28 February 2016

No, I'm not a 'proficient English language speaker'

I’ve just been on Dave’s ESL Cafe. Not because I want to work 60 hours a week in a ropey kindergarten, but to see how companies are wording their recruitment ads these days. And amongst others, I found:

______ is recruiting female full time native-speaker teachers of English (Saudi Arabia);

We are currently looking for a full-time native English speaking teacher (Thailand); and

A small independent school in ______ is looking for experienced NATIVE English teachers (Japan – the caps are theirs).

So it seems that, yes, in spite of brilliant recent work from TEFL Equity Advocates and others, teachers are still being sought on the basis of their mother tongue instead of their qualifications. I want to say categorically that I think this is wrong. Utterly wrong. I’ve learned foreign languages from native speakers (NS) and non-native speakers (NNS) and it’s been an insignificant factor in their competence. The former are quicker on collocations, perhaps, while the latter tend to have better grammatical awareness – but really, these are just stereotypes that cancel each other out. I want a teacher who knows what they’re doing and doesn’t stress me out. That’s it.

Click for bigger cartoon (credit http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/

But the debate is taking an interesting turn. Last month, Laura Soracco wrote a popular post about doing away with the NS/NNS dichotomy altogether, which was picked up this week in a heated (OK, gas mark 2) Twitter exchange between Russ Mayne and others. Russ tweeted:

NS and NNS may be ‘flawed terms’ but that’s no reason to stop using them.

…and to be honest, my first reaction was oh Russ come on. So were several other people’s, apparently. Then I thought a bit more and realised we’re in danger of conflating two separate conversations.

For recruitment purposes, it’s pretty clear we should stop using the NS and NNS labels. They’re vague, they’re used to discriminate, and the non- prefix can’t help but imply deviation from the 'normal' or the desirable. Laura suggests proficient English language speaker, bilingual or multilingual as preferable terms to NNS, which any sensible person would surely struggle to disagree with.

However. For real life purposes, you know what? I’m not a proficient English language speaker. (Hang on, wait for the rest.) I’m a native speaker. I’m a native bloody speaker, like a Dane speaks Danish or a Turk speaks Turkish. I can emit sounds in several other languages, but I'm far from bi- or multilingual. English is the language of my dreams, my crap jokes, my blazing rows, my memories, my 3am confessions. For better or worse, it's the lens through which I see the world. Does that make me a superior teacher? Emphatically, no. But English is a massive, integral part of my identity that also happens to be the international language. Do I recognise all the unfair advantages conferred on me because I grew up speaking it? Absolutely. But I can’t truly be sorry about something as random as the circumference of my head, nor can I adopt, without hypocrisy, any made-up word that obscures or downplays what I am. I am English; hear me roar!

The real point, I suppose, is that we should have each others’ backs. It's not a zero sum game in which one group must be quashed for the other to rise (see also: feminism). At work it matters not one iota whether we were, as kids, read bedtime stories or histoires or , and it’s all of our responsibility to challenge prejudice against bilingual English teachers in job adverts, from colleagues and students, or in the wider world. But by the same token, when we’re out of school we should respect each others’ right to define our own language use, however we see fit – and however flawed the terms may be.


  1. Hi Laura,

    CLU or "competent language user" was the term offered as an alternative to NS in the early 2000s when I did my CELTA. Hasn't really caught on... :/

    Thought-provoking post. I'll check out the links that you've added including the post by the other Laura.

    Your comment regarding NS/CLU being better at collocations (or vocabulary, in general) and NNS at grammar (or rather explaining grammar) is certainly worth discussing further, and I'd like to return here with another comment when I have more time.



    1. Thanks Leo and yes please do come back! Would love to chat more. The issue of replacement terms is a tricky one - Anne (Hendler) just asked why we don't use 'English speaker', which seems like a frighteningly simple solution (though I suppose recruiters would be concerned about getting a ton of applications from intermediate students or some such).

  2. You have to look beyond the job adverts to find the real problem, which is that the ones spending the money are of the opinion that 'natives are better'. No customers, no language school and the fact that a lot of the people who pay for lessons either for themselves or their kids are more interested in the 'prestige' of a native speaker is the real issue. Obviously, it's a load of rubbish as we've worked with natives and non-natives and nationality has nothing to do with being able to teach.

    The problem I'm having is coming up with some sort of solution. People outside of education seem to have the wrong idea most of the time, even in developed countries - see any online news article comment section about teachers as evidence. Something should be done though.

  3. Fair enough. Bu what's a real-life purpose? When outside ELT do you describe yourself as a native-speaker? I fail to think of even one instance in my own life where I'd hear it used unless it was an equally ignorant argument where someone was suggesting that immigrants should speak only English if they're in our country. My point is that it's not about us rightfully owning the native speaker term [even though that itself is a flawed label]; it's that the conversations where it's [only?] used are these discriminatory ones, so why not just consider using more accurate, inclusive language altogether?

    1. Hey Tyson and thanks for the comments. I guess I shouldn't have given this post such a facetious title :) Just to clear up a couple of things:

      (1) Within the context of ELT, I'm perfectly happy to be called a 'proficient speaker' or any other term that will help to level the playing field. And you may be right that ELT is the only field where this is relevant.

      (2) I vehemently oppose the idea that immigrants should only speak English! I'm not sure why that argument, which I agree is 'ignorant', has been equated to the point I'm making here.

      What I was trying, and I guess failed, to communicate is that calling myself something other than a native speaker doesn't stop English being my first language and an important part of me. And I don't think it's necessary to undermine the language identities of native speakers in order to achieve equality for bilingual teachers. I've always thought, because of the obvious privileges attached to having the global lingua franca as a mother tongue, that I should feel a bit guilty - but actually that won't improve a thing, any more than feeling guilty about being a white woman will stop the police killing black boys. I just think we have to make sure we're focusing on the right issue, which is the fact that L1 does not correlate to the ability to teach English.

    2. Thanks for the reply, Laura. Actually I think it's me who wasn't communicating clearly enough. The reason I brought up the topic of immigrants and English is because that's the only non-ELT conversation I could imagine having with someone where the term 'native speaker' might arise--an equally ignorant conversation to qualifications for being a ELT. So it was really just me trying to think of any conversation I'd have in 'real life purposes' outside ELT.

      While I agree that we need not feel guilty about our identities, I do think it's worthwhile to consider changes to terms we use when they are either inaccurate/blurry or cause unnecessary negative exclusion.

      In the end, I think over Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, I've ended up mixing several points together and not well so I may need to blog about it myself. ;)

    3. Please do - I'd love to read it :)

  4. It's all smoke and mirrors. Given native speakers are usually better at collocations and non-native speakers are better at grammar, neither collocations nor grammar drive intelligibility in English. We (English teachers) have only ever been moderately successful teaching about English and never successful teaching real world skill in speaking confidently or writing professionally (less than 3% of native speakers can write well). To add insult to injury the Global English used by almost 2 billion people world wide isn't taught anywhere. We are out of the loop and arguing about native-non-native as if it were a real issue.

    1. Hi Judy and thanks for the comments. Out of interest, what do you think *does* drive intelligibility?

    2. Non native speakers are usually better at grammar? On what do you base this claim? As a fluent non-native speaker of another language which I acquired, as our students do, in another country - and from my observations of our students and my NNS colleagues - I disagree with your stereotype
      pterataur - yes, important to define " intelligibility". Are you talking about a misused pronunciation element ( such as intonation, phoneme or vowel production, stress pattern); a grammar element (e.g. word order, tense); vocabulary (e.g.use of false cognates, or of "dictionary English" as opposed to everyday) or of lack of knowledge of pragmatics - all of which could make the speaker " unintelligible" to the listener...
      What affects intelligibility are all those issues which we, as teachers of ESL, take into consideration - student's personality and individuality (physical and emotional variables), amount of exposure to target language, prior and present learning experiences, motivation, motivation, motivation!!!! 🎶❤️😊

  5. I also agree with 'unknown' who mentioned the prestige in hiring a native speaker. Language schools are businesses. It's good for business.

  6. Physiological and sociological factors are cited in the develpment of accent in this Wikipedia article:

    "The most important factor in predicting the degree to which the accent will be noticeable (or strong) is the age at which the non-native language was learned.[7][8] The critical period theory states that if learning takes place after the critical period (usually considered around puberty) for acquiring native-like pronunciation, an individual is unlikely to acquire a native-like accent.[7] This theory, however, is quite controversial among researchers. Although many subscribe to some form of the critical period, they either place it earlier than puberty or consider it more of a critical “window,” which may vary from one individual to another and depend on factors other than age, such as length of residence, similarity of the non-native language to the native language, and the frequency with which both languages are used.[8]

    Nevertheless, children as young as 6 at the time of moving to another country often speak with a noticeable non-native accent as adults.[4] There are also rare instances of individuals who are able to pass for native speakers even if they learned their non-native language in early adulthood.[9] However, neurological constraints associated with brain development appear to limit most non-native speakers’ ability to sound native-like.[10] Most researchers agree that for adults, acquiring a native-like accent in a non-native language is near impossible.[7]"

    OK - we have experienced it and we get it. So how does that figure in recruiting "(non-) native speakers" for teaching ESL roles?
    Please see Part 2 of this reply

  7. PART 2

    This, for me, is the crux of the issue (from the same article):

    "Many teachers of English as a second language neglect to teach speech/pronunciation.[12] Many adult and near-adult learners of second languages have unintelligible speech patterns that may interfere with their education, profession, and social interactions.[12] Pronunciation in a second or foreign language involves more than the correct articulation of individual sounds. It involves producing a wide range of complex and subtle distinctions which relate sound to meaning at several levels.[12]

    Teaching of speech/pronunciation is neglected in part because of the following myths:

    Pronunciation isn't important: "This is patently false from any perspective."[12] Speech/Pronunciation forms the vehicle for transmitting the speaker's meaning. If the listener does not understand the message, no communication takes place, and although there are other factors involved, one of the most important is the intelligibility of the speaker's pronunciation.[12]
    Students will pick it up on their own: "Some will learn to pronounce the second language intelligibly; many will not."[12]

    Inadequate instruction in speech/pronunciation can result in a complete breakdown in communication.[12] The proliferation of commercial "accent reduction" services is seen as a sign that many ESL teachers are not meeting their students' needs for speech/pronunciation instruction.[12]

    The goals of speech/pronunciation instruction should include: to help the learner speak in a way that is easy to understand and does not distract the listener, to increase the self-confidence of the learner, and to develop the skills to self-monitor and adapt one's own speech.[12]

    Even when the listener does understand the speaker, the presence of an accent that is difficult to understand can produce anxiety in the listener that he will not understand what comes next, and cause him to end the conversation earlier or avoid difficult topics.[12]"

    This reflects my feelings on the matter more accurately and succinctly than I would have expressed them - so this is not so much plagiarism or laziness as parsimony.

    The full, rather well-written, article can be found at : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accent_%28sociolinguistics%29

    While it is true that if we can get a student to understand, and be understood in our language, this is a partial success, we should also, I feel, acknowledge that, in this imperfect world, they will likely be discriminated against because of a strong, non-"native English speaker" accent.

    How can we teach that which we cannot practice?

    I rest my case for the "predjudiced" employers.

  8. Whenever I hear the term "proficient", it immediately makes me think of the Cambridge Proficiency exam and I always wonder how many native speakers would do well in certain parts of that. Native speakers (probably in any language) rarely use the language which is expected in sections of the speaking exam and I have to admit, I think I would struggle to produce a strong text in the written paper without serious practice.
    Also, as other people have commented, a lot of the issue relates to the teacher's accent, although perhaps this has become more of an issue with the age of technology as people now have the resources to listen to more - certainly when I was at school, I never thought for a second that my MFL teachers didn't sound "native" as they were the only source of input I had.

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