Friday 10 February 2012

Native and non-native speaker teachers

In today's class we talked about some of the issues surrounding native and non-native speaker (NS and NNS) teachers. I told the students a bit about my history in English language teaching (ELT) as an example.

I went to Japan at the end of my first degree, which was in Language Studies and English - so, broadly, Linguistics. I'd spent the summers between the various years of my degree teaching English at schools which provided you with some training before you entered the classroom, and was recruited by a fairly well-known school of English when I graduated for the final summer before leaving for Japan. I also tried to learn a bit of Japanese before going.

I'd (naively) assumed that the school I went to work for in Japan would have recruited graduates with a similar background to me, i.e., those with relevant degrees who had some experience of teaching. Not so. My peers had degrees in unrelated areas (such as History) and most of them had no experience teaching prior to arriving in Japan, although this did change a bit with the recruits who came after I arrived.

Not having any training doesn't necessarily mean that you are going to be a poor teacher; a lot of it is about aptitude and personality, after all. But to turn up with little or no explicit knowledge about one's own language and be expected to teach English seems rather odd to me, particularly as this was a private school of English and not something like the JET or NET scheme, for which NS graduates are often recruited to take conversation classes or similar in state schools (so a bit more like a classroom assistant).

Anyway, as I was saying, this had come up in the context of the general issues around NS and NNS teachers and why the NS teacher still seems to be held up as the paragon when, in fact, NNS teachers - particularly if they are from the same background as their learners - bring with them a wealth of extremely valuable skills and relevant experience.

This discussion throws up all sorts of other issues to do with models and norms and difference vs. deficit.

Have I got a pronouncement to make on this topic? Well, I suppose it has to be this: that one's duty as a teacher is to provide a good model for your students, preferably one which is intelligible to the majority of speakers of English (not all NSs can claim that), and to have a good understanding of the language you are teaching and at mimimum a working understanding of the language(s) your students speak. I couldn't claim to be fluent in Japanese when I arrived but I was pretty good when I left (more than 20 years ago now!). I will hold my hand up and admit that I never got to grips with Cantonese, but I did know the phonology of it inside out from doing research on speech rhythm in HKE.


  1. How important do you think is pronunciation in learning a language?
    I know of foreigners who speak my own language (Spanish) better than myself as regards vocabulary and grammar, but who can't seem to be able to get rid of their annoying stubborn foreign accent -which would be considered as a fairly good accent in less proficient foreigners!

  2. So how "good" should be a NNS teacher's pronunciation?

  3. Was my last question grammatically correct?

  4. Hi Beatrice. My opinion is that it is important to be clear in your pronunciation of any language you are using. This does not mean you have to sound like a native speaker of that language (as mentioned in my blog, not all of them are clear, anyway) but, if there is any feature of your pronunciation which can lead to ambiguity/unintelligibility, then you need to deal with it. If the speaker/learner then wants to "get rid" of their foreign accent, it's up to that speaker. We shouldn't be annoyed about a foreign accent as long as the speaker is clearly conveying his or her message.

    From a prescriptive grammar point of view, your second question should be "So how "good" should a NNS teacher's pronunciation be?". But from a world Englishes point of view, I understood the question, so you have clearly conveyed it!

    In answer to this question, it should be as good as it can be. It's our job to provide the model. But as far as "good" goes, the most important thing is that it should not have features which the learner might copy which would cause him or her to be unclear to the majority of speakers of English around the world.

  5. Thank you, Jane.
    (I meant those foreigners' accent was annoying just because it contrasted sharply with their native-like use of the language. Surely it wouldn't be so difficult for them to make some final fine-tuning?)