Is the customer always "right"? Why this race to the bottom?
There is slowly a gathering of voices, a moving of the goal posts when it comes to the issue of “native speakerism”. See our news feed with many fine articles and resources on this topic.
I produced this video summary to highlight a number of the relevant issues and points of discrimination regarding the “native speaker” mindset. Let me enumerate them in brief below.
First, what exactly does the broad term “native speakerism” refer to?
Adrian Holliday frames the issue as ideological. The “native speaker” mindset is almost “aryan” in that it creates a division of the “noble” and “clean” vs the “ignoble” and “unclean”. Read his full article in the attached PDF below. It’s worth a read.
For me, native speakerism refers to a set of beliefs representing the idea that there is an ideal way to both speak and teach English and that ideal stems from the innate process of being born into the English language. It’s a rehash of the age old debate of prescriptivism vs descriptivism - that there is or isn’t a “standard” English.
This idealized view of language creates a “monolingual bias” and centers power in the hands of those born of English, not grown or living in English.
It’s problematic for many reasons - most of all being that it assumes incorrectly language is something static, standardized, unchanging and a “perfect form” that people should aspire to. Clearly though, language is not so. Language is something we use, a “function” or tool used for communicating with each other. Accuracy is only one small part of communicative competence.
We do need to fight against the model of native speakerism because it promotes “haves” and “have nots” (as superbly described by Silvana Richardson in her classic plenary on the topic) and divides speakers, not based on merit but ideology and bureaucratic “standards” and conditions. The eminent linguist David Crystal calls “native speakerism” a complete myth.
Why is there this thing called “native speakerism” if it is so wrong?
Besides a fundamentalist and wrong belief set about what language is and how it is learned/acquired, the myth and ideal of a “native speaker” rides on past its colonial roots because of money. That’s sad but it is simply the truth.
Selling a product starts with marketing and English language teaching is entrenched in the profit, business mindset. And to sell, you need to hold up a perfect world up before the poor customer and say, “Now, just do what I tell yo to do and you too can speak, communicate, understand, teach, just like them (the native speaker). We all know the pitch - “Use Real English!” “Speak like a Native Speaker”, “Practice with Native Speakers” …
And of course, setting up barriers within this selling process, thresholds that the poor sod “non-native” must reach is also very profitable. Tests, visas, study holidays, accent reduction coaching, qualifications, travel, textbook purchasing and on and on and on …
Basically, it is a system set up to make millions feel half-ass, unworthy. It’s wrong.
THE DAMAGE DONE
The harm that espousing, promoting native speakerism does.
This is by no means a complete and exhaustive list. Just off the top of my head. Short and sweet points so we can clearly see native speakerism as the harm it most surely is.
Job discrimination. Lower pay for teacher “have nots”. Exclusion in the hiring process of teacher “have nots”.
Accent absurdity. People feeling uncomfortable about their accent and how they speak. Poor self-image.
Visa discrimination. So many countries still believe English teachers are born with a passport approval sign stamped on their behinds. The rest, no visa for you.
Research. Professional Development. It all becomes focused on “English only”. You got to publish in English to be someone. You must attend conferences that are all in English - even though 90% attending speak the same language. I believe this to be very damaging. If the emphasis is on professional development, on knowledge - this should be done in one’s first language in most cases.
Parachutin-In Gurus. The old gentlemen from afar who jet in and paraded before the lowly masses to make everything alright with their “native speaker” knowledge, all-wise ways.
Progress is being made. Thank god. I’ve seen changes during my 30 year career but the change is slow. In ELT. In International education. We need more voices standing up and demanding a meritocracy be put in place and we are all judged on how we use the language, our ability to teach - and not anything else.
And to end, let’s all stop feeding the beast and maybe completely erasing the word “native speaker” from our vocabulary. Bilingual teacher, bilingual student … might be a place to start.
Alas, keep up the good fight.