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The myth of the native speaker

Sep 07,2017 - Last updated at Sep 07,2017

A few months ago, while walking inside a building, I could not help but notice an advertisement on a bulletin board.

The advertisement promotes a course that targets learners of English as a foreign language in Jordan. It reads, “Our teachers are all qualified native speakers.”

I was not shocked, as I am all too familiar with such advertisements.

The familiarity comes from years and years of hearing and reading similar statements. One is told that if students want to become better at English, they need to study in an institute whose teaching personnel are “native” speakers.

“Native” speakers are said to be the shortest route to students’ success in learning a language, especially in terms of pronunciation and speaking. If they follow that route, students are likely to develop native-like accents. When they do, they are deemed to be close to perfection.

All these statements are underpinned by what the Applied Linguistics theorists Robert Phillipson and Adrian Holliday call the native-speaker fallacy and native-speakerism respectively.

According to them, and to a host of other experts on teaching English as a foreign or second language, such beliefs are nothing but myths.

They suggest that the identity of the teacher is never indicative of the success of the teaching process for a very simple reason: being a “native speaker” of a language does not necessarily entail the ability to teach it.

Although some (a minority) are born teachers, the majority make themselves, as it were, through developing the requisite pedagogical skills and strategies over a long period of time.

I, for one, am a “native” speaker of Arabic, and I cannot claim that I can teach it to Arabs, let alone learners of Arabic as a second or foreign language. For, I do not have the training and expertise that would enable me to do the job effectively.

Another problem with that kind of logic (or rather illogic) is that it puts the onus of learning on teachers, not students.

It is a proven fact by now that regardless of the ability of the teacher, effective teaching does not necessarily lead to learning.

It is the learner’s responsibility to do the work and thus improve. Teachers can only facilitate the learning process; teachers in general and native-speaking teachers in particular are not magicians.

Even when it comes to teaching pronunciation and speaking, a “native” speaker may not be the best teacher, despite what administrators, parents, students and even some teachers have one believe.

Apart from the reductive logic of thinking of the “native” speaker as a voice (which, if true, can be replaced by a cassette or a CD), studies show that there is no correlation between the identity of the teacher and students’ oral competence.

For instance, John M. Levis and others (2016) conducted a study in which two teachers, a native speaker and non-native speaker, taught pronunciation to two groups of students.

Both adhered to the same plan, did the same exercises, graded the same way, and their students were evaluated by the same neutral graders.

The study concludes that teacher identity is irrelevant, even when teaching pronunciation.

Despite such studies, native-speakerist attitudes unfortunately continue and have disastrous consequences on both students and teachers.

Students are asked to accomplish unreasonable results.

It might be next to impossible to achieve native-like competence due to a variety of reasons, including age, psychological readiness, unwillingness, etc. 

If students are being constantly asked to develop native-like competence, they will feel frustrated and have very little confidence.

Local teachers, on the other hand, are harmed in many ways. They are discriminated against, as they tend to receive fewer jobs, lower salaries and less respect. The last of which is evidenced by the fact that their knowledge is generally questioned.

Despite their metalinguistic awareness (that is, their awareness of how a language works) and bilingual as well as bicultural competence, school administrators hardly trust them. 

In fact, their knowledge of the local language and culture — which is a significant advantage, as current research shows — is erroneously considered to be an impediment to successful teaching.

Thus, local teachers might develop an inferiority complex or suffer from the “impostor syndrome”.

The reverse could apply to “native” speakers, who might develop a superiority complex.

These beliefs need to stop. Local teachers are an asset; in fact, “native” speakers could at times hinder the learning process (by having too high or low expectations, simplifying too much to their students, not knowing about the local language, disrespecting their students through infantilising them or disregarding their culture, etc.).

This is not to denigrate “native” speakers, but to emphasise qualifications, irrespective of teachers’ identities.

It is high time that prejudice against local teachers stopped. As long as they are qualified, there should be no discrimination against them in terms of salaries, hiring opportunities and, most importantly, respect.

Furthermore, one hopes that even the term “native” speaker will be replaced with “expert” speaker, as many experts in the field have suggested. 

One might wonder whether discussing native-speakerism while our region is in turmoil is superfluous.

The response is twofold. Discussing educational matters is never superfluous. Second, discussing and ultimately overcoming an issue like native-speakerism — an undoubtedly racist ideology — is a necessity in a world where intolerance and prejudice are on the rise.

I said above that teachers are born, not made. I also suggested that most successful teachers are actually made, as the first group is a minority.

Bad teachers could be made, too, when they are allowed to teach despite lack of qualifications or when they are denied access to their rights because of their skin colour or national identity.



The writer, a Fulbright scholar, contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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