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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.