Monday, 13 July 2015

The Importance of Being Native

I think here in Ireland, we have a strange relationship with the English language. In one sense, there is a sense of regret that English has replaced Gaeilge as our first language. We lament the teaching of Gaeilge in schools and marvel at how other countries manage to get their kids speaking different languages by the time they leave school. We sprinkle the "cupla focal" in our speech but I believe there is a real sadness for many of us that we can't converse in the language of our (very recent) ancestors.

And it is perhaps this regret that makes us particularly proud of our brand of English - Hiberno English. We delight in the fact that we have different words for things; words like press for cupboards or rashers for bacon.

And our grammar is different too. Instead of the present perfect form (e.g. I have eaten), many of us use the "be+after+ING form" (e.g. I'm after eating). I don't know if it is nationwide but in Dublin, you'll often hear someone say I do be tired on Fridays when someone from the UK might be more inclined to say I'm usually tired on Fridays (Stan Carey has a nice piece on this grammatical form here). These constructions are leftovers, grammar structures that were translated from the Gaeilge and hung on as the language went into decline.

And we are proud of our writers - Wilde, Joyce, Shaw, Yeats, Beckett, Heaney. We tell visitors that the English may have invented the language but we took it and made it better. I grew up hearing this stuff and it is impressive that such a small country has 4 Nobel Prize winners for Literature. But still, you'd wonder. Would we swap one of those Nobel prizes for bilingualism?

So, I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that we have mixed emotions when it comes to speaking English. This gets even more complicated in the world of English Language Teaching. Because of our history, because we lost our native language, we get to sit at the head of the table as native speakers (although Thailand gave us a bit of a scare a few years ago, before letting us back into the club).

You would think that considering this tangled history with the English language, our institutional failure to teach our native language and the massive levels of emigration from this country, we would be well placed to challenge notions of what it is to be a native or non native speaker of English. That we would be sensitive to those who have left their homes and are speaking English out of economic necessity. But I worry that this is not the case. I worry that we may be even more protective of the importance of "nativeness" by virtue of the fact our own doesn't sit so comfortably.

Many jobs here still look for native only teachers. I'm not going to name and shame but with a dodgy Internet connection whilst sitting on a train I found 4 in 5 minutes. As many other people have pointed out (here, here, here, here and here), this is discrimination - excluding someone possibly qualified for the job on the basis of something over which they have no control. If we take the Braj Kachru "Inner Circle" view of what constitutes a native speaker, then these ads are effectively saying Americans, British, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Irish only. Obviously there are many more countries that can be considered native speakers, but I think putting it like this helps to highlight the discrimination involved in native only advertisements.

So, in a way, the word native helps to cover up some discriminatory hiring policies. It is a lot easier to say "I just want native English speakers" than to say "I just want Irish people". I can imagine the people who post these ads might object to the accusation of discrimination and say that they are simply responding to market demand. Spanish kids don't want to come to Dublin to learn English from a Spanish teacher. That would seem a reasonable position and suggest that the schools in question make these decisions based on their view of quality standards or concerns for the needs of their students. And yet one school advertising for natives only stipulates that no experience is required. Do Spanish kids want to come to Dublin to learn English from someone who has never taught before? Does "nativeness" trump all other considerations?

It seems strange to me that a large chunk of the ELT world holds on to the notion that students want native teachers (rather than the notion that students want teachers who will help them learn as quickly as possible). Why is it that in this one area, we let a perception of what students want dictate our approach when in everything else, we claim to know best ("No, no, no, put away your dictionaries - it's better if you guess the word from the context")?

The troubling thing about this glorification of the native is that it creates a horrible dichotomy. The majesty of the native requires the humbling of the non-native. Silvana Richardson argues that we need to move away from the term "non-native". The addition of a negative prefix to people who have successfully learned a language to a very high level (and, as is the case in Ireland, are brave enough to leave their homes to work in a foreign country) seems perverse. Would anyone be comfortable with their job description including a negative? It suggests a lack where really there should not be one. Would native mono-lingual English teachers be happy if they were referred to as "English teachers who have never done what they are trying to get you to do"? But even that wouldn't be a fair comparison, because at least they could do something about it. The non-native title is a permanent exclusion.

This is not exclusively a problem in Ireland. I have heard stories from around the world of teachers being excluded from jobs because of their nationality. But the world is changing. Most English conversations today are between people for whom English is their second (or third, or fourth) language (the world of Tennis is a great illustration of this - look at how Wimbledon, this bastion of "Englishness" is populated by international tennis players all communicating together through the one language). Jeremy Harmer argues that "the old ‘learn-to-speak-English-like-a-native’ trope of the middle of the twentieth century is long long gone". 

Instead of focusing on an insensitive and anachronistic view of English language speakers, Ireland has a small enough ELT industry (on the cusp of significant change if school closures and Government promises of reform are to be believed) that it can focus on a far more equitable dichotomy - good teachers and non-good teachers. The first step would be to get rid of these native only ads and see where to go from there.


  1. Great perspective on this, Steve. I subscribe to the idea of simply dropping the distinction between NS and NNS from any ad, qualification or dialogue. What I also found interesting is the examples you mention that differentiates Ireland-English. While I am acutely aware that differences like this, particularly in slang, vary across the varieties of English speaking countries, it's always a pleasure to know more of them.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Tyson. I'm really glad to get comments and I believe you are right to just drop the distinction - dividing workers in an industry according to the place they were born seems arbitrary and dismissive of the tremendous value of a teacher who has succeeded in mastering a language by choice rather than an accident of birth. But on a practical level, I wonder what the reality would be. There is, among many employers, a belief that native teachers are a selling point for their business that they don't want to lose. They might think that blogposts like this are well intentioned but divorced from the reality of supply and demand. I would very much like to hear from people like this.

      Glad you liked the Irish stuff. I do think there are some really nice variations in Hiberno English. I'd say the Irish emigrants to Canada must have left their mark on the English to some extent. I know that in Newfoundland there has been a lot of study done on the Irish influence

    2. True, but Newfoundland is far, far away. Over in my part of Canada, there is no effect really, except a remote bewilderment as to their within-the-community 'dialect'.

      RE supply and demand - yes, it's an obviously easy way out of doing anything about the discrimination, but I'd argue that if a number of businesses just changed their policies and took the initial hit, there'd be a relatively quick trickle effect.

    3. I wonder what that initial hit might be. Is this idea that students might revolt if they don't get a native teacher perhaps an unjustified fear. Students have lots of preferences. Tall teachers might be more popular. Female teachers might be preferred by some students. But students don't storm out if the teacher is too short or too male. Students tend to complain when the teacher is late to class or badly organised or if the students don't feel they are benefitting from the lesson.

      I am certain that there would be some students who would complain initially but if companies hire good people, support them and invest in their development, then I don't see why any teacher who doesn't perfectly match a student's preference can't win that student over. For instance, I don't have an American or British accent which a lot of students like/want. Fair enough. But they usually get over that.

      Yes, Newfoundland is perhaps a very unique case. I wonder will the recent emigrants make an impact. I see 2,720 of us moved to Ontario in 2012. Keep an eye on your local deli - if they start selling rasher sandwiches, let me know.

  2. Enjoyed this piece Stephen and obviously agree that the only distinction that really matters should be between good teachers and non-good.

    A few random thoughts in no particular order:
    (1) perhaps because you started off by talking about features of local (to you) varieties of English and because as a younger teacher I was also very struck by the difference in the way my own English differed from that which I was being asked to teach, it occurred to me that many natives over-value the importance or utility of such information (I know I certainly did and wish I could undo the lessons I inflicted on rhyming slang, double negatives, etc! way back back when) and make the mistake of conflating their own English with the English that students most need. In other words, we sometimes mistake or confuse being a user of English for locational and identity-based purposes with being a competent user and speaker of English as an International language.

    I'd suggest that many non-natives are actually better at the latter than many natives, and that until this is understood the whole native / non-native debate remains simply splashing around in the shallows.

    (2) Jeremy is well-intentioned with his comments above, but deluded. As you point out, the sales pitch for any schools exploits the harsher realities, and as Ivor Timmis's research has shown, nativeness is what most students still aspire to, irrespective of whether that's achievable or not.

    I'm sure, though, that if you asked whether this meant they wanted to sound like a working-class Cockney / Manc / Georide, etc. or whether they wanted to sound like an educated middle-class user, they'd generally plump for the latter, and as I said above, non-native are often just as capable of providing this role-model.

    1. Hi Hugh,

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment.

      I think you're right about native speakers perhaps overvaluing the local features. I cringe when I think about the "Irish English" lessons I inflicted on students back in the day. They very kindly and graciously indulged me but really these lessons were of very little value. My students do live in Ireland so they hear stuff when they are out and about. If it is their own curiosity, then this very localised slang can be interesting for them. But most of them don't really want to know the fifteen ways to say "I'm tired" in Irish English.

      If I think about my own reasons for doing this in the past, I think it was because I thought that this was what I had to offer as a "native" teacher. At the start, I didn't have much training as a teacher so this "insider's English" was a helpful way to sound authoritative. I think, with a bit more confidence and reflection on what is really helpful to students, you do move past that stage. And as you rightly point out, teachers who have learned English as a second language don't really have that problem.

      I think in fairness to Jeremy, I only referred to a brief part of a much bigger point he was making - that with the amount of different people speaking English, it is almost impossible to say what a native speaker is. Like you say, when a student says they want to speak like a native that can mean so many things. Yes, they probably wouldn't want to sound too regional, but then you'd still have to ask, do they want to sound American, RP? And as part of the wider discussion, you'd wonder why they want to sound native - I think in many cases, if they are living in an English speaking country, they often don't want to stand out or feel different because they have an accent, say.

      Thanks for the tip on Timmis' research. I can well believe that nativeness is an aspiration for students. But I think the schools marketing the nativeness of their teachers are often just scrounging around for positive things to put on the webpage because ostensibly, they're all just offering the same thing. I think it would be really interesting to look at what draws a student to a particular school/country. Given how expensive it is to study English in a foreign country, I would say the real deciding factor for the majority of students is price.

    2. Clearly, we've all been there on the "my fascinating local dialect" lessons, then! I suspect you're right in thinking the inclination to do this may well have something to do with a feeling that this is the added value you bring as a native. Take that away, of course, and the added value is . . . um . . . well, exactly! Oh, you have a regional accent (as of course we both do), but again most students will never get close to this, may well not wan to get close to it unless they're staying there long term, in which case some will move towards it naturally, and may well be perfectly happy being relatively neutral, relatively RP internationally intelligible.

      With regard to accent and aspiration, by the way, did you see this thing I wrote about a recent student of mine:

    3. Hi Hugh,

      Thanks for the link. Great article. I commented on it directly.


  3. I realize that what applies in my context (EAP at a university in Canada) can not necessarily be applied everywhere. But whenever a student comes in to complain about a member of our multicultural and multilingual (and highly qualified) staff on the basis of race, "nativeness", age or some other such nonsense, (which unfortunately they do all the time), we actually only quickly mention the issues raised above, that qualification and experience are the basis of hiring. We then move right to the fact that multiculturalism and diversity are enshrined in Canadian government policy and university policies. It would actually be illegal for us to discriminate against a qualified and experienced "non-native" teacher on the basis of their linguistic, ethnic or racial background. We tell students that if they can't handle diversity in their EAP classroom, they're not going to last very long in the wider university community or in any Canadian city, for that matter. We are not super market-driven like a small private school may be so we can do this, but you know what? We've never lost a student because of this. As was mentioned above, good teachers who are happy and well-supported will win students over.

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks for the comment. It's fabulous to hear such a positive response to the issue. I suppose there is a difference between a university and a language school but you touch on something that is common to both; i.e. support from colleagues.

      I believe that a great way to start encouraging students to think of us all as teachers is to support each other without regard to this native/non native nonsense. As a "native" teacher, given all the privilege that entails, it could be tempting to think that we are superior in some way. But if we do that, we're really hanging our colleagues out to dry.

      So I am absolutely delighted to hear your response and how supportive the system in Canada is. And also how the expected student backlash isn't really all that bad.

      Again, many thanks.

    2. I can't think of even one instance where one of our EAP students complained about the multiculturalism of the staff in our program, actually. Like Jen, if they did, however, we'd respond with the fact that this is university. Get over it. More or less.

  4. It is very significant for non-native teachers of English. In fact it's largely the management and other teachers who have been showing preference for the native speakers rather than the students, and viewing the non-native teachers of English with doubt.

    1. Hi Professor Singh,

      Many thanks for commenting. You raise an interesting point because students' voices are missing from the debate - those on both sides of the debate are choosing to represent what they imagine to be students' opinions (myself included), rather than simply asking them. I know Marek has been doing some research into students' opinions on this issue and the TEFL Equity website is worth checking out

  5. Hi Stephen,

    I've only recently read your blog post (as it came up on my own blog feed via TEFL Equity Advocates a couple of days ago). It's an interesting read, which really made me think. Interesting to read the comments from others as well. I've written a longer response on my own blog.

    1. Hi Martin,

      Thanks very much. Glad that you found something of interest in the post. Yes, there are some really good contributions from others above which I was very grateful for. I especially enjoyed the solidarity for their colleagues that both Jennifer and Tsyon described in their Canadian institutions.

      Thanks for sharing your post as well. I very much enjoyed reading about things in Taiwan and posted a longer comment there.



    2. Another point you don't raise is actually in favor of non-native speakers: they have studied English and can reproduce to some extent not only the content of they have studied but also the methods of studying it. By contrast, most native speakers have not studied their native tongue considered as a language, but only certain fine points (half of them mistaken anyway). A linguist of my acquaintance from France, long resident in English Canada, believes that she does a better job teaching English to speakers of other languages that the vast majority of anglophones who try it, simply because they do not understand the issues that learners face. She compares it to her own experience in France trying to learn German from an Alsatian who, though his knowledge of Standard German was satisfactory, simply could not comprehend the problems of monolingual francophones learning German, since he himself had learned the standard through a far different process.

      Let me just mention that there is no single "American accent", not even in the sense of a socially dominant accent to which all aspire, even if they don't themselves learn it. There are at least a dozen American accents, more of them all the time (at least three have arisen during the 20C alone), and each is dominant in its region, however small (the New Orleans accent is particular to a part of that city, and its nearest relative is the NYC accent). Cultivated Bostonians do not aspire to speak like cultivated Houstonians, nor vice versa, and as for the "newscaster accent", it is basically deracinated Californian stripped of local peculiarities, and more a professional than an aspirational speaking style. Every U.S. president since sound recording began (with the exceptions of Reagan, who was after all an actor, and Obama, who is a very special case) has had a marked regional accent, and I doubt if anyone could progress so far in politics as to be elected President without one. Nothing could be less like the status of RP even today!

    3. Hi John,

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I've written before on the issue of empathy and you are right, the "non-native" teacher is in a way, primed to understand the challenges facing students. As a corrective to the running down of "non-native" teachers, it is fair to point out the benefits they have to offer. However, I worry about continuing to think about teachers as belonging to two separate camps. All teachers are capable of empathy for their students, irrespective of their mother tongue. All teachers can do a good job with their students, irrespective of the country of their birth. I think as an end result, this view would be preferable, but perhaps it is necessary at the moment to emphasise the benefits of the "non-native" teacher as a corrective to the prejudice they face.

      Yes, apologies for lumping all American accents into one group. I know that there are many (your estimate of 12 sounds a little conservative - considering how many accents there are in Ireland, a country of 4 million, I would expect far more in the US). I suppose I was trying to get at the point that even within native speakers of English, there are accents which are considered more prestige by students. For instance, students would often say that they would prefer an English accent over, say, an Irish accent. As you rightly point out, of course, these terms are far too broad. Do they mean a Newcastle or an Essex accent? By Irish, do they mean Donegal, Cork or Dublin?

      I think the point about regional accents is interesting? I wonder, does the regional accent = authentic. The same way that politicans tend to appear without a tie and with their sleeves rolled up when appealing to working class voters?

      Again, thanks for the thought provoking comment.