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A Non-Speaking Native Teacher

I recently learned of a website with some questionable messaging about accent and native speaker models of pronunciation. The site presented itself as something of an advocacy group fighting accent discrimination, but their messaging actually reinforced some of the selfsame problems they claimed to combat, concluding that the solution to accent discrimination was accent reduction.

I briefly engaged with their Twitter account, articulating as best I could what was wrong with their approach. When I saw a few days later that TEFL Equity Advocates had gotten wind of the site, I was glad, and I commented to that effect. Marek then asked if I’d be interested in blogging on the topic. My response was this:

“While I definitely have some strong feelings on the matter, I don’t think I’m the right person to write this one.”

I wrote that reply quickly and without much forethought. After the fact, though, I reflected: That was really—like, really—uncharacteristic. Most of the time, my opinion is forthcoming, whether it’s been sought or not. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my urge to express my opinion is often compulsive, bordering on the pathological. If opinorrhea isn’t yet a word or diagnosis, it ought to be, in my entirely unsolicited and unqualified opinion.

But then so why did I shy away from sharing my opinion in this case?

I believe firmly in the power of advocacy, and the issue of equity in ELT is one that I’m passionate about, that I’ve written about before. I’m also pretty damned sure I know how to lay out for this dude precisely why his website is so frigging offensive. So what gives? Am I losing my edge? My nerve? Going soft in my old age?

I sat there in the lounge at O’Hare, awaiting my flight out after TESOL 2018, and thought back on what it could be that informed my reticence. The more I reflected, the surer I felt that I’d made a good decision. But why?

What I came to realize is that something in me, in my notion of what advocacy is and ought to be, has changed.

It’s a shift that reflects another that (I now know) has been happening in the world of activism for some time, since long before the message really got through to me: Passion for a cause doesn’t always translate to ad-vocating (speaking for) as loudly and as often as possible.

Sometimes as activists we take on the role of an advocate; others it’s better to adopt the stance of an ally, which comes with a language all its own. Sometimes being an ally does mean speaking up, but a whole lot of other times it means sitting down and shutting up. If you’re passionate enough about social justice that you’re reading this, then there’s a good chance that you already know this and the reasons for it.

I was born with nearly every privilege there is.

This has given me the confidence and voice and platform to speak my mind whenever I please, invited or un-. People with the same privilege profile as me have been doing an outsized share of the talking and writing and decision-making for most of recorded history, generally to the exclusion of other voices. Righting that imbalance will necessarily mean that those of us who take for granted our right to voice our opinions whenever we like need to not talk quite so goddamn much.

No matter how strong my opinions may be, there are others who are better positioned to speak about certain issues, in terms of their expertise, experience, and identity. If we profess to be allies, a massive part of that role is listening and learning, referring to and deferring to those other voices. The language of being an ally is still relatively new to me, so I won’t get in over my head; read more on this from people who know what they’re talking about here and here and here.

This does not, of course, mean that I never speak up.  These days, I find myself asking some questions before I speak up in a conversation that isn’t exactly “my” fight:

  • Have I been asked to speak up?
  • Am I the most qualified voice available to speak on this matter?
  • Has what I want to say already been said?
  • If I speak up, does that mean speaking over someone else?
  • If I do not speak up, will someone else?
  • How could my identity be informing my perspective on this topic?

Et cetera. This is hardly exhaustive.

I’m stubborn and vocal by nature, so I still fail my own test regularly (studies suggest that an increase in skull density is symptomatic of opinorrhea). I’m also in the early stages of understanding and accepting this concept, so I’m sure I haven’t put this in the best terms possible. I’m certainly not telling anyone else what form their activism ought to take. I just want to share a stage in the evolution of my own views. I’m sure I’ll reread this in two or three years and smack myself for some clumsy definitions and half-baked ideas. So be it.

I’m speaking up now because I haven’t heard much about the language of allies in the TEFL equity conversation, and I think maybe that should change.

Anyway, I’ll shut up for a bit now, and if you’re like me, maybe you will too.

rob shephardRob Sheppard is the founder of Ginseng, an online English school that proudly hires highly skilled teachers irrespective of L1. He is also co-chair of the Adult Education Interest Section at TESOL International.

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txbluebonnet
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txbluebonnet

Through all the decades I have served as an advocate in my communities, I have consistently shared the mantra of “Sharing Your Voice” because I believe that is the root of all advocacy. Today, I received an email from TEFL Equity Advocates and Academy wherein they proposed the thoughts that Advocacy is “the art of speaking or perhaps shutting up”. Shutting up? Okay, perhaps there is the addage most folks believe in that there is a time to speak and there a time to wait for the time to speak to make the most impact. The fallacy on that addage… Read more »

Rob Sheppard
Guest

Hi there, First of all, thank you for your response. It sounds like you are doing some wonderful work in your field, and I commend you for that. I have to admit, I’m sort of at a loss as to how your post serves as a response to mine. You seem to have badly decontextualized and misrepresented two paraphrases only to use them as a segue to your story, which has very little to do with either the spirit or the content of my message. I have to wonder whether you actually read it. I’m not sure where you got… Read more »

Laura Ferroglio
Guest

Thank you Rob. Agree that “shutting up” does not necessarily mean not raising your voice.

Rob Sheppard
Guest

Thank you, Laura! 🙂

Benjamin L. Stewart (@bnleez)
Guest

I think if one has an opinion, one should speak up; fruitful engagement requires understanding one’s own biases and any relevant backgrounds/biases of the interlocutors. The act of expressing one’s opinion and ultimately forming a sound argument require experience and reasoning skills that are difficult to development if one simply remains silent.

Rob Sheppard
Guest

Hi Benjamin, I certainly agree that understanding one’s own biases is very important, and that engaging with the issue is important. I came to the very opinions that I expressed in this post through active engagement with the issue. I am not in any way saying that we should “simply remain silent” or that we should keep our opinions to ourselves. But expressing your opinion is not synonymous with advocacy, which generally involves organizing around a cause, using platforms of power to shape discourse and policy. On the internet, there is space and time enough for all of us to… Read more »

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