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A more inclusive approach to giving advice on learning English (part 1.)

I always think it is not easy to share advice on how to learn English/ how to improve your English. But I guess it’s something beneficial for the community, but at the same time, very marketable — something that I know it would attract a huge group of audience, well though I don’t know how much it can help (again, because it’s difficult and some tips may work on me, but not on you). However, I believe that when you share something, you need to responsible for the information that you are talking about. And when you are some kind of an influencer who can reach out to a large group of listeners, exerting certain influence on them (as stated in the word “influencer”), it’s gonna take you extra effort to work on it — here I say extra, because I know that it takes time, effort, and brain power to create content, but to approach it in a more inclusive way, it’s gonna take even more than that.

So, the story began about a week ago, when I first watched a video of a Youtuber T.P.W., who I believe, is quite famous for creating inspiring content about education, and lifestyle. The video I watched was about 7 steps to learn English from the beginning which she drew from her own experience of learning, working and living in the States. To be honest, I would say it’s a helpful video and it’s a good start for those who are feeling lost in their English learning journey; but I would say it would be better if she could clearly state “which English” she implied in the video, or the purpose of learning English, like is it purely for communication or academic purposes, etc. — so that the content will be more focused and target a more specific group of listeners.

However, the real problem is there are two pieces of advice that I don’t feel comfortable when I heard them being mentioned in the video, so I think I will share my perspective on the advice. And disclaimer: it’s just my point of view — based on the knowledge that I learned at an MSc TESOL programme, no harsh feelings towards any individual that I mention in this post.

I. Học giao tiếp với giáo viên bản ngữ (Learn speaking with native English-speaking teachers)

The point she made was native speakers can help you to correct your mistakes , and use English better, or well, in a more accurate/natural way. The problem that I want to say lies behind the word “native English-speaking teachers, or NESTs. To break it down, I’ll talk about two points: 1) the division of NESTs and non-NESTs, and 2) standard language ideology.

In the field of English language teaching (ELT), the dichotomy of native and non-native speakers is, well, problematic. To be more specific, I’ll cite Braine’s argument (2010). In his book, he explains that while native speaker carries a positive connotation of “a birth-right, fluency, cultural affinity, and sociolinguistic competence”, the counterpart, non-native speaker bears “the burden of the minority, of marginalization and stigmatization, with resulting discrimination in the job market and in professional advancement” (p.9). The so-called discrimination can be interpreted in the above advice as NESTs are better teachers in oral skills because of their native speaker identity.

But, what is a native-speaker, or the definition of nativeness? For this question, I’ll take the definition from Davies (2003, 2004):

Nativeness are characterised by 4 elements: 1. Acquiring the language during childhood 2. Ability to understand and accurately produce idiomatic forms of the language 3. Understanding how standard forms of the language differ from the variant that they themselves speak 4. Competent production and comprehension of fluent, spontaneous discourse.

It can be seen that all of the tenets, except for childhood acquisition of the English language, can be learned post-childhood, as long as the learners has remarkable talent and motivation for learning the language, and are provided with sufficient opportunities to practice and have exposure to the language input (Walkinshaw & Duong, 2012, 2014). So, this dichotomy reveals a very poor basis for discriminating between the two groups.

Moreover, Phillipson (1992) terms “native-speaker fallacy” in his book as a prevalent concept to describe the marginalisation of non-NESTs in ELT. A decade later, Holliday (2006) coins the term “native-speakerism” to refer to the ideology in which NESTs are the ideals of the English language and the English language teaching methodology (p.385). From my pov, although she pointed out that it should a qualified NEST, instead of any native speakers, the advice that she made in the video still seemed to fall into this ideology when it attributed the ability of teaching English speaking to native speaker identity. As the advice, to some extent, align with native-speakerism, the consequence was that it excluded a larger group of teachers — Canagarajah (1999) points out an undeniable fact that the majority of the world’s English language teachers are non-natives, who can also be beneficial to the learning process of any language learners.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The second point I also want to mention is relating to standard language ideology, which can be construed as the way language standards are socially established in terms of what is correct and incorrect. In the video, she mentioned the fact that learners should learn speaking with NESTs as they can help you to pronounce the word correctly or help you with with the use of English in an accurate way. In fact, they are manifestations of standard language ideology — where you have to adhere to a standard variety, which ,in this sense, native speaker norms.

But the reality of English is way more complex than that. English is not a uniform language, instead, many varieties of English — or Englishes are spoken around the world, which may have different features that can be far from some varieties that you are familiar with, like RP English or Standard American English. In fact, even in a particular “native” English, there is variety. Like in the UK, for example, I swear, Glaswegian English is something that caught you off guard the first time (and even many times later) because it’s way more different from the British English you often hear in class. Same for other cities around UK — They all speak English, but it’s not the same English.

And there is a fact we should aware of which is English as a lingua franca (ELF) reflects a better reality of the use of English. ELF speakers are not necessarily on adherence to “standard” English, instead, they can make use of the language in different ways in English speaking interaction. Phonological and lexicogrammatical patterns can be adjusted as strategies to improve understanding (Galloway and Rose, 2015). Likewise, Jenkins (2014) also emphasises that ELF communication focuses on the intelligibility in an intercultural environment. Regardless of their first languages, English, or specifically ELF, is utilised as the communication medium. Thus, depending on different contexts, ELF users can exploit their linguistic resources to negotiate meanings with their interlocutors, thus achieving their communicative purposes.

I believe, this is what should be taught to any language learners. Language keeps changing/evolving, so you need to learn how to use language to learn the language, rather than insisting on a variety that you believe is standard. Again, I think this piece advice is exclusive of many Englishes that the learners may have exposure to, and thus upholds the native-speakerism.

So, in short, the advice excludes not only a large group of English teachers, but also a number of varieties that learners may get exposed in reality. I think, to make it more inclusive, the emphasis should be placed upon practicing oral skills — the choice of teachers and variety of English should be up to the learners and their purpose of learning English. If they think they fancy a specific variety of English, or they intend to study/work in an environment where there are only native speakers, which I believe is quite impossible nowadays, they can choose to learn with a NEST that can help them achieve that goal. However, if they want to learn English to travel, to get access to more opportunities, to study/work in a multilingual-multicultural context, maybe that piece of advice is not the best one.

Reference:

Braine, G. (2010). Non-native speaker English teacher, research, pedagogy, and professional growth. London, UK: Routledge Taylor & Francis.

Davies, A. (2003). The native speaker: Myth and reality. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Davies, A. (2004). The native speaker in applied linguistics. In Davies, A. & Elder, C. (Eds), The handbook of applied linguistics (pp.431–450). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Galloway, N., & Rose, H. (2015). Introducing global englishes. Routledge.

Holliday, A. (2006). Native-speakerism. ELT journal60(4), 385–387.

Jenkins, J. (2014). Global Englishes: A resource book for students. Routledge.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford University Press.

Walkinshaw, I., & Duong, O. T. H. (2012). Native-and Non-Native Speaking English Teachers in Vietnam: Weighing the Benefits. Tesl-Ej, 16(3).

Walkinshaw, I., & Duong, O. T. H. (2014). Native and non-native English language teachers: Student perceptions in Vietnam and Japan. Sage Open, 4(2).


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