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Rise and fall of the native speaker

Friday November 17, 2006

John Hughes

If your mother tongue is English, it seems you still have access to work abroad in virtually any country of your choice. Armed with the minimum qualification from a 4-week course (or possibly no qualification at all), native speakers continue to travel the world and spread their language. The demand from overseas schools has consistently outstripped the supply for well over thirty years with China?s huge appetite for native speakers now guaranteeing work for teachers well into the 21st century.

The role and perception of the native speaker EFL teacher has changed, however. Once upon a time there was the expectation that learning English somehow implied learning about its country of origin (eg Britain, America). An EFL teacher almost had the role of some kind of cultural ambassador. Early British EFL course books of twenty to thirty years ago illustrate this point. They teach English through the mouths of smiling British policemen or readings about what people in England eat for dinner. The assumption being that all students learn English with the dream of one day visiting Buckingham Palace.

In later years the topics in coursebooks did become more ?international?. Instead of a policeman offering help you?d meet a hotel receptionist called Phillipe or read about eating habits in Italy. It all marked the move by the EFL industry to avoid anything that might carry the stain of cultural imperialism.

It was also becoming apparent, even if it had always mostly been the case, that many students weren?t using English to communicate with someone from an English speaking country but with other non-native speakers. This recognition brought with it questions over standards. Should you expect students to achieve proficiency in, say, ?British English? if your student was a Frenchman who needed to speak to someone in Germany? Would it matter if his accent wasn?t the Queen?s English (well, whose was?) or if the grammar was error-ridden?

In the early 90s Robert Phillipson?s book, Linguistic Imperialism, took issues like these a step further and questioned the native speaker?s claim to supremacy as a teacher. His concerns included the idea that English is best learned monolingually (with no translation) and that it is best taught by a native speaker.

More recently, research by sociolinguist Jennifer Jenkins has added to a native speaker demise by suggesting that any international form of English would not be the product of the mother tongue countries. Instead she lists a ?core? English based on the Englishes of non-native speakers. She says that ?non-core? items which are irrelevant to the intelligibility of English internationally can be omitted from the classroom. So, something which barely affects understanding such as the different sounding ?th? in ?thin? and ?this? can be omitted from our lessons.

With non-native speakers shaping futures English(es), it follows that they are better equipped to teach it and the native speaker teacher?s days are numbered. In countries with developed English programs it is often the non-native speaker ? the person who actually ?learned? rather than ?grew up? with the language ? who gets the job.

One accomplished non-native speaker English teacher who thinks it is less clear cut than this is Maciej Kudla. ?There was a joke we?d have at university when studying English years ago. A mother asks her son, ?What do you want to be when you grow up Johnny?? Johnny replies,?A native speaker.??

As well as teaching, Maciej now runs BASE, a language school in Gdansk, Poland which specialises in English training for businesses. He has employed both native and non-native speaker teachers for many years. ?It used to be that knowledge of the language was the main criteria and sometimes potential clients still ask me, ?Are your teachers native speakers?? But qualifications and experience are now equally important. I think non-native speaker teachers often have a better intuition of what should be taught for international communication. Also their experience of actually learning English helps them understand the difficulties their compatriots may have or the mistakes they make.?

Where Maciej prefers a native speaker is ?when they have a background in areas like finance, economics, computers or engineering for highly specialised courses. And if the students actually need English to communicate with native speakers?. However, the ideal scenario in most cases is to ?combine the expertise of both kinds of teachers with a group of students?.

Perhaps then we should be working towards the end of the native/non-native speaker distinction. Future EFL teachers? linguistic competence could be defined by their intelligibility in English at an international level. As teachers they will need to have certain key skills, which are not necessarily new to many EFL teachers but will be given greater prominence.

Firstly, this would include teachers applying their knowledge of international communication to provide students with strategies for coping with varied speakers and levels. In the classroom it would mean an even greater emphasis on using listenings with different accents or readings with different Englishes.

Secondly, teachers need to develop the skill of identifying specific needs so that students aren?t simply delivered some ?standard? or ?general? English but instead receive the English they need for, say, working in a call centre. Targeting individual needs will also be helped by the growth in computer-based or online learning and so teachers will act as resources and guides.

It could mean the end of culturally based English, a one-size-fits-all English and native speaker English. Fortunately, it doesn?t have to mean the end of a job which allows you teach anywhere in the world.

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