February 2017
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Seullee Talia Lee, Yanbian University of Science & Technology, China

As a nonnative-English-speaking teacher (NNEST), I used to suffer from a perceived inferior identity as a second-class citizen in English language teaching (ELT) communities.* I frequently felt that as a teacher who had learned English, I would never be as effective as the native-English-speaking teachers (NESTs) who were blessed to acquire their language. This negative professional self-image was compounded by my experience growing up in South Korea, where the status of NESTs was greatly privileged. I witnessed that the legitimacy of an English teacher was often decided in the frame of the NNEST/NEST binary.

Yet this unequal treatment did make sense to me because I also positioned myself as inferior to NESTs. However, the situation changed during my master’s program in the United States. I was introduced to the concept of multicompetence. I came to know that I could bring in-depth knowledge and rich experiences to my class by being an NNEST. On top of that, I found theoretical frameworks in identity research that could explain various symptoms that I had been experiencing. I realized that my imagined identity was striving to become a NEST—an unattainable goal—and thus I saw myself as deficient. Only then did I grasp the very nature of identity in one’s language learning trajectory, which is context dependent and ever shifting (Norton, 2000). I also became aware of the underlying ideologies of my imagined identity that were associated with power inequality issues surrounding the English language. Since then, I have chosen another, better imagined identity option: to become a multilingual who can appreciate her multicompetence as an ELT professional. This identity transformation brought a revolutionary change in my personal and professional development. As all this happened throughout my master’s program, I truly appreciated the enormous support from the faculty members and colleagues, as well as our curriculum that focused on destabilizing the existing dichotomy between NESTs and NNESTs.

Nevertheless, the fact that I was personally and professionally multicompetent did not necessarily mean that I was a prepared English teacher. Although I embraced the new identity option, I felt something was still missing for me to be a proficient English teacher. It was especially obvious to me that my native-English-speaking colleagues had more advanced English language skills than I had. Yet, when I shared my concerns that my perceived English proficiency was not high enough to be an effective teacher, people seldom seemed to think it was true or a “big deal.” For most people who had an awareness of native-speakerism issues, talking about a NNEST’s English proficiency could be sensitive. Those people had tentatively made an effort not to view each English teacher in the frame of the NNEST/NEST binary. In this context, I was considered a multicompetent English user and teacher that had expertise in unique skills.

This general—unconditionally supportive—atmosphere toward NNESTs made me wonder if my feeling of deficiency as an efficient teacher was indicative that I was still experiencing the NNEST complex. However, I found that other NNESTs with multicompetent identities experienced similar dissatisfaction in terms of their English proficiency. In many cases, I found that there was consistent incongruence between teachers’ self-evaluated language proficiency and their desired level of language proficiency. Other researchers demonstrate that this discrepancy often leads NNESTs to lack self-esteem and confidence as English language teaching professionals (Mahboob, 2010). This phenomenon is inevitable. A lack of English proficiency causes negative self-images in NNESTs, even after their identity transformation as multicompetent selves/teachers, because having an excellent command of English is a fundamental qualification for all ELT professionals.

The problem is that this urgent need of many NNEST students in TESOL programs has not been properly addressed. Most TESOL programs only focus on professional preparation, not on the language development of NNESTs (Mahboob, 2010). In many studies on NNESTs, it is well shown that only a few TESOL programs have addressed linguistic needs of NNESTs and have focused more on enhancing NNEST students’ explicit knowledge of English grammar (e.g. Liu, 1999). Designing TESOL courses that foster the grammatical knowledge of TESOL students may benefit NESTs who have not been taught how their mother language actually operates; however, in many cases such courses do not meet the needs of NNESTs. NNESTs, especially those from the expanding circle countries, often have a well-established foundation of English grammar already. It is imperative that NNESTs work more on procedural knowledge of English. Nonetheless, most TESOL programs overlook this unique situation of NNESTs.

Many TESOL programs lack awareness of the linguistic development needs of NNESTs, and this is also problematic. In current TESOL programs in the inner circle countries, I found that there has been a binary division of attitudes towards NNESTs: Programs view them either as second-class citizens or multicompetent teachers whose legitimacy should not be questioned any longer. Recently, the latter perspective has been gaining popularity in second language acquisition and TESOL. We have seen an active movement in reconceptualizing English teachers’ legitimacy regardless of their places of birth and in deconstructing native-speakerism in TESOL (Selvi, 2014). Nevertheless, research has not recognized the lack of practical support for NNESTs in line with multilingualism. Much has been written about both language training for language teachers and NNESTs’ identities as multicompetent professionals. Yet no mainstream research that I came across in either area has taken the step of linking them together.

I do believe that TESOL programs can grow significantly to help NNESTs improve their language proficiency as well as their professionalism. To do this, they should place a greater emphasis on linguistic development in the core curriculum of the programs. Pasternak and Bailey (2004) suggest a number of ways to support NNESTs in TESOL programs, such as providing EAP courses, including a learner-training element in program orientations, and designating an academic advisor to each and every student. Shin (2008) also provides some examples for TESOL programs, such as designing English courses that aim to address the specific needs of NNEST students. She also insists that NNEST students should be offered language support outside and inside the classroom throughout the programs. As an example, on-campus employment or volunteer opportunities are good ways to provide NNEST students with authentic input in diverse contexts. The NNEST Lens: Nonnative English Speakers in TESOL (Cambridge Scholars Press; 2010), edited by Mahboob, introduces several resources supporting NNEST students’ language proficiency and contends that English courses for NNEST students in MA TESOL programs should not be separate, but integrated into other existing courses being taught in the programs.

Above all, this practical support should take place within NNESTs’ transforming experience as multicompetent individuals. Otherwise, the effort in language development may only serve NNESTs’ undesirable and impossible imagined identities as native English speakers. TESOL programs thus need to carefully design curricula that are well balanced between enhancing language proficiency and providing new identity options for NNEST students; neither of these goals should be undermined. Only then, as NNESTs embrace their multicompetent identities and become better prepared professionals, will TESOL courses be able to maximize NNESTs’ positive development.

*I advocate that the ultimate purpose of using the terms NNEST and NEST is “to put our finger on the problem” (Selvi, 2014, p. 596). Therefore, although I acknowledge that the binary terms NNEST and NEST do embody a negative connotation of nonnative-English-speaking teachers, I decided to use these terms in this article in an attempt to foster active discussions surrounding issues of the NNEST/NEST dichotomy. 


Liu, D. (1999). Training non-native TESOL students: Challenges for TESOL teacher education in the West. In G. Braine (Ed.), Non-native educators in English language teaching (pp. 197–210). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Mahboob, A. (Ed.). (2010). The NNEST lens: Nonnative English speakers in TESOL. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change. Essex, England: Pearson.

Pasternak, M., & Bailey, K. M. (2004). Preparing nonnative and native English-speaking teachers: Issues of professionalism and proficiency. In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and teaching from experience: Perspectives on nonnative English-speaking professionals (pp. 155–175). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Selvi, A. F. (2014). Myths and misconceptions about nonnative English speakers in the TESOL (NNEST) movement. TESOL Journal, 5(3), 573–611.

Shin, S. J. (2008). Preparing non-native English-speaking ESL teachers. Teacher Development, 12(1), 57–65.

Seullee Talia Lee is a lecturer in the English Department at Yanbian University of Science & Technology in Yanbian, China. She received her master’s degree from SIT Graduate Institute, the United States. Her research interests lie in issues related to (in)equality in TESOL and second language teacher identity.

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What are your thoughts about the current status and usefulness of NEST and NNEST as labels for teachers' linguistic identities?
It is still a useful term and promotes the efforts of advocacy and professionalism.
It is no longer useful since it has an implied meaning of deficiency, promoting NS fallacy.
Changing labels will not diminish inequitable professional practices and deficit thinking.

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