Tagged: non-NEST

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)

http://tokenteach.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/ticking-the-native-language-box/

http://isabelavillasboas.wordpress.com/2012/05/22/65/