September 2017
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Seullee Talia Lee, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom

In the TESOL field, over the last decades there has been a stark change in the way nonnative-English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) are viewed. There has been a growing body of research on discriminatory environments favoring native-English-speaking teachers (NESTs) and on the inferior identities of NNESTs as professionals. In addition to this research, many NNEST-related groups, such as the NNEST Interest Section, have been founded to destabilize the NEST/NNEST dichotomy (Selvi, 2014). This NNEST movement is in line with constructs such as World Englishes and multicompetence, which challenge the traditional binary between NESTs and NNESTs. These constructs also view NNESTs as multicompetent professionals rather than second-class citizens in English language teaching (ELT) communities. Consequently, many NNESTs have experienced a brand-new identity through learning about their multilingual identity option (e.g., Pavlenko, 2003). I am one of them.

I realized that I had long been struggling to be a native-like English speaker/teacher to obtain the NES(T) status. However, I learned that the goal to be a NES(T) was not only impossible but also undesirable because my multicompetence is of great value in multilingual communities. Since then, I have been enjoying much freedom from my past identity as an inferior English speaker/teacher compared to NES(T)s.

However, I found that the one-time transformation was not enough to stay firm against injustice toward NNESTs. Although I did have academic language to identify the unfairness of native language– or place of birth–based discrimination against NNESTs, I was often unable to speak up when I experienced or witnessed such unfairness. When there was little or no understanding of NNEST issues, I ended up choosing to silence myself, instead of standing up for NNESTs as multicompetent professionals. I started to wonder why. Why am I silent whenever I observe discrimination against NNESTs in practice? Is it in my personality to be passive? I tried to find previous experiments or theoretical frameworks that could possibly explain this “going backward” phenomenon. Yet I could not find any research focusing specifically on NNESTs’ stories after they experience identity transformation.

So, I asked other NNEST colleagues who considered themselves multicompetent if they were actively advocating their rights as professionals in the field. They answered that whenever they were unfairly treated because of their NNESTness, they would rather accept or ignore the situation than confront it. Listening to them, I became certain that this was a common experience for NNESTs and not merely a personal issue. I came to a conclusion that many NNESTs are reluctant to speak up even after they have accepted a multicompetent identity and have the proper language to fight against NNEST issues. Why? What holds NNESTs back from advocacy?

Martin Luther King (2010) once wrote that one of the ways that the oppressed deal with their oppression is acquiescence, a state in which people become conditioned to oppression by adjusting themselves to it. I believe that this provides meaningful insights to the phenomenon in which NNESTs remain silent. NNESTs can be seen as the oppressed through a lens of native-speakerism in the TESOL field. The absence of advocacy may not mean that there are no issues of oppression, but that NNESTs are acquiescent. Moreover, the issue of NNESTs being unable to advocate their own rights is intricately intertwined with sociocultural aspects of their upbringing.

Take, for example, South Korea, where English proficiency is one of the most powerful determining factors of one’s socioeconomic status. Although English is seldom used in everyday life, there is a social, economic, and cultural chasm between English-haves and English-have-nots (Phillipson, 2008). In this setting, Korean NNESTs are conditioned to admit the superiority of NESTs and are accustomed to being silent when facing discrimination. On top of that, having a strong voice is not appropriate in Korean society. Korea has been significantly influenced by Confucianism, where acting modestly and being harmonious in groups are basic principles. These sociocultural values govern interactive behaviors of Koreans, and thus individuals tend to remain silent when encountering injustice on an individual level. Likewise, for Korean NNESTs, transforming their identity to multicompetent professionals and thus becoming fervent advocates is not a simple process—it is interconnected with nationwide beliefs that position them as the oppressed as well as sociocultural values that urge them to be modest individuals under the Confucian culture. In this context, chances are that Korean NNESTs will be unable to speak up for themselves when discriminated against. This is not only the case of Korean NNESTs, but also of many other NNESTs from diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

As English is often associated with economic influence, having a NES(T) status itself is a great privilege in many countries. This practice of favoring NES(T)s has a negative impact on NNESTs’ identity both as English speakers and teachers. Many NNESTs end up becoming accustomed to such discrimination against their NNESTness. In the globalized world, where English is the primary lingua franca, NNESTs grow up experiencing unequal treatment. Once they get used to the inequality, it is difficult for them to recognize and choose to oppose the oppressive system. Furthermore, if NNESTs come from cultures with sociocultural norms that require them to be harmonious members of society, it becomes much harder for them to speak up. Because being harmonious often means not challenging traditions, the aftermath of destabilizing rampant discrimination against NNESTs may result in further discrimination. Consequently, it can be too difficult for NNESTs to stand up for NNEST issues even though they recognize the need and have a passion for advocacy.

Then how should we deal with the NEST/NNEST dichotomy? I believe that NESTs have a significant role to play. Oftentimes, NESTs think that they cannot relate to NNEST issues because of their NESTness. Even though they have a strong desire for NNEST advocacy, they are often hesitant to take a leading role in the NNEST movement (Selvi, 2014). However, that NESTs are not victims or oppressed does not mean that NESTs are not responsible for addressing NNEST injustice. As ELT professionals, it is important to remember that we all are in charge of providing a wide range of linguistic and cultural diversity to our English language learners. Regardless of being a(n) NEST or NNEST, we all are responsible for inequality regarding NNEST issues in the TESOL field. In fact, the role of NEST advocates can be far more important than that of NNESTs, considering the NNESTs’ upbringing makes them reluctant to take active action against unfair treatment. NESTs are not victims but beneficiaries of NNEST injustice—and if the beneficiaries were to demand equal treatment for NNESTs, the vicious chain of NNEST issues would break far more easily. Additionally, the voice of the oppressed is not heard in times of oppression, but the voice of NESTs can be heard because people and their existing system of oppression favor NESTs.

Therefore, it is crucial to raise awareness among NESTs on the prevalent misconception that the NNEST movement is only for NNESTs. Furthermore, there should be more communities of practice where NESTs and NNESTs can gather together and discuss the issues that NNESTs face. Currently, there is little or no foundation for NNEST advocacy at many work places. Although there has been research concerning NNEST issues as well as the establishment of NNEST equality-related entities, such movement of the central TESOL body is not tangible for many NNESTs. Moreover, these communities seldom have an influence on down-to-earth problems that individual NNESTs face in everyday life. Hence, regular gatherings and fellowships are necessary to strengthen the capital of such communities of practice and in turn empower NNEST advocates.

All this started with a question to myself: Why is it so difficult to speak up against NNEST discrimination even after I experienced an identity transformation into a multicompetent ELT professional? I found the answer from Martin Luther King’s concept of acquiescence. For the oppressed, adjusting to oppression is one way of dealing with it, and this tends to be the case for the majority of NNESTs. I believe that this can explain why NNESTs choose to remain silent, rather than to speak up, when facing discrimination. To address this issue, NESTs need to be aware that they can play a significant role in creating nondiscriminatory environments. More important, NNEST issues are not only about NNESTs, but about all ELT professionals. When NESTs and NNESTs gather and work together for the NNEST movement, the TESOL field will become a rich repertoire for English language learners where they can enjoy the beauty of linguistic and cultural diversity in the era of World Englishes.


King, M. L. (2010). Stride toward freedom: The Montgomery story. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Pavlenko, A. (2003). "I never knew I was a bilingual": Reimagining teacher identities in TESOL. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 2, 251–268.

Phillipson, R. (2008). The linguistic imperialism of neoliberal empire. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 5(1), 1–43.

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

Seullee Talia Lee is an MPhil student in education studies (research in second language education) at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. She has worked as an ELT professional in Korea, Nicaragua, and China. She holds an MA in TESOL from SIT Graduate Institute and a BA in English education as well as film and theater from Hanyang University. Her research interests lie in issues related to (in)equality in TESOL and second language teacher identity.

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