'The importance of being a Native English Speaker' by Stephen Bruce

#TEA: This article was originally published by Stephen Bruce on his blog here, and is republished on this website with Stephen’s permission.

Ring of Kerry, Ireland

I think here in Ireland, we have a strange relationship with the English language. In one sense, there is a sense of regret that English has replaced Gaeilge as our first language. We lament the teaching of Gaeilge in schools and marvel at how other countries manage to get their kids speaking different languages by the time they leave school. We sprinkle the “cupla focal” in our speech but I believe there is a real sadness for many of us that we can’t converse in the language of our (very recent) ancestors.

And it is perhaps this regret that makes us particularly proud of our brand of English – Hiberno English. We delight in the fact that we have different words for things; words like press for cupboards or rashers for bacon.

And our grammar is different too. Instead of the present perfect form (e.g. I have eaten), many of us use the “be+after+ING form” (e.g. I’m after eating). I don’t know if it is nationwide but in Dublin, you’ll often hear someone say I do be tired on Fridays when someone from the UK might be more inclined to say I’m usually tired on Fridays (Stan Carey has a nice piece on this grammatical form here). These constructions are leftovers, grammar structures that were translated from the Gaeilge and hung on as the language went into decline.

And we are proud of our writers – Wilde, Joyce, Shaw, Yeats, Beckett, Heaney. We tell visitors that the English may have invented the language but we took it and made it better. I grew up hearing this stuff and it is impressive that such a small country has 4 Nobel Prize winners for Literature. But still, you’d wonder. Would we swap one of those Nobel prizes for bilingualism?

James Joyce Statue, Dublin

So, I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that we have mixed emotions when it comes to speaking English. This gets even more complicated in the world of English Language Teaching. Because of our history, because we lost our native language, we get to sit at the head of the table as native speakers (although Thailand gave us a bit of a scare a few years ago, before letting us back into the club).

You would think that considering this tangled history with the English language, our institutional failure to teach our native language and the massive levels of emigration from this country, we would be well placed to challenge notions of what it is to be a native or non native speaker of English. That we would be sensitive to those who have left their homes and are speaking English out of economic necessity. But I worry that this is not the case. I worry that we may be even more protective of the importance of “nativeness” by virtue of the fact our own doesn’t sit so comfortably.

Many jobs here still look for native only teachers. I’m not going to name and shame but with a dodgy Internet connection whilst sitting on a train I found 4 in 5 minutes. As many other people have pointed out (herehereherehere and here), this is discrimination – excluding someone possibly qualified for the job on the basis of something over which they have no control. If we take the Braj Kachru “Inner Circle” view of what constitutes a native speaker, then these ads are effectively saying Americans, British, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Irish only. Obviously there are many more countries that can be considered native speakers, but I think putting it like this helps to highlight the discrimination involved in native only advertisements.

So, in a way, the word native helps to cover up some discriminatory hiring policies. It is a lot easier to say “I just want native English speakers” than to say “I just want Irish people”. I can imagine the people who post these ads might object to the accusation of discrimination and say that they are simply responding to market demand. Spanish kids don’t want to come to Dublin to learn English from a Spanish teacher. That would seem a reasonable position and suggest that the schools in question make these decisions based on their view of quality standards or concerns for the needs of their students. And yet one school advertising for natives only stipulates that no experience is required. Do Spanish kids want to come to Dublin to learn English from someone who has never taught before? Does “nativeness” trump all other considerations?

It seems strange to me that a large chunk of the ELT world holds on to the notion that students want native teachers (rather than the notion that students want teachers who will help them learn as quickly as possible). Why is it that in this one area, we let a perception of what students want dictate our approach when in everything else, we claim to know best (“No, no, no, put away your dictionaries – it’s better if you guess the word from the context”)?

pulling strings

The troubling thing about this glorification of the native is that it creates a horrible dichotomy. The majesty of the native requires the humbling of the non-native. Silvana Richardson argues that we need to move away from the term “non-native”. The addition of a negative prefix to people who have successfully learned a language to a very high level (and, as is the case in Ireland, are brave enough to leave their homes to work in a foreign country) seems perverse. Would anyone be comfortable with their job description including a negative? It suggests a lack where really there should not be one. Would native mono-lingual English teachers be happy if they were referred to as “English teachers who have never done what they are trying to get you to do”? But even that wouldn’t be a fair comparison, because at least they could do something about it. The non-native title is a permanent exclusion.

This is not exclusively a problem in Ireland. I have heard stories from around the world of teachers being excluded from jobs because of their nationality. But the world is changing. Most English conversations today are between people for whom English is their second (or third, or fourth) language (the world of Tennis is a great illustration of this – look at how Wimbledon, this bastion of “Englishness” is populated by international tennis players all communicating together through the one language). Jeremy Harmer argues that “the old ‘learn-to-speak-English-like-a-native’ trope of the middle of the twentieth century is long long gone“.

Instead of focusing on an insensitive and anachronistic view of English language speakers, Ireland has a small enough ELT industry (on the cusp of significant change if school closures and Government promises of reform are to be believed) that it can focus on a far more equitable dichotomy – good teachers and non-good teachers. The first step would be to get rid of these native only ads and see where to go from there.

Design: @Teflninja

Design: @Teflninja

stephen bruceStephen Bruce has been a teacher since 2001, working in Italy and Dublin in that time. He has gravitated towards the areas of EAP, ESAP and exam preparation and wrote about Silence in the Classroom for his M.Phil. in English Language Teaching. At present, he is the EAP coordinator for Dublin International Foundation College. He blogs at eaping.blogspot.ie and is a member of ELT Ireland.

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