February 2017
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UPON ARRIVAL: LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY AS A GATEKEEPER FOR PROFESSIONAL COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE
Natalia Balyasnikova, University of British Columbia, Canada, & Roza Kazakbaeva, University of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan


Natalia Balyasnikova


Roza Kazakbaeva

Introduction

This article is based on a panel delivered during the 2016 TESOL convention in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. It brings together two studies that focused on the functional roles of English in the lives of two different groups: professional immigrants from Kyrgyzstan and professional English language teachers from the Russian Federation. Both studies highlight the role of English language proficiency in the marketability and self-appraisal of participants’ professional capital.

The first study was inspired by the author’s own participation in a year-long professional program in the United States. The author aimed to explore the impact of this experience on her colleagues—Russian teachers of English who have participated in professional international exchange programs, but have returned to Russia to continue teaching English. Having selected eight instructors (alumni of various study abroad programs), she conducted eight semistructured retrospective interviews, which provided important insights on the actual effects these exchange programs had on instructors’ pedagogical philosophies and practices. The second study was based on the data collected during the fieldwork among first generation Kyrgyz professional immigrants. This study focused on the functional roles of English in 30 Kyrgyz immigrants’ ability to make use of their previously obtained human capital as well as to obtain human capital marketable in their new homes.

Though different in their target groups, the findings of both studies suggest that English proficiency was a key factor in participants’ utilization of their former professional expertise and entering new professional fields in the United States. Collected narratives contest a romanticized perspective of a global marketable mobile professional community. Instead, they reveal the role of nonnative English language speaker status on the trajectories of participants’ mediation between multiple professional communities and changed assumptions about their professions.

“Your English Is Very Good, But…”

The instructors participating in this study could be classified as transnational sojourners: Due to their participation in international exchange programs, they entered into a global English language instructor community of practice. Members of this community participate in best practices exchange through webinars and trainings; they share methodological teaching materials and are often aware of global trends in English language teaching methods. Through their participation in international exchange programs, instructors who were interviewed for the study expected to enter into a global English language instructor community of practice (Wenger, 1998) and become hyper-mobile academic professionals (Kirpitchenko, 2011). They participated in best practices exchange through webinars and trainings, shared methodological teaching materials, and were aware of global trends in English language teaching methods. Interviews reveal, however, that in reality this was a romanticized view. Instead, the study suggests that these open globalized professional communities were in fact imagined, to borrow a phrase from Anderson’s (1991) work.

Instructors’ narratives revealed that, though their arrival to the United States was preceded by a competitive selection process, upon arrival nonnative-English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) were often reduced to being spokespersons about all things Russian. Their expected expertise centered on Russian national holidays and stereotypical cultural traditions. Very few participants were able to contribute to the development of curriculum and materials or ESL activities in their host institutions. Participants also reported a lack of diversity in interaction and lack of true professional exchange. More often than not, professional development programs were structured as a one-way teaching of nonnative speaking newcomers about the “best ways to teach English” and lacked an ecological understanding of future possible implementations of suggested methods. For these professionals, their experience in the United States effectively returned them to the position of a language learner and less experienced instructor, and it reinforced their nonnative speaker status.

Byram and Alred (1993) argue that negative experiences of residence abroad are often hidden because they are seen as a personal failure. This study confirms that the experience of academic mobility is not always positive. The descriptive narratives show that even when the stay in the host country was temporary, many teachers did not experience immediate entrance into the professional community of practice and that their language expertise was not always valued as such.

English Language Proficiency in Human Capital Utilization and Transformation

The findings of the study revealed that being highly educated professionals seemed to have had significant effects on participants’ language learning as well as their integration processes in the United States, although not in the direction one might expect. This is because upon their arrival, they found themselves unable to utilize the human capital they had previously acquired because of the lack of one important element of human capital: language. This led, at least temporarily, to an unanticipated social and professional decline.

The analysis of the narratives demonstrated that participants’ lack or limited knowledge of English drastically impacted their employment rates and resulted in significant changes to their occupational and professional status. Upon their arrival in the United States, all participants found that their knowledge of English was not enough to gain employment in their professional fields. Therefore, in order to survive in a new economic reality, they had to take whatever jobs they could find. Most often the jobs available to them were those requiring minimal knowledge of English, such as manual labor positions. As a result, participants who were once experienced, valued, and respected white-collar professionals had to become construction workers, housewives, janitorial workers, baby-sitters, elderly caregivers, or shelf stockers. For these professionals, employment in these kinds of jobs was both physically and psychologically painful. It took years for them to accept or internalize this lowered status in their new homes. They felt a strong sense of loss and often spoke of both the loss of their dignity and identity as a professional and their general feelings of alienation. Only five out of twenty participants were able reenter their original professional fields after immigrating to the United States, and only two were able to regain the same professional niche they had had in their home country (Kyrgyzstan).

Conclusion

The results of both studies suggest that level of English proficiency tremendously affected participants’ professional statuses. In the case of Kyrgyz professionals, the perceived or limited knowledge of English acted as a gatekeeper, stopping them from utilizing the capital they had obtained prior to immigration. Only after knowing or learning enough English, some of the participants, but certainly not all, were able to find employment in their previous professional fields or to enter new professional fields competitive in the U.S. labor market. In the case of the Russian teachers, NNEST status prevented validation of their linguistic and professional capital in the United States. For this reason, many of the teachers were reduced to assistant positions or pushed out of the community altogether. Studies such as the two highlighted in this article reveal the role of language proficiency in restricting professionals’ access to established communities of practice.

References

Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Rev. ed.). London, England: Verso.

Byram, M., & Alred, G. (1993). Paid to be English. A book for English assistants and their advisers in France.Durham, England: University of Durham School of Education.

Kirpitchenko, L. (2011). Academic hyper-mobility and cosmopolitan dispositions. Journal of Intercultural Communication, 27, 1–14.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


Natalia Balyasnikova is a PhD candidate in TESL at the Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on the experiences of senior citizens learning English as an additional language in community-based settings. She writes about her studies and work in her blog.

Dr. Roza Kazakbaeva is an English faculty member with the University of Central Asia’s Undergraduate Preparatory Programme. She holds a PhD in TESOL and composition from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She is trained in teaching and curriculum methodology by Seneca College, Canada.

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What are your thoughts about the current status and usefulness of NEST and NNEST as labels for teachers' linguistic identities?
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