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Only NESTs can provide a 'good' language model. Really?

The previous post I wrote for this blog opened a can of worms and caused quite a stir on the British Council FB page, where a fervent discussion started – which you can still read here. I’m really grateful to the BC team for sharing the post, leading the discussion and supporting the rights of NNESTs. The vast majority of those who participated in the debate agreed that ‘nativeness’ – or lack thereof – doesn’t make you a good or a bad teacher, which shows you how far we’ve moved on in the last 20 years.

However, there were also some people who still claimed that 1. only NESTs can provide a good language model the students can imitate. Some others argued that schools have to hire NESTs because otherwise they’re going to lose clients (2. Students prefer NESTs). What’s  more, NNESTs’ language is often viewed as deficient and inferior, and as a result 3. students will learn ‘bad’ English and make more mistakes. Finally, 4.NESTs can provide the essential insight into the culture.

There was not enough room on FB to really address these issues (although I highly recommend you read the original post and the comments), so I thought I would share my views here with you. I’ll discuss each of the 4 misconceptions above in a separate post over the next few weeks, so stay tuned.

1. Only NESTs can provide a good language model which the students can imitate.

Firstly, we need to ask ourselves: who is a NEST? English is an official language in over 50 sovereign states. To give three of the lesser known, but by no means less important examples: Gambia, Lesotho and Palau. There are then hundreds of dialects and accents, some virtually unintelligible even to another native speaker (for Britain click here). In many dialects people regularly say things which are ‘incorrect’ (very terrible; if I would know). However, the recruiters seem to ignore this and assume that there is a uniform native speaker standard which is always better than whatever NNESTs can offer.

The NNEST’s language is constantly scrutinised and largely viewed as inferior and lacking. Indeed, a non-native is often viewed “as a defective communicator, limited by an underdeveloped communicative competence” (Firth & Wagner, 1997, p. 285).

I find it really disturbing. Especially, when these views are voiced (in a less elegant manner) by those who have either never tried to learn a foreign language, or have utterly failed at it. No wonder they doubt it’s possible to become completely proficient. So, it shouldn’t surprise you either that those who know the most about languages, are the ones who oppose the idea most strongly. As I wrote in a previous post:

“most linguists – contrary to TEFL recruiters – have long moved on, largely abandoning the idea [of an ideal speaker-listener proposed in the 60s by Chomsky]. For example, Paikeday (1985: 12) dubbed the native speaker “a figment of linguist’s imagination”. Though one still deeply ingrained in the TEFL imagination, I’d say. Similarly, Davies (1991: 157) refers to the native speaker as “a fine myth”. He recognises that although the native speaker might still be essential as a benchmark or a model, the term “is useless as a measure”. But, as Moussu and Llurda (2008) point out, despite the fact that from a linguistic perspective the view of the non-native as a deficient communicator – as opposed to the infallible language competence of a native speaker – is linguistically nonsensical, it is still socially present and deeply ingrained in TEFL recruitment policies.”

It might be true that in many cases NNESTs lack a bit in terms of language proficiency. It’s unfair and illogical, though, to dismiss all of them without first testing their language skills, because there are many who could pass off as native speakers (at least in front of students), and the occasional mistakes they might make have no bearing on how well they can teach. They are language slips that could just as easily happen to a NEST. To all intents and purposes, a NNEST who has passed C2 level is on a native-like level. And not of any native speaker, but an educated one. If this still doesn’t satisfy you, devise a more difficult test. I’ll be quite happy to do it. But please give it to NEST applicants too. It’s very likely that quite a few will struggle.

Where I currently live, I’m surrounded by native Spanish speakers from all over the world. It’s fascinating to see how they at times struggle to understand each other. If something is nice, it’s “bacan” in Ecuador, “chévere” in Peru and Colombia, “padre” in Mexico and “tuanis” in Costa Rica. In Mexico you take a “camión”, which in Spain is a truck. Many text books will teach you that ‘Usted’ is the formal ‘you’, but in many countries, like Colombia or Ecuador, it is likely to be used with the nearest and dearest, including close family and friends. Most of my Spanish speaking friends have all very quickly realised that they need to speak ‘standard’ Spanish in order to be understood by everybody, and avoid looks of dismay and confusion.

So being a NEST of a global language such as Spanish or English can give you the advantage of knowing it’s local variety to perfection, which a NNEST might not. You might also be educated enough to be able to ‘switch’ to the ‘standard’, globally-understood version, which a NNEST doesn’t have to do, though, because that’s the ‘dialect’ they speak. But what’s the advantage in a global and multi-cultural setting of knowing the local slang, phrasal verbs or idioms, and having a native accent which even other native speakers – let alone non-native – find tricky to understand?

(retrieved from: http://chiasuanchong.com/tag/english-as-a-lingua-franca/)

To me very little. It might be fun for a language geek to try to learn them and pass off for a native speaker. In general, though, to perfectly imitate a native speaker is an impractical, unrealistic and an unfair goal to set for our students, because the vast majority are most likely to need English for successful communication with other non-native speakers. We need to finally acknowledge the fact that English has gone truly global. People who speak English as the second or third language outnumber native speakers by about 3 to 1 (Crystal 2012). Whether you like it or not, the English don’t own English any more (Widdowson 1994). Neither do the Scots, the Irish, the Americans, nor any other native speakers.

This has profound effects on the language itself and on how and what is taught in the classroom. Or at least it should. Breaking away from the view that only NESTs can provide a ‘good’ language model would be the first step in embracing the fantastic variety of Englishes spoken around the world.

We should also be wary of the term NEST itself. In my experience, different recruiters take it to mean whatever suits them. For example, in South Korea 99% of foreign English teachers are from 7 countries: the UK, Ireland, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Preferably they should also be white and look ‘native’ (more on race-based TEFL hiring policies in South Korea in this blog post by Michael Griffin). And what about the 50 odd others that have English as the official language?

Native speaker is a very slippery term. Does it refer to somebody born in an English speaking country? Yes, if it’s one of the 7 countries mentioned above. But what about those whose parents are ‘native speakers’, but have lived all their lives abroad? And what about somebody who has lived and studied in e.g. the UK, but doesn’t have a British passport? The point I’m trying to make is that the term tells you only so much, and can be dangerously misleading. It can also exclude many fully proficient speakers.

To conclude, employing NESTs based on the assumption that only they can provide a ‘good’ language model, is not only illogical, but also not a good business model. After all, you’re hiring people on a largely false conjecture that they all speak impeccable, correct and uniform English, excluding many fully proficient speakers who do not fit your particular notion of what it means to be a native speaker.

If as a recruiter you’re really concerned with the linguistic well-being of your students, start by checking what qualifications the prospective teachers have. Ask NNESTs to submit a proof of their level. And employ the candidate who best fulfils the criteria, regardless of their mother tongue, nationality, gender or skin colour.

Next time, I’ll come back to myth number 2, which presupposes that students prefer NESTs. So stay tuned and don’t forget to comment below. We’d love to hear what you think.

References:

  • Crystal, D. (2012). English as a global language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Davies, A. (1991). The native speaker in applied linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.
  • Firth, A., & Wagner, J. (1997). On discourse, communication, and (some) fundamental concepts in SLA research. Modern Language Journal, 81, 285-300.
  • Moussu, L., & Llurda, E. (2008). Non-native English-speaking English language teachers: History and research. Language Teaching, 41(3), 315–348.
  • Paikeday, T. (1985). The native speaker is dead! Toronto: Paikeday Publishing Inc.
  • Widdowson, H. (1994). The ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 28(2), 377-389.

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Anonymous
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Anonymous

As a non-native speaker of English, I've always had problems finding a job as a teacher. I understand there are marketing reasons why not to do this (i.e. Schools that offer NESTs in their campaigns), but I also think that, most of the time, the line between native and non-native teachers somehow blurs in terms of professionalism. If the job I can do can be as professional as a non-native speaker, why can't we have the same opportunities? Why should I be expected to be a worse teacher?—This is just my own opinion. You cited Chomsky (and others for the… Read more »

Marek Kiczkowiak
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Hi Juande,Thanks for your comment.I've had some problems finding work as a NNEST too. A few times my application was turned down, despite the fact I was much more experienced and highly qualified than the other NEST candidates. I think we must continue speaking out against the discrimination. This is the only way we might be granted the same opportunities as NESTs. I hope that one day all teachers will be judged by the content of their CVs, and not their passports'.You might have misread my quote. Chomsky did indeed claim that native speakers were ideal speaker-listeners, with an omniscient… Read more »

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Mo Riddiford
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Very many good points. I am constantly steering my learners away from an unattainable imagined ideal of native-speaking correctness. This ideal is disempowering and hinders motivation and effective learning. But the issue of limited actual time spent with good quality native English is not so easily dismissed. The dirty secret in every classroom is that teachers are indeed influenced by the imperfect language they hear from their learners. Yes our own grammatical understanding, years of experience in a suitable English-speaking context, and also our own “inner ear” helps us to stay on track. But we are indeed influenced. In my… Read more »

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[…] As a result, supply has stepped up to meet the demand. Hordes of eager graduates see English teaching as an exciting way to save money while travelling the world and embracing other cultures. There is however an unfortunate obstacle that some, indeed many of these individuals encounter. Indeed, the deck has been stacked against them, for schools around the world have bought into the myth of the native speaker. […]

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