Denying or minimizing the importance of having native speakers (NSs) as teachers is a litmus test for modern language teachers. Particularly where English is concerned, very few statements will get as many enthusiastic thumbs-up reactions on facebook, if your friend list includes as many JALT people as mine, as a denial that NSs should be given preference for certain teaching jobs or even that the NS concept is even valid. Many professional language teachers in Japan seem to feel that the division that has grown between non-native speaker (NNS) teachers’ perceived roles and those of “foreigners” is unhealthy, particularly where it is seen as part of a worldwide trend toward the delegitimization of local teachers and the elevation of Westerners and the advanced educational cultures they supposedly represent. This dovetails with the anticolonialist (white) guilt many of us feel and leads to disavowal of the privileged position of NSs have in teaching their first language, and sometimes disavowal of their status as NSs as well.
As it currently exists, the NS/NNS divide in ELT in Japan prevents a lot of people from realizing their potential – most of all students – but also communicative teachers who happen to be Japanese, NNS teachers who are not Japanese, and NS teachers who see advantages in using Japanese in class. Zoltán Dörnyei, for example, if he weren’t so famous, would have a rather hard time finding a job as an English teacher in Japan, NNS as he is.
As with the Critical Period Hypothesis, arguing against the NS concept involves acknowledging a certain level of biological reality while not letting that acknowledgement serve as justification for the huge and unwarranted extrapolations that the education marketplace makes based on that reality. That is, I personally think the NS is a useful and real concept, but certainly not as clear-cut as the way the term is often used implies – much like CPH is observably true for immigrants, but using it to recommend 1/2 hour weekly EFL classes for infants is extremely specious. Also true of both of these SLA hot topics is that even if the teacher is aware of the controversies surrounding them, most often he or she is the only person in the classroom who is. Most students accept CPH and the NS concept to the degree ambient in their culture, making dismantling them an uphill battle.
So I agree with most of the fashionable modern abandoning of the NS concept, with the caveat that the problem with it in Japan is not ultimately one of broad favoritism for NSs in all arenas but pigeonholing and stereotyping of both NSs and NNSs based on easily observable characteristics (i.e., whiteness/Japaneseness) and prioritizing those stereotyped characteristics over professional experience, training, and identity as a language teacher. As with sexism, stereotyping of 2 dichotomous groups leads to degrees of favoritism and oppression for both, and as entrenched as they are, has had some self-fulfilling-prophecy-like effects as groups practice playing out the roles they are forced into. Does anyone seriously doubt that salarymen are as stuck in their prescribed role as their stay-at-home wives, or that if salarymen suddenly started sharing cooking duties, they could make something besides instant ramen? Now, I’m not saying stereotyping yields equally advantageous situations for both sides, but the point is that neither side can cross over easily into the realm of the other, particularly when individuals have spent careers practicing their stereotyped roles.
The NS concept in ELT leads to both favorable and unfavorable treatment of both NSs and NNSs, and I don’t want to focus on the unfair lot given to one another of these groups, as both, particularly in East Asia, have lots of legitimate grievances. I instead want to talk about the sacrifices to their status both sides would have to make to render the NS concept moot, and why they probably won’t make them.