Overcoming the Tyranny of Native Speaker-ism

, Overcoming the Tyranny of Native Speaker-ism

My friend recently sent me a job posting on Facebook for a creative writing tutor. She presumed I was fit for the job description but I pointed out one of the qualifications, which was – applicant must be a “native speaker”. She said, “I’ve always thought Filipinos are considered native speakers!” Of course we’re not.

My short exchange with my friend is a microcosm of the experience of non-native English language teachers in Hanoi being unqualified for jobs because of this tyranny of “native speaker-ism”. Native Speaker-ism is the belief that the ideal English language teacher is a native speaker. A judgment that lacks empirical proof and has long been challenged by linguistic scholars. However, it is still a disturbingly popular bias among the Tesol and ELT communities.

I’d like to make a disclaimer here that this is not an argument about whether or not the native English teacher is the ideal teacher. A good teacher is a good teacher, native or not, with merits to her craft and attitude. But I’d also like to point out that native speakers hold a privilege they most often take for granted without recognizing the dark background and the grim future their identification could perpetrate.

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Take for example this South African English teacher of English ethnicity I sat next to a few days ago. He said his parents considered Afrikaans the language of the oppressor so they never bothered that he learn the language. Because of his nationality, he’s not considered a native speaker in Vietnam. The point being, he was trying to validate himself as a native speaker. I thought, if he learned Afrikaans, he wouldn’t feel the need for others to validate him as he would know better than to co-opt the narrative of Linguistic Imperialism.

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Linguistic Imperialism conceptualizes how one language is the dominant language over the others, often as a tool for exploitation. The Philippines, for instance, has a long colonial past, 300 years in the Catholic convent and 50 years in Hollywood. The Spaniards did not teach the language to the Indios (native Filipinos), only the illustrados or the elites were able to access the Spanish language. The Americans, however, used the English language as a means of ‘benevolent assimilation’ of Filipinos to their cultural ideologies, like capitalism. Bringing English teachers to the Philippines and teaching the Filipinos the language was their performance of their ‘manifest destiny’. The refusal of the Spaniards and the benevolent assimilation of the Americans were both imperial agendas – to dominate and exploit.

Native speaker-ism in ELT abets linguistic imperialism as it contends to the dominance of native language users while pushing non-natives to the periphery. It is arrogant, exclusivist, elitist – thus regressive.

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Adhering to the idea that native speakers are preferable English language teachers also purports monolingualism as opposed to the socially healthier option of bilingualism and multilingualism. Robert Philippson, author of Linguistic Imperialism, posed: But if ELT professionals lead monolingual lives, or if they have no experience of becoming proficient in languages other than English, are they ever likely to understand the complexity of the learning tasks that they are committed to?

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What is then the alternative? Scholars have been putting forward English as the International Language. This challenges the idea of the ownership of the English language. International English does not belong to the native speakers anymore. It has become a property of the world, said W.D Shaw. Thus International English cannot be bound to any culture, and no learner needs to sound or act like a native speaker to be validated as a comprehensible and competent language user.

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The concept of International English democratizes the language. According to Mohammad Aliakbari, it leaves no room for cultural or linguistic chauvinism of native speakers. Meaning, native speakers don’t have to perform as “white saviors” (like the benevolent assimilators) in helping developing countries in their international relations. It also provides learners the agency as it allows them to determine their own content making them self-motivated and independent.

As foreign English language teachers in Vietnam, we don’t have much of a say in the government’s education policies or when schools tell us that parents want native speakers as their kids’ teachers. But like refusing plastic straw to help mitigate climate change, we can start small changes in our mindset. For example, I find this stress on having a native accent lacking awareness. Teachers often praise students who can enunciate like native speakers, likewise praising non-native English teachers for not having an (foreign) accent. There is also this expectation that non-native English teachers should work twice harder than their native colleagues to negotiate their legitimacy. There are plenty of native speaker-ism biases very apparent among us which are often left unchecked.

Overcoming this tyranny that perpetuates colonial violence is doable albeit a long process. The first step is to unpack the term “native speaker-ism” and be aware of our geopolitical position over this oppressive narrative; second, to check our habitual judgments that reinforce this bias; the rest is a conscious choice of helping create a democratic space where everyone is given an opportunity based on merits and not on privilege. For only in diverse spaces can we advocate, teach, and practice creativity, critical thinking, and empathy – the pre-requisites of our time’s authentic learning experience.

By Dumay Solinggay, an expat in Vietnam

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