Monday, May 18, 2015

A controversy that is easily settled: Native speaker teachers of English

A controversy that is easily settled: Native speaker teachers of English
Stephen Krashen

The requirements

I think it is obvious that a competent second language teacher should meet the following requirements:
  1. a knowledge of how language is acquired.
  2. a knowledge of pedagogy (e.g. if the Comprehension Hypothesis is correct, this means familiarity with TPRS, sheltered subject matter teaching, and popular literature of interest to second language students)
  3. a high level of competence in the second language.

The point of stating these three requirements is that number 3 alone is not enough. This runs counter to the practice of hiring native speakers just because they are native speakers.

A misunderstanding over "immersion"

I tried to make the three points presented above in a letter published in the South China Morning Post (June 19, 2014), in which I stated:  "Local teachers who can help students find comprehensible and interesting listening and reading material, and who can teach them about the process of second language acquisition are far preferable to native speakers whose only advantage is an accent."

In my view, my letter should have been greeted warmly by native speakers of English teaching in Hong Kong (the NET group). It highlighted the necessity of understanding language acquisition and pedagogy, of professionalism, not just being a native speaker. (1)

Instead, the letter resulted in a storm of protest from native speaker English teachers in Hong Kong, accusing me of seeking to "end the NET scheme." (NET = Native English Teachers)

The problem, in my opinion, was the headline/leader to my letter, which was written by the editorial staff of the newspaper: Students need immersion, not NET. The headline was unfortunate for two reasons:  
  1. "Immersion" is an ambiguous word with two totally opposite meanings: For language education professionals, it means content-based or sheltered subject matter teaching, discussed earlier, and is consistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis. But for civilians, non language-educators, it means "submersion," doing nothing, simply plunging the language acquirer into a second language environment full of mostly incomprehensible input.  This is, of course, inconsistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis. I suggest that professionals stop using this term.
  2. I did not say "not NET." I said that being a native speaker of English alone is not enough. The other two requirements are very important. In a subsequent letter (July 5, 2014) I stated: "we should not prefer native speakers only because they are native speakers.  A qualified local English teacher who understands pedagogy is preferable to a non-qualified native speaker." I also pointed out the confusion caused by the headline. But the headline to this letter was also confusing: "Qualified local teachers preferable." I asked the editor to change this to "Qualified local teachers preferable to unqualifed native speakers of English." The editor declined to make this change. 

All things equal, should we prefer a native speaker because of accent? Is having a native accent really an advantage?  I think not, if the local teacher speaks English extremely well.
In fact, it is not clear that students automatically pick up the accent of their teacher: sociolinguistic studies indicate that we get our accents from our peers, not our teachers. Our accents represent the "club" we have joined or want to join  (Beebe, 1985).   Students may want to be associated with models other than the teacher.

1.     Lei and Li (2015) reported that science graduate students in China rated native English speaker teachers more highly than non-native speaker English teachers in requirement (3), English proficiency, which is no surprise. They rated non-native speaking teachers more highly, however, in requirement (2), pedagogical skills. Native speakers were rated more highly in classroom management, These results show where each group can improve: Native speakers can easily inform themselves about language acquisition, and take steps to improve their pedagogy. Non-native speakers can improve in English, and current findings show a clear and easy way to do this: through extensive pleasure reading.

Beebe, L. 1985. Input: Choosing the right stuff. In Gass, S. and Madden. C. (Eds.) Input in Second Language Acquisition. New York: Newbury House. pp. 404-414.
Lei, Hong and Yuyuan, Li.  2015.  Chinese non-English major graduate's perceptions toward native and non-native English speaking teachers. Paper presented at SHU 2015 TESOL International Conference,Shanguhai University, May 16, 2015.


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  4. Thank you for your comments. I appreciated reading about the topic of Native vs Non-Native teachers. I am a non-native teacher of French, with English as my native language. Being a non-native speaker is my greatest weakness and I am constantly filled with self-doubt in terms of whether I should be permitted to teach others given my limitations in content knowledge and fluidity, as compared to a native speaker. To help compensate, I am constantly reading, listening, viewing native French content. I have been keeping myself updated in terms of new technologies and SLA pedagogy. Of course, when I have students coming back after college to thank me for the experience offered to them in high school, and when I find out that they have caught the ethical travel bug or have continued with their language studies- this always reinforces what I've found to be the most important aspect to my job. What matters most to me at the end of the day is that I have made an impact on an individual's pursuit towards life-long learning and a genuine interest in learning about other cultures and other languages.

  5. I really like and appreciate so much native english teachers because it is not an easy one I know someone like this in and they also offer easy way of learning and making it more fun and interesting.

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