Some thoughts on teaching and English-language imperialism

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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
  • 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.

English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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Posted in Language and Society
7 comments on “Some thoughts on teaching and English-language imperialism
  1. locksleyu says:

    Well written and thoughtful post(paper)!

    I was happy to read the part about non-NESTS having clear advantages since it indirectly supports the idea that I can help English-speakers learn Japanese because English is my native language (even though I am not completely fluent in Japanese).

    Though I do agree with much you’ve said here, my biggest point of disagreement is about your discussion of de-emphasizing accents and proper grammar.

    Clearly, the highest priority of a language learning class is for the student to learn as much as possible, and if they are feeling frustrated because their mistakes are constantly pointed out, then that teacher isn’t doing a great job. But depending on the class level (beginner, advanced, etc.) and the motivation/learning style of the student, I think very specific instruction about grammar and pronunciation “mistakes” are extremely important.

    Regardless how much someone studies a foreign language, until they live and breathe that language for a long period of time (years) I don’t think they will be ‘fluent’ in a true sense, and that includes especially near-native pronunciation which can be harder to acquire. So one could argue what’s the point of persistently pointing out mistakes in a classroom, and focusing on the ability to communicate, as you say.

    But there are some people that will have trouble self-correcting their grammar and pronunciation even if they are living in a native-filled environment, so I find those sorts of explicit corrections extremely valuable. Here I’m mostly speaking from my own experience learning Japanese and the different ways I have learned things, including alot explicit advice which has been very helpful.

    If I was a Japanese person learning English with weak English skills, but strong motivation to learn the language, I would definitely value this sort of correction. There are surely some people who would even be disappointed when their teacher didn’t point out certain major flaws in their speech or writing.

    And while I agree with you that we need to work so that non-native speakers (even with strong accents) are treated equally in society and in the workplace, as that situation is gradually improving we still have the fact that closeness to native grammar and accent is strongly tied to things like promotion and pay increases. So to give students a shot of succeeding I think they should be given an opportunity to perfect those things, given it doesn’t hamper their motivation and make them hate English.

    • gengojeff says:

      I think you’re right that correction can be valuable. It has its place in a language teacher’s toolbox. Particularly, I think the research supports the use of prompts and recasts when the student has time, motivation, and awareness enough to make use of them, and when it won’t impede the more important task of communicating. I certainly use all kinds of feedback in my own classroom. I want to challenge people interacting with non-native speakers to think about whether their corrections are really necessary or valuable, though. The distinction between ‘a’ and ‘the’ is actually not as much of a barrier to communication as many English speakers seem to think it is!

      You’re definitely right that non-native speakers face discrimination based on their accents and non-native grammar. Although I’d like to address the problem by correcting the bigots, rather than the learners, it’s certainly in the student’s best interest to arm them with the skills they need to deal with those kinds of problems. The ability to produce more native-like speech is one such skill, but it’s not the only one. They also need the ability to speak calmly under that type of pressure, the communicative sensitivity to know when their speech is likely to be misconstrued, and the ability to predict what sorts of errors will cause problems and try to work around them. They also need to gain critical awareness of the social issues and even politics of being a non-native speaker of their target language.

      Since there’s such a very wide gap between non-native and native speech, striving for a more native-like target is probably not the most efficient way of bridging that gap. In addition to accent training (which I do an awful lot of), they need to learn how to deal with breakdowns in communication and other sorts of ‘strategic’ skills. For example, Japanese store clerks never expect that I’ll be able to communicate with them, so I’ve developed a strategy of always looking them in the eye and saying お願いします as I plop my stuff down on the counter. It’s not a very native-like behavior, but it does help me avoid a lot awkward attempts at English code-switching from Japanese people trying to be helpful.

      I think a kind of combined approach, integrating language skills, strategic skills, and intercultural understanding, is likely to give learners the best chance of communicating effectively.

      • locksleyu says:

        Good points.

        I’ve experienced my share of code-switching to English and it’s always frustrating, especially when I speak in Japanese (that is surely accented but I know it’s understandable) but the other person still reverts to English.

  2. I was 1 of about 20 native English speakers in a company with about 500 native Spanish speakers from all over Latin America who did phone sales. By osmosis, some of my high school Spanish came back and my accent got MUCH better. I took advantage of the surroundings to start learning Spanish again. I stopped within a month because of the universal ‘this is how we say it’. The only ones who would admit they understood me would immediately follow it with a ‘but this is how we say it’. That was a horrible learning environment for my needs.

    As for English being “promoted at the expense of others”, My understanding is it started after WWI when the US was the only significant industrial economy unaffected by the war. The US wanted imports, so export businesses responded by hiring citizens who knew English. That motivated others to learn. The same situation happened after WW2. International air travel increased dramatically after the war. The US was the single largest source of people who could afford such frivolity, which is why English is the second language of the travel industry and the first language of air traffic control. Is my understanding correct?

    • gengojeff says:

      Your experience at that company definitely shows why it’s important for native speakers to chill out on the corrections. Corrections can be useful in certain cases, generally when a learner has enough time, motivation, awareness, and focus on the form of the language to be able to use the correction. General, everyday conversation is not the right place! I definitely correct my students in the classroom when I think it will help them, and certainly when they ask for it, but that’s very different from what you experienced, I think.

      As to how English got to where it is in the world, you’ve definitely got part of it down. There’s a very complex history to it, and I can’t claim to know everything about it, but Robert Phillipson’s “Linguistic Imperialism” (ISBN 0194371468) tries to chart some of the forces that shaped it. English was set up as the official language for much of the British Commonwealth, which is why English is still used in African, Indian, and Middle Eastern government, as well as in Hong Kong and Singapore. In the latter half of the twentieth century, organizations like the British Council and the Ford Foundation have sent so-called experts out to various countries, trying to promote the use of English and English language education.

      Getting educational institutions to use English as the medium of instruction is a huge benefit to Anglosphere publishers, and it’s use by political and scientific elites is a massive boon to native speakers. I for one have had a huge leg up in my current studies because I was able to write all of my research and (almost) all of my papers in my native language, whereas speakers of Dravidian languages don’t have that advantage. So in many ways, the US, UK and other English speaking countries would be stupid *not* to advance English.

      You don’t have to dream up any kind of a global conspiracy theory to explain it, though. Relatively rational actors, each working for their own rather narrow benefit, can still create a system that marginalizes some people and enriches others. When an Anglosphere country decides to send educational aid, as in the Peace Corps program, they’re essentially subsidizing English instruction. I’m sure the spread of English isn’t their primary intention, but it is the results. And it operates by pull as well as push. The Japanese government has become convinced of the need to bring thousands of English speakers over every year to act as Assistant Language Teachers, and as mentioned above they spend enormous sums of money on private English education. Meanwhile almost no Japanese are learning Korean or Chinese, and native dialects are being rapidly replaced by a standardized Japanese language based on Tokyo norms. Although they aren’t *trying* to kill off Akita-ben or shortchange East Asian language instruction, English education is taking time and money that might be spent on other educational or linguistic goals.

    • Bill says:

      I wrote:
      > I stopped within a month because of the universal ‘this is how we say it’. The only ones who would admit they understood me would immediately follow it with a ‘but this is how we say it’.

      Maybe you’ll find this useful.

      D’oh! I now have a new understanding of why others ‘help’ the learner that way, why I’ve never tolerated it and how to approach it next time. In Transactional Analysis terms, it’s a Crossed Transaction. Before they make a correction, our 2 Adult ego states are conversing. When correcting, the Other shifts to his Parent ego state and addresses my Child ego state. I continue Adult to Adult, he continues Parent to Child and we have a communication problem.

      Seems it will be in my best interest during language learning to drop a decades long refusal to respond with a Parent -> Child message with a Child -> Parent one.

      • gengojeff says:

        That’s a really interesting way of looking at it! I hadn’t really looked into that model until today, although of course I’d seen the book “I’m OK, you’re OK” all over the place. It’s definitely a problem that native speakers view non-natives as ‘defective natives’. Non-native speakers of a language are just fundamentally different, have different needs and abilities and goals. To use the Transactional Analysis terms, we need to move from a Parent→Child model of interaction to an Adult→Adult model when interacting across language lines.

        When I get into a really polyglot environment, where most of the people around me aren’t speaking their native language, a wonderful change occurs. There’s a sense of mutual recognition of the effort involved, and everyone makes that extra effort to both understand and be understood. You get that a lot at international conferences. I also really love talking to students from other parts of Asia studying here in Tokyo for that reason, especially when we talk in Japanese. We’re not on anybody’s ‘home turf’, and that makes a big difference.

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