A response to the artist formerly known as @EBEFL regarding ELF and “so-called ‘native speakers'”

[I read this interesting post from @EBEFL and felt compelled to write a response.
Since comments on blogspot occasionally drive me crazy and I thought my response was more than a bit long for comments I have decided to post them here. My response is below. ]

Dear EBEFL (if that is really your name),

I hope all is well and you are having a productive summer. I discovered you were off Twitter when I wanted to give you a HT (hat tip) for some link or other. It took me a while but I figured out that you were not longer a twitterer (atwitter?). I hope it is just a summer break in the name of productivity. I was pretty proud of my tweet regarding your absence from Twitter. Here it is, for posterity’s sake.

Anyway, enough about Twitter and my tweeting/sleuthing skills.

I liked your recent blog post and I think you raised some great and interesting questions. As you know, I like to see challenges of what everyone thinks (even in this case if it is about something I think).  I thought I would share some my initial thoughts on the questions you asked. These are just my own personal thoughts and not based on any of that fancy book learnin’ stuff.  I apologize in advance for the scattered nature of this response as well as for all the scare quotes, which I found were quite addicting.

In your recent post, you wrote about how democratic (numerical?) appeals always play a role in discussions of ELF.  You wrote, “English as a Lingua Franca articles always begin with the assertion that there are way more NNS of English than NS, so who are we to tell them how to speak?!” For me it is not about the number of speakers making a variety more or less valid. It is about native speakers re-orienting their teaching to the reality in the world. Note that I am not talking about teaching a particular variety of English but rather teaching with the knowledge that the vast majority of English encounters in the world are between L2 users of English. This changes things doesn’t it? For me it does. In general it guides me to focus more on clarification and accommodation strategies and lessens the  focus on things like the pesky 3rd person s. I am not suddenly going to talk in a hybrid of Chinese and Indian English but I might not “teach” as many US-centric  idioms as I would have 10 years ago without knowing about the stats related to L2 communications in English. For me it is not so much about “teaching” (Not totally sure what that means in this case. Seriously) a brand new language but more about how the realities of communication in the world impact my decisions. I hope this makes a bit of sense.  I trust you will let me know if not.

Above I mentioned thinking back to 10 years ago. I think I could be forgiven for thinking that most interactions my Korean and Japanese students would be with quote native speakers. I mean all these foreigners (mostly white…you decide if this is important or pertinent to our conversation or not) were working in Korea and Japan on the basis of being a “native speaker” and were pinpointed as the model and the goal. I think this, using “native speakers” as the model, is problematic.  (Possible questions might be “native speakers from where with what background, speaking style, accent and socio-economic status?) I have met plenty of people from around the world that required much less effort for me to understand than many “native speakers” from both the US and UK but I guess that falls in line with what you wrote.

I also think it is worth considering the shift from “native speakers” as the model to something more realistic and attainable. I can’t tell you the amount of times that students around 25 years of age and with very basic English skills told me they hoped to sound like “native speakers” at the end of a 20-week intensive program. Not very helpful (or likely)  in my view. Now, I don’t really want to be known as the shatterer of dreams but at the same time I think a bit of a reality check can be helpful for both teachers and students. If the goal is to become a competent user of (global?) English I think that makes a lot more sense.

I think another reason for what might seem like “‘native speaker’ bashing” is how the reverse is a “NON-native speaker. ” So here we are defining people by what they are not and will never be. I think this sort of labeling doesn’t really help things very much. It seems a lot of people get quite bothered by the non aspect of this label but for me this is not such a big deal. I think it depends if we really think of the non as a deficit or not. I do think that the term is necessarily a tricky one. I won’t get into the tricky cases involving this label I have seen and heard but I think we can agree that it is tricky, right? For me it is about using a label that is necessarily confusing and doesn’t seem to add too much to discussions on teaching/learning. I am not sure how on point your red/orange and native speaker/non-native speaker comparison is (found on your recent post) but as always I admire your questions and your attempts to make sense of what might seem alternatively super easy and super difficult. I guess this, like many things, is not something that is so black and white (or red and orange for that matter).

Sincerely,

Mike

PS- I am not sure if it is necessarily related but here is something I wrote a long time ago about “native speakers” in Korea, replete with quotes on “native speaker” at every turn. Also, this one on fighting generalizations with generalizations might be of interest.

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25 comments

  1. ALiCe__M

    Thank you for your post. I fully agree with you about the necessity to take into account the reality in the world when it comes to teaching English. However, I do like listening to “native speakers” and talking with them, or reading their writings, because I feel that’s when I’m learning the most (almost every second§) : intonation, images, vocab, slang, phrases etc. I pick words up like flowers.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Alice!
      Thanks very much for the comments. 🙂
      I think you make an interesting point here –about preferences from students or customers. I think this is often ignored or brushed under the rug (idiom alert!) when we talk about such issues. So, I thank you for raising it. I might tell my students they don’t need to worry about using so many idioms or trying to sound just like me but they might want to! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • ALiCe__M

        Thanks for the idiom alert!! aha I *love* those idioms (“mettre/pousser/cacher la poussière sous le tapis” would be the French equivalent). I don’t intend to sound like a native speaker (this would be vain as I’m not one), but trying to use idioms is such fun, it’s so enjoyable, that I’d like to do it as much as I can. So, from a learner’s point of view, learning a language is mostly, (for me, anyway) a question of enjoyment and pleasure. And it’s such a pleasure when you can get every detail of a conversation straightaway, not only the gist of it! and when you can enter the same conversation as effortlessly as every other native speaker without them speaking slower for you! it’s like intering a new world.

  2. Tony Gurr

    Hi Mike,

    Am I really dumb or sumfink?

    I just do not get why we cannot use our own names – if the purpose of SM-driven LEARNing is “sharing”, I just want to know who I am “sharing” with (not in a stalking-kinda-sense). I hadn’t realised that EBEFL does not tell us who she is…and why so many of her comments are also posted-in-the-anon. I had taken a look at EBEFL’s blog on a few occasions and liked some of her stuff…(I liked the title of the blog)!

    As ever, brother Mike…so glad you are so out…and transparent!

    T..

    • mikecorea

      Hey Tony,
      Thanks for the comments. I see where you are coming from but at the same time I can fully understand the reasons behind choosing to not be so out there on things like actual names and such. For example, stating unpopular opinions or sharing personal pitfalls are two areas where I can why anonymity could be beneficial.

      You might have read the anonymous post on my blog about teaching in public schools in Korea. QUite a few people took issue with the anonomity aspect but for me it was a reasonable choice on the part of the author. He/she has something to share but didn’t want to be potentially seen as cutting down former co-workers and the like.

      In terms of blogging I can personally say that while I try to be as honest as possible there are some things I could probably share that might be useful/interesting for others but I don’t want to because these things (could) paint me in a negative light so I choose not to share. I dunno. Just a thought.

      I won’t speak for EBEFL but I don’t think he is hiding his name or anything. Recent posts with a presentation video and other written work show that.

      As always thanks for the comments and support.
      I feel like this whole anonymous thing could be an interesting blog post! 🙂

      • ALiCe__M

        Yes, Mike. There are plenty of respectable reasons why one chooses to stay anonymous. To me there is nothing wrong with this, provided you don’t use anonymity in order to abuse or hurt.

  3. EBEFL

    Hi Mike!

    THanks for writing this reply, you sent an awful lot of traffic to my site hahaha. I think Alice makes a good point, have you rad Timmis 2001?
    http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/56/3/240.short
    I wonder if sometimes we don’t just do the same thing but call it something different. For example, in the past teachers told students that they ought to sound like native speakers, now teachers make great efforts to tell students they don’t need to sound like native speakers, -but the direction of the advice hasn’t changed really has it? As a foregin language leaner myself, I know I’ll never be a NS but I want to get as damn close as possible. As always you make valid and throughtful points, but my post was just a simple critique of the “numerical” starting point of the argument, -I think you may have side-stepped that (^_^)

    You wrote “For me it is not about the number of speakers making a variety more or less valid. It is about native speakers re-orienting their teaching to the reality in the world.”

    I wonder though if this is accurate. THere is an assumption in the ELF literature that spanish people will be talking to Germans and Chinese with Indians etc etc, and I’ve no doubt that could and does happen, but that doesn’t mean its proven. In the ELF literature they move from the “there are more NNS” argument to “therefore most NNS conversations will be with other NNS” and this is certainly not proven as far as I know, -it’s just an assumption.

    The red/orange thing is just me looking at the continuum fallacy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuum_fallacy and wondering if we’re not being too hasty throwing out arms up in the air and declaring that we have “no idea” how to define a NS at all.

    TonyGurr -my name is on the “about” section of the site.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Sir,

      Thanks very much for the reply.
      I am happy to see some interesting discussion springing up here and on your blog. Great to see. I truly think people are are a bit apprehensive to ask questions about certain issues

      Ha..It has been interesting for me to try and separate your thoughts on this as related to other issues like prescriptivisim as well as the need for and relevance of proof on certain issues.

      To response to your response(s) then…
      You wrote, “I wonder if sometimes we don’t just do the same thing but call it something different. For example, in the past teachers told students that they ought to sound like native speakers, now teachers make great efforts to tell students they don’t need to sound like native speakers, -but the direction of the advice hasn’t changed really has it?” You mean that now (as before) teachers tend to be the ones giving out advice regarding accent and the like rather than finding out what students really want?
      I’d love to see some more thoughts on this..
      Yet, I always come to the point of thinking that teachers are hired for a reason (ideally!) and part of that comes from having some sort of background/knowledge/clue/expertise in the field. For me this might mean simply realizing that some things like “third person S” are likely to not block meaning so they might not get as much treatment as others. I hope I am making some sense here.
      I wonder if you are suggesting that teacher-student advice is not something that is helpful/desirable or needed?
      Personal experience suggests that my students have an expectation of some advice on how best to meet the challenges in front of them.

      I loved your points about how you as a language learners want to know you’ll not be a “NS but I want to get as damn close as possible” I think this is something that is often overlooked.
      I will be sure to check out Timms as you recommended. Just downloaded it.

      You wrote that I may have “side-stepped” the numerical starting point of the argument but I am not sure about that. I thought I addressed your thought that the numbers would mean ELF is/should be some sort of a new language.

      You raised the question of proof regarding English interactions. I wonder what would constitute proof in your eyes on this?
      It is not enough to say that 1/4 of the World’s English users are “native speakers” (whatever that means!)?
      If not, those 25% of English speakers must be busy then, communicating with not only other native speakers but also all the non-native speakers as well.
      They must be especially busy when one considers the % of Americans that don’t own passports. 🙂

      Sorry for being a bit silly. I just spent some time trying to locate stats that might meet your criteria but I am really not sure what would fit the bill.

      Thanks as always for exchange and best of luck with your productivity.

      • EBEFL

        Dear Mike,

        As always it’s great talking to you and I always feel I get a lot out of it, -I hope you do too. (And I’m hoping I can buy you a beer soon)

        I know you aren’t keen on comment discussions so we can move this over to google docs if you want? You’ve raised a lot of question here, but there is one fundemental issue I want to deal with before moving on to the other points so please forgive me if it seems like I’ve ignored everything else you wrote.

        You wrote ‘“native speakers” (whatever that means!)?’

        just let me check, -was this a gag?

      • mikecorea

        Totally a gag. 🙂 Or a poke or a tweak or whatever. Haha.

        I am cool on blog discussions but google doc is also ok.

        No worries on the question about “whatever that means”

        I always enjoy the exchanges and get a lot out of them for sure.

        Awaiting your response wherever it might appear.

        cheers, mg

  4. Tony Gurr

    Dear Russell,

    Not sure where I should begin – apologise for missing your name on the blog (cool title BTW) or for using the female pronoun (I think I may have done that to rattle your cage and get you to “come out”) 😉 The point is mute in your case – now…and I will look at “about sections” more carefully in the future 😉

    I think I was a little miffed as I had been getting a few anonymous comments (quite rude in some cases – as Alice notes) on my own blog. At the time, I just did not get it – and I kinda jumped when I saw your post and Mike’s comments (it was the wrong time and place to make the point). Mike (and Alice) is perhaps right – there are some cases when not handing out one’s name is necessary. I guess I do not get why someone would would do this with a whole blog – in every post.

    Anyways, back to NNS’s and NS’s. I hear you (I do) – I know many teachers (and students) that feel the same. However, I’m not sure what people really mean when they say “I want to speak like a NS” is that they want to “be” a NS – I think what they really mean is “as well as I can”.

    The NS “standard” is a bit of a false one – and there are many decision-makers that use it to make the “wrong” decisions – for example, hiring a NS because they assume that a NS is a “better teacher”. There is no logic to this – and, in many cases, it is clearly a false assumption…a false assumption that can, and does, harm the quality of student learning.

    I also know many teachers who use this notion of “NS-like qualities” to present themselves as something that they are not. For example, I once observed (a couple of times) an excellent teacher (with very solid EL skills)…the problem was – when she was in a classroom, she “put on” an accent, “upped” the level of her accuracy and also changed her body language. When we discussed this (and it was a difficult conversation to have – a very difficult one) – I suggested that this may be giving her more trouble/stress that she deserved…and that she may, in fact, be giving students a “false understanding” with regards what was “good language”. The good news is that she did hear me – and also got that it was important for educators to be as “real” as they can be…that is the best type of role-modelling we can give students.

    As Mike said in his original post – I do not think the labels help at all. Is NS language “better” than NNS varieties? I guess “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder – but then we are talking about NNS teachers and their NS counterparts, the quality of language is just one factor. Passion for learning and talent for LEARNing others trump EL skills any day 😉

    IMHO…

    Take care,

    T..

  5. anthonyteacher

    Two comments, 1 tangentially related to your post.

    I like your idea about teaching with L2 speakers in mind, not native speakers. A practical question: when it comes to pronunciation practice, what are the essential elements to allow, say, an Arab and a Korean to communicate.

    2. Although “whose English” is a hot topic in our field, I still think there is an underlying, possibly innate standard that exists for a representative or ideal English – whether we agree or disagree. Certainly, English localizations are ok, but on the international stage there must be a standard of mutual intelligibility. This is why native speakers are seen as the well spring of this standard.

    Maybe the group that sets the standard is the one that produces the most in that language: books, movies, etc. which country cab lay claim to this?

    • mikecorea

      Hello again Anthony,

      Thanks for the comments.

      Regarding your first point, there is actually a ton of research out there about pronunciation as it relates to ELF.
      (A search for Jenkins and Lingua Franca core is a good start).
      From what I have seen there is a lot more about pron than other areas. I think your question leads into other important questions about what the essential elements are for ELF communication.

      I guess I am in a unique teaching situation in that there are 2 main types of classes I teach. The first is seminars in simultaneous interpretation and I am very strict about adhering to native speaker norms as I see them. For these students “I can understand what you mean but I would never say it” is enough for something to be “wrong” and off their list of things they want to say.

      I also teach multi-lingual classes of future NGO/business/government people and the targets shift.
      (It is especially great proof that something was not understandable when the Korean students understand but the Vietnamese student didn’t for example)

      To move onto your next point/comment. I am not sure we are on the same page here.

      You wrote, “I still think there is an underlying, possibly innate standard that exists for a representative or ideal English – whether we agree or disagree.”
      (I am actually not sure what “whether we agree or disagree” means here). I fully agree that mutual intelligibility is needed but I am not sure that native speaker norms need to be the guarantor or models of this. You wrote, “This (need for standards) is why native speakers are seen as the well spring of this standard.” I guess I don’t disagree that NS are in fact seen as the well spring. I guess my disagreement is that they need to be or that it is helpful, beneficial or even necessary.

      Not to mention the insane difficulty it is to sift through definitions of what is a native speaker and to then choose norms among them. Just considering the vast array of norms among English users in the US is hard and then we need to choose among them while deciding not to choose all the other quote native speakers’ norms in the world. Very tricky business in my mind.

      Finally, you wrote, “Maybe the group that sets the standard is the one that produces the most in that language: books, movies, etc. which country cab lay claim to this?” Hmmmm, so this is surely the US because of Hollywood? I don’t know if production of cultural products is good measuring stick. 🙂
      (Also maybe some day Bollywood would produce more English movies than Hollywood. Does that mean we need to change our models based on this change?)
      sorry if I am concentrating too much on the movie aspect as I know you mentioned more than just movies.

      Thanks again for the exchange.

      • anthonyteacher

        I’ll take a look at the pronunciation research you mentioned. Thanks!
        Also, you teaching “future NGO/business/government people” probably makes you resonate with the blog post I recently wrote http://www.anthonyteacher.com/blog/can-tesol-save-the-world.

        But, to the main issue of native speakers, sorry I didn’t write clearly. What I meant by “whether we agree or disagree” is that there is a standard that exists, whether we agree with the standard existing or not. The standard for a majority of the world is probably North American English or British English. This is true whether we agree with it or not. Choosing the standard is pretty tricky, but people seem to be doing it all the time. Why did you choose your native speaking self as the classroom standard in the class you mentioned?

        To my last point, I mentioned movies (but thought about print media, as well web media and academia) because they hold great cultural and linguistic capital. Yes, Bollywood creates the most movies but doesn’t have the far reaching range that Hollywood does. Hollywood, and therefore American English, seem to hold the greater linguistic capital, and are then seen by default as the ELF standard. Likewise, non-British EU countries (probably) see the RP as the standard because the UK holds a great deal of linguistic capital in the area.

      • mikecorea

        My turn to apologize for not being clear….

        My point in mentioning an interpreting class is that it is very specific and the norms (goalposts) are necessarily different than “regular” EFL students. They will in fact be judged on how native-like they sound on a big test in December. In terms of which norms, I actually don’t choose my American self (some of them have different accents) as the model but simply say things like “I would never say this” and it i up to them to decide if they want to keep saying it. (I think I gave the wrong impression in my previous response regarding “enforcement) (My point was mostly that only in such a very specific field are native speaker norms actually reasonable)

        I think with some of these issues we might be verging on “agree to disagree” territory at some point but one thing we surely agree on is that these standards do exist and are in place. People do in fact choose standards all the time. (Questions about how much thought they put into it or what it means or how helpful it is are other questions entirely but I am right with you that choices are constantly being made)

        As for the movies, I see where you are coming from and I think we both agree that there is a huge variety of factors that went into putting English and “native English” into the prestigious place it currently holds.

        Thanks again for the exchange. Very interesting and enjoyable.

        PS- I did enjoy your recent post about changing the world (It reminded very much of some conversations I had a few years back with people from home) and thanks for sharing it here.

        PPS If I might recommend some more reading I think “English as a Global Language” by David Crystal is fanstastic. It is already 10 years old now but I loved it. A newer (and freer) pdf is here http://www.britishcouncil.org/learning-research-english-next.pdf and it touches on a lot of these issues.

      • anthonyteacher

        Your class sounds very interesting. I wish I had that much responsibility. It sounds like a wonderful challenge.

        On topic, I think in the end, we do both agree. I do not have a fully formed opinion/argument on the native speaker topic as of yet. Stepping into the role if a student, my standard for learning Korean is not actually Koreans but all the foreigners on TV who speak fluent Korean. They look the same as me but can speak Korean to such a high degree that I am both awestruck and jealous at the same time. In French, the typical Parisien is my standard. Maybe this is how the students see it too – personal models influenced by seen and unseen fortune.

        I actually have Crystal’s book but haven’t read it. Thanks for the PDF. It’s on this winter’s reading last, right after forensic linguistics. I have also seen a new book out called Linguistic Hegemony. It looks pretty good.

        Coming full circle, I am currently reading Babel, No More, which is an exploration of hyperpolyglottism. A lot if the discussion also revolves around how we measure fluent or native-like, and whether these are appropriate yardsticks. Quite a fun topic.

  6. Pingback: NS vs. NNS Who cares? | Wangjangnim's perspective
  7. William

    I always tell my students to never focus on sounding like a native speaker. I always ask them ‘what does a native English speaker sound like?’ The answer: ‘you teacher?’. Yes, but I speak English with a North London/Accent. What about people from Sussex, Kent, Ireland, Scotland, The United States, Australia? Which one do you want to sound like? I tell them, it doesn’t matter what you sound like as long as you can be understood by others that speak English. If people can’t understand you it’s because you’re not speaking clearly, not because of your accent. It’s even quite difficult to understand what some native English speakers are saying! I tell them to concentrate on successful communication rather than trying to sound like anybody else.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments, Will. I think your questions highlight how tricky it can to decide on what exactly a native speaker is and what it might mean to go about trying to sound like one. And I think we are on the same page regarding communication.

  8. Pingback: Out with the old… | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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