The NN-word

In my timetable at the moment, the afternoons are filled with TP, i.e. observing and assessing the teaching practice of trainees on our school’s Trinity CertTESOL course.

Recently, I watched 3 very good lessons one after another.

At this point, I should qualify what–apart from standard assessment criteria–made me judge these lessons as “very good”.

They were good because:

  • the teachers were in sync with their students’ personalities, interests and language abilities
  • the teachers had prepared well to address these points
  • the teachers showed genuine care for their students’ progress before, during and after the lesson
  • the teachers had attempted to build on students’ learning from previous lessons
  • the teachers responded to what their students said, not just how they said it (i.e. they weren’t just ‘error hunting’)
  • the teachers supported and encouraged the students throughout the lessons
  • the teachers had reflected well on their own strengths and weaknesses and enthusiastically tackled these, to the evident benefit of their own confidence and their students’ engagement in the lessons
  • and finally, to be fair, there was probably also some mysterious alignment of all those ‘intangibles’ which just sometimes come together to make everyone happy to be where they are, doing what they’re doing, at a particular moment

While these teachers were teaching, two of their peers were also observing and taking notes.  After teaching finishes, we always solicit the opinions of these peer observers.

This particular day was no different, and it commenced like this:

“I just want to say how honoured I am to have seen these three such lovely girls–native speakers.”*

Native speakers.

I wish the written form of a blog post could do justice to the way that was said.  (Un)fortunately I wasn’t prepared for it, and didn’t record it.

You’ll have to make do with my description:

These 2 words were uttered with a kind of tender awe, a kind of reverence bordering on idolatry, something akin to a teenage boy breathing the words “Bond girls”.  Or maybe more like an individual of a certain political leaning devotedly murmuring “Aryan”.

It was chilling.

Seriously, I was a bit weirded out.  I hear people harp on about the greatness of native speakers all the time, whether expressing this notion either directly or indirectly, but something about the way it was actually said this time… I nearly shivered.

As a general rule, I tend to sit on the fence with most ‘issues’.  As another general rule, when I do have an opinion, I don’t tend to feel it’s my place as a teacher to foist my own views and beliefs on the other people in the classroom.

So, true to form, I held my tongue.

(Well, OK, I couldn’t help myself interjecting, “That’s neither here nor there”, as after uttering the ‘N’-phrase, this person paused to give me a supplicating look, whereas I wasn’t about to give my approbation.  But after that, I shut up.)

But then a few hours later, I happened, by complete chance, to come across a sample timetable from another school for a different training course (just an internal thing, not a Trinity certificate) very similar to another course I’m working on at the moment.

And this got me fired up again.

The courses (both at my school and the other, which I’m about to detail) are intended mainly for teachers from overseas who wish to brush up on their teaching methodology, maybe learn about some new technologies or alternative approaches to the ones they’ve covered in their own (initial) training.

According to this other school’s website, “the course is designed mainly for non-native teachers” who:

• have teaching experience abroad or in the UK

• are returning to teaching after a break and feeling a little rusty

• are in training

• wish to acquire innovative ideas for the classroom

Among the items mentioned as covered in the course is the following:

• focussed phonology sessions to help students enhance their pronunciation and reduce accents

Aside from the fact that this quite obviously does not seem implied as necessary or relevant according to the purpose of the course (as defined in the four bullet points above), that phrase “enhance their pronunciation and reduce accents” gets my goat.

Reduce accents?

…Reduce them?

Where on earth does the assumption come from that having a non-native accent means having an undesirable excess of something?!  That’s my understanding of ‘reduce’.  And does that mean a native speaker somehow has some kind of magically ‘pure’, uncontaminated pronunciation?  Surely not–that’s just bizarre.

And what’s more, on the very same page, the course purports to “refresh [trainees’] knowledge of current methodologies and trends in the EFL world” and be “[adapted]…according to [the] group’s need”.

Does anyone else see all the inherent assumptions and contradictions here?

Well, here’s what I see, anyway:

  • “enhance their pronunciation” –> there is inevitably going to be a problem with the quality or value of the accents of trainees, which will therefore need enhancing
  • “adapted to the group’s need” –> we’ve already determined what you need; you need to reduce your unsuitable non-native accents!
  • “Current methodologies and trends in the EFL world” –> ELF, certainly a current trend in ELT research, is excluded by definition (despite this being the predominant use of English in the world now)

For goodness’ sake, everybody has an accent.  Shouldn’t we ask people before assuming they want to change theirs?  Especially if it’s already serving them quite well as it is, thank you very much?

Anyway, these two incidents (the trainee’s comment and then stumbling across this course description) in the space of as many hours led to this blog post.

I don’t make many pleas of this nature, but seriously–this has got to stop.  This pervasive, unquestioning deference to native speakers, for no legitimate reason, is frankly absurd.

It’s just as absurd as according someone higher status because of other things they did not ask to be and cannot help, such as the colour of their skin or their sex, issues which I think we’d agree have already been quite thoroughly canvassed in the past few decades.

Coming back to the lessons I recently observed which prompted that ‘native speakers’ comment which offended me so much, yes, they were good lessons (in my opinion).  Yes, the trainees who delivered them were native speakers.  But one does not logically follow from the other.

Take a moment to scroll back up and read that list of reasons why their lessons were so good.

Nothing on this list is exclusive to native speakers.

I would have thought that was obvious, but then a pithy comment comes at me like a bolt from the blue and makes me lament that such overt, unfounded prejudice is still so prevalent in a modern, multicultural context like the one I work in.  Worse still, that this is perpetually legitimised by the ELT industry… but this is a topic for another post.

OK, rant over.

@ij64 for #eltpics

*My quotation here is as faithful as I can be to the actual words without having recorded it.  The words ‘honour’, ‘lovely’ and ‘native speakers’ were definitely in the same short sentence, and in that order.


11 thoughts on “The NN-word

  1. I’m glad you used the word “lament,” as NES/NNES policies and practices perpetuate power imbalances. Kubota’s writing addresses issues of power imbalance and racism

  2. I am genuinely surprised when you say that letter-based pronunciation courses are more helpful. It’s the letter sounds that for someone fairly fluent (or native) distinguishes accents, which as we both agree, is not something to aim for “reduction” per se. It’s rhythm, stress and intonation that contributes to intelligibility and natural sounding speech, unless the student is completely mispronouncing a sound. I’m curious about your thoughts here. Maybe we’re talking around each other somehow.

    1. Yes, I think we are talking at cross purposes! There are several underlying, but important, principles which I guess I was taking for granted as given when I typed this post and subsequent comments. This is what happens when I get ranting and rushing. 😉 Sorry–let me clarify now. (I apologise in advance if you’re already well aware of accent, intelligibility and ELF issues, but I’ll be fairly detailed in explaining what I meant just in case you don’t realise where I’m coming from!)

      1. One issue is that of the NS/NNS debate.
      This was the main focus of my original post, so I won’t go into it again here. But the main point (on which we seem to agree) is that, in my opinion, all accents are valid, whether NS or NNS, and are closely linked to a person’s identity. They should not be assumed as requiring changing, or indeed, ‘reduction’. Moreover, the accent with which a person speaks, however they got it, is in no way whatsoever connected to their ability to teach any subject, including language.

      2. A second issue is that of intelligibility.
      This is such a massive area, perhaps I should really dedicate another blog post to it! 🙂 But briefly: rhythm, stress and intonation are characteristically associated with native varieties; and NS use of rhythm and stress, at least, often interferes with intelligibility for NNS listeners. In other words, using stress-timing, reducing syllables, using schwa frequently instead of full vowels, contracting and eliding and assimilating–these all make NS speech very difficult for learners to understand. And yes, these may well may be important features of pronunciation for learners to develop if they want/need to make their speech intelligible to NS listeners. But…

      NS listeners might not be who’s really going to hear our learners’ speech nowadays. The vast majority of English use in the world now involves no NS at all (i.e. English is being used as a lingua franca, where speakers do not share an L1 so use English to communicate). In which case, these aspects of NS speech which lead to intelligibility problems are irrelevant anyway, i.e. as long as we’re talking about people using English for that purpose (=ELF). It is to this phenomenon that I was referring when I suggested that individual phonemes (rather than ‘letters’, as spelling is another matter) may be more useful for developing students’ intelligibility. Jennifer Jenkins’ (2000, 2002) Lingua Franca Core was based on extensive data from ELF interaction and devised with ELF (NNS-NNS) intelligibility in mind, and neither rhythm (stress-timing), nor stress, nor intonation (in its common sense of rising/falling etc.) were included.

      As I’ve said, though, if learners need/wish to communicate with English NS, then features such as stress-timing might be a desirable part of their pronunciation study. But then that would be focused on EFL, not ELF. And I guess, to be honest, the reality is probably that many learners of English whom I teach will need to be able to communicate in English both as a foreign language and as a lingua franca, at different times and in different circumstances. (But then this means that English NS would probably also need training in how to communicate effectively in ELF situations, i.e. when they’re present in English interaction but significantly outnumbered by NNS! So that would mean getting some of those schwas under control! :))

      3. Related to this last point, intelligibility and accent are often (mistakenly) confused.
      There have been several fascinating studies by Tracey Derwing and Murray Munro (and colleagues) which demonstrated that having a ‘strong’ accent does not necessarily imply unintelligible speech. This is partly what influenced my point (as well as the aforementioned general NS/NNS debate) that NNS should not be assumed as necessarily having problematic pronunciation simply because their accent reveals where they’re from. We could use NS as examples here, too – Alex Ferguson is famously unintelligible; James McAvoy, to the best of my knowledge, has never had this reputation. They’re both from Glasgow.

      So basically, what is ‘intelligible’ depends in large part on who is talking to whom. It’s a moving target, and a two-way street–both the speaker and listener have some work to do. And what is ‘natural sounding’ is very subjective, though it traditionally seems to be a gloss for ‘native-like’. The question is, in relation to the other points above, is this always necessary/desirable/realistic/appropriate?

      Phew! OK, I’m done. I hope that all makes more sense! I think I am gonna come back to intelligibility in a future post… 🙂

  3. I feel your anguish. I too can understand perhaps why you frame it in such a way that you seem surprised by this attitude: it makes anyone who shares it and reads this post feel stupid, and as a result they will change their attitude. Maybe I’m reading your reaction wrong, but I do this too.

    The NEST/NNEST discussion, not to mention the reference to those terms themselves, has been an ongoing for a long time. There’s always an administrator worry that if, for example, Brazilian students come to Canada to learn English for their vacation, and their teacher here is an immigrant from Brazil, that they’ll feel ripped off of the money they paid to travel that distance and pay that tuition, no matter how well-qualified, experienced and competent they are as teachers. I’ve known so many teachers around the world that are so much more appropriate for students than many native-speaking teachers, and living in Canada, I sincerely hope employers try giving our immigrant teachers a chance, especially once they achieve the minimal qualifications necessary here to teach English.

    The argument against the idea that there is an accent to reduce also irritates a lot of people. I completely agree with proponents of this argument, but it’s very hard to combat sometimes. Pronunciation is so often dealt with on a letter-based level, that quite a bit of existing content goes out the door (as it should). Shifting these courses towards intonation, stress and rhythm so students are understood and convey meaning as they mean to is what needs to happen. One by one, we must show by example. It seems you are doing this.

    Apologies for going on and on… 🙂

    1. Hi Tyson, thanks for your thoughts.

      It’s not so much that I was surprised by the comment, more just saddened. But I’ve spent the past 18 months reading and learning about the NEST/NNEST debate and issues (this is related to my MA dissertation), and it’s hard after spending so much time and effort questioning this ideology and exploring its implications myself, to be confronted with this view. I don’t believe in forcing my own views and ideology on those whom I teach, but it is hard not to betray any of my sensitivity towards this issue when it suddenly pops up like that! And unfortunately, there’s always so little time to really get into rich discussion of these issues with trainees.

      I disagree that shifting courses towards intonation, stress and rhythm would help many students, however. I don’t believe these are priority features for intelligibility–whether for ELF or EFL/ESL interaction, at least according to the literature I’m aware of, and my own experience. Acceptability might be another issue… but again, it depends who the judges are. I do think these are important areas for receptive competence, but for productive intelligibility the individual sounds likely need more attention. There’s still so much research to be done to corroborate early findings which have led me to these beliefs, though, so watch this space–who knows what I’ll be thinking and teaching in future! 🙂 It’s always good to keep an open mind…

      Thanks again for dropping by,

  4. Laura,
    As a foreigner and a teacher myself I’d like to congratulate you on such a wonderful post. Though I have not experienced a comment like this it does resonate with me on many levels and I am glad you, through your blog or other venues are raising an excellent point.

    I do agree that these subjects should be discussed in teacher training courses but in my opinion the bigger issue is sadly the lack of sensitivity and “touch” for foreign matters. One can only assume that the trainee that made that comment was of course a native speaker him/herself. The comment not only suggests what you so beautifully describe but it also implies the trainee’s perhaps annoyance with accents in general.

    On many occasions as a I went deeper into the English language (native Spanish speaker here) I often felt ashamed of my accent and frightened of what others would say once they heard me speak. This has since thankfully passed. Still have the accent but I am proud of it as everyone else with one should. One thing I would love to know is what or how the non-native speakers in your class reacted to the comment. Insensitivities like these do create more insecurities in non-native speakers and this hinders their language advancement.

    I would like to invite you to read my latest post on my blog which incidentally briefly describes my journey learning English and the fears I went through with my accent as I moved along:
    “Tales of a foreigner in the U.S.: Learning English”

    All best and thanks for posting this!

    1. Hi Mauricio, thanks very much for your comments.

      It may surprise you to learn that the trainee who made this comment was a non-native speaker with many years’ teaching experience (despite being on a pre-service certificate course). In fact, in general, when I come across the ‘native speakers have the best accents’ view (not in so many words), it tends to be from non-native speakers. The native speakers I’ve heard say similar things but with more hedging and apology, as if they’re perfectly aware that they’re being discriminatory, whereas the non-native speakers have tended to openly lavish praise on their native-speaking colleagues, considering it a flattering compliment. I suppose it has often been said, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…

      To be fair, I think such comments are often intended and perhaps even perceived as such–as a kind, positive observation on someone’s pronunciation, not as a controversial (potentially offensive) value judgment. It’s only from studying more about this topic myself that I’ve become much more aware that this is really symptomatic of latent discrimination pervading the whole ELT world.

      I’m sorry to hear that you spent so long feeling ashamed of your accent and being frightened of what others would say when they heard you speak, but it’s great that you’re so open about these feelings now. Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s not the first time I’ve heard such an account, but it still makes me sad!

      Anyway, you wanted to know how the other NNS trainees reacted to the ‘native speakers’ comment. To be honest, I pushed past it so quickly that I didn’t have enough time to really reflect on everyone else’s reactions. Perhaps I should have paused for a second, but I’d be wary of embarrassing the trainee who made the comment. I did notice the NS trainees who were being referred to seem to squirm in their seats a bit, but perhaps I’m seeing what I expect to see. If it ever happens again, I’ll pay closer attention to the others’ reactions!

      Thanks again for your comment & the link to your own blog post. I’ll be sure to check it out.


  5. Well said Laura. It’s so frustrating. Do you think that teachers on teacher training courses like these need more explicit input about ELF? Like most prejudices, this trainee’s comment seems to stem from ignorance and I wonder if they had a better understanding of everything you’ve said here, whether they would have still said the same thing.

    Even on my DELTA course, although we had one input session on English as an International Language, I still don’t feel there was enough connection made between this and what we actually do as teachers in the classroom, and the implications this might have with regard to our learners’ needs, and the industry as a whole. I don’t mean to say at all that it’s your individual responsibility as a teacher trainer, because I imagine you have a strict syllabus to follow in order for those trainees to meet the given criteria. But my question (a genuine one, as someone who’s far from becoming a teacher trainer!) is whether you think changes are needed in teacher training programmes in order to raise awareness of ELF and ultimately bring about a shift in perception of the NN-word?

    1. I absolutely think these issues need to be discussed in teacher training courses, and throughout the course, not just as a brief nod to ‘other issues’ in a one-off input session. This just allows them to be continually sidelined.

      So yes, I think shifts in perceptions come about from greater discussion, education, training, call it what you will. They’re very difficult to effect–it takes a long time. But I also don’t mean to imply that everyone SHOULD change their views. It may be that after long, painstaking analysis and discussion, some of us continue to hold the views we hold, but at least then we’d be in a better position to justify them, right? There are plenty of situations where speaking like a native speaker of a language is a reasonable goal, but I don’t see why it should be a foregone conclusion that this is the ONLY goal, and anyone who fails to reach it is- well, a failure.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think the important thing is just to be aware of options and alternatives to mainstream ways of thought, to question them and to question one’s own views and see if they stand up to scrutiny. This goes both ways, I reiterate: I don’t mean to suggest native speakers have no place, or rights, or significance in the world. I just mean that they shouldn’t have superior status conferred on them as a matter of course, and equally non-native speakers shouldn’t automatically be consigned to the ‘deficit’ bin, as though they’re some sort of ‘failed native speaker’.

      Incidentally, the trainee who made The Comment was actually a good 20 years older than me, and though I don’t think age doesn’t mean views can’t be changed, long experience of thinking one way does make it harder.

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