NNESTs and Professional Legitimacy: Fighting the Good Fight

 Davi S. Reis, Ph. D.*

Identifying and exploring the sources of one’s insecurities and fears is a daunting task for most of us. Yet, when it comes to Non-Native English-Speaking Teachers (NNESTs), taking the time to deliberately reflect on the sources of our professional insecurities is a helpful step in acknowledging, negotiating, and claiming professional legitimacy as English Language Teaching (ELT) professionals. As an example of this type of reflection and with the goal of helping others in their own journey, I share a bit of my own narrative as an NNEST in TESOL, including struggles and successes[i], and offer a few reminders, strategies, and resources for challenging the native speaker (NS) myth (that is, the notion that NSs of English are better language teachers)[ii].

A PERSONAL ANECDOTE

As an ELT professional, I worked hard to become a good language teacher. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in TESOL and a master’s degree in Education (both from an accredited American university), and taught ESL in the U.S. and EFL in Brazil for a few years. Yet, I was unpleasantly surprised when a private English institute in Belo Horizonte, Brazil (my hometown and country) offered my partner a job (virtually on the spot) but denied me the chance to even interview for the EFL teaching position they were seeking to fill. Although my partner is a highly qualified mental health counselor, he had no training or experience as a (language) teacher at that point. He was explicitly told that they only hired individuals who were NSs of English (the case with  my partner). Regardless of their possible motivations for enforcing such a questionable policy (that is, buying into the NS myth themselves or, as they claimed, feeling pressured by students’ supposed demand of and preference for NSs), I found myself doubting my own hard-earned professional expertise and experience. Especially when, though largely unconsciously, I had done my very best up to that point to sound and even act like a ‘native speaker of English’ (for me, this meant emulating and imitating some of the American English accents I had been exposed to while an international student in the U.S.).

A PERVASIVE FALLACY

 

My point in sharing this personal anecdote is that, as a ‘minoritized’ group (NNESTs actually make up the vast majority of ELT professionals in the world), we often suffer the damaging effects of an oppressive ideology. Unfortunately, the message heralded by the NS myth is clear and widespread: NSs do it better! They speak English better and, so goes the logic, will be better teachers and make for better learning and happier students (or should I say customers?). Despite its harmful effects, this clear message often works its way into NNESTs’ psyche through its pervasiveness in popular culture, teaching materials, and even published research in TESOL and Applied Linguistics. To make matters worse, the attribute of ‘native speakerness’ is conflated with phenotype (i.e., ‘real’ NSs of English are white, have blond hair, blue eyes, and, preferably, either an American or a British accent). NSs are also perceived as being largely monolingual (after all, according to the NS myth logic, if one already speaks English natively, there is little need to learn another, less influential language). My goal in grossly identifying some of the discourses around the NS myth is to expose it as a fallacy with harmful consequences to NNESTs and to the TESOL and ELT fields.

USEFUL REMINDERS

The so-called ‘NNEST movement’ has been growing exponentially since the late nineties thanks to various converging efforts: the creation of the NNEST Caucus/Interest Section in TESOL, TESOL Position Statements against the employment discrimination of NNESTs, and quite a bit of research[iii]. Yet, too easily we still buy into false dichotomies and blindly adopt disempowering discourses. But if our goal is to continue to improve the work conditions for NNESTs around the world, we must tirelessly, diligently, and unwaveringly challenge the status quo by working against the NS myth. In other words, I believe we can improve our own situation and that of our field by challenging unexamined assumptions and thinking and by encouraging and helping others do the same. Because, in my experience, this is much easier said than done, I offer ten points below as useful reminders regarding NNESTs’ quest for professional legitimacy:

1)      NNESTs make up the vast majority of English teachers worldwide, so our needs and strengths as professionals cannot be easily dismissed;

2)      NNESTs can relate to and support learners in unique ways that are often unavailable to NESTs, such as understanding first-hand the language learning difficulties and empathizing with students’ struggles.

3)      We all have (at least) one native language. So NSs of English are also NNSs of many other languages (this is an issue of positionality). Similarly, we can choose to think of ourselves as bi- or multilingual rather than simply NNSs of English;

4)      What counts as ‘native’ English is highly debatable. Language use is embedded in various but specific sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic contexts, so holding an unattainable image of a mythical variety of English is likely to do more harm than good;

5)      The term ‘near-native’ may be an improvement over the term ‘non-native’, but still positions NNESTs as second best in relation to a ‘native’ target (an often ill-defined and unattainable expectation);

6)      All of us (NSs, NNSs, and all in between) make ‘mistakes’ when using language. But rather than viewing such occurrences as ‘errors’, we can think of them as natural and even helpful processes in most types of (intercultural) communicative encounters;

7)      Communication is a two-way street. Both interlocutors should make an effort to understand each other and to clearly communicate their ideas;

8)      Students learning English today are much more likely to be using their language skills with other NNSs, rather than with NSs of English;

9)      Accent (we all have one!) is not a predictor of language proficiency. It may reveal one’s pronunciation skills, but very little about their skills as a language user in real-life contexts and situations. In addition, because one’s accent is intricately connected with one’s identity, it should be honored and respected;

10)  Though language proficiency is a worthy goal we should aspire to achieve and maintain (regardless of native speaker status), it should not be conflated with one’s ability to teach language. In other words, being able to speak a language well does not automatically translate into being able to teach it well. Becoming a teacher takes training, time, and dedication.

TAKING ACTION!

In light of the points presented above, I also offer the following suggestions for taking action and becoming an active contributor to the NNEST Movement:

– Get involved! To the extent possible, become involved with or a member of a professional organization. These organizations help members create synergy about important issues to the profession (such as discrimination against NNESTs) and move the field forward by fostering collaboration and providing a sense of direction.

– Speak up! Silence is often perceived as an indicator of acquiescence. In many contexts, both social and professional, you may be the only individual who is aware of the dangers of operating under the NS myth. Speak up when you see a job listing or advertisement seeking only ‘NSs’. When NNESTs collectively make their voices heard, such discriminatory ads are sometimes removed or revised.

– Collaborate! Identify and take advantage of ‘allies’, including NESTs who are aware of the NS myth and work against it. NEST allies can help clear up many of the misconceptions we carry unknowingly about being a native English speaker (e.g., the U.S. is a very large country with many Englishes spoken throughout, rather than the land of a mythical, pure ‘American English’ as it is often portrayed).

REACHING OUT!

Though strong in numbers, NNESTs often feel isolated, powerless, and ‘minoritized’ in light of persistent native speakerism. But by reaching out to others and connecting to various resources, NNESTs can gain the knowledge, skills, and support they need to help collectively combat and overcome the NS myth. Here is a list of several groups, efforts, and resources you may want to check out, join, and contribute to:

NNEST Interest Section: Although you must be a member of TESOL International Association in order to become a member of one of its interest sections, doing so can open up a number of resources, such as the NNEST Newsletter and the NNEST-IS Listserv, where NNESTs from all over the globe can connect, learn, and challenge one another to improve our professional lives. Even if you are not a member of TESOL, you can find resources on the NNEST-IS website, such as a brief history of the NNEST movement and a list of resources and links.

 

NNEST Interest Section Blog: This forum was created in 2011 as a venue for focused discussions on issues relevant to NNESTs. Along with the NNEST Listserv, it provides a space where NNESTs and allies can connect, share, and ‘synergize’. But this synergy will not happen without the inclusion of various voices and experiences, including yours! So next time you have a question or comment related to NNESTs, consider sharing it with like-minded colleagues via this forum.

NNEST of the Month Blog: Featuring a vast collection of almost 100 interviews and tackling a range of NNEST-related issues, this blog welcomes contributions by practitioners, graduate students, researchers, scholars, and anyone who is interested in issues related to NNESTs and professional legitimacy. As one of the members of this blog’s editorial team, I can attest to the high professional development value of the voices and perspectives represented in the contributions from NNESTs around the world.

NNEST Facebook Group: Currently with over 400 members, the NNEST Facebook group is open to all NNESTs and friends of NNESTs. It provides yet another forum where NNESTs can share their concerns, struggles, successes, and resources. One of the main advantages of this group is the immediacy of posting and receiving responses or feedback. As with all things Facebook, it is always being updated.

Equity Advocates – Working toward Professional Equity in TESOL: With over 120 members, this Facebook group invites members to share “knowledge and strategies” for fighting “professional inequity in the field of TESOL”. So when you witness discriminatory practices or feel victimized yourself, try reaching out to this group. As a professional group, NNESTs can make a much bigger difference by joining forces and acting collectively, rather than in isolation.

TESOL Position Statements: Several position statements put forth by TESOL International Association are relevant to NNESTs, but a pivotal one is the Position Statement Against Discrimination of Nonnative  Speakers of English in the Field of TESOL (March 2006) . Although these position statements are not policies, they influence policy, so it is important that we be aware of such statements and spread the word.

Finally, five volumes focusing on the professional lives of NNESTs are especially helpful (see full references below; with the exception of Braine, 2010, all are edited collections): Braine (1999), Kamhi-Stein (2004), Llurda (2005), Mahboob (2010). In addition to helping coalesce the NNEST Movement, these titles cover a range of relevant issues for NNESTs and provide much food for thought.

In conclusion, there are ways to resist native speakerism and the discrimination we often experience. With every interaction, we can help erode the NS myth and strengthen the NNEST movement. It will not happen overnight, but the better NNESTs are able to articulate why they deserve to be treated as qualified ELT professionals in TESOL, the better chances we have of making a real difference. So next time someone implies that NSs make better language teachers, caringly give them some food for thought. They will be better for it, and so will we.

References:

Braine, G., Ed. (1999). Non-native educators in English language teaching. London, Lawrence Earlbum.

Braine, G. (2010). Nonnative speaker English teachers: Research, pedagogy, and professional growth. New York, Routledge.

Kamhi-Stein, L. D. (Ed.). (2004). Learning and teaching from experience: Perspectives on Nonnative English-speaking professionals. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Llurda, E. (Ed.). (2005). Non-native language teachers: Perceptions, challenges, and contributions to the profession. New York: Springer.

Mahboob, A., Ed. (2010). The NNEST Lens: Non Native English Speakers in TESOL. Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Moussu, L. and E. Llurda (2008). Non-native English-speaking English language teachers: History and research. Language Teaching 41(3), 315–348.


[i] If you’d like to know more about my own experiences and views as an NNEST, you can read about them here.

[ii] To be sure, I have many friends and colleagues who are native speakers of English and believe that they, too, can make fine ESOL teachers with proper education and training.

[iii] For a helpful state-of-the-art article on NNEST issues, see Moussu and Llurda (2008).

*Davi S. Reis is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, PA. He teaches courses on cultural and linguistic diversity to pre- and in-service teachers and to graduate students in the master’s program in ESL. His scholarly interests include NNEST Studies and Teacher Education.

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15 Responses to NNESTs and Professional Legitimacy: Fighting the Good Fight

  1. Dor Arie says:

    Hi, I’m currently a NET in Hong Kong. I agree with your assertions, and also with the sense that NET / NEST superiority is still pervasive. In HK, however, I believe NETs are hired in large part because of the impression that they offer a different pedagogical viewpoint and can deal more easily with Language Arts, for example. Thus, schools using NETs as they do local NNEST colleagues may be under- or mis-utilizing their resources. my local colleagues can teach grammar better than I, and in truth I have little interest in teaching it, but my passion for reading and literature and film and poetry, etc., allows me to engage in teaching these areas with a level of comfort not enjoyed by all my colleagues.

    But getting back to your point, I’m in full agreement with you about language, phenotypes (often for window dressing and promotion, based on local notions of NET as Best Teacher) and the over- and under-class concepts still adhered to in many locales.

  2. Hi,
    I am an English language teacher and by definition, I fall under NNEST. I share similar feelings.

    But, I’m also pursuing my Master’s degree in ELT (Kathmandu University) and at this point, I strongly feel that at least one of my tutors was a Native Speaker. So, the learner in me is craving for an opportunity to learn English language from a Native English speaker. This might be blasphemous to spill my desires here, but I am more interested to hear their perspectives than hear the same usual stuff from a Nepali university professor. Thus, I have been wishing there was at least one NS tutor in every semester.

    Am I trading on thin ice now?

  3. reisd says:

    Hi Dor and Umes, thank you both for commenting on this post! You bring up some very interesting points that I (and many others) have wrestled with (e.g., the particular strengths and weaknesses of NESTs and NNESTs). In my view, though there may indeed be content, skills, and pedagogy that are generally preferred by one group or the other (for various reasons), we must try to keep the individual in mind, with her/his strengths and areas of improvement. I don’t believe there is anything inherently ‘blasphemous’ (nice word choice, Umes!) about wanting to hear the perspective of a different instructor/professor. Yet, it may point to an issue IF that desire comes from a belief that native-speaking teachers are inherently superior to non-native speaking teaches. I don’t believe this is the case for you, Umes, but it often is the case for many students (given the NS myth)…

    Thank you both again for your thoughtful comments!

    • “Yet, it may point to an issue IF that desire comes from a belief that native-speaking teachers are inherently superior to non-native speaking teaches.”

      Absolutely not. I am just looking out for diversity. All my life, I’ve been taught by Nepali instructors/teachers and thus want to taste something different.

      Thanks for a great article.

  4. Shyam Sharma says:

    Umes’s comment is at a fully safe distance from thin ice 🙂 and I agree with him because there’s a lot of sense in his “desire” to be taught by native speaking teachers (as he specifies it). Now, the beauty of interactive texts/forums is that I don’t have to interpret a writer’s idea and hope I got his/her point—-the writer can reply!!!–but when I read what he wrote more closely, it was clear to me that he’s not demanding “native” in skin or hair color but native speakers who will add different perspectives that they’d bring from different backgrounds/experiences and the knowledge thereof. He says, “So, the learner in me is craving for an opportunity to learn English language from a Native English speaker. … but I am more interested to hear their perspectives than hear the same usual stuff from a Nepali university professor.” As I see, his desire to take at least one course a semester where he can learn “their” (i.e., native speakers’) perspective on issues is quite legit.
    I don’t think Umes will be okay if he were to be taught educational leadership by my neighbor here in New York who seems to basically have been drinking different kinds of beers since he finished high school in the 1970s. He speaks so fluently when he’s drunk! (That is, as far as “native” goes, I think this neighbor is the most native speaker of English that… okay, wait, no, in terms of the ability to express ideas, the professor of education from South Korea whom I met at a conference was even more native than Daniel… hm, but accent-wise, Jimmy, the laundromat guy in Kentucky was more native than Prof. Gupta…. no, no, Linda, the British tourist whom I met in Florida was more native because she seemed to speak in all idioms…—- ughrrr, I give up!).
    But, yeah, Umes has clearly stated that he wants to learn the perspective of teachers from countries/societies that, in my reading, dominate the production of knowledge which we study as students of English language, literature, or “studies.” I am an NNEST and very often, my NES students say that they were happy to have someone from a different background as their teacher. Students in non- English speaking countries tend to have similar desires.
    That said, when it comes to non-native English learners wanting to be taught by native speakers, if we go a little further, there indeed is thin ice, because a lot of people tend to confuse their desire to learn from someone who has the knowledge they want/need, a different perspective so their learning is enhanced, idioms and other linguistic resources that add value to the teaching/learning, etc…. WITH mere accent, or worse, skin color and national identity. Yes, in the case of language learning, we do want to learn a new accent and that may be most easily done by learning with a native speaker of the target language. The problem is, as Davi’s essay implies, many people tend to forget that they can much better learn “educational philosophies” from Professor Gupta who specializes in this subject. Professor Gupta spoke with mixed accents because he was born in Kenya to an Indian family, studied in England, and moved to South Korea… but he is way more qualified to teach what he teaches than Linda, the British tourist who said she was a dancer by profession and had an undergraduate degree in engineering. Unfortunately, people do move into thin ice when they forget that Linda may not even be able to teach them English language.

  5. Shyam Sharma says:

    Umes, did I get your point right?

    • Yes sir, spot on.

      I don’t have any desire to listen to some patronizing backpackers yapping on things they don’t have a clue about.

      I am curious. I am interested to hear ‘their’ perspective, say, on “Porphoriya’s Lover” or on “Discourse Analysis of newspaper headlines”. I’m tired of teachers/professor belching out the same interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 since my days in Bachelor’s. So, I’m just curious about different perspective a ‘native’ teacher might bring into the classroom.

  6. Dor arie says:

    NETs in Hong Kong are often trotted out by their schools on Parents Day or other special occasions, or even used to promote the school over the border in China. Window dressing to attract students. But teaching should be about pedagogy and philosophy, not what we look like. As for accent, not all NETs are treated equally. For example, the New Zealand accent gets some stick for their drawn out vowels. But as long as it is intelligible, an accent should not matter. Professor Gupta is a specialist in his area, but is he a good teacher? I think that is the question. I work with teachers who know their subject extremely well, but do not teach it well. In the end, it is what students gain that determines the worth of a teacher. Bottom line, and that is based on a variety of factors.

  7. Here’s a tricky situation and I’m not trying to provoke anything but please hear me out first.

    Let’s forget about English. Chinese is likely to be the next big thing now. And, suppose, one morning you wake up and feel like learning Chinese, just like that. So you walk into a Chinese language institute and get all the info. They tell you that you have two options. The first instructor is an Indian guy who has been speaking Chinese for the last 5 years. He charges less. The second instructor is a Chinese lady who has been teaching Chinese language for 3 years. And, she charges a little more.

    Which one would you pick?

    I know this might be a childish post on this blog, but I’m just too curious.

    • Shyam Sharma says:

      I too am curious how other colleagues might respond to your question (I don’t think it is silly, and if we think about different variations of the situation, most people will be caught with some bias, maybe, whichever direction it goes?). In the situation you describe, I would try to ask other students about the knowledge of the language and teaching skills of each instructor (if I can find this out, I’d give 60% weight to this criterion); if possible, I would listen to the two instructors and give about 15% to their tone and accent (because especially with Chinese, I don’t want to say “horse” instead of “mother”—-go look it up!); and the other 25% would go to miscellaneous factors like the difference in cost, time of the day, personality, and chance. Must add: I would be quite surprised if an Indian guy is able to beat a Chinese woman in his language proficiency (because this is critical for a language teacher) in five years, though this doesn’t mean that I won’t even try to listen to him speak or ask about him at all 🙂

      • haha.. Shyam sir, you just made the situation more complicated 🙂

      • Shyam Sharma says:

        Really? I thought you gave a complex situation to think about! so I felt a little smart when I came up with the simple idea of percentage-based assessment. … my response was also meant to be 10% tongue in cheek 🙂

  8. Dor arie says:

    It seems you’ve devised a marking rubric to help you determine your choice. But would you actually follow it? Or would one factor override all others?

    • Shyam Sharma says:

      I would (honestly) follow this or any other relatively “objective” basis for making my choice of a teacher. Without some way to assess who is a better teacher, I might be either attracted by more superficial factors like accent or I might take an unnecessarily “political” approach of embracing the non-native teacher. (As a nonnative learner, I can see how easy it could be to make either of those mistakes.)

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