Getting rid of the native speaker concept

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.

Google image searching “native speaker” in Japanese provides a good glimpse into how racialized the term is.   And by the way the page this image comes from is a very depressing ad for an online eikaiwa which stresses that its teachers “are not just Filipinos”.

In Japan, the NS/NNS divide in English teaching yields stereotyped domains of mastery, stereotyped teaching methodologies, and stereotyped student-teacher relationships that are mutually reinforcing.  I’ll assume a short summary of the different duties of NS and NNS English teachers will suffice for most of my readers.

  1. English communication for NSs, grammar for NNSs
  2. Conversation and games for NSs, teacher-fronted transmission for NNSs
  3. Congenial and casual classes for NSs, hierarchical and controlled ones for NNSs

I hope your mind is screaming at this point for some problematizing of the terms I’ve just used – of course any semi-experienced language teacher or just thoughtful language user knows grammar is for communication and communication requires grammar.  But since I’m describing stereotyped roles of teachers, I thought I should also used the stereotyped terms that are typically used to describe them.

(I should also point out that the term “native speaker” in Japan often refers to any non-Asian people who learned English as a second language outside Japan.  Swedes and Finns, you’re in luck.)

Hiding vermin-like under the NS/NNS dichotomy in Japan is the assumption that NNSs can never really master a second language as a language; they can only master it intellectually – much like a human can never learn to swim like a dolphin, but they can learn to describe the dolphin’s musculature and the physics that allows it to move through water.  Everything that NNS teachers are supposed to do is based on the assumption that they can never understand the language as NSs do – the term “grammar” as used to describe the duties of Japanese English teachers is not taken as fluent use of grammar; but explicitly formulated, metalanguage-heavy, one-model-sentence-followed-by-3-paragraphs-of-exegesis grammar.  Likewise, NSs of English, who are naturally taken to be non-speakers of Japanese, are assumed to be unable to explain their use of language any more than a dolphin can explain how it swims.  These assumed differing abilities are codified in different job titles, something like “English teacher” for NNSs and “foreigner teacher” for NSs.  Yes, “foreigner teacher” is an actual job title.  Imagine if your high school Spanish teacher’s W2 form said “Mexican teacher” on it.

Google image search for “外国人講師” (foreigner teacher) turned up this rather sad portrait, along with a few of people I actually know.

NSs have at least a few jobs in each town big enough to support a high school, as Assistant Language Teachers or eikaiwa teachers, with more prestigious university “foreigner teacher” positions available in cities, and occasionally even a tenured teaching or research job.  NNS teachers, being by a huge margin more numerous, are the norm and far outnumber NS teachers in all the above contexts except eikaiwa.  You might think, well, this seems fair enough, but NS jobs are basically closed to NNSs and vice versa. Very few are the jobs where NS/NNS status is not a factor at all, while a depressing number of teaching jobs exist where training or subject expertise are not factors.  I presume there must be some places that don’t even ask if you’re a NS, but almost definitely not at public Boards of Education, eikaiwa, or at most universities.  For now though, both sides still have jobs available, and I believe that is what keeps either from complaining too loudly about the open discrimination being practiced.

Beyond advantages to either side, we should consider that the division between NS and NNS teachers is generally a disadvantage to students.  I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that any teacher reading this accepts the following of ELT:

  1. Communicative teaching in some form is the currently accepted international standard among educated and trained professionals.
  2. Grammatical focus with metalanguage is a boon.
  3. L1 use, including judicious use of grammar translation and bilingual dictionaries, has been redeemed as part of a complete language course.
  4. Tasks and conversation are supported by theory and evidence as important parts of language classes.
  5. Real student needs and motivations should be taken into account.

You’ll have noticed that neither NS nor NNS teachers, according to their stereotyped definitions, can accomplish all of these things.  NS teachers supposedly can’t do grammar, use the students’ L1 or understand students’ needs; and NNS teachers can’t hold a natural conversation, provide ad hoc feedback for tasks, or appeal to students’ internationalist aspirations. According to the definitions both sides have agreed to abide by, students need at least 2 teachers to have a complete language education.

So in order for the NS concept to lose its relevance in ELT in Japan, what is needed is for both sides to give up their monopolies on some of these items.  That means admitting the other side can do some of these things just as well and making up for some deficits where they exist, not in order to become more like NSs or Japanese English teachers, but just to become more complete teachers overall.

Specifically, NS teachers need to know enough Japanese not only to pay their Softbank bills but to teach and explain their subject, using all the usual teacherly tricks – drawing inferences, making comparisons, joking around, etc.  This need not be a regular part of classes, but one indispensible tool out of many.  Sometimes you just need to get an idea into their heads and it doesn’t matter what language you use to do so.  Translation is also one of many hooks you can put into a new word or phrase to make it stick in learners’ heads – it makes as much sense to rob yourself of this tool as it does to abstain from using the whiteboard.  Plus, while transfer errors are not the sole kind of learner errors, they do occur and knowing what they’re stemming from is an advantage.  Complete fluency in Japanese is not necessary – I once had a Japanese computer science professor at UC Irvine who pronounced “packets collide” like “packets cried”, but was still effective – but NS teachers need to get over the idea that Japanese is totally unnecessary for their jobs.

NNS teachers also need enough English skill to survive in a country where people speak that language – not NS-like fluency, but enough to do something besides diagram model sentences for 13-year-olds.  This may seem like a low bar, but a surprisingly number still don’t meet it.  Fluency is not just quicker application of the other skills that NNS teachers also presumably have, but crucial scaffolding for many other skills, like collocation, pragmatics and automaticity (which are often called “native sense”).  A teacher without some degree of fluency in the language they teach probably lacks enough other skills to disqualify them from teaching it.

Both NS and NNS teachers need to know metalanguage to describe conventionally correct English usage.  This does not include the meta-metalanguage that has sprung up as part of the grammar-translation method as it is usually taught in Japan, such as 第一文型 dai-ichi bunkei (“S-V sentence order”), nor the conventionalized “correct” translations that are considered synonymous with grammar teaching here (“used to” = 「よくしたもんだ」being one wrongheaded example).  It does include orthodox grammatical classes, what constitutes an idiom, the concepts underlying pragmatics (“making a request” etc.) and the ability to describe common components of messages in multiple registers and genres (e.g., “introduction”).  This is part of knowing your subject.

Both NS and NNS teachers need to keep in mind students’ short-term goals and the kinds of goals that are likely to motivate them outside the classroom.  The biggest of these is the idea of “joining the international community”, which both NS and NNS teachers can play on but may want to approach in different ways.  What they should not do is regard internationalism as the automatic specialty of the “foreigner” and Japan-specific goals such as juken as the sole focus of the Japanese.

In order for NS and NNS teachers’ skills and identities to converge around just “being a good teacher”, NS teachers would have to go through quite a bit of individual training and education to build the skills they as a group supposedly lack.  There are no certifying government agencies especially for NS English teachers and therefore no way to enforce standards on, for example, eikaiwa teachers short of denying visas.  The best the government can do to ensure a minimum standard of quality of NS teachers is to require Boards of Education to provide Japanese classes and teacher training to ALTs and JETs and make attendance at these part of their jobs.  Also get rid of term-limited contracts for ALTs, allow them to transition into the regular teacher workforce, and ban hiring discrimination by national or cultural background.  Still, this would only affect a fraction of NS teachers working in Japan.  The rest would just need to step up their game because of pride or because students started demanding professionalism from NS teachers more than first language status or whiteness.

NNS teachers on the other hand are usually subject to licensing requirements to become public school teachers, which again are by far the largest and most influential group of English teachers.  In order to close the perceived skills gap with NS teachers the government could begin requiring CEFR scores, as opposed to TOEIC or Eiken (both Japan-specific testing products), for licensing of language teachers, and implement the commonsense step of requiring at least some training in ELT to be a licensed English teacher.

(I mentioned that NNS teachers in JHSs and HSs are usually untrained in ELT.  This is the main cause of the continued dominance of the grammar-translation method – teachers say they need it for tests, which is demonstrably false.  Really they just don’t know any other way to teach)

Since we’re just making up stuff we’d like to see at this point, JHSs and HSs around the nation could hire coaches for their afterschool sports, giving subject teachers the time and motivation to develop a professional identity around their subject as opposed to around being busy babysitting all the time.

If NS and NNS teachers’ identities converge more around their shared status as professional English teachers rather than their NS/NNS teacher status as things are now, things would get more difficult and the job market more competitive for English teachers around Japan – the number of fresh-off-the-boat “foreigner teacher” jobs would shrink, as would the jobs for Japanese teachers who have no skills besides surviving in Japanese schools.  On the other hand, schools would benefit by no longer needing two teachers to cover the complete skillset of one competent teacher, students would benefit from having instructors capable of meeting all their needs, and the world would benefit from a little less essentialism being practiced.


5 thoughts on “Getting rid of the native speaker concept

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