I hadn’t heard this term until I started reading about it on blogs like Cecilia Lemos’ (@CeciELT). In fact, it’s her post from November 2010 entitled Nothing More… Nothing Less… that inspires my post today. When I dug up this post, it actually surprised me how she introduced it, like admitting to being a NNEST was equivalent to facing the fact that you were addicted to a life threatening drug. Indeed, Ceci had felt ashamed, “felt less of a teacher” and “as if [she] were admitting to a flaw.” Portuguese being her mother tongue, despite years of classroom experience and learning in an English-speaking environment, it kept her feeling separated from and defeated by NESTs. What struck me most of all was this:
And sometimes I thought I had gotten [to native English speaking], when a native speaker – usually not a teacher – would compliment on my English, say they’d never say I wasn’t a native. That made me proud. But then another native speaker would burst my bubble by saying that I spoke English very well, but they could tell I was a foreigner. And that crushed me. Was it unattainable?
Honestly, I never really heard this sentiment so clearly through a non-native speaker’s point-of-view. Not since I was very green did I ever think any language learner would truly believe they’d completely blur the line between themselves and a native speaker. I myself have flatly said to students not to aim for being a native speaker, because by definition, they couldn’t be. There would always be something that characterises them as non-native speakers–a difference in accent on occasional words, a slightly abnormal stress pattern here and there, a tone or register peculiarity, a culturally related reference that they didn’t know. I once read somewhere that language was intentionally made difficult to master so that no matter how hard you tried, native speakers would always be able to identify their own tribes and that therefore, you were an intruder. In learning French or Korean, the road to fluency seemed decades long. Still, I never suspected my matter-of-fact-ness would burst any bubbles or crush anyone’s dreams. Having said that, is it unattainable? Yes, but for all intents and purposes, no one needs to be a native speaker, even to teach.
I’ve worked with a wide range of teachers whose native language was not English, from those who couldn’t hold a conversation with me and taught English totally in their L1, to others who showed absolutely no signs of fluency or accuracy issues, aside from one of those small inconsistencies I mentioned above. I never really questioned whether either were a good teacher though. Both had their place in the spectrum of English language teaching. The Korean private language school teachers I worked with in Seoul I believed to be best at working with beginners, teaching them the foundational grammar and vocabulary necessary to start climbing that mountain. Who better to get their students hiking up the right track? Sure, native speaking teachers are trained to work with basic beginners too, but why not utilise the cultural knowledge NNESTs have that can speak to beginners’ concerns and questions? When it comes to advanced level classes, I always thought that native speakers were the likely choice because of the nuances of the language, but only if they were trained and aware themselves. Any old native speaker wouldn’t do as is evidenced on a daily basis in classes around the world.
Of course, there’s the pronunciation concern. Should NNESTs teach pronunciation? That’s a more difficult one to be liberal about. I don’t think any generalisation can be made as NNESTs who haven’t spent time in English-speaking environments can be as unaware of target pronunciation as their students (many times, when I’ve taught pronunciation of past tense endings, for example, I’ve heard stunned students tell me that what they’ve learnt their whole lives was wrong). In other cases, NNESTs may more easily be able to relate English pronunciation to their L1 equivalents (I was so happy when I had a Japanese student show me how the /ʒ/ in casual was written in Japanese–don’t ask me right now, I’ve long ago lost it). Even some NESTs don’t always want to teach it. A previous British coworker of mine refused to spend much time teaching her students Canadian pronunciation, rightly so, I guess. I’d feel like a poser if I were teaching British English in England too. Even still, it all comes down to what the target pronunciation is and who is most capable of teaching it.
Another factor to consider is who the target audience is. One must admit that no matter how hard we try to give everyone a fair shot at a teaching position, if the students won’t get adequate learning out of collaboration with a certain teacher or there’s no noticeable difference between studying at home or abroad for the trip and money, there’s no point in hiring someone who doesn’t fit the role. If their L1-influenced accent is strong enough to make me strain to understand 100%, no matter what your experience or fluency, maybe you’re not right for a position here.
Lastly, does being a NNEST make you less of a teacher? Surely any teacher comes across words and phrases they aren’t familiar with or grammar items they can’t explain well or reading and writing microskills they need advice on how to get their students to improve upon. NNESTs aren’t alone there and certainly aren’t less of a teacher because they need to ask for help. I ask for help from them too. The reality is that NNESTs and NESTs are different and neither will ever be the other. As long as you are qualified, passionate and don’t have significant lack of any of the skills and systems of the language you are teaching, either can be effective teachers.
I’m glad that Cecilia has recognised this and I hope others do too. Your thoughts?