaching experience. It appeared that the problem was not finding a suitable job but me being suitable for teaching English.

‘Native English speaker’.

‘Must hold a passport from the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand’.

‘Seeking for a native English instructor’.

‘Only preferable candidates will be contacted after our initial screening’. I was not preferable. I did not have the ‘right’ passport.

I could not understand why.

Why does having a Russian passport supposedly make me worse teacher than any native teacher?

Why does being born in a non-English-speaking country make me less employable?

Why does having a degree from a university in the UK and two teaching qualifications mean nothing if English is my second language (by the way, I have been learning it since I was 4)?

I felt humiliated. I felt desperate. I cried on my husband’s shoulder asking him all these questions interrupted with sobs after every other word. He tried his best to support me, and eventually, after getting a headache and blocked nose, I would tell to myself ‘OK, I’ll try once again and take it easy’.

I tried to apply for universities as well since they hire non-natives but lacked teaching experience at the university level and did not hold a relevant degree, and did not have publications.

Finally, I got an offer from a big chain eikaiwa, the only one among many that hired non-natives quite actively. And yet, almost all non-natives I met there were on part-time contracts while 90% of full-time-contract instructors were from the countries where English is the first language. Despite anything, I was grateful to be there. I was grateful to them for hiring me, a non-native teacher. Only now, I think how twisted it is to be grateful for something that is (should be!) natural.

I did not give up on getting a university job. The thing is that I wanted to teach groups of young adults using a communicative approach, and it was hardly possible in the eikaiwa. I also did not like being constantly reminded that we are selling a product. I do not sell a product. I teach. T-E-A-C-H. So I tried and tried again and again.

And I got it.

I was lucky, I guess. It was the only university that required neither specific teaching experience (just general would do) nor publications. I had to prove during model teaching that I was able to teach communicative lessons, and I did.

When I got a job offer, my heart froze and then started beating crazily. I could not believe my own eyes. I could not breathe. I was ecstatic. I did it. I won this battle.

I know I will face discrimination in the ELT field again – we simply cannot change things just in the blink of an eye. However, next time I will choose not to feel humiliated but proud of who I am.

Teaching is a profession, and, as in any other profession, skills matter more than nationality. I have met amazing and inspiring teachers from all over the world, and it is not their nativeness – or non-nativeness – that makes them amazing and inspiring. It is their passion for teaching and developing as professionals. I think these two should be the minimum requirements instead of that one you can find in every single teaching job ad.

linaLina graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA (Hons) in Scandinavian Studies in 2015. She obtained TEFL in 2015 and CELTA in 2016. This August, she was invited to teach demonstration lessons for a CELTA course in St Petersburg. Lina has taught YL, teenagers, and adults of various levels both in groups and privately. Currently, she teaches EAP (discussion) at a university in Japan and loves her job. She blogs regularly for https://eltbylinablog.wordpress.com/.

Buy a megaphone: Non-discriminatory language is not enough by Karin Krummenacher

Do you believe in primal scream therapy? I am not going to lie to you: It had not been a great day before I set foot into the weirdly medievally furnished meeting room that would be the backdrop of scenes that made me want to scream. Feeling like King Arthur, waiting for the other parties to arrive I had no idea I was only half an hour away from considering buying a pillow just so I could scream into it to release my frustration.

Spoiler: I did not buy that pillow. I postponed my tantrum to the privacy of my own home, as decent postmodern humans do. And now I write about it on the internet. As postmodern humans do.

Back to the meeting room. The interviewers have arrived. Now listen to this:

Roberta: You come highly recommended by the person who used to teach this course. Do you have any experience teaching English to non-native speaking English teachers in Prague?

Karin: Absolutely. In fact, I specialised in this exact area for the extended assignment of my Delta. The paper I wrote is called Language Development for In-service Non-Native English teachers in the Czech Republic.

Roberta: Oh, really? Well that’s wonderful! Exactly who we are looking to hire. Say, are you from the US or the UK?

Karin: I am Swiss. As stated in my CV.

Roberta: Really? Are you sure? I cannot hear your accent. Lena, can you hear that she is not a native speaker?

Lena: No. Hm. What a pity. I think we need to discuss this real quick.

See where this is going?

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I expected them to leave the room, to come back and escort me outside with a made-up shallow excuse for why they could not employ me. Far from it! They turned to each other and started discussing in Czech right in front of me, simply assuming that I, the dumb foreigner, will not understand them. They talked about how it was a shame that I am not a native.

Roberta (turns back to me): Would you like to teach German?

Karin: I am not a German teacher.

Roberta: That is ok. You are a native.

Karin: I am not. My native language is Swiss-German and I am neither qualified nor able or interested to teach any language but English.

Lena: Are you sure you did not go to university in an English speaking country? That could count.

Karin: I am quite certain I did not.

They continued to talk in Czech. The most humiliating, degrading experience of my professional life, I think. That’s when the pillow thought started to take shape. Eventually they turned back around to me.

Karin: No, je to škoda, že jsem velmi kvalifikovaná, ale narodila jsem se na špatném místě.

Baffled looks. They realise I understood their entire conversation.

Lena: Unfortunately, we cannot offer you to teach the course. We need a native speaker. It is nothing against you, really. It is “psychological”. The participants want to know their teacher is a native speaker.

Karin: You realise you have told me that the other applicants are less qualified and that I am the perfect fit. You understand this is discrimination and against EU law, right?

Roberta: No, it is just psychologically. For the participants. We have lots of non-native teachers for low levels. Maybe we could find some A1 or A2 classes you could teach…

Luckily, I am much better off now than the last time I had this conversation. I have a wonderful full-time job as a teacher trainer that I love, I do not need the money, I was just interested in the work as it is an area of expertise of mine. And, as opposed to last time this happened to me, I know my rights. I know Roberta and Lena are wrong, they are mossbacked, they are unprogressive, they are a plague to our industry. And they are smiling at me.

What this made me realise is how easy it is to forget how backward things still are, what the reality of EFL hiring still is, once you surround yourself with intelligent forward-thinking people.

Since my last post for this blog I have done a lot of research, given workshops, published articles, talked at conferences, presented at IATEFL, worked with great minds on the issue of native speakerism. I discussed the topic with the elite of the industry. And it is easy to forget that that is not the majority of the industry. Sitting in that room, being disrespected and discriminated against by two smug language school owners, making the most offensive claims there are, was a good strong reality check.

Do not get me wrong: Not for a second was I ever under the impression we had won our battle. But I had seriously thought that there was much more awareness now than half a decade ago. That people would at least be ashamed when sitting face to face with a person they are discriminating. At least in Europe.

They are not.

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Now, to be completely honest with you, I am not a very good activist. I am too impatient and too lazy and do not enjoy repeating myself like a parrot to people who do not want to listen. I am so tired of this. And I have other research to do, other fights to fight, other thoughts to think. I am fed up. I did not even choose to be so passionate about this issue. In fact, the violation of my very own rights has got old a while ago. I am just not very good at this whole thing. Luckily though, I am good at being angry. I might even be the best at being angry. You would not believe my stamina, my passion, the fuel anger is to my actions.

In the words of Miley Cyrus: We can’t stop and we won’t stop.

I will not buy a pillow. But a megaphone. I will be louder, fight harder and ruffle more feathers.

As a very concrete action, I have decided that I will not accept empty talk any longer and be more critical of alleged changes.

I often get job advertisements from language schools in order to share them with my network of English teachers and recently certified teachers. Many of them ask for native speakers. I used to email them back, explaining that would be discrimination, etc. Asking them to change the wording. They usually would and I would then share the ad.

This week I received another request to share a job opening. Stating “native speakers only” on three occasions within the ad. I was about to write back and realised that same school had already received the nice “could you please change the wording”-email over five times. Clearly, they had not changed a single thing and definitely not their hiring practices but were just paying me lip service to get their ad out there.

I wrote to the school that I do not support hiring processes that promote discrimination in any form and that, should they be ready to revise their practice and focus on applicants’ qualifications and experience rather than their places of birth, they could contact me again in the future with concrete evidence thereof. Until then: Find your natives yourself.

Avoiding discriminatory terminology is a great start and a step in the right direction. But it does not end with terminology.

What needs to follow is deeds and a revision of beliefs that lead to discrimination in the first place. It is some sort of evidence of our work when discriminatory language becomes a no-go for language schools but it does not change that they have a pile of native CVs they actually consider and a pile of non-native CVs which then land in the bin.

Honestly, that the word native is now replaced by native-like competency or native-level speaker, to make ads non-discriminatory, shows that there is no profound change yet, just a strategy around it. Our claims need to get bigger. We can not be happy with the bones the industry throws us. We need genuine change.

Buy a megaphone and pack a lunch. This whole thing is going to take a while.

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karin krummenacherKarin is a Prague based teacher trainer, international conference speaker, and published writer. She takes an active interest in teacher development and equality in the industry. Her latest research deals with differentiation on initial teaching training courses. Karin does not sound like a native English speaker but like the proficient non-native speaker she is and thinks that is very much the way it should be. Give her a shout at karin.krummenacher@gmail.com

ELT Vacancies Open For All – by Martin Sketchley

In my English teaching career, I have furthered my interest the recruitment and employment of English language teachers. I am currently responsible for the recruitment and employment of young learner teachers and have employed teachers from UK, USA as well as from Europe. Our school has zero tolerance against the discrimination of English teachers and we attempt to lead by example. We have employed teachers from Poland and Italy, and they are not seen any different in our school. This was great development where I had to work against deep-rooted discrimination in South Korea against native and non-native English speakers, as well as between the recruitment of English teachers from either America, Canada or the United Kingdom.

In a recent blog post on my website, I uncovered an advertisement by a language school in China seeking a professional with one catch: “no Asian face”.

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I was flabbergasted that recruiter would authorise such an advertisement with the requirement that those who are considered ‘Asian’ (whatever that means) should not apply for this position. One has to wonder whether there are still organisations in the world which need to learn that such discrimination in any language can be detrimental to both recruiters as well as the school seeking the teacher. This is the reason why I have developed a recruitment area on my website: to ensure that all English teachers, irrespective of their ethnicity or their country of origin, have equal opportunities.

Before a job post is accepted on my website, I personally review the post and then amend anything if required before it is agreed. However, from the limited success so far, I have not had to amend much and I was very surprised that a recent job post contained the clause: “English native speakers or Candidates from Europe, Latin America with clean accent.

Although it is not ideal to maintain teachers of English only have a ‘clean accent’ or to only focus on particular regions of the world, it is definitely a step in the right direction. Ideally, the advert would focus on all teachers of English around the world irrespective of nationality or ethnicity. However, this is a small success as Chinese recruiters are finally noticing that professional English teachers can be sourced from countries besides those that officially have English as their first language.

Furthermore, the many potential candidates that have registered on my website are speakers whose first language is not English. This is incredibly rewarding for me as I would really like to see more ‘non-native teachers’, some of whom I have had the pleasure of working with, have the same opportunities as native English teachers and if my website advocates equal opportunities in English language teaching, so much the better.

As Marek has mentioned in a previous blog post, non-native English teachers are just as suitable for employment opportunities as native English teachers and with 70% of online advertisements seeking for native English teachers, it tacitly disregards all suitable non-native English teachers for the post.

In fact, I received wonderful feedback (see screenshot below) about one particular job advertisement on my website from a person called Andy Barbeiro who said it was “the best job advert for an ELT position I have ever seen! Transparent, detailed and non-discriminatory (mother-tongue never mentioned once!) The proof that these kinds of job posts are so rare is in Hussein F. Allam ‘s previous comment. It’s clear from the post that all qualified teachers can apply. If I was still teaching, I’d jump at this opportunity.

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I’m so pleased to see that my hard-work is now being recognised and that it is gaining popularity among teachers no matter their nationality.

I do hope that teachers irrespective of their ethnicity or their nationality register and apply for employment opportunities as well as employers post teaching opportunities for applicants no matter their physical location on my website. It would be a great achievement to assist in the battle against negative stereotypes for non-native English teachers and ensure that the entire ELT profession is more highly respected by all: employers and recruiters.

martin sketchleyMartin Sketchley has been an English language teacher for over eleven years now, with teaching experience in South Korea, Romania as well as the UK. He is Young Learner Co-ordinator at LTC Eastbourne and teaches students from around the world. He is responsible for curriculum development, teacher training as well as organising formal and informal observations for teaching staff. Martin also is an Assistant Examiner for Cambridge ESOL Examinations and marks writing for the Cambridge exams (PET, FCE, etc.). He holds an MA in English Language Teaching from the University of Sussex, a Diploma, Trinity Young Learners Extension Certificate (TYLEC) as well as a CELTA. Finally, Martin runs a website (ELT Experiences) which focuses on teaching, lesson observations and recruitment and he also uploads videos to his YouTube Channel.

Why NNESTs? International English and the implications for teacher development

Teacher identity is a delicate flower. After all, we are what we teach, so it is essential to reflect on who we are as language teachers, especially, if the language is English and more importantly, when English is an additional language for us, non-native English speaker teachers.

There are far more non-native English speaker teachers (NNESTs – pronounced en-NESTs) than native speaker English teachers (NESTs), and even though identity issues between the two groups may overlap, Marcela and I chose to look at the specificities of non-native teachers.

Our main tenet is that with English becoming a global / international language, NNESTs are gaining a competitive advantage: they are bilingual and bicultural (often multilingual and multicultural) as well as lifelong learners of an additional language. It follows that there can only be two drawbacks in the 21st century: not knowing English and knowing only English.

Teaching English as an international language has certain implications and we draw attention to some of these from the point of view of teacher development. Whether you’re a NEST or an NNEST, we hope you will enjoy reading our concise book on “Why NNESTs?”

In the book we invite readers to reconsider the smouldering debate on who is better: native or non-native? We argue that both species bring a somewhat different set of skills to the table, and as international English becomes more and more widespread, the divisions are getting blurred as well as obsolete. While this may not happen without the active participation and advocacy of all members in the ELT community, the winds of change are blowing.

You can order a digital copy of the book here. A paper version is available here.

elisabeth bekesErzsébet Békés is a Hungarian English teacher with more than 40 years of ELT experience. As a volunteer, she taught English to North-African migrants in Crete, set up Language Improvement Centres in Ethiopia, spent six months teaching English for Tourism to members of an indigenous tribe in the Amazonian jungle and gave crash courses in Survival English to undocumented “sea gypsies” while visiting Borneo. Based in Ecuador and working as a teacher trainer, she is a fully competent and proud non-native speaker teacher of English.

marcela carrascoMarcela Carrasco has been teaching English for over 30 years. Born in Cuenca, Ecuador and brought up in Tehran, Iran under Mohammad Reza Shah’s regime and then educated in the United States, Marcela spent her formative years in cultures at odds with each other. As the owner and director of a hugely successful language school in Ecuador’s cultural capital, Cuenca, she has lived and walked multiculturalism. As a bilingual teacher of English and Spanish, her identity is neither – she is one of the world’s new global citizens.

 

Do you trust your students when they smile in class? by Nicky Sekino

Your job may not be secure when your class is going well. Maybe, your students are making progress. Maybe, there are laughers in the class. Maybe, you have a higher academic degree. But all that will be of little value if you are a non-native speaker of English – at least in my case.

It was a company in Tokyo that dismissed me from an English education program for its employees. According to my employer, an educational institute, the company in Tokyo said, “It was about time to replace him with a new instructor, who is a native speaker of English.” I am certainly a non-native speaker of English. My mother tongue is Japanese. My employer, however, did little to protest this discriminatory dismissal. I am now of the impression that the commercial maxim of, “The customer is always right,” has worked.

My employer knows I have an M.A. in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Teachers College Columbia University. I am, maybe, the longest-working teacher in the institute’s payroll.

The news devastated me because my class had been going well. When the course started a year ago, my students spoke less than survival English. If I said, “Who is he?” my students would say, “Yes.” When the students’ English comprehension was virtually zero, the progress of the class was very slow. I consulted with my employer and it suggested for a bilingual class. I asked my students if they wanted me to talk to them in Japanese when I give instructions and do the rest of the class in English. To my surprise, they said, “No.” They wanted me to do the class in English only: a nice surprise.

Something strange happened. The company in Tokyo complained about the “English-only” policy. Being surprised, I asked my students if they changed their mind. They said, “No.” They managed to hint, in a broken fashion, a fabricating act in the part of their employer.

So, I decided to do the class in English and speak very slowly. It was, however, painful to say, “Doo youu uundeerstaand?” One year later, I did not have to speak at a ridiculously slow speed.

My students were engineers. They wanted to study technical English, too. I happily accepted this wish. I asked them if they would prepare short speeches with some technical contents. I said this because I knew they wrote English reasonably well. My students said, “Yes.” Afterward, they prepared short speeches and presented them in each class. In fact, their speeches were good after some error correction.

The course came to an end in a year.  I asked my students if they wanted to continue the study. They said, “Yes,” – with a smile. I went home with a smile.

The following day, the company in Tokyo contacted my employer to say that it would renew the contract with one new condition. The condition was to replace “the instructor with someone else who is a native speaker of English.” My employer accepted the request.

Afterthoughts

This experience of mine with the company in Tokyo is not new. It is another case of many more incidents with similar developments, which reminds me that I live in the Japanese world of English education.

I no longer blame people openly for discrimination. If I did, it would just stun them because many people have no idea about racial discrimination – especially from the view of someone who is on the receiving end. They would think I am insane who is complaining about something that does not exist. As the readers may have suspected, the company in Tokyo did not know they had committed racial discrimination.

Besides racial discrimination, the Japanese world of English education has some other issues to tackle. Motivation is one. Many people think students will learn English more if the class is fun. This idea is generally true, but it is not so simple with business people who believe in the native speaker fallacy that native speakers of English would make better teachers.

I sometimes forget that Japanese is an implicit language. English, on the other hand, is a descriptive language. So, for instance, “Yes,” means “Yes,” in English. However, “Yes,” means “Yes,” or “Maybe yes,” or, “Yes, I have heard you,” in Japanese. It was maybe my naiveté to believe in my students when they requested for a monolingual class. Maybe they were saying, “Yes” to please me but, in fact, they were thinking, “No.” I do not know. A friendly warning for the readers is to be aware of the dichotomy of the Japanese language. Students are speaking English but they are possibly following a communication logic that is outside of the English language.


About the author:

nicky sekinoMr. Nicky Sekino is an experienced teacher of English. He began teaching at American universities and Japanese vocational schools in the 1980’s. Since then, he has continued teaching and the number of his past students has exceeded 2000. His current teaching context is the business world and his students are business people. He has an MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from Teachers College Columbia University.

Péter Medgyes’ ‘The Non-native Teacher’ – why publish a new edition?

More than 20 years ago, in the early 1990s, there was a lot of discussion about the position of teachers of English who were either native or non-native speakers of the language. In The Non-native Teacher Péter Medgyes, a Hungarian, wrote about the relative advantages and disadvantages, problems and insights, of both groups. This became a successful book, used widely on teacher training courses in many countries.

However, as with so many other aspects of teaching and methodology, interest in the topic went up and down over the years. Coinciding with changes in publishing companies, both the first (Macmillan) 1994 edition and the later (Hueber) 1999 one, went out of print.

In the last few years, as the importance of both pre- and in-service training has begun to be increasingly recognised, together with the relevance of its various forms to different kinds of learning/teaching environment (primary, secondary, adults), the debate about who was the ‘best’ kind of teacher of English began to be heard again.  Twenty years later, it seemed there was a need to look again at relative strengths and weaknesses, problems and perceived advantages – and to both go over the original ground again, while also adding questions, thoughts and observations relating to present-day and future teaching situations and contexts.

As well as the ‘classroom and training’ aspects of the debate, it has seemed increasingly important to discuss the topic from the viewpoint  of employment. It has become illegal, at least in European countries, to discriminate against employing people on the basis of nationality. However, perhaps it is not as simple as that: how about the ongoing battle to convince parents, company training managers and other decision makers that the key consideration is relevant training and qualifications? This is far from simple, and will take time and can, perhaps, be best helped by encouraging honest and open debate.

As a result of these shifts in focus, and the huge amounts of interest raised by the TEFL Equity website and activities, plus the reaction to Silvana Richardson’s 2016 IATEFL plenary,  Péter Medgyes (a non-NEST) and I (a NEST) felt it was time to open up the debate again, discussing the relative problems facing both groups of English teachers, while encouraging people to think about these in relation to their own specific contexts, personal abilities and priorities.

We thus decided to republish the book, adding a lot of new material, designed to build up the self-confidence of both groups by suggesting ways in which all teachers can assess and develop their individual strengths, presented visually in a way that will get the topic discussed critically from a variety of angles – with the underlying message that ‘we need both – but all teachers must be properly trained’.

Below is a short video with Péter’s description of this:

 

The book is available in both print and digital formats (with a special discount on the latter until the end of August). The print version is available from English Language Booksho. The digital edition is available here.

And we hope, of course, to hear your own thoughts and ideas about the topic and to be involved in the ongoing discussion on the TEFL Equity website.

susan holdenAfter originally training as a teacher of drama and English in UK schools (primary and secondary) Susan Holden has had a variety of experiences as a teacher, teacher trainer, writer and publisher in a number of countries, principally in Europe and Latin America. As editor of Modern English Teacher for 15 years, she came into contact with a wide range of teachers and teaching contexts. Appropriate training and sensitivity to cultural and educational contexts are, for her, of paramount importance. Based in Scotland, she now runs a small publishing and project management company, Swan Communication. For any further information about the books, you can contact Susan via email.

The problem with conference speaker balance and what to do about it – by Gavin Dudeney

A few years ago I finished up a two-week training course in Rosario, Argentina and started a rather bizarre journey to Manila for a conference. Leaving Rosario by limo on a Friday morning, I travelled to Buenos Aires and then caught a flight to Madrid, one from Madrid to Helsinki, another from Helsinki to Hong Kong and a final one from Hong Kong to Manila. I then jumped in a limo, was whisked to a hotel where I showered and shaved, and went on to deliver a plenary at the conference. It was Sunday afternoon and I’d been travelling for forty-eight hours. But I was so excited – the exotic locations, the sights, the swish airport transfers. Somebody paid for all that… I was in demand… life was a whirlwind of adventure.

That same year I travelled to around 30 countries for training, consultancy and conference visits. I can’t remember much about any of them – they were all airports, hotels, conference centres, Ministry of Education offices, teacher training institutes… I do believe I had a day off in Hanoi once, and went on a trip to Halong Bay. Ah, the glamour!

I was addicted – I don’t mind admitting it now – and there are plenty of people like me in ELT.

When I was at home I wanted nothing more than to be back in the air again, flying off to an exotic location (near or far), meeting people, doing my thing. I never thought of the environment, never thought of what it might be doing to me. Never thought much, to be honest – it was just all so very exciting. Since then I’ve cut down a lot on my work travel, for a variety of reasons. Some of them I’ll share here, others are private.

Fast forward, then, to this weekend where I came across a Facebook post which started out being about job adverts for native speakers only, and morphed into a more general study of privilege and discrimination in the ELT world. We are all perhaps familiar with these discussions in the era of social media – from Silvana Richardson’s plenary to the work done on this website, we know how certain people are afforded greater opportunities than others.

But it was one particular comment which caught my eye:

I remember sharing this picture somewhere a few months ago [a picture is worth a thousand words] noting the Male – Female ratio as well as the ratio of NESTs to NNESTs…. I got the feeling that some people were less-than-happy about my sharing it…

Now, clearly, any sane person looking at this advertisement for a conference in Poland would acknowledge that the balance is all wrong – there is a bias towards male speakers, and male speakers of a particular tribe (mostly white, middle-class, ‘native’, British). How on earth did I allow myself to take part in such an event?

I found myself asking that, because the ‘some people’, and the somewhat annoying self-congratulatory nature of the smiley (“I rocked the boat there…. they must all be feeling a bit silly today, colluding in such an offensive conference”) seemed aimed more at the speakers than anyone else. I wondered why the person writing the comment hadn’t specified who the ‘some people’ were? Were we to draw the same conclusion that I had come to – that it was the ‘high-profile’ speakers that were being criticised? Well, perhaps not – maybe it wasn’t – but you can certainly see how that conclusion could be easily arrived at.

And then I had to cast my mind back to that event (it takes longer these days…). I was kindly sponsored by Cambridge for that one. I had done a session for them at a private training event in Prague and they thought it would go down well at this conference, and be suitable for the audience. They had invited me months before the conference, and I had dutifully booked and paid for trains, flights and hotels in order to be able to attend.

I had no idea who the other speakers were going to be (and, I suspect, neither did my sponsors) – I got an invitation, I like Poland, the conference was one I was interested in attending, I had a business meeting I needed to go to in Poland (which could be combined with the conference) and it all seemed like a good way of combining everything into a short, agreeable weekend of work away. And so I went.

A few weeks before I travelled, though, I saw the line-up and was a little put out by the balance. I have long argued for greater gender balance at events, and have been instrumental in organising a handful of events which have focussed on getting good local speakers rather than constantly parachuting ‘experts’ in from the UK. My company has an excellent gender balance in it, and over the years I have done my bit (as have so many others) – albeit quietly – to work against some of the major threads in this particular Facebook discussion. But – and this is important – if I pulled out, I would have been considerably out of pocket (not being able to reclaim the outlay for travel and accommodation) and I would have been considerably unpopular with the organisers and my sponsor. And, like everyone else, I have a living to make, and that living is somewhat dependent on my professionalism and dedication.

So why does this happen?

Well – if you’ve organised events you’ll know why it can happen – different people invite different people, large sponsors often insist on certain speakers (a new coursebook, teacher development publication or product to promote), conference organisers choose a topic where certain experts just seem to fit, are in demand… The local audience are also often their own worst enemy in asking for certain speakers, and so on. Conferences are complicated beasts, and with so many influences (and so much money) pulling on them, they sometimes (often?) go awry.

Looking back at that list of speakers, I can see why it happened – but let’s not assume that the speakers themselves colluded in the lack of balance, because it is extremely unlikely that most of them knew the line-up when they agreed to speak. Now, of course, you could ask why they didn’t find out once it had all been decided, and then work out if they thought  it was acceptable to speak, but that’s really not a logical and reasonable demand. People have to make money, they have to speak at events to promote things, they are under contractual agreements and more.

So where does change come from?

Well…. It needs to come from local organisers of events, who need to start discovering and nurturing local or regional talent. It also needs to come from sponsors, who might usefully do the same, and simply promote their wares in the exhibition rather than through imposing speakers on events. It also needs to come from local teachers and teacher associations – empowering, mentoring, nurturing talent. What could be more useful than someone from your own background and culture speaking to you at a conference? If you want useful stuff, stop asking for the ‘big names’, and start looking within – after all, you can always read their books. In the long run, this kind of approach can work.

Now, right up at the top of this post I said that I’ve cut out a lot of my travel, where feasible, and it’s been for a variety of reasons. One of them was that I got over the addiction to the whole process, and began to question whether what I was doing was good for me, good for my health, and even – yes – good for the people I was speaking to at events. I have my doubts about the utility of short events these days, I’m simply not convinced they serve their primary purpose. I think events are great for networking, for the communal and social aspects, but I’m no longer convinced that they really contribute to anything more than an ephemeral surge in ‘development’, and are then easily forgotten. They serve lots of other purposes, but perhaps, when all is said and done, a secondary school teacher in South Korea really doesn’t get anything long-lasting from a visit from me. I get the visit, the food, the lovely people, the sights and sounds. It’s not a good balance.

I came across this recently, and it lit a small light up in my fuddled brain:

Nothing has promised so much and has been so frustratingly wasteful as the thousands of workshops and conferences that led to no significant change in practice.

Fullan, M. (1991) The new meaning of educational change. Teachers College Press

It is precisely because of this feeling that I prefer ‘training’ to conference appearances. It seems to me that a whole day with a group of people stands much more of a chance of having an impact than a thirty-minute workshop. These days I crave one- and two-week courses, and do quite a few of them each year. They’re demanding, tiring, but it’s quality time with quality people and I think it works.

I have other reasons, though. I realised that all the travel wasn’t helping with the environment, and that stared to feel bad, too. But most of all it has really been out of a sense that the gene pool of conference speakers is too small, and not nearly diverse enough. Look at the line-ups for major conferences and you’ll see the same twenty names time after time – there simply has to be more to it than that.

I put all this together and it amounted to one simple thing for me – travel less.

Over the past four or so years I’ve made it a habit to say ‘no’ to many of the invitations which come my way, often with the (not unreal) excuse that I am already busy on those dates, or have too much work on. When doing this, I have also tried to recommend one or two names who might usefully fill the gap I am creating – and I’ve tried to do that bearing in mind some of the things I’ve already mentioned here. If all of us who get lots of invitations start to do the same, then it might go some way towards promoting greater balance. I’m not saying people have to or even should do this, merely that I think it’s one way of going about things. But it is part of a bigger picture which clearly needs a lot more work.

When all is said and done, my reasons are not entirely altruistic, but they can help. That’s the best I can do, I think. I’ve volunteered for ELT organisations for seventeen years and – along with many others who perhaps aren’t overly vocal on social media – I think I’ve done (and continue to do) my bit for a better ELT world. There are lots and lots of us – women, men, ‘native’ and ‘non-natives’. Although these issues are very much in the limelight currently, it would be wrong to assume that they went uncriticised in the era before blogging and social media. We just need to step up the offensive a little – do more, together.

I still go to the odd event each year, and will continue to do so, because a few seems like a decent balance, it helps me stay up-to-date with what’s going on, it keeps my professional profile healthy and – after all – it’s my profession, it’s where I work and what I do and, crucially, often where I get work from. I just think the pie could be cut into more, smaller pieces, and those pieces could usefully be distributed  more evenly and fairly across the ELT demographic.

Gavin Dudeney[15900]Gavin is Director of Technology for The Consultants-E, working in online training and consultancy in EdTech.  Former Honorary Secretary and Chair of ElCom at IATEFL, he now serves on the International House Trust Board and on the Educational Writers Group Committee of the Society of Authors. Gavin is author of The Internet & The Language Classroom (CUP 2000, 2007) and co-author of the award-winning publications How To Teach English with Technology (Pearson 2007) and Digital Literacies (Routledge 2013).  His latest book, Going Mobile, was published by DELTA Publishing in 2014.

Non-native speakers encouraged to apply – by Rob Sheppard

Without discrimination against ‘NNESTs’ I never would be an English teacher. I’d wager I’m not the only one.

In late August of 2006, somewhere in the crowded streets of Kangbuk District in Seoul, a woman with a master’s degree in English and tired eyes walked to the post office with a padded yellow mailer under her arm. The next stop after the post office was the bank. She probably walked with some hurried annoyance at being asked to perform this task, thinking of all the other things she had to do. Inside the mailer was my passport, and at the bank she’d wire me around $600, a full reimbursement of the cost of my flight to Korea.

When I arrived in Seoul about a week later I was so absorbed in my own exhaustion, excitement, and culture shock that all I thought when I met this woman, my new supervisor, was that she didn’t seem particularly friendly. I must have been a bit dense, because it took me a full six months to become fully cognizant of the uneven lay of the land.

Our school had 20 teachers: 10 Korean and 10 ‘foreign’ (a term I initially chafed at). The Korean teachers all held masters’ degrees from English speaking countries, while the requirement for foreign teachers was simply a bachelor’s degree and ‘native English,’ (which generally meant a desirable combination of passport and complexion). For the Korean teachers this was a career, but for most of the foreigners it was a gap year. The Korean teachers worked full time (which in Korea regularly means mandatory overtime); the foreigners only 15-20 hours per week. The Korean teachers made the equivalent of around $15 per hour: the foreign teachers something like 30% more than that.

These highly qualified, talented Korean English teachers watched kids like me cycle in and out of their country like it was spring break, make our bland observations about their culture, collect our paychecks, and saunter out of the office after 3 hours of work. That they still welcomed and befriended us rather than despising us is a graciousness I’ll never fathom.

The injustice of this situation really only hit me like it did because, by the time I finally recognized it, I was already good friends with several of these Korean teachers. At the time I dealt with it in the only way I knew how, in the staging of meaningless acts of protest: wearing shorts and a punk t-shirt to work, oblivious to the fact that this was only a further exercise in privilege.

Since then I like to think I’ve grown up some. Realizing this was more than a gap year, I got an MA TESOL and eventually got good at doing this teaching thing. So far I’ve been lucky. I’ve been given a shot more than once and hired above my experience level, and privilege of various kinds has no doubt factored into those opportunities.

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of leading teams of teachers, of hiring, training, and promoting some amazing ELT professionals. That first experience with the injustice of native-speakerism has stuck with me, and I’ve done what I can to make certain it never happens on my watch, in my programs. I can say with confidence that the three best hires I’ve ever made were of non-native speakers.

There are those who say that students would rather learn from native speakers, and as a program administrator at a nonprofit, my ultimate duty is to serve a population. So I have had to give this argument careful consideration. And indeed, I have heard rooms full of students affirm that they would prefer an “American teacher.” That attitude certainly exists. But more importantly I’ve seen that bias vanish in minutes, as they fall under the spell of their incredible new teacher whose first language happens to be Chinese, or Russian, or Portuguese.

Meeting student needs doesn’t always mean catering to every misguided want. Many students hold some serious misapprehensions about what ought to happen in a classroom. It is our responsibility as educators to disabuse them of these ideas.

To me the core argument against native-speakerism is two-fold:

First of all, the notion that native speakers have a leg up on non-natives is simply unfounded. A quick metaphor explains why. If I need to understand the inner workings of my computer, who’s the better resource: Paolo who built his own computer, or rich-kid Evan whose mom just bought his ungrateful ass a new iMac?

Once that illogic has been demonstrated, the more compelling part of the argument comes in. Saying you “prefer” a native speaker doesn’t change the fact that it’s discriminatory. In my experience, if the rationale for a policy or a preference or a belief about a group of people can be traced back to the circumstances of that group of those people’s birth, that’s usually a good time to start raising eyebrows and asking questions. A whole lot of injustice arises from that kind of reasoning, and this is no exception.

Recently, I’ve started my own business, Ginseng. It’s a mission-driven online English school offering live group classes to students around the world. As we state on our homepage, we see teachers as the most valuable resource we can offer, so we want the best. We intend to pay and treat them very well. With competition out there touting native speakers left and right, I certainly had to consider whether I would be wise to do the same. Business is business, right?

But why do people learn English? Why do we teach English?

For me at least it’s in large part because of the opportunities it affords my students. I didn’t come here to found the next E.F.  So what kind of hypocrite would I be if I professed to be increasing opportunity, only to go and offer that opportunity only to those who were born into the privilege of native English?

It was this that led me to enthusiastically embrace the mission of TEFL Equity. It was also this that led me to commit 10% of our student slots to providing free classes to those who can’t afford to pay. If your values align with ours, and are interested in joining a team, I hope you’ll check out Ginseng’s job listings, complete with the TEFL Equity badge. Non-native speakers are encouraged to apply.

rob shephardRob Sheppard is senior director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources and the founder of Ginseng English, an online, mission-driven English school that will fully launch in late 2017. He also serves on the community advisory council at First Literacy, is a member of the Open Door Collective, and is co-chair elect of TESOL’s Adult Education Interest Section.

 

Of native speakers and other fantastic beasts

We all refer to ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ not just in English Language Teaching (ELT), Second Language Acquisition (SLA) or linguistics, but also in daily life. Consider the following sentences:

  • She’s a ‘native speaker’ of Spanish.
  • I don’t know how to say this, to be honest. Let’s ask a ‘native speaker’.
  • We can’t hire you because you’re a ‘non-native speaker’.
  • The aim of this research is to study the differences between Chinese bilingual English learners and native monolingual English speakers in expressing motion.

So the term’ native speaker’ seems very familiar to us. After all, we could argue that everyone is a ‘native speaker’ of the language they learned first. And we all have probably seen, met and had a beer with a ‘native speaker’, right?

Why then put inverted commas around the terms as I’m doing now? And stranger still, why say: I no longer review research that compares ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers as though the groups are real and not imagined, as Adrian Holliday recently did on Twitter.

What does Holliday mean when he says that the two groups are not real but imagined? And “when we say:

  • you’ll have to ask a native speaker, or
  • don’t ask me, I’m not a native speaker,

what is it we are appealing to? What is it that human native speakers know? What sort of knowledge does the native speaker have?” (Davies, 2012, p.1).

Native speakers and language proficiency

Most of us I think would agree that a ‘native speaker’ is proficient. Perhaps not in the idealised sense as someone who lives “in a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its (the speech community’s) language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors” (Chomsky, 1965, p.3). However, certainly a ‘native speaker’ is proficient in their mother tongue.

But proficient how?

All sorts of people are proficient. I happen to be completely proficient (or at C2 level on the Common European Framework) in three languages. Does this make me a ‘native speaker’ of all three of them?

Possibly, at least if we are discussing the question on purely linguistic grounds. Yet, I’d never call myself one (more on this later).

So how would we characterise ‘native-like’ proficiency that ELT recruiters are so fond of now?

We can’t really talk about this subject without referring to the late prof. Alan Davies. Over the years he proposed six linguistic factors that define ‘native speaker’ proficiency:

1.      early childhood acquisition;

2.      intuition about grammar (both pertaining to dialect and standard language);

3.      capability to generate spontaneous and fluent discourse;

4.      capability to write creatively;

5.      ability to translate into their L1;

6.      and creative communicative range (Davies, 1991, 2003, 2012, 2013).

Are these six characteristics exclusive to ‘native speakers’?

In this post Geoff Jordan confidently asserts that there is a difference between ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’, citing studies which seem to confirm that ultimate, or ‘native-like’ attainment of a language is very rare. In addition to the ones he mentions, when Sorace (2003) compared grammaticality judgments of ‘native’ and proficient ‘non-native speakers’, she concluded that there was a fundamental difference between the two groups.

However, there are also other studies which shed serious doubts on Sorace’s findings. For example, Birdsong (1992, 2004), Bialystok (1997) and Davies (2001) also studied judgments of grammaticality and all concluded that statistically there was no significant difference in the judgments made by ‘native’ and proficient ‘non-native speakers’. In other words, both groups have very similar intuitions about the language. And it is important to add that they all focused on adult learners who were well past the critical or sensitive period (see below).

So linguistically speaking, is there a difference between the two groups? There might well be. And the word MIGHT is important here.

It is important because as Davies (1991, 2003, 2013) himself highlights, apart from the first factor, none of the others are exclusive to ‘native speakers’.

We’ve dealt with point 2 (language intuition) above. As points 3, 4 and 6 are concerned, think of people like Joseph Conrad, born and baptised in Poland as Józef Korzeniowski. Or Vladimir Nabokov. But also thousands of other ‘non-native speakers’ who are incredibly proficient in English.

While it is more common for translators and interpreters to translate into their L1, there are also those who translate into L2. Personally, I find it much easier to switch between Spanish and English (or vice versa), rather than any of these two and my L1, Polish. I’m not a professional translator or an interpreter, but your L1 does not make you one either, so I don’t see why you couldn’t learn to translate into your L2 (or L3).

This leaves us with early childhood acquisition. What is it, though, that a child acquires? Well, clearly points 2-6. But then it seems that they don’t seem to be exclusive to ‘native speakers’, which means we’re back to square one.

Geoff Jordan also quotes a review of the research that has been conducted on critical/sensitive period, which seems to suggest that it is incredibly rare for ‘non-native speakers’ to reach ‘native-like’ proficiency, as there are different cut-off points. This might well be true, although we still have the problem of defining ‘native-speaker’ proficiency (or indeed the ‘native speakers’ who took part in those studies). There are also the studies cited above on grammaticality which show that ultimate attainment is possible even for adult learners. And of course there all those ‘non-native speakers’ out there who are virtually indistinguishable from a ‘native speaker’. Finally, to quote Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2003, p.580) – whose 2009 paper Geoff quotes to prove there is a fundamental difference between ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ – “the highly successful L2 speakers that we have characterised as having reached ‘only’ near-native proficiency are, in fact, native-like in all contexts except perhaps in the laboratory of the linguist with specific interest in second language learning mechanisms.”

So while Geoff is 100% convinced that there must be a fundamental linguistic difference between the two groups, I think we would do well to hedge this statement: there MIGHT be a difference. One reason is that while SLA researchers have placed nativeness at the centre of its enquiry (i.e. as the benchmark against which learners’ progress should be measured), they have had surprisingly little to say about who this ‘native’ (or ‘non-native’) under scrutiny actually is (Davies, 2013). As Han (2004) points out, SLA researchers – such as Sorace (2003) cited earlier – have taken the ‘native speaker’ for granted, to a large extent ignoring the individual (linguistic) differences between them.

The second reason is that while Geoff authoritatively states that there is a difference between the two groups, other researchers in the field are much more cautious. For example, in a recent publication Hulstijn (2015) observes that while past a certain age it MIGHT be difficult or unlikely for people to acquire ‘native-like’ proficiency, it is possible (see e.g. Birdsong’s studies). Furthermore, he also points out that even though some learners don’t reach full mastery (as measured by an SLA researcher in lab conditions), they can still be functionally bilingual, which brings us back to Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson’s quote from above.

Even more importantly, however, I think we need to look beyond language proficiency as the defining characteristic of a ‘native speaker’. In fact, it is quite ironic that in the opening sentence of his blog post Geoff calls Russ Mayne (Evidence-based EFL) a “cheery cherry-picker of evidence”, when he himself has cheerfully cherry-picked the evidence limiting the discussion to SLA research, completely ignoring wider sociocultural issues that are also at play. I wouldn’t be the first one to say that SLA should adopt a more socially informed approach, though. For a very extensive discussion please see Block (2003).

So I’m not saying the evidence Geoff presented is wrong. However, it is very limited. And thus questionable.

As Block (2003, p.4) says, SLA has for a long time dealt with “essentialized interlocutors, with essentialized identities, who speak essentialized language”. Who the ‘native’ or the ‘non-native speaker’ under study really is has very rarely been problematised in SLA. However, Block’s (and others’) calls for a more socioculturally oriented SLA have largely fallen on deaf ears.

The possible reason for this is exemplified really well by one of Geoff’s Tweets where he referred to what I’m planning to engage in the rest of the post as “sociolinguistic twaddle that obfuscates a simple psychological reality”. But wouldn’t the reverse hold true as well? Namely, that the psycholinguistic twaddle obfuscates a rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality?

I’ll let you judge for yourself. But let’s look at the evidence first, shall we?

Sociolinguistics and the ‘native speaker’

So, putting psycholinguistic differences and the issue of proficiency aside for a minute, there are two other good reasons why I would never call myself a ‘native speaker’ of English, or of any other language that isn’t Polish for that matter. And they have nothing to do with my proficiency in English, or in Polish. The first reason is because I don’t feel affiliated with the language. In other words, I don’t feel I belong in the ‘native speaker’ community (Brutt-Griffler & Samimy, 2001). Even if I did, though, would I be accepted as a ‘native speaker’?

The answer is quite likely no. So affiliating with the speech community and being proficient aren’t enough. The third factor is being accepted as a ‘native speaker’ by the speech community (Inbar-Lourie, 2005). This of course can lead to differences between the self-perceived and externally perceived linguistic identity of a speaker. For example, some people would describe themselves as a ‘native speaker’ and affiliate with the speech community, but wouldn’t be accepted as such, or vice versa.

The reasons for this can be quite varied, but many scholars have pointed out that being a ‘native speaker’ of English is frequently associated with being white and Western-looking (Kubota & Fujimoto, 2013; Romney, 2010). For example, Li and Andres, two ‘native speaker’ teachers of English of Hong Kong and Mexican descent, respectively, who were studied by Javier (2016), report having their ‘nativeness’ questioned on numerous occasions by students, recruiters and colleagues. So while in an SLA researcher’s lab they might be authoritatively proclaimed to be classic ‘native speakers’, they don’t seem to be treated as such in reality.

To illustrate this further, I’d encourage you to watch this short clip.

Another problem is that some multilingual people find it difficult to identify with one or the other group. For example, Faez (2011) studied English teachers in Canada and their feeling of linguistic self-identity. The participants identified with six different categories:

  1. bilingual;
  2. English as a first language speaker;
  3. second-generation English speaker;
  4. English-dominant;
  5. L1-dominant;
  6. English-variety speaker (Faez, 2011, p. 16).

And there is more. Piller (2002), for example, interviewed L2 users of English. A third of them reported they could successfully assume the ‘native speaker’ identity and pass off as one in front of other ‘native speakers’. A curious finding from this study was also that the participants had had their L1 identity, or their ‘nativeness’ questioned at times – corroborating Javier’s (2016) findings. As a result, Piller suggested that being a ‘native speaker’ is something one does, rather than an immutable category bestowed on the individual at birth.

As a proficient speaker of three languages (but possibly a ‘native speaker’ of just one of them), I can completely relate to Piller’s (2002) findings. For example, there are times where I can and in fact do pass for a ‘native speaker’ of Spanish (whether I am one psycholinguistically is a different kettle of fish, but I’m not planning to go to an SLA lab any time soon to find out). In addition, my proficiency in Polish seems to fluctuate a lot too. For example, after prolonged stays abroad some of my relatives or friends have told me I speak in a strange way, and I catch myself translating idioms directly from English or Spanish to Polish.

To sum up, there might be psycholinguistic differences between the two groups. However, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Especially as far as English is concerned, there are important questions of power, prejudice and racism. To give you an analogy, we’d probably all agree that there are certain biological and physiological differences between men and women. However, we’d also agree that there are many individuals who would find it difficult to subscribe to one or the other category, and that we cannot simply ignore the sociocultural reality when talking about these two groups. And being a ‘native speaker’ is far from so biologically or physiologically clear-cut as being a man or a woman.

What I’m trying to say is that while there MIGHT be psycholinguistic differences between ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’, we can’t ignore the sociolinguistic aspects. If we do, we are simply – to steal Geoff’s phrase – cheerfully cherry-picking evidence.

Whichever position you subscribe too, though, or even if you’re sitting on the fence; there’s a very important question that remains.

What do we do with the ‘native speaker’?

Paikeday (1985a) tried killing it over forty years ago (see his article May I kill the native speaker?). Not the flesh-and-blood ‘native speaker’, you see, but the term itself as it is currently and uncritically used in linguistics and SLA. To cut a long story short, Paikeday utterly failed.

But many others followed. This time not trying to kill the ‘native speaker’, but offering more neutral and objective terms to use in SLA and ELT. For example Rampton (1990) suggested expert user. Jenkins (2000, 2007, 2015a) proposed using monolingual, bilingual and non-bilingual English speaker, while Paikeday (1985b) – having failed to kill the ‘native speaker’ – suggested proficient user. The problem with all these attempts is that they have had very little impact, and the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ are still widely used.

The second option is to continue using the two terms and the acronyms NEST, NNEST, NS and NNS. This has certainly helped put the finger down on the problem of discrimination many ‘non-native speakers’ suffer from. It has also led to an establishment of what some have referred to as a NNEST movement, creation of a NNEST Interest Section by TESOL International, as well as countless articles and books on the topic (Kamhi-Stein, 2016; Selvi, 2014, 2016). However, as Kumaravadivelu (2016) points out, what the NNEST movement has utterly failed at is bringing about a more equal professional ELT field, where teachers are judged on their merits rather than a perceived belonging to one or the other group.

In addition, the continuous use of the two terms and their acronyms has led to a situation where they are accepted as well-defined, objective and value-free. Yet, who is perceived as a ‘native speaker’ is anything but an objective matter, but has everything to do with power, prejudice, ideology and even racism. As Holliday (2013, p.25) writes, the two labels are “ideological, chauvinistic and divisive”, and the quasi-mythological status the ‘native speaker’ enjoys in linguistics, SLA and ELT has very little to do with language proficiency, but everything with opinions and biases (Aboshiha, 2015) that are themselves rooted in the ideology of native speakerism (Holliday, 2005, 2015).

I’d argue – as Davies (2011) did – that both being a ‘native speaker’ and the mother tongue are fundamentally social traits, just as culture is. This ties in with Rampton’s (1990) distinction between language expertise, inheritance and affiliation. In other words, you might be a ‘native speaker’ in terms of language proficiency, however, you don’t necessarily need to have inherited the language, nor to feel affiliated with it. All the other permutations are of course also possible.

What I’m trying to say is that who is a ‘native speaker’ (and who isn’t), just like any aspect of our identity is “dynamic, dialogic, multiple, situated, and, more importantly, contextually negotiated” (Faez, 2011, p.5). It can also evolve over time (see e.g. Hansen, 2004). And there are times in ELT when it’s not you who decides whether you are or aren’t a ‘native speaker’, but the recruiter. Or the students. Or your colleagues.

As a result, I think it’s important that we recognise these complexities and stop treating ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ as if they were well-defined and objectives categories of meaning. The two groups might be different, but the difference is much more complex, nuanced, fuzzy and subjective than what Geoff presented in his post.

So I’m not that surprised after all that Adrian Holliday refuses to review research that treats ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ as though the groups are real and not imagined. Perhaps it’s a step in the right direction. Perhaps Block’s (2003) call for a more socioculturally oriented SLA will be finally heard. At the very least, when used in research, the two categories need to be problematised, and their subjective nature needs to be recognised.

Hence the inverted commas (see Holliday 2005, 2013, 2015). To remind the writer and the reader that ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ are very much subjective, ideological and value-laden terms. And to distinguish the flesh and blood ‘native speaker’ (Davies, 2013) from the fantastic beast the NS has become in theoretical linguistics and SLA labs.

If you’re interested in further exploring these issues, you might enjoy the on-line course Going beyond the ‘native speaker’ model in ELT, which I run on TEFL Equity Academy. It’s a 20-hour course where we discuss the issues we touched upon in this blog post in much more detail, and look at the practical implications this discussion has for teachers, trainers and materials writers.

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