This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).
The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.
Rakesh Bhanot has been involved in teaching/teacher education for over 40 years and has delivered workshops/seminars in over 30 countries. He has contributed to a range of publications and is the founder editor of the journal Language Issues. He lives in London and is thinking about starting a blog.
Chia: Hi, Rakesh, really good to have you here.
Rakesh: Pleased to be here.
Chia: I hear you have a rant that you want to share with us.
Rakesh: Well, firstly, I am not, and do not feel like, a victim. Secondly, what I have to say is hardly a rant; it’s common sense.
Chia: Ah hah! You might not feel like a victim now…but when I am done… (she rubs her hands together in glee…)
So what is this common-sensical thing that is irking you?
Rakesh: Let’s just get this out of the way: the Devil often falls into her/his fire. So watch out!
However, here is my position: put bluntly – since I am a blunt Northerner from Lancashire as well as from North India – non-native teachers of English are better than so-called native speakers of English. I can and will qualify that as you approach the cliff edge of the eternal fire.
Chia: Wait, first of all, as this is a touchy subject, I would suggest we clarify the terms Native Speaker and Non-Native Speaker before proceeding into eternal fire.
Rakesh: Giving dictionary definitions may or may not help you here. My big fat dictionary describes a Native Speaker (NS) as ‘someone who has spoken a language from earliest childhood’. That begs all sorts of questions: how early is early? what about a person who grows up in a multilingual society? etc.
Chia: Let’s just say that someone who spoke the language from, say as early as 5, and was educated in English at school, even if they were multi-lingual? Does that sound like a good definition to you?
Rakesh: Such parameters can help but life is more complicated than that. For example, I did not speak any English until I arrived here in the UK aged 10 and yet I have taught English in many institutions – both public and private – that claim/ed to employ only NSs.
Chia: Do you think these institutions saw you as a NS?
Rakesh: I don’t think they saw me in those terms; they simply saw me as someone who was popular with their students in spite of the fact that I do not look like a (stereo)typical Englishman or a British person. What mattered to them was that I could deliver a professional ‘service’ and what mattered to the students was the ‘feeling’ that they could understand what I was saying; often more clearly than the NSs they had rejected because they could not even understand the accent of the so-called NSs. Shall I elaborate?
Chia: Hang on…let me pick up on your point about students not understanding the NSs’ accents…
Is it not part of language acquisition to learn to understand the NSs? Why are we protecting them from that?
Shouldn’t such exposure be part of letting students get used to listening to NS accents?
They probably couldn’t understand NS accents only because they are not used to them… Is it not our job to provide them with more listening practice then….if that is the case…
Rakesh: Well, Ms Devil, you have opened up another can of worms that I am rather pleased about. I agree with you that learners should be exposed to different NS accents. However, if the learners cannot understand the NSs because their regional accent is so far removed from a variety of English that they need to learn for the geographical context in which they live, then one has to ask why.
Let me give you an example from my own experience. When I taught in Spain in the early 1970s, I was twice pushed into a classroom by the director of the school and told to go in and say that I was a native speaker (sic.) of English to the students.
Technically, I am not a NS since I had no knowledge of English until I was 10 and I did not speak English at home, and never did so while my parents were alive, but for the students who had paid good money to learn English I was a ‘better’ teacher since, to begin with, they could at least understand what I was saying. In fact, I remember my opening remarks on both occasions was to confess to the students that I was not a NS of English and received such a positive response from them to the effect ‘thank god, we can understand what you are saying‘.
Chia: But you still haven’t answered my question, Rakesh. What if these students come to the UK and are unable to understand what NSs are saying?
And if you argue that they might never need to come to a NS country, then what if they watched English language TV programmes, Hollywood films, etc and can’t understand a thing? They would turn around and blame the teacher for not preparing them well. After all, what use are English lessons if the students can’t come out of it understanding the English?
Rakesh: Exactly, if the students cannot understand English when they have been exposed to it then there is clearly there is something wrong.
You have accepted that there are many kinds of English and many sorts of NSs who speak with a variety of accents. There is not a norm as was perhaps the case when RP was the ‘accepted’ standard. Most language learners go in with an expectation that they will learn the variety of the target language that will enable them to communicate with the majority of its users.
If I am learning English in, say a part of China, to come to London to live and work or study and I am being a taught by a NS with a heavy accent from Glasgow that I cannot understand because it does not seem similar to what I have seen or heard on the Internet or in films, then I maybe a bit peeved. You do not employ a Geordie or a Scouser with heavy regional accents because they may come across it at some time in their lives; you employ a teacher whose accent may help you communicate with lots of different people.
Clearly, if you are teaching ESOL in Glasgow for local residents who have to get by with the locals, it would make sense to learn some of the local dialect but I think most people want to learn English which will help them deal with situations more widely.
Chia: So what you are basically saying is that having a NNS accent could cater to their needs and their wants more?
Rakesh: No, I am not saying that at all. Look, everybody has an accent and some accents are more distant to what may be considered the norm. The issue is not about NS or NNS or regional accents or dialects…. it is about clarity and compensability.
Chia: But you must admit that you are the exception to the norm, Rakesh.
Many NNS teachers of English do not necessarily have such clear and comprehensible pronunciation.
They speak with heavily accented English which their students then learn off them…
In Japan for example, many Japanese teachers of English can’t really distinguish the /r/ and the /l/ themselves, and as a result, they are not only unable to model the sounds correctly, they are not able to teach students to recognise and produce the different sounds correctly either.
Rakesh: Yet, you and I both know Japanese speakers of English who have no problems with those sounds. So, it’s not a question of NS or NNS but more of the ability to master (sic.) the sounds of English and the ability to help the students to communicate. In some ways, the whole debate around the NS ad NNS dichotomy is a false one. Would you agree?
Chia: Sure, there are NNSs who can pronounce English sounds, but statistically speaking, there are more NNSs who CAN’T pronounce English sounds than NSs, wouldn’t you say?
And that is the same for knowledge of the language on the whole too…lexicogrammar and all…
As Naom Chomsky suggests, it is the NS in whom the idealised speaker-listener state is inherent… NSs know what sounds right and what sounds wrong by intuition. They can use this intuition to help them with their knowledge of the language, and to guide students…
Rakesh: I think you may be slipping into the fire already especially when you try to claim that NSs have a superior knowledge of grammar as compared with NNSs. Studies, anecdotal evidence, reports from NNS teachers of English who do training courses with NSs etc. all clearly show that NNSs have a much better knowledge of the English language than their NS counterparts – even when the NS have degrees in English.
As for Chosmsky, not only do his critics dismiss his ideas about the ‘idealised speaker listener state’, even Chomsky himself is not sure about how his ideas have been (mis)interpreted. Some/most NSs may be advantaged in dealing with sounds but nowadays there are many multi-media ways to provide role models of sounds. In short, NSs may have a small advantage but often they have many shortcomings when compared with NNSs who know about the English language in much more depth.
Chia: Hang on a second, I did not say that NSs have a superior knowledge of grammar. In terms of talking about language and knowing how grammar works, yes, many NNSs know a lot more because they had to learn it as a second language and thus had to analyse it and contrast it to their L1s.
But as we know, talking about language, and using the language are two completely different things. NSs may not be able to talk about language (until they have had some training and some development) but they already instinctively are able to use it. They are naturally competent as it is their first language. The knowledge about grammar can be picked up by reflecting on how they use their language.
Rakesh: That does not make the NSs better teachers! Yes, instinctively, NSs can use the language better but we are not talking about an ability to use the language BUT an ability to teacher/ to help others to learn. They are different skills.
One of my ex-employers, the late Peter Fabbian who was the Director of the London School of English, once said to be in not much diplomatic terms that anyone who has not been through the pain of learning a second language to some degree of fluency should be let loose in front of language learners. I guess this brings us to another important distinction, viz. the debate is not so much about NS v. NNS but ‘mono-lingual teachers (who only speak their own language) versus bi/multi-lingual teachers ( those who have made the painful journey of learning another language).
Chia: But one needs to be able to use and manipulate the language well before they can help learners to do the same.
For fear of sounding like a broken record, I must state again that simply by nature of being NNSs, there is a higher statistical possibility that they are not able to use the language well and lack the ability to intuitively know what sounds right and what sounds wrong. And overuse of clichéd idioms, for example, is how an NNS could come across quite badly.
Matters of pragmatics, discourse, and styles (within particular genres) are difficult ones for NNSs to get their heads round, and often come with repeated experiences of interactions with other NSs. They are thus less able reflect upon how language is being used and help their learners with it.
Rakesh: In my 40+ years of experience in ELT, I can honestly say that many NNS teachers of have actually spent/had to spend time reflecting on the nature of the English of the language they are teaching and that many NSs simply try and get away with having the status of being NSs without an in-depth knowledge of how the language works. Many are unable to explain the basic rules of English grammar.
The issue is not one of whether NSs have an automatic advantage as teachers over NNSs but whether a particular individual has the professional ability to help others. We can argue all night who can do this better.
Let me ask you a question: if you wanted to learn, say Arabic, would you prefer an Arabic speaker who has no knowledge of your language learning needs as a speaker of English or would you prefer a an English teacher who has made the journey and someone who knows what difficulties/challenges lie along the way? Would you not prefer to be able to ask questions in your own language from the outset? Think before you answer.
Chia: That’s an interesting question, Rakesh. And it leads me nicely to the devil’s next argument.
Most students would say they want a NS as their teacher.
Schools all over countries like Japan publicize the fact that they only employ NSs as their selling point.
Are you saying we ought to ignore the expectations and wants of the learner/client?
Rakesh: Many learners have little or no idea about how best to learn unless they have some experience. The myth of the native speaker being a better teacher has a history (and form) and one can trace it quite precisely; when and where it started. There is no scientific basis for it. If you repeat something for long enough and market it people will buy anything.
If you want to read a scholarly account of this and other myths/ fallacies about language teaching then I suggest you look at the work of someone like Robert Phillipson (Linguistic Imperialism OUP 1992 but there is new edition available) .
There are other fallacies e.g. that English is best taught monolingually; that the earlier English is taught the better; the more English is taught the better the results; that if other languages are used in teaching English it will damage the standard of English being learnt.
Phillipson demolishes each of these fallacies ‘created’ for post imperialistic neo-imperialistic motives. Go back to what kind of teacher you would like to have for yourself and forget the pseudo-scientific nonsense propagated by those who wanted to continue the ‘rule of England by controlling the way English was taught’.
Good teachers are not born; they are made and the accident of speaking a language from birth does not make you a better teacher
Chia: Of course, the term ‘better’ is very subjective as well.
Part of being a teacher is helping learners to use the language and communicate more effectively.
But there’s also the learners’ expectations and presumptions as well. Take for example, the cultural element that learners often expect from an English course. I have met so many learners who say they want to learn about the English culture and how English people see things.
Now, you could say that it’s because I work in a language school in London. But I also know of many language schools in Japan who, as I said before, use the NS teachers they employ as a selling point, advertising the fact that they can ‘transport’ the learner to England and teach them about the quaint English culture (bowler hats and cups of tea are featured in their publicity material).
When I was learning Japanese, I wanted to know all about the Japanese culture – its history, its pop culture, how the people think and see the world etc. If I had learnt Japanese from a NNS, I would only get their perspective of the Japanese culture. I wouldn’t be getting the ‘real thing’, would I?
Rakesh: Two queries re the above: ‘helping learners to use the language and communicate effectively’ is something different from just being a NS and not if NSs have this ability. I would trust someone who has done this (i.e. learnt English to high level) to have these skills.
Secondly, most people want to learn to speak/read the language and culture, albeit a key part, is not why people join language classes.
Which and whose culture? Middle class white British culture or the modern day multiculture? This touched on what for me is the key issue in this debate that is never touched on. The debate about NS v NNS is really a euphemism, a mask which really disguises the true nature of what is happening and the insidious way in which owners of language schools and the learners themselves collude with the blatant racism that goes on and will go on.
When learners say they want a NS, they are often saying they want a light-skinned person who fits their stereotype of what they think Englishness is. It is nothing to do with being a native speaker! Generations of brown skinned and black-skinned Brits growing up here in the UK are ALL NATIVE speakers of English but they are not seen as Natives! They are seen as foreigners!
Chia: But, Rakesh, just to play Devil’s Advocate, calling someone with cultural capital discrimination is like saying that a student who wants a Business English teacher to have the social and symbolic capital, having been in a habitus of the Business English field, is classist.
Rakesh: NO, maybe I did not make my point clearly…one example of a colleagues in Bradford is poignant. Abdul – name changed – born and brought locally MA in Applied linguistics/academic publications to his name experienced teachers of ESL and EFL is asked to teach two Saudies who look like him in appearance but these students say they don’t want him even before he has opened his mouth since they reject him as not being English enough. BTW I have not experienced this personally in 40 years BUT these incidents happen to the very few brown and brown skinned people who dare enter the ELT profession.
When Language schools, whether here or in Japan, say they employ only Native speakers, what they mean is that they do not employ people like you and me they employ only light skinned teachers who have certain types of features.
Let me try and sum up what I think I am trying to say: There are good teachers and bad teachers; true, not all NSs are automatically good and vice versa However , many are like driving instructors who cannot drive or have never driven how dare they teach a language which they did not have to learn!
On a pragmatic basis if I wanted to learn another language and I have tried to learn many and failed in learning most. I know what kind of teacher I would prefer and that is someone who is an expert speaker. Call it near native if u like and someone who knows about my own cultural and linguistic needs.
The arguments fallacies about the superiority of NS teachers was formulated at a time prior to the availability of tapes videos so the point that NS provide good models of pronunciation is redundant
Chia: So you do agree that NS pronunciation targets are desirable then? ; )
Rakesh: Not necessarily. It depends what you need the English for. Given that most interactions in English are between NNSs, the kind of accents you may wish to instill in your students learner will depend on where they are going to use English.
Chia: I would really like to ask you how you would suggest we go about changing the minds of students and language schools who think that NS teachers are better than NNS ones. But that might be the stuff of another blogpost… Perhaps we could invite comments from the readers about this?
Rakesh: Yes. The whole issue of the inverted racism that students have about NNS teachers is another can of worms and worth a separate debate.
Chia: Certainly stuff for another DA! Fancy coming back in the future and being a ‘victim’ again? ; )
Rakesh: Yes, I’m game for a laugh.
Chia: Anyway, thanks a lot, Rakesh! You’ve certainly stood up for all the NNSs in the world and for all the injustices they have had to deal with in their professional lives!
Epilogue: Rakesh’s views are his own and do not represent any organisation he is associated with. Chia was certainly just playing DA. Rakesh and Chia are still best of buddies!