This post was originally published on 9th January 2015 by Anita Lewicka on her blog and is republished by TEFL Equity Advocates with full permission and consent of the author. You can access the original post here.
“Only native speakers or near-native speakers” – you may often come across such a line in various advertisements promoting vacancies for language teachers. What does “being a native or near-native speaker” really mean?
If you happen to be a native speaker of a given target language, you were most probably born in a country where the target language is the official language. You are most probably this country’s passport holder. You may have been educated following this country’s national curriculum, in which the very target language (being your mother tongue) is the norm. You may have observed festivals, customs and traditions typical of the country of your birth, of your upbringing. You must have used the language on a daily basis, both at school and at home. On top of that, you must be absolutely immersed in the target language (your mother tongue), in your country’s culture and history, which enables you to easily identify with the people of your homeland, their mentalities, their virtues and vices. The aspect of bilingualism, multilingualism is indirectly concealed here but I will stop at this point.
While the definition of “a native speaker” seems fairly obvious, that of “a near-native speaker” or “a non-native speaker” appears multifold and blurred. Behind the notion of “a near-native speaker”, you may find someone, let’s call this someone Agnieszka, whose mother tongue is completely different from the target language Agnieszka wishes to teach in the future as a foreign language teacher. Besides, you may also bump into an Agnieszka who, having acquired (or studied) the target language in a non-native environment, at some point decided (or the decision was made by her parents) to leave the country of her birth and to go and study the target language in its natural environment. The target language was gradually becoming then, willy-nilly, Agnieszka’s language of communication for her to effectively function in a new community as well as to guide her through her professional life afterwards. Some family relationships may have contributed to Agnieszka becoming a near-native speaker, when the target language, first present in the background, was subsequently (consciously and intentionally) activated.
In reference to foreign language teachers, we may also see one more group, although near-native speakers belong to the group in some experts’ opinions. The term “non-native speaker” may be perceived as politically incorrect and, therefore, “a number of alternative terms have been suggested, for example ‘proficient user’ (Palikeday 1985), ‘language expert’ (Rampton 1990), ‘English-using speech fellowship’ (Kachru 1992), and ‘multicompetent speaker’ (Cook 1999)” (Ali Fuad Selvi, 2011). It is crystal clear that within this category we meet people who have been studying the target language for some time, either at school, college, university or in a target-language country. The use of the Preset Perfect Continuous is deliberate! Non-native language teachers are simultaneous language learners. We, as non-native language teachers, are obliged to continuously boost our language skills and to get our students to boost their language skills simultaneously.
Within the categories presented above, there are prospective language teachers, foreign language teachers. Native speakers are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, in demand, especially in language schools, for individual tutorials, or in translation agencies (usually for proofreading). “Language schools (…) advertise themselves as employing only native English speakers (…) with the excuse that NESTs are better for public relations and improve business. Another explanation is their clients’ alleged needs” (Medgyes, 2001). Near-native speakers seem to be the second best. Non-native speakers are not part of the race. Fair? Well, not quite.
With other advertisements, in which non-native speakers are eventually given a chance in the teaching race, there is a fierce competition. Non-native speakers should usually double (if not triple) their efforts from the very start in order to prove they are also capable of successfully accomplishing the same tasks as native speakers. Peter Medgyes gives a series of interesting questions and activities for native and non-native teachers of languages (in reference section below). He additionally provides a clear table, though at times controversial, based on the previously conducted research entitled “Perceived Differences in Teaching Behaviour Between NESTs and Non-NESTs”. Here, displaying the teachers’ attitude to teaching the language, the author shows that native speakers tend to use a variety of materials, whereas non-native speakers stick to one single textbook. In my teaching career and my having been a lifelong multiple language learner, I would boldly say that it is quite the opposite. It is non-native language teachers who are inclined to be more resourceful, to see a point from various angles, to cater for their students’ concentration span and learning needs. Native speakers as language teachers may very often enter the classroom with no resources at all, just their open minds, which is good provided the teachers are able to hold their students’ interested, are able to extemporize, or are able to skillfully plan, etc. There are some other points in the table which you may find a bit shocking, to put it bluntly.
Looking back at my former native and non-native language teachers and lecturers, I would like to present to you some of them. I still recall my university philology studies: practical English or practical Italian native speakers. Very often their undeniable assets were their intuition about lexis and their phonetics. Their native speech apparatus, formed, drilled, re-drilled in their native surroundings, helped them as exceptional language models. They were able to practise phonetic drills, to perfect their students’ intonation patterns, to easily distinguish minimal pairs, to speedily teach tongue twisters, to demonstrate regional differences. They were able to do so, but sometimes their faces showed how bored they were, how frustrated they felt, etc. They hardly ever gave any feedback, chitchatting with their students instead. You cannot make a teacher out of a journalist overnight, as you cannot make a gardener out of a garden owner during a two-month course. John reading a newspaper in English on a London bus is not necessarily John the Teacher. Giovanni jogging near the Coliseum in Rome is not necessarily Giovanni il Professore. Both of them, before entering the classroom and wishing to become language teachers of their mother tongues, should foremost be equipped with the methodology of teaching a foreign or second language. Teaching is not just a job or a trade. Teaching is a vocation!
Grammar is a totally different issue. My native teachers or lecturers of English or Italian practical classes found it generally extremely difficult to explain grammar points to us. It appeared a real torture for them! Their explanations were often superficial: “it doesn’t flow well”; “we say it this way because we do”, etc. Only when studying in the UK or in Italy did I come across highly competent college and university native speakers. What made them so professional? They viewed a lot of grammatical intricacies through the prism of comparative linguistics. They could speak other languages, especially Latin, which enabled them to see a lot of logical language interdependencies.
It does not mean I did not have valuable native speakers in my homeland, in Poland. I did have some who were exceptional. They taught me at Teachers’ Training College in Toruń. Mary Ziemer and Timothy Eyres excel and the memories of their extraordinary attitudes to teaching keep flooding back to me. Mary was an American Peace Corps volunteer and taught me Academic Writing (among other multiple subjects and the time she devoted to her students’ needs). Her thorough preparation, clear guidelines and extensive feedback were extremely important to her college students. We were obliged to write one essay per week, which seemed painful at the very beginning but an absolutely indispensable skill in the long run. Timothy was a teacher trainer from the UK. Always interested in the world around him, with his uniquely inquiring mind and his enthusiasm about studying foreign languages, he taught me the essence of the EFL methodology. Equally competent and professional was Claudia Fornari, an Italian lawyer, a keen lecturer and a teacher of content-related translation modules with various shades of lexis and contemporary European history in the background. A real joy for me to have participated in her classes during my Italian studies!
Besides those splendid native speakers of English or Italian, I have always had a spectrum of near-native / non-native language teachers or lecturers from Poland. There was Joanna Przewięźlikowska (Ciechanowska), who taught me the EFL methodology in a laid-back, cheerful and intelligent manner. There was Andrzej Leszczyński, whose American Literature classes were real food for thought; with his intricate questions, never-ending discussions and his apparent love for literature. However, the teaching of Professor Elżbieta Jamrozik is unrivaled for her unique logicality, resourcefulness, multifaceted parallels, and empathy. My professor of Italian linguistics, or practical Italian and of the History of the Italian Language is my real idol! I know my friends share my view and, if given a chance to do so, we might think of the Professor’s Fan Club one day. Professor Jamrozik is a versatile scholar, knowing several languages. In her explanatory notes during lectures, she very often employs spontaneous and natural examples from various languages to show to her students etymology of some words and to get them to remember the lexical items more vividly. Above all, she is full of empathy, understanding – an archetypal good teacher!
Some may say: “Yes, she may be exceptional but in many cases non-native language teachers are linguistically poor.” I would say that a good language teacher is a good language learner. Having studied some foreign languages themselves, non-native language teachers are equipped with their own learning strategies, easily adapted to their own teaching environment. Personally, I have always been more motivated to study a foreign language seeing in front of me a language model who is also a language learner. Since English is our Lingua Franca, native-English speakers tend to forget the existence of other languages. Their attempt to study a foreign language could very often be a real eye-opener for their future teaching. If they only tried!
This is, of course, my personal opinion. No offence meant! There are definitely those who are open to other cultures and languages. Good! I know that the debate concerning the dichotomy between native and non-native language teachers is omnipresent in the contemporary world where IE (International English) is in hip and hype. An ideal cooperation between a native speaker and a non-native one in the teaching process may sometimes do the trick. This article reflects my thoughts and emotions on an apparent discrimination against non-native EFL teachers in a non-native EFL environment, namely in the Netherlands. Just a personal view, with my burgeoning pessimistic attitude to the world around me here…..
One last particular request: give non-native teachers of foreign languages a chance to prove we are valuable trainers and instructors! Don’t worry and start breaking stereotypes!
“The non-native speaker teacher” by Ali Fuad Selvi at:
http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/65/2/187.full , DOA 7/01/2015
“When the Teacher Is a Non-native Speaker” by Peter Medgyes at:
http://teachesl.pbworks.com/f/When+the+teacher+is+a+non-native+speaker.PDF , DOA 7/01/2015
Anita has been a Polish EFL teacher for eighteen years: levels:A1-C2 and age groups: 12-18 at secondary school and 18+ at Teachers’ Training College. She’s been a CLIL teacher trainer and teacher trainees’ mentor; author of coursebooks, tests, companions and manuals for Cambridge University Press; theme- and skill-based syllabus designer; translator; Italian language teacher and corpora multilingui enthusiast. Now she’s the owner of “Friendly Lingua” company in the Netherlands. You can also find her on LinkedIn.