Thursday, May 15, 2008

Native English speakers and non-native English speakers

By Dick Tibbetts - University of Macau, Macau

I have been thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of being a NS or NNS teacher. I started to make a list but pretty soon found that neither group is homogeneous and you can't make many blanket claims. In many cases you can't even say "a majority of ...." and i had to fall back on "some".

Here's my list. Perhaps people would like to add to it.

Non-native English Speakers (NNS)

NNS advantages

1 Many NNS teachers share an L1 with their students and this means
2 they can see more clearly where the L1 is helping or hindering L2 acquisition. Having a good knowledge of both languages is a great advantage.
3 They can translate a word for students when they know that translation gives a clear idea of meaning and there is a one to one correspondence in the L1/L2.
4 They know what the learners are going through. They have experienced it themselves.
5 They know the systems in place in the countries they teach and thus they know when not to rock the boat and when things can be changed.
6 They can bond more easily with their students. They don't make cultural gaffes. They are more aware of what motivates and does not motivate in their culture.
7 When assessing material they have a better idea of what is culturally transparent for students and what is not.
8 NNS teachers who do not share the L1 of their learners encourage the learners to use the target language and have a knowledge of some of the trials and tribulations of learning the target language. When these NNS teachers have multilingual classes this really is an "English as an international language" environment and it is a very healthy atmosphere for learning.

NNS disadvantages

1 In 3rd world countries, and I'm afraid, in China, there is a shortage of EFL teachers and there are quite a number of NNS teachers who are not proficient in English and have difficulty in writing a complex sentence without errors. It's unfortunate, it's not their fault and they do not have the money or time to take action to improve their English but it does detract from their ability to teach the language.
2 In some countries teacher training is limited to a rather narrow pedagogical perspective. I know this can happen in NS courses too but my experience is that course in my own country expose you to a variety of methods even if they are biased towards one view.
3 In a homogeneous culture, especially one where nationalism and tradition are valued, it's hard to accept changes. This is even more true if the changes are felt to come from outside. Traditional language teaching in China derives in part from the grammar translation approach from the West, but once it did get taken on board it became Chinese and it's hard for young teachers to go against the tried and tested ways of their peers and superiors.
4 Some teachers teach largely in the L1.
5 Teachers who are too dependent on the learners L1 in their teaching find it very hard when they have a multilingual class. Cantonese teachers of English in Hong Kong who get mainlanders, Mandarin speakers, in their classes can find the going rather tough. Some have refused to accepted Indians and Nepalis in their classes because they do not speak Cantonese and thus cannot be taught in the same class.

Native English Speakers (NS)

NS Advantages

1 NS teachers have an intuitive knowledge of what is said and isn't said in their own dialect.
2 They are likely to have a larger vocabulary than some NNS teachers.
3 They are, with this knowledge of their own dialect, theoretically in a better position to study their own language and analyse it to see how it works.
4 They are better grounded in the metaphorical base of their language, something that CLT has ignored in the pursuit of information transfer at the cost of attitude and representational language.
5 They are often used to teaching multilingual classes.
6 A large number of NS teachers have learned another language and have experienced the problems of language learning.
7 In learning other languages they have often been exposed to different methodologies and can compare them. I learned French through grammar translation, German through the situational method, Greek via an AL textbook, Tok Pisin through contact with NS speakers of the language and Cantonese through choral repetition, a method totally divorced from meaning or communication.

NS Disadvantages

1 Some NS teachers think that being a NS is sufficient for being an EFL teacher
2 Quite a few NS teachers, myself included, have never learned any second language beyond lower intermediate or intermediate levels. They do not have experience of learning a language to an advanced level.
3 Although they can learn about the learner's L2, and this helps them identify learner problems, they do not have the resources in this area that NNS teachers possess.
4 They cannot utilise the learner's L1 as a resource in the way that NNS teachers can.
5 Although they are NS, they can be prescriptive and try and teach learners things they do not say or do in their own speech and writing. They often insist that the sentence is the prime unit of communication in spoken English and they promote and insist on prescriptive grammar rules like "no prepositions in sentence end position" and all the rest of it. Of course there are NNS teachers who also do this.
6 NS teachers can be culturally arrogant.
7 NS teachers can be cultural and linguistic imperialists. On the other hand, the cultural suppositions on which the metaphors of English (basic metaphors like the "time is space" metaphor of the going to future) are important to the language and need to be taken on by the learner. By the way, this can be done and has been done by speakers of Indian English and you can see the way in which they have adapted the metaphors of English public schools to Indian culture. Still, those teachers who try and create little England (or Little Rock or little anywhere) in Wuhan or Harbin, do English a disservice.

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