In 2010, I moved to Japan, a country whose language I barely spoke, and whose customs I barely knew. I was put in charge of a classroom, despite having no formal background in teaching and only two weeks of training. I was paid well more than the highly experienced Japanese teachers who were my co-workers, and I worked many fewer hours than they did. I earned none of this. I received all of these gifts because my native language, which I did not choose, has been systematically promoted at the expense of others.
Now, just to be clear: this isn’t a white guilt post. I’m not trying to convince you that we need to stop teaching English, or that every white guy who comes to Japan is some kind of jack-booted thug, trying to shove his language down Japanese people’s throats. It’s a lot more complicated than that. What I want to think about here is how I can go forward and try to mitigate some of the messed up social issues that brought us all to this point. I want to talk about solutions and ways to make English education and linguistic research better.
I’ve come to view education as a form of resistance against hegemonic discourse. Without specific, careful intervention, learners will tend to absorb the dominant views on language. The dominant culture still sees L2 speakers of English as inferior to native speakers, and learners filter all of their learning through this attenuating lens (e.g. Honna & Takeshita, 1998). Views establishing native speakers as the yardstick for success are well established and well funded. In the 2012-13 fiscal period, the British Council took in ¥138 billion (British Council, 2013). Eikaiwa schools, still very much entrenched in the native speaker model, made ¥767 billion in sales in 2008, and taught more than 335,000 students (Nagata, 2010). The ‘neutral’ English teacher is nothing more than a myth, as neutrality means allowing the currently dominant ideas to continue their dominance. Any teacher who fails to directly address issues of linguicism in class tacitly supports the view that native speech is inherently superior. If I want my students to feel like they’re equal to native speakers, then I’ve got to at least raise my voice about it, or they’ll most likely keep on believing the well-funded, pro-native propaganda.
There’s just no need to place nativeness as the end-all, be-all goal of English. There’s a really strong tendency to listen for everything a non-native speaker says and try to give corrections–“we say it this way”, and so on. But if you’ve understood the message, why quibble about the form? If a Japanese person asks you, “Excuse me, please where is toilet?”, I guarantee that you’ve understood them. Calm your grammar gland a little, and just communicate.
Learners must be disabused of this notion of native speaker superiority, and learn to value their own, non-native speech, not least because this inferiority complex can have such a devastating effect on their motivation. As a native English speaker myself, it’s even more vital that I explicitly and consistently remind students that my speech is not the only ‘correct’ model. My very presence at the front end of the classroom is evidence that native speakers’ speech is valued more in Japanese society than non-native speech. But it’s I’m not convinced that native teachers really are better teachers. As a matter of fact, I think there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that a non-native speaker can be a lot better at the job. Medgyes (1992) writes that non-native-English-speaking teachers (non-NESTs) have many clear advantages:
- Only non-NESTS can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English. Depending on the extent to which they are proficient as users of English, they are more or less trustworthy models, too. In contrast, though NESTS can act as perfect language models they cannot be learner models since they are not learners of English in the sense that non-NESTS are.
- Non-NESTS can teach learning strategies more effectively. Non-NESTS have adopted language learning strategies during their own learning process. In spite of the considerable differences between them in degrees of consciousness, in theory they all know more about the employment of these strategies than native colleagues who have simply acquired the English language.
- Non-NESTS can provide learners with more information about the English language. During their own learning process, non-NESTS have gained abundant knowledge about and insight into how the English language works, which might be presumed to make them better informants than their native colleagues.
- Non-NESTS are more able to anticipate language difficulties. This anticipatory skill, which becomes more and more sophisticated with experience, enables non-NESTS to help learners overcome language difficulties and to avoid pitfalls.
- Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners. Since they never cease to be learners of English, they encounter difficulties similar to those of their students, albeit at an obviously higher level. As a rule, this constant struggle makes non-natives more sensitive and understanding.
- Only non-NESTS can benefit from sharing the learners’ mother tongue. In a monolingual setting, the mother tongue is an effective vehicle of communication in the language classroom, which can facilitate the teaching/learning process in countless ways.
Although I may, in some instances, have greater language competence than a non-native teacher, that kind of knowledge is rarely of any practical use to my students. They absolutely do not need to worry about the differences between ‘that’ and ‘which’, at least until they’re trying to write their MA thesis. And I can still fall short of an experienced Japanese teacher in many other ways, so it’s important for me to get a whole lot better at speaking my students’ language. Japanese proficiency in native-speaking English teachers is either totally unvalued, or at best seen as ‘nice to have’, in my view it is absolutely essential for developing the skills that Medgyes enumerates. My outsider perspective may be valuable in some situations, but my capacity to understand from my students’ perspective, however limited, is much more valuable.
In developing a curriculum and course materials, it’s totally inappropriate for me to make 100% of the decisions. To begin with, I can’t really know exactly what my students want or need, and I’m fairly likely to end up pushing a really American perspective on the subject just by dumb accident. For this reason, among many others, I’ve moved toward a ‘process’ or ‘negotiated syllabus’ (e.g. Clarke, 1991). My students are involved in planning out the syllabus, choosing the kinds of tasks, situations, and activities that are appropriate to their needs. If they feel more comfortable learning in a more traditional style, they can have that—and actually, one of my major stumbling blocks in implementing this policy was my own resistance to ‘Japanese-style’ English teaching. I hear too many foreign teachers using ‘Japanese English teaching’ as almost a hostile epithet, and this can’t possibly instill their students with confidence. I don’t much like top-down teaching, but I can’t be an effective teacher if my students aren’t comfortable with my teaching style. In the last six months, my students have been telling me that they much prefer the negotiated syllabus, because their input is valued, and the class focuses on developing skills of importance to the learners.
While I do try to give students the course they ask for through syllabus negotiation, I also try to guide the course toward a pedagogy based in intercultural competence (e.g. Komiya-Samimy & Kobayashi, 2004; Alptekin, 2002). I want my classroom to produce speakers who are capable of navigating the problems of intercultural discourse, and capable of seeing the value in their own language skills relative to other speakers, including natives. They need to have a strong sense of who they are and what their own perspective is in order to engage meaningfully with another, foreign perspective, and I hope that my classroom encourages that. I want to help my students to consider why they’re learning English, why the culture at large encourages English over other languages, and why English has so much influence. They can best gain competence in these areas by examining the facts for themselves, reflecting on their own biases and the biases of their broader culture.
Rooting the course in the experiences and goals of students is about more than political activism and motivation, though. It’s also a practice firmly established in theory. From a Sociocultural perspective, there can be no learning without a connection to previously held ideas. Building my own competence in the Japanese language helps me to understand the prior knowledge my students bring with them, and where bridges can be built to help them connect new ideas to existing ones. The negotiated syllabus begins with an assessment of where the students want to go, what their goals are, what they hope to achieve and in what time frame. In effect, we work together to chart out the student’s Zone of Proximal Development, and build a roadmap through it. A critical pedagogy helps to activate and engage students’ existing knowledge, and to bring them into discussion in order to scaffold one another.
As a researcher interested in foreign accent, I realize that I can’t view the issue from a strictly technocratic point of view. There are of course outlying questions in effective training, the structure of interlanguage phonology, and the feasibility of acquiring native-like phonological systems. However, I’m just not content to focus only on these more technical, theoretical points. Understanding foreign accent as a phenomenon in language requires a more holistic view, one that starts from an understanding of the role of foreign accent in society and the structural imbalances that devalue accented speech. I’m still interested in training, making software for self-paced learning, and that stuff, but my work will need to address not just how L2 phonology is acquired, by why, and to what extent it should develop. The native speaker model is outdated, and comprehensibility and the learners’ goals should take front seat in discussions of accent training. Instruction should focus on learners’ need to communicate, both with native speakers (Zielinski, 2008) and with other non-native speakers (Jenkins, 2000).
As an aside, let’s all agree to stop using derogatory terms for non-native speech, which seems to be most common in talking about accents. We need to drop phrases like ‘broken English’ and ‘thick accent’, or the inaccurate view that accents can (or should) be ‘reduced’. Accent training is about adding a new accent, and that’s not just hippy-dippy talk, it’s what the research shows (Werker, 1994).
I have to admit that the last five years of my life have been profoundly shaped by a series of prejudices in favor of my language skills, my accent, and my identity as a white American English speaker, and that these prejudices are wrong. Although I have benefitted in enormous ways from a world order that places people like me in privileged positions, I can’t go forward supporting the inequalities that brought me to where I am today. My classroom, and my research, will reflect that.
This post is a minor edit of a term paper I submitted it for a course called Language and Power, taught by Mitsuyo Sakamoto at Sophia University.
- Alptekin, C. (2002). Towards intercultural communicative competence in ELT. ELT Journal, 56(1), 57-64.
- British Council. (2013, January 16). Annual Report, 2012-13. Retrieved from britishcouncil.org: http://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/britishcouncil.uk2/files/annual-report-2012-13.pdf
- Clarke, D. F. (1991). The negotiated syllabus: what is it and how is it likely to work? Applied Linguistics, 12(1), 13-28.
- Honna, N., & Takeshita, Y. (1998). On Japan’s Propensity for Native Speaker English: A Change in Sight. Asian Englishes, 1:1, 117-134.
- Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonolgy of English as an International Language. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
- Komiya-Samimy, K., & Kobayashi, C. (2004). Toward the development of intercultural communicative competence: theoretical and pedagogical implications for Japanese English teachers. Japan Association for Language Teaching Journal, 26(2), 245-261.
- Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: who’s worth more? ELT Journal, 46(4) 340-349.
- Nagata, K. (2010, April 23). Geos’ fate sealed by failure to react quickly to rapid drop in demand. The Japan Times.
- Pennycook, A. (1990). Critical Pedagogy and Second Language Education. System, 18:3, 303-314.
- Werker, J. F. (1994). Cross-language speech perception: Development change does not involve loss. In J. C. Goodman, & H. C. Nusbaum, The development of speech perception: the transition from speech sounds to spoken words (pp. 93-120). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Zielinski, B. W. (2008). The listener: No longer the silent partner in reduced intelligibility. System 36.1, 69-84.