Tagged: NNS

Fighting generalizations with generalizations?

In my most recent post I shared some thoughts and stories related to “native speakers” in South Korea. A few friends on email, twitter and in blog comments mentioned that such stories are not just limited to South Korea, which I think is an important thing to keep in mind. While the subject of “native speakers” was fresh on my mind I wanted to share something I have been thinking about for a long time. In Teaching English as an International Language, Sandra Lee Mckay quotes Medgyes on his views on the advantages of what he calls non-NESTS (non-native English speaking teachers):

a) Only non-NESTS can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English…
b) Non-NESTS can teach learning strategies more effectively…
c) Non-NESTS can provide learners with more information about the English language…
d) Non-NESTs are more able to anticipate language difficulties…
e) Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners…
f) Only non-NESTS can benefit from sharing the learners’ mother tongue…

Wait, what?

Before taking a closer look at some of these points I’d like to mention McKay’s response. She says that while it is encouraging that Medgyes is emphasizing the strengths of bilingual teachers of English, “his discussion is highly problematic in that too rests on an acceptance of the native speaker fallacy in which billingual teachers are compared with so-called native speakers…Only when the native speaker fallacy is put aside can a full exploration of such strengths of bilingual teachers be undertaken.” (44) This makes a lot of sense to me and I think that such a list is not likely to be helpful to anyone as it pits “NNS” and “NS” teachers against each other. As a trainer of (mostly) Korean teachers I often feel that part of my job is to help the teachers not feel like “failed native speakers” and to help them realize the strengths that they (can) bring to the table. I am not convinced that this list is helpful for that.

What follows is my personal thoughts on each of  the points:
(With the admission that I might be falling into the same trap that Medgyes does)

a) Only non-NESTS can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English…

Great. I think this is an extremely valuable point and one that I can’t emphasize enough. Excellent. Yes. My sincere hope is that this will be shouted from the rooftops and taken on by everyone.

b) Non-NESTS can teach learning strategies more effectively…

Why is this? I really have no idea! I would think that a teacher  familiar with learning strategies and has some idea how to teach them would be more effective than a teacher who is not, regardless of L1. Sorry, but I’m not buying this one.

c) Non-NESTS can provide learners with more information about the English language…

More information than what? This is perhaps the most confusing point for me. I don’t see how being a so-called NNEST would make it more likely that a teacher can provide more information about English. I just don’t get it.

I also think it is problematic that “providing information about the English language is somehow related to “good teaching.”

d) Non-NESTs are more able to anticipate language difficulties…

Always? Really? More than a NEST with experience, desire and a knack for such things? Does the non-NEST in question have to speak the same L1 as the student for this to be true? I am thoroughly unconvinced by this point.

e) Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners…

I am happy to see the “can” here. Ok. I guess anyone “can” be more empathetic depending on a wide variety of factors. This point smells pretty moot to me because we could make the same point about any number of demographic breakdowns. I am pretty sure that non-NESTs don’t have a monopoly on empathy.

I am again thinking that teachers with the same cultural and L1 background here might have an “advantage” but I also believe that certain things can be learned and developed.

I also think that there is something to be said for teachers that are language learners too. I know some teachers that can speak numerous languages (sadly I am not on this list). Surely the experiences of learning other languages are also valuable in this regard and the empathy described above is not limited to teachers that happen to speak the same language as their students.

f) Only non-NESTS can benefit from sharing the learners’ mother tongue…

Ok, but surely some L1 users of English are out there that know the learners’ L1 too. Does this count? Do people have to share the same mother tongue for these benefits to be felt? Does a trained and knowledgeable teacher who knows a bit of the students’ L1 provide more benefit than a teacher that simply has the same mother tongue as the student?

It seems to me that in his zeal to help “non-NESTs” see their potential value Medgyes might have taken things too far it seems to me that he fights generalizations with generalizations and takes what is certainly a complicated issue and makes it seem so simple.

Perhaps I am taking things out of context here.
Perhaps I am 20 years too late with my critique.
Perhaps I am missing something.
Fair enough.

Since I have been thinking about this for 3+ years I’d love to see your thoughts on what I am missing, if anything.

Citation Station: 

Medgyes, P. 1992. “Native or non-native: who’s worth more?” ELT Journal 46/4: 340-9

McKay, S. 2002. “Teaching English as an International Language.” Oxford: Oxford University Press

Related Links:
(Here are some links that came to mind after posting…not 100% related to this post but surely interesting and thought provoking)



Some thoughts (and stories) about “native speakers” in South Korea

After some vague and cryptic comments in this blog about my thoughts on “native speakers” a few people asked me what I really meant or think about this  and wondered what the situation is in Korea. Thanks for the questions! I thought I’d start by sharing some (mostly) true stories that highlight some of the issues. Readers familiar with the ELT world in South Korea might not find them new or super interesting but hopefully they will give us something to think about while painting a picture for those that might be unfamiliar.

Story 1
In my first job at a language school in Korea I was given the task of finding new teachers for the school. At first I found an African-American woman that was extremely qualified and very interested in coming to the school. She really impressed me in emails and I was certain she would be a good fit. My director said we should find someone else without giving me much of a reason. The next person I found was a recent graduate that happened to be Vietnamese-American. She gave me the impression that she was really intelligent, caring and adaptable (qualities I deemed essential for the position) but she was also promptly rejected. When pushed, the director admitted that both rejections were because of race. I stopped trying to help him out and those that were eventually hired (a white Canadian couple hired through a recruiter) were generally disastrous for both the business and the students. You might say that this story  is more about race and racism but I would say that race is inherently tied into ideas of “native speakers.”

Story 2
In my work as a teacher trainer I have worked with some amazing Korean English teachers. I will always remember the conversation I had in 2009 with Ms. Park (not her real name). She is a dynamic, reflective, bright, hardworking, and insightful teacher. She is an extremely strong English speaker who has no problem conveying extremely complicated thoughts in English and she is also adept with classroom English. One day during a break we were talking about the importance of speaking English as related to being a good teacher and she shared a story with me.  She told me that,  despite all the effort and improvement she made with her English, she simply acts as a disciplinarian in the classes that she shares with the “native speaker” at her school. She said she never plans lessons or does much of anything except make sure that the students are listening when the “native speaker” teaches. This is a woman with an MA in the field, excellent English skills, 15 years’ experience, and a desire to teach and improve who has been relegated to this role.

Story 3
A Canadian friend of mine has an MA in Applied Linguistics and is quite the language and grammar nerd.  I think he might even do grammar exercises for fun. I know that he has a lot more patience for grammar books and such things than I do. Anyway, he teaches in a high school and has been told numerous times that he is only permitted to teach conversation. It seems that his main role is to  to show up and be a “native speaker ”  and by doing so to get students accustomed to interacting with “native speakers.” All his training, expertise and nerdiness are wasted by the perception that he cannot teach grammar because he is a “native speaker.” Similar stories of “native teachers” only being allowed to play games or forced to act as human tape recorders abound.

Story 4
Back when I first came to Korea there was a dude in the city I lived in. Not only was he sort of a jerk but he was also sort of a “fraud” as a “native speaker.” His English was generally ok but he often made simple mistakes while communicating in English. He was a white guy with an American passport that was born in a country that rhymes with Bechoslovakia. He lived there till he was about 12 and some tricky English points never fully seeped in. Anyway, because he had the American passport he was hired as a “native speaker.” I don’t mean to suggest that people who don’t speak English perfectly can’t be great teachers (see Story 2 above). My sense at the time was that he was not a very good teacher mostly based on the condescending way he talked about co-teachers and what I perceived as a lack of desire to improve as a teacher or help students improve. I fully believe that his students were disadvantaged by the fact that they were given such a teacher.
From my view, all these stories are symptoms of the policies for and perceptions about “native speakers” in South Korea. The official immigration policy in South Korea for “native speakers” is that in order to be hired as a “native” English teacher one must have a BA and have a passport from one of the 7 so-called listed English Speaking countries. It is, of course, very easy to bash government policies but I also think that “native speakerism” and the “cult of the native speaker” are also to blame for the above stories. Many parents and students believe that the best and only way to improve is to have a “native speaking” teacher. Many language schools believe that the best way to make money is by having (white) “native speakers.” Many teachers believe that just being a “native speaker” is enough to justify their place in the classroom.

I realize that this is an emotionally charged and potentially controversial issue. I also realize that this is pretty much a simplification of very many complicated issues. I welcome any polite and respectful disagreements and comments.

Update 1 (of many?) I fully realize that it might be strange for a white American male who was hired one month out of college with just a BA in History to be railing against a system that makes such things possible.
(Thanks to the anonymous friend that reminded me I wanted to be sure to mention something about this.

Update 1a A good friend and colleague suggested that Update 1 is useless and detracts from my points…because just because I happen to be what I happen to be doesn’t limit my ability to raise questions or make points. I thank this person for this insight and will keep it mind.

Update 2 It seems that this is a common thing in places other than just South Korea. Please see the comments for more on this.

A letter to Korean English teachers

Hi there,

First of all, thanks for reading this. Hopefully I will make it worth taking the time out of your busy schedule. Secondly, I’d like to apologize. You see, I judged you before I ever even knew you.  I used to work in a language school attached to a university. I mostly had college students and I have to say that many were woefully unprepared for anything involving communication in English. I was shocked that students that received good test scores (and entered good universities) could not really utter a sentence in English. One day I was ranting about this and a friend of mine who was a teacher trainer got a bit angry and told me that I didn’t understand your situation or the reality that you face. Just two years later I started to work as a teacher trainer and I got to understand things a bit better. I certainly cannot say that I am an expert but I have logged many hours on and offline with Korean English teachers talking and thinking about teaching . Based on these conversations and my experiences training I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share with you. I should also apologize for giving you advice and suggestions that you might not want or need. Again, I am not really an expert. I am just a teacher who has observed a lot and thought a lot about these issues and has some thoughts to share. I am very sensitive to the idea of  “outsiders” coming in and giving all sorts of unwanted advice. My sincere intention is not to do that but just to give you some things to think about and share my perspective.

To begin, I wanted to talk about the whole “native speaker” thing. Look, most of you are not going to sound like me. Ever. This is totally fine. I don’t want to discourage you from studying or trying to improve. I just  think that speaking exactly like a “native speaker” is not a realistic or helpful goal. My thought is that if the majority of your students end up using English as well as you do you will have been a great success. This is to say that you are a great model. You have (to varying degrees) succeeded in learning English. How much better do you need to be at English to do your job better? How much better would you be at your job if you were suddenly a so-called “native speaker?” I really don’t know but I can tell you that one of the best lessons I have ever observed was from a teacher who was quite limited in her English. She set things up and let the students run with it. A good friend and fellow trainer once got me thinking by asking about the math abilities of the math teacher. Do they need to be award winners in algebra? I don’t think so. Do gym teachers all need to be former olympians or professional athletes? No, right? They just need to be good enough at their subject and good enough at teaching. But for some reason, it seems that English teachers here are often judged first by their accent and that their teaching really far down the list of what is evaluated. Not fair right? Well, perhaps the change has to start with you. What if you resisted the urge to judge other teachers by their speaking ability and accent?
(I have a whole lot to say about the whole “cult of the ‘native speaker’” thing and the problems that it causes but I will have to save that for another day.)

Another thing I have noticed is teachers often feeling bad  when they don’t teach communicatively. They don’t follow the “rules’ of CLT and feel guilty about this. Depending on your age, it is possible that you learned English entirely without CLT. So again, perhaps you are a good model. Listen, I am not necessarily a huge fan of Grammar Translation or AudioLingualism but it clearly works sometimes. Actually, that is not really my point. My point is that teaching is about decisions and you have to make the best decisions that you can based on your students and your classes and your experiences and your beliefs.  If you decide that a 45-minute lecture on the different uses of the present perfect is what you need to do** then I don’t think you need to feel bad about this decision. Your job as a teacher, in my view, is to make decisions. You will not always make the right decision and this is fine too. I think that if we keep learning from them it is great. So, what I am basically saying is that there is not much benefit in feeling guilty or beating yourself up for the decisions that you make.

I have friend that is a Korean English teacher and she once told me, “I really like the idea of doing a warmup activity but I just don’t have time for it.” I didn’t really know how to respond because, from my view, of course there is time if she really wants to make time. If she really believes that warmers are worthwhile and worth the time, I think she can make time. I don’t know her teaching situation exactly but I think that she takes attendance for a while at the start of class and I also think that she spends class time practicing for future “open classes.” Just cutting these two things would open up a whole range of possibilities. What I am saying is that instead of making excuses perhaps it is better to make tiny changes here and there, changes that are in accordance with your beliefs. If you actually think that warmers are a waste of time, then feel free not to do them but if you think they are useful don’t hide behind not enough time as an excuse for not doing them. I am, of course, not just talking about warmers here but anything that you say you want to do but make excuses about.

So far I have said, “I don’t think you need to worry about being a ‘native speaker’” and “I don’t think you need to beat yourself up for what you are not doing in class” and “I am not sure how helpful excuses are.”  Hopefully this sounds like a pretty positive message thus far. As I mention above, most of my experience with Korean teachers has been on training courses. One of the main things I have learned is that if course participants think “I am going to learn many things work in theory but not in practice” “Or I a not going to learn anything because the trainer doesn’t know my situation” they are always going to be right. If, however they think, “I am going to learn many things and I will have to choose which parts I can put into practice and how I will do so” they are also going to be right. I should also mention that if your training course “tells you the way” to teach they are probably full of shit not so good and you might consider asking for your money back, not  listening, complaining , or something else. What I want to say is to try and make the training course work for you rather than devoting your energy to working against it and finding reasons something won’t work.

I think this is getting a bit long so I will stop here. Perhaps the next time you find yourself making excuses about something you want to do in class but can’t you will think of this this letter. Perhaps you will think of this letter the next time you feel guilty for not using English more or better in your class. Perhaps you will think about how you can use new ideas rather than how they surely won’t be effective. Perhaps not. I don’t really now. I do know that I feel better after writing this. Thanks again for reading and comments of any sort are most welcome.

Sincerely yours,

**My firm belief is that a lecture about aspects of language to a room full of half-asleep students is not the best way to promote LEARNing but….I might be wrong.