March 2014
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(NON-)NATIVITY SCENES
Marek Kiczkowiak, Polish Your Languages, Wageningen, Holland

December is still a long way away. Yet I have already been haunted by nativity scenes. Not that I have anything against Christmas, let alone Christianity. It is just that I never thought I would have to admire one nativity (or “nativeness”?) scene after another when reading advertisements for English teachers.

To put the enormity of the problem into perspective, over 50% of jobs advertised in the European Union (excluding the United Kingdom, where schools know that a birth certificate should not be confused with a teaching qualification) on tefl.com, the biggest search engine for job-seeking English teachers, are native speakers only. If you are still not convinced that we are talking discrimination here, then ask yourself this simple question: How would you feel if over 50% of the ads you looked at listed as a qualification: all applicants must be WHITE MALES?

And Holland, where I am currently based, is on an infamous par with the rest of the EU. All top-notch language schools. All flaunting teaching excellence. Yet all stress that only native speaker teachers (NESTs) need apply. What is shocking is their cheek and absolute lack of logic. To quote one recruiter, whom I informed that he had illegally turned down my application for a teaching position as I was not a native speaker of English: “This is not discrimination against a particular nationality in any way. We require our French teachers to be native speakers of French, whatever their nationality, and our Spanish teachers to be native speakers of Spanish, again whatever their nationality, just as we expect our Polish teachers to be native speakers of Polish, etc.”

How about leaving the birth certificate in the drawer and focusing on the qualifications and language abilities of your teachers for a change?

But what does this mean for a student in a language school? Well, it might mean your teachers have been selected because they happen to be native speakers. Not necessarily because they are very good teachers. And that you have been deprived of a fair number of possibly highly qualified and motivated English language teachers, who were unfortunate enough not to have been born in an English-speaking country. Mind you, nobody even glanced at their CVs or bothered to interview them, let alone check their level of English (or the language they teach) and their qualifications.

Ha!, I hear you exclaim, surely those nonnative speakers do not speak the language anywhere near native level. Surely native speakers have a broader vocabulary, the feel for the language, the correct pronunciation. Do they? Which native speakers? Which correct pronunciation?

English is spoken as an official language in 60 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 of which are virtually unintelligible even to a native speaker (for Britain, check http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/recordings/index.shtml).

However, since the 1960s, the idea of native speakers as the ultimate, omniscient, and infallible source of linguistic intuition about their L1 has percolated into mainstream TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language), becoming the status quo and propagating the view of a nonnative speaker “as a defective communicator, limited by an underdeveloped communicative competence” (Firth & Wagner, 1997, p. 285). Yet most linguists have long since moved on, largely abandoning the idea.

For example, Paikeday (1985) dubs the native speaker “a figment of linguist’s imagination” (p. 12). Still deeply ingrained in the TEFL imagination, I would say. Davies (1991) 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 nonnative speaker 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.

On a more down-to-earth level, people who speak English as the second or third language outnumber native speakers by about three to one (Crystal, 2012). Whether you like it or not, the English do not own English anymore (Widdowson, 1994). Neither do the Scots, the Irish, the Americans, nor any other native speakers.

Let’s face it—it has gone global. Why not embrace rather than evade this? And if you doubt the notion that one can learn a language to a native level, then why bother learning at all? Why bother taking Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) or IELTS? Perhaps Cambridge ESOL should put a footnote disclaimer for the candidates: You might pass CPE, but you ain’t never getting to no native level no way!

Even in times when language teaching was almost nonexistent, or simply very backwards by our standards, people did master languages. For one, Joseph Conrad, born, bred, and baptised in Poland as Józef Korzeniowski, managed to outshine and outwrite most of his English contemporaries, showing the English the beauty of English.

But whatever your opinion on the above might be, ask yourself whether it really matters for a teacher to be highly and omnisciently proficient in a language. Does it make them a good teacher? I would like to suggest it does not. I agree with Seidlhofer (1999) and Selvi (in review) that we should not deem somebody a great teacher solely based on his or her language proficiency as it is now done in the case of native speakers. Language proficiency might be a necessary characteristic of a good teacher, but never the sufficient or ultimate one. Successful teaching is so much more!

A typical job advert: qualifications—must be a native speaker. If you have not realised yet, it’s an oxymoron. I have looked, but I am yet to find a degree in “nativity” or “nativeness” (might need to check with a native which is right). Please do let me know if you have more luck.

Let’s be blunt. This most sought-after qualification is bestowed on a few (~359 million) lucky ones at birth. And the rest (~6,700 million)? Boats against the current, ceaselessly toiling over grammar and pronunciation, unaware of the vacuity of our efforts – at least as far as teaching prospects go.

Yet I have a dream.
I have a dream that one day language teachers will not be judged by the colour of their skin.
Nor by their gender.
Or their nationality.
I have a dream that one day they will be judged by the content of their CVs.

There is the green light, the orgiastic future. And unlike Gatsby’s, it is attainable. Article 21 of the basic rights charter of the European Union prohibits any discrimination based on nationality and/or ethnicity. Indeed, a European Commission Communication from 12 November 2002 (COM (2002) 694 final), states that “advertisements requiring a particular language as a ‘mother tongue’ are not acceptable.” On 23 May 2003, in answer to a question from German MEP Jo Leinen, the European Commission stated: “The term native speaker is not acceptable, under any circumstance, under community law.”

There are also law precedents in most countries. In the United Kingdom two different language schools were sued on two separate occasions for advertising native-only positions, and both of them lost. In Holland, the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights has twice declared (e.g., opinion 2007–135, Dutch description: www.mensenrechten.nl) that “the selection criteria of a native speaker is not proportionate” as it “leads to indirect discrimination on the base of nationality and race.”

Why, then, is this discrimination so widespread and prevalent? Language schools often hide behind the demand of the local market. It is true that many students expect their teachers to be native speakers. But what do they really mean by it? Mullock’s study (2010) concludes that students valued teachers who were highly proficient in the language and who had excellent pedagogical skills. Other research (e.g., Kelch & Santana-Williamson, 2002; Liang, 2002) shows that learners emphasised the importance of clear pronunciation. All these characteristics have nothing to do with the teacher’s mother tongue and are by no means innate to native or nonnative speakers. Unsurprisingly, then, Lipovsky and Mahboob (2010) and Benke and Medgyes (2005), among others, found that language students do not have a clear preference for NESTs or NNESTs (nonnative English speaking teachers), but rather appreciate both.

Actually, it can be very motivating for a student to have teachers who have managed to learn the language to a native level themselves. It sets a positive example. It also gives you as a teacher a practical insight into the language-learning process, which many native speakers might lack. You know and understand what students are going through. After all, you’ve been there yourself.

However, I would not like to get into the debate about what NEST and NNESTs are better or worse at. I completely agree with Selvi (in press) that this can only further propagate the dichotomy and that the question Medgyes (1992) posed (“Who’s worth more, the native or the nonnative?”) misses the point. The short answer is: neither! They are both equal. After all, they’re both human, aren’t they? What makes the difference (on a professional level) are the qualifications and the experience.

So this obsession with “nativeness,” as any superstition, is largely a result of hearsay, fueled by lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to change on the part of those recruiters, students, parents, and NESTs who prefer to turn a blind eye and ignore the issue.

That said, the bulk of the blame is on the shoulders of nonnative language teachers—and I’m not talking just English here. So if you’re reading it, then yes, I’m talking to you!

Stand up.
Speak out.
Show some personal dignity for goodness sake!
Indignaos, profes!

References

Benke, E., & Medgyes, P. (2005). Differences in teaching behaviour between native and nonnative speaker teachers: As seen by the learners. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-native language teachers: Perceptions, challenges, and contributions to the profession (pp. 195–216). New York, NY: Springer.
Crystal, D. (2012). English as a global language. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Davies, A. (1991). The native speaker in applied linguistics. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press.
Firth, A., & Wagner, J. (1997). On discourse, communication, and (some) fundamental concepts in SLA research. Modern Language Journal, 81, 285–300.
Kelch, K., & Santana-Williamson, E. (2002). ESL students' attitudes toward native- and nonnative-speaking instructors' accents. CATESOL Journal, 14(1), 57–72.
Liang, K. Y. (2002). English as a second language (ESL) students’ attitudes toward non-native English speaking teachers’ (NNESTs’) accentedness (Unpublished master’s thesis). California State University, Los Angeles.
Lipovsky, C., & Mahboob, A. (2010). Appraisal of native and non-native English speaking teachers. In A. Mahboob (Ed.), The NNEST lens: Non native English speakers in TESOL (pp. 154–179). Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars.
Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: Who's worth more? ELT Journal, 46, 340–349.
Moussu, L., & Llurda, E. (2008). Non-native English-speaking English language teachers: History and research. Language Teaching, 41, 315–348.
Mullock, B. (2010). Does a good language teacher have to be a native speaker? In A. Mahboob (Ed.), The NNEST lens: Non native English speakers in TESOL (pp. 87–113). Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars.
Paikeday, T. (1985). The native speaker is dead! Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Paikeday.
Seidlhofer, B. (1999). Double standards: Teacher education in the expanding circle. World Englishes, 18(2), 233–245.
Selvi, A. F. (in review). Myths and misconceptions about the non-native English speakers in TESOL (NNEST) movement. TESOL Journal.
Widdowson, H. (1994). The ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 377–389.


Since doing the CELTA in 2007 and then graduating with a BA in English philology, Marek has taught English in Poland, the United Kingdom, Spain, Costa Rica, and Hungary. Currently, he is based in Wageningen, Holland, where he has set up his own language business: Polish Your Languages.
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