I must start this blogpost by first apologising to those looking forward to the 3rd in the series about native speakers learning to speak English internationally. I am interrupting the blog series to blog about the 50th IATEFL conference, which took place in Birmingham this April.
One of the largest English language teaching conferences in the world, the conference this year saw more than 3000 delegates coming from different corners of the earth, united by a similar passion for professional development and becoming better at helping our students learn English.
Being the regular blogger of ETprofessional.com, I was given the opportunity to attend the conference and as I had no babysitting options, I brought my 8-month-old daughter with me, knowing that I worked for an industry that saw me multi-tasking my job with parenthood as an achievement and not a hindrance.
Having just won the British Council’s Teaching English featured blog of the month award for my post ‘5 reasons why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally’, I was honoured to speak about it to IATEFL Online with my 8-month-old in tow. (See here for my interview on IATEFL Online about the blogpost.) It was encouraging to see from the comments on social media that my 8-month-old’s presence during the interview was welcomed and that I was seen as no less professional as a result. After all, I type with one arm when I blog (with my baby in the other arm), so why should an IATEFL interview be any different?
Having my baby with me at the Pavilion Publishing ETp stand in the exhibition hall was a huge plus as well. Old friends, new faces, and fellow ELT colleagues stopped to chat, to catch up and to give my little one a cuddle. And I was able to hear all the reactions to the plenary sessions and the talks and workshops despite not being able to attend myself.
Listening to them enthuse about the talks that inspired them and then following up by watching some of the sessions on IATEFL Online, this year’s IATEFL conference was all about embracing the globalisation of the English language and the changing face of English language teaching.
Professor David Crystal, the patron of IATEFL, opened the conference with his plenary talk ‘Who would of thought it: The English language 1966-2066’. Emphasising the inevitability of change, Prof. Crystal joked that the language English teachers spent a lifetime learning to teach just won’t stand still.
But it was positivity and passion the professor radiated when he spoke about the new words that have come into the English language and the changes to our vocabulary (mansplain, slashkinis, digital amnesia, pocket dial, etc.), the grammatical changes (the decline of modals ‘shall’, ‘must’, ‘may’; the use of stative verbs in the continuous aspect; the diminishing use of the relative pronoun ‘which’) and the changes in pronunciation (the changes in attitudes towards different regional accents in the UK, and the changes in the phonetic character of some accents due to the influence of other accents entering the community).
Recognising the globalisation of the English language, and heralding the internet for allowing more bottom-up decisions about spelling, lexis and grammar to be made, Prof Crystal warns pedants not to condemn language change as language deterioration. Meanwhile, he also warns the young not to ignore the literary tradition of English and not to revel in the English the internet provides.
Scott Thornbury, author of many groundbreaking ELT grammar books and founder of Dogme, a coursebook-light approach to teaching, was the plenary speaker on the last day of the conference, and his talk ‘1966 and all that: A critical history of ELT’ underlined the importance of not losing sight of what we do: helping our students acquire the skills to use English. While taking us on a little journey of our industry from 1966, Thornbury shows us how easy it is to get distracted with delivering language lessons that focus on the so-called ‘Grammar McNuggets’, which allow for easy accounting and easy testing despite the fact that they may not be the best way of turning our learners into skillful English users.
But the one plenary talk that best summarises my IATEFL experience this year was the one by Silvana Richardson: ‘The native factor, the haves and the have-nots’, a talk that had IATEFL delegates talking long after her standing ovation.
Richardson starts her session by way of introducing herself in the most bizarre fashion. She states that she is not tall, a non-atheist, a non-fantasy buff and a non-native speaker, thus demonstrating how the negation of one quality can serve to emphasise the positive nature of its opposite. Therefore, by saying one is a non-native speaker, the positive quality of being a native speaker is inevitably being highlighted.
This is especially concerning when we consider the fact that 80% of English teachers in the world are ‘non-native speakers’. Perhaps it is time we consider the legitimacy of such terminology and how it affects our industry.
Investigating the monolingual bias, Richardson questions assumptions such as the native speaker being the best model and the best English teacher, and native speaker approaches being the best route to teaching English. In turn is a deficit view of the learners’ own language which is seen as an interference and an obstacle to learning, and a deficit view of non-native speakers in general.
An example of the LinkedIn profile of a native-speaker English teacher based in Poland effectively shows the audience how this self-professed ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ character exemplifies the ‘native-speaker backpacker’ who perhaps after only one month of teacher training is able to gain employment simply based on his biological roots. And this largely devalues competent professionals and depreciates professionalism in our field. Judging by the loud applause from the audience at this point in her talk, it seems that Richardson has definitely struck a chord.
She then proceeds to debunk the popular myth that language schools use to justify their ‘native-speaker hiring policies’: the market forces discourse. Do customers really prefer native-speakers? As Richardson outlines research paper after research paper, it becomes blindingly clear that customers do not in fact prefer native speakers. More important than whether their teachers are native speakers or not are qualities such as teaching experience, qualifications, familiarity with the local culture, enthusiasm for teaching, and personality.
While students recognise that native-speaker teachers have the procedural knowledge and are fluent in English with ‘original English accents’ (assuming they’re from England), it has not gone unnoticed by the students that non-native speaker teachers often have more declarative knowledge, are able to share and use the students’ own language and make cross-linguistics and cross-cultural comparisons, and are able to provide appropriate learning strategies because they have had to go through the same learning processes themselves.
Quoting Cook (2005), Richardson states, “Students are not necessarily as impressed by native speaker teachers as one might suppose.”
This discourse of helplessness by schools and employers (‘I can’t employ non-native speakers because the customers don’t want it. My hands are tied.’) does not paint the true picture: the picture that says the collusion with inequality and prejudice is a choice, and by making the choice to pander to this perceived customer requirement (although from the research Richardson has presented, such a customer requirement might be only imaginary), the employer is choosing to discriminate.
Richardson suggests challenging the customers who do claim they want native-speaker teachers. What especially resonated with me was her example of the student who complained, “I didn’t come to the UK to be taught by someone who speaks my own language.”
As I do not look like a typical English native-speaker, I have had students who have said similar things to my directors of studies when I was teaching in London. And simply explaining that teachers are employed based on their merit and teaching ability and not their skin colour or birthrights, and asking students to give their ‘non-native teacher’ a try, seemed to work just fine, both for Richardson and for me.
Yet, this discrimination in recruitment proliferates within our industry, with some institutions even specifying skin colour and preferred nationalities in their job advertisements. It is truly shocking that in this day and age, such outright discrimination is allowed to publicly exist without any shame.
Such bias leads to narrow approaches to teaching, learning and teacher education, where the superiority of monolingual teaching remained unquestioned until recently.
Many teaching methods that were mainly developed based on BANA (Britain, Australia and North America) may not work in other teaching contexts, and it is important that teacher trainers train their teachers to learn to adapt teaching methods in this age of globalisation.
Richardson ends her plenary with a call for a paradigm shift: a shift from a deficit view of the learners’ language to an asset view where the learners’ language is a useful resource; a shift from monolingualism to plurilingualism where translating and code-switching are valued skills; a shift from trying to achieve near-native competence to having a bilingual or plurilingual identity.
Interestingly, Richardson’s arguments could work for not just English language teaching but the learning and teaching of any language, but the fact that English has now achieved the status as the world’s lingua franca, the global language of business, trade and commerce and the global internet language of online gaming, these arguments carry more weight than ever.
Although ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) was not explicitly mentioned in Richardson’s talk (or the other talks at IATEFL that looked at non-native-speaker-ism), it is arguable that the widespread use of English makes this an even more pressing issue that we need to address.
It is said that more than 80% of our learners are learning English to communicate with other ‘non-native speakers’. Communities of practice formed of international English users need good communication strategies such as active listening skills, accommodation skills and cross-cultural awareness in order to communicate more effectively and the traditional target of ‘near-native-speaker-like competence’ might not suffice any longer.
As Richardson suggests, there are two disadvantages in this global world:
- not knowing English;
- knowing only English.
So let’s work together to review what we do, raise awareness, and support organisations like TEFL Equity Advocates so that, as Richardson hopes, teachers in time will come to be judged not by accident of birth but by the merit of their teaching abilities.
Change is here, so let’s embrace it. This is why we love language teaching!
Cook, V. (2005). Basing teaching on the L2 user. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-native language teachers: Perceptions, challenges and contributions to the profession (pp. 47–61). New York, NY: Springer.
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.