These days, there is a lot of talk about privilege, particularly white male privilege, in English language media. It is argued that people who fit these racial and gender profiles receive institutional benefits because they “…resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions” (Kendall, 2002, p. 1). However, others have argued that the term is problematic because the issue of inequity is much more dynamic or overlapping and ignores other important variables such as social and economic class. A quick perusal of the comments section on any online article dealing with the topic will immediately reveal just how strongly opinionated people are on either side of the debate; it has only helped to create even more divisiveness in societies that are already ideologically separated by an ever growing political schism of conservatism vs. liberalism.
Seen from a global perspective, however, one wonders why no mention is even given to another form of privilege in the English speaking media, one that affects over 7 billion people worldwide: native speakerism. According to Peggy McIntosh (1998), white males believe that their privileges are “conditions of daily experience” universally available to all, but they are in reality, however, “unearned power conferred systematically”. Now, couldn’t the same statement be made about people who are born in countries where English is the native language, or more specifically, in Kachru’s ‘inner circle nations such as Britain, Canada or the United States of America? Whether it is in competition for a career job with a successful international corporation or simply traveling overseas for pleasure, native English speakers, regardless of race or gender, always have an advantage, and, therefore, have privilege over those who are not.
There are many countries in the world, like Japan for example, where people who wish to attend a University must study English for 12 years and then pass an English language exam before they can even take their first course, and then, if they decide to have a professional career such as an engineer when they graduate, they must have a higher level of reading proficiency than the average native English speaker in order to keep up to date with the most current literature in their field. Similarly, in many other countries, like those in the Arabian Gulf, the situation is even more daunting because the person hoping to go to University not only has to pass an English Language entrance exam but also must study almost all faculty subjects in English. If these non-native speakers then hope to compete for a career position with a successful, international corporation, they may have to compete with a native English speaker for whom a high level proficiency in a subsequent language was most likely an option rather than an obligation (while native speaking university students can focus on mastering their individual subject matter, non-native speakers must also master a foreign language, often one that is linguistically antithetical to her or his own, in addition to their major or study their major in a subsequent language). Language acquisition requires an enormous investment of time, effort and finance, and the luxury of not having to make that investment is certainly a privilege that most people in the world have not been granted.
Even the simple and enjoyable act of traveling has numerous taken-for-granted privileges for native speakers. For as long as they are traveling to a popular tourist destination, the average native English speaker will not have to utter a single syllable in the local language in order to have their needs met, whereas most non-native speakers are going to have to learn some basic “survival” English in order to get past customs, make accommodation reservations, and, yes, even eat, a linguistic conundrum that very few native speaking travelers have had to experience. Personally, when I travel overseas, I always try to learn some local vocabulary and expressions prior to my trip. I do this not only because I am an applied linguist and interested in languages but also because I am aware of my native speakerist privilege and try to show a little respect, something very few of my fellow native speakers seem to do. This has become evident by the reactions of surprise I have received from locals when I simply ask them a one sentence question in their language before blabbing away in English: “Excuse me, do you speak English?” It really doesn’t take much effort to learn one sentence, but you’d be surprised how many of my fellow native speaking colleagues even bother to do that much when they travel abroad.
Speaking of my colleagues, if native English speakers enjoy numerous privileges studying, working and traveling in international contexts, then Native speaking English language instructors enjoy extraordinary special privileges, particularly with attaining employment; it has been well documented that many, if not a majority of, employers of English language instructors adopt discriminatory hiring practices against non-native speakers (Mahboob & Golden, 2013). What is not documented, however, but is plainly obvious to anyone who works in this field, is that a very large percentage of these native English speakers are also mono-lingual. In my own personal experience, I have been working in this field for almost 17 years in 3 different countries, and I can state without hesitation that, generally speaking, mono-lingualism and mono-culturalism are the norm for the majority of native speakers I have worked with or met. This is very disturbing precisely because it shows how much the applied linguistics profession is affected by, and consequently condones and encourages, native-speakerist privilege. After all, ESL is concerned with not only teaching English, but teaching it as a subsequent language, and, therefore, the personal experience of having acquired one should be a logical pre-requisite to teach; how many other professions would allow people to do a job without any personal and practical experience? Moreover, having subsequent language proficiency only enhances a language’s instructor’s credentials because it increases their ability to meet their students’ affective and pedagogical needs. Instructors with subsequent language acquisition, particularly in their students’ mother tongue in EFL contexts, are more qualified to conduct contrastive analysis, adopt teaching practices that are context sensitive, and, most importantly, empathize with their students and act as a model of a successful language learner, thereby enhancing student motivation while simultaneously reducing accusations of adhering to ethnocentric pedagogical practices (Hodgson, 2008).
Personally, I would very much like to expose the depth of native-speakerist beliefs within this profession by conducting research on monolingual native speakers with regard to this topic. However, inaction is less a result of my own lethargy but rather acknowledgement that any such attempt would be futile; it would be extremely difficult to get such people even to participate in such a study, and, if there were willing participants, it would be even harder to get them to do so honestly. I believe I can assert this claim with confidence because of my experience with my native speaking colleagues over the years, especially when they have discovered my strong feelings against native-speakerism.
Although the personal anecdotes from throughout my career are numerous, I will share only a few that I feel are the most revealing. Once when I was in an interview for a managerial position and my research interests became the topic of discussion, I was asked by one of the interviewers if my research findings would affect my hiring practices. After replying in the affirmative, the interviewer then asked me how I felt about hiring all Indian instructors because they were willing to work for so much less. I understand the point that the interviewer was trying to make, but to me it was irrelevant, and I responded that qualifications should be the main requirement and instructors should receive the same remuneration regardless of their passport or place of birth. Nothing more about the matter was said and the interview switched to another line of query (for the reader’s interest, I did not get the job; however, I am honest and willing to admit that I may have had other shortcomings that resulted in the final decision).
Another time, after I had one of my manuscripts published, I was confronted by a mono-lingual native speaking colleague who disagreed strongly with my findings and related opinions. The article in question dealt with the negative psycho-linguistic affect of adopting native speaker models of linguistic competence in English language teaching (Hodgson, 2014). During the lengthy and uncomfortable conversation, it became evident that this colleague had read only the conclusion (even though teaching research skills at a tertiary institution was part of this person’s professional responsibilities!). Whatever I said to this person simply feel on deaf ears and I was told very tersely that I was wrong and that only native English speakers are the most qualified to teach the English language. Realizing it was impossible even to debate the matter with my interlocutor, I ended the discussion by suggesting that my colleague conduct research and then submit findings to a peer-reviewed journal for publication. Although this confrontation with this person was a very unpleasant experience, it remains an even bitter memory because this person was well known for prioritizing personal financial gain over professional responsibilities by leaving campus during official working hours for supplementary IELTS work.
I mention these two examples because I believe they illustrate the crux of the matter; the affirmation of native-speakerist beliefs, and the corresponding privileges that accompany them, continues to provide unquestioned legitimacy for the financial security of mono-lingual, native speaking instructors in general and the relaxed, professionally inactive ones in particular; so long as both the general public and employers, students and teachers, all buy into the native-speaker fallacy, then the status quo will remain unquestioned, and, consequently, the main qualification of, and justification for, the native-speaking instructor’s professional and financial position will be his or her ‘nativeness’. However, so long as this continues, we cannot justifiably consider applied linguistics a profession; without a universally accepted system of employment based solely on merit and ability, our profession can only be classified as an unethical industry in which the consumers have been convinced by unscrupulous advertising to buy a lesser quality product at an overpriced cost.
If the main method to combat white privilege is through reflection and acknowledgement of the privilege and then its abolition (Kendall, 2002), then perhaps this tactic could be applied to native speaker privilege as well. For this to happen, however, it will require acknowledgement among native English speakers about their privilege (which, in turn, will require them to cease viewing division through their domestic lenses (at least temporarily) and see their shared privilege in international contexts), and resistance among non-native learners to support institutions financially that support the prolongation of such privileges. The issue of native-speakerism has been discussed for decades now, and too many native speaker instructors have unjustly benefited from it while too many non-native learners and teachers have been unethically disadvantaged by it. It is time to put theory into practice and make applied linguistics the respectful profession it deserves to be.
Kevin Hodgson has been teaching English at both the secondary and tertiary levels in Canada, Japan and the U.A.E for 15 years. He holds a Master’s Degree in Applied Linguistics from Brock University, Canada, and his current research interests are in the fields of native-speakerism and psycho-linguistics..
- Hodgson, K. (2008). Unloading the native speaking EFL instructor’s burden: The correlation between knowledge of students’ language and culture and the ability to meet their affective and pedagogical needs. Retrieved from here.
- Hodgson, K. (2014). Mismatch: Globalization and Native Speaker Models of Linguistic Competence, RELC Journal.45 (2), 113-134.
- Kendall, F. (2002). Understanding White Privilege. Retrieved from here.
- Mahboob & Golden, (2013). Looking for Native Speakers of English Discrimination in English Language Teaching Job Advertisements, Voices in Asia Journal, 1 (1), 72-81.
- McIntosh, P. (1988). White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. Retrieved from here.