Tuesday, 30 July 2013

EBEFL asks!

Hey guys I quit twitter (for now)! productivity here I come!

I'm really snowed under right now but just wanted to post a little something so here goes (without twitter, will anyone read this?)

I have some questions and so I'm hoping you readers out there will do the work this time. There are a couple of things I don't get and so I'm hoping you can explain them to me.

1. democratic appeals

English as a Lingua Franca articles always begin with the assertion that there are way more NNS of English than NS, so who are we to tell them how to speak?! This argument seems to make a lot of sense, and I'm always one to argue that common usage usually wins, but something doesn't add up here.

If we accept this numerical logic then wouldn't that lead to 'global English' being some kind of mix between Indian English and Chinese English? After all, they have far and away the most English speakers.

If that's not what it means, then what am I missing?

2. "native speaker" bashing.

You can't say "native speaker" anymore. Well, if you enclose it in square quotes to stop it escaping onto the page you can, -otherwise no one in the TEFL world will take you seriously. I've read a ton of books and been to conferences lately where a fair bit of native speaker bashing has gone on.

I heard things like "so-called native speaker" and "native speaker -whatever that means". All of this was all well-intentioned I might add, and seemingly an attempt to be inclusive, but I get confused because I think I do have an idea what a native speaker is.

the argument seems to go that people have varying levels of proficiency within the language and some NNS clearly know more vocab or can even speak better than supposed NS so how can we sensibly talk about "native speakers" when a clear distinction can't even be drawn?
Well that's true, but then I think I know what red and orange look like and I think I could point at something and tell you if it were one or the other. Now anyone who has used a posh art program on a computer has seen that huge range of colours going from orange to red to the point where you're not quite sure which side of the colour divide they land on. But despite this, I've never heard of anyone claiming that we shouldn't talk about "so called red" or "orange whatever that means".

Is this a bad analogy? What am I missing?

Comments below please -help to educate me!


  1. Hello!

    Answer to your first question: of course. :o)

    To me, the only real issue is the assumption that a native speaker of x necessarily makes a better teacher of x than a non-native speaker. Most native speakers of any language who haven't studied the language formally and haven't trained to teach it won't have the formal awareness necessary to explain to less fortunate beings why we say things like this in this context, but like that in that context. Most such native speakers will just say we do that because it feels right, or because that's what it is, or will smile sympathetically and think we're a bit odd to even ask in the first place. Without wanting to stereotype stupidly, I'd say that's probably the same as a physicist feeding on physics since the day (s)he was born and then getting asked why a kilo of feathers is not lighter than a kilo of potatoes.

    I think the real answer to the real question is: well trained teachers are better than poorly trained teachers. There are native speakers and non-native speakers in both categories.

    But that probably doesn't answer your question. :o)

    Have a really productive summer!


    1. Hi Florentina! Nice to hear from you!

      I agree, NS do not > NNS and quite often the reverse is true. It's interesting because a colleague of mine went to talk to a uni Dept. about what problems they had with NNS students' writing. The lecturer said "punctuation" which surprised all of us. After looking at quite a lot of NNS writing at uni level it seems to me punctuation would probably be the last thing they had to worry about.

      Stay in touch (^_^)

  2. 1. I hate this argument. All of us agreeing on a framework of language should not be a constant counting of opinions and taking of polls. How confusing. I think it's important to take into account how Non-Native Speakers use language, but counting them up and declaring them the "winners" doesn't seem helpful.

    As an example, I used to use the word "couch" nearly exclusively. When I began teaching in Japan I realized students immediately understood the word "sofa" but not "couch." I began changing my word choice because "sofa" is a perfectly valid English word in my country. Should I also have accepted and explained the usage of "sha fa" because it's a perfectly valid Chinese version of the English word I was using? To me the democratic appeal is saying I need to be teaching this word, and furthermore there are seven other ways to say That Thing in the Living Room You Sit On so prepare for my lecture series on...it.

    I equate counting with being bogged down.

    2. I do agree that Native Speaker is still a useful term in certain situations. But it is slippery. On the JET Programme, teachers of English were referred to as Native Speakers. Often. However, there were more than a few teachers who were proficiently teaching English under the Native Speaker label despite not being actual Native Speakers. My friend from Singapore learned a dialect of Chinese first, then learned English in school, and eventually ended up teaching this English through JET. For all intents and purposes he is a Native Speaker of English, but a different kind of it. How do we differentiate this? Should we? What should we call him? What about another teacher who didn't learn English in her home country but instead studied the language there and then moved to Canada, living there for several years before becoming a teacher. Is this a Native Speaker?

    I think the confusion with the term is tied up with the confusion over the term "Fluent" and what that means (whatever that means!)

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I remember a company that specialized in language jobs. I was searching on it years ago and came across the terms "fluent", "mother tongue" and "native speaker" and was wondering how the people who wrote those ads perceived the difference. I guess "fluent" would be bottom of the pile in this case.

  3. Thank you for your post. I love your analogy of the "so called red" or "orange whatever that means" ! it's great ! (here is a good link about how different cultures can see colours : http://www.empiricalzeal.com/2012/06/05/the-crayola-fication-of-the-world-how-we-gave-colors-names-and-it-messed-with-our-brains-part-i/) As a learner I must say I *love* learning from native speakers of English. I feel their language is much richer. Of course, you can always find counter examples, and an uneducated native speaker may not have a very rich vocabulary, but on the whole, I can say I always learn something from a native speaker of English. OK, this was just my 2p from a learner point of view. Alice

    1. THanks for your comment Alice. Nice to hear from you.

  4. Hi EBEFL,

    Here are my two cents:

    I am one of those who feels odd about the NS/NNS labels. My first languages were Italian and English. Spoke both like a 'native speaker' by the time I was 6 years old. I left the US at that time and didn't continue speaking in English. Instead, I started using Spanish more. When I came back to the US at age 17, I had to take ESL classes. But wait, am I a NS? a NNS? I really don't care. People who hear a foreign accent when I speak like to think I am a NNS. Those who don't hear it say I am a NS. Guess it isn't that clear, right? Not an orange and red thing in my experience.

    Many NNS speak English in a way that is hard to differentiate from NS. I wish we had a better label because being a NS doesn't really mean much. There are NS who make tons of grammatical mistakes and have a low vocabulary. So what do we really mean when we say NS?

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment.

      So what you're saying is that it's hard to define you as either a NS or a NNS, right? You're kind of somewhere in the middle. But you are in the middle of something right? Or you can't be in the middle...

      I mean, you say that "NS doesn't really mean much" but you really do have an idea of what a NS and a NNS are, don't you. despite those people who don't fit neatly in the middle.

      Some children are born with ambigious gentials, but that doesn't negate the idea of a man and woman does it?

      But this example isn't very good because level of NS/NNS can fluxuate, can't it? A better example is the one given here.
      This is the continuum fallacy or the "bald man" fallacy. If I asked you to tell me if someone was bald or whether they had hair then you no doubt could, but it can be framed like this:
      "Fred can never be called bald. Fred isn't bald now. However, if he loses one hair, that won't make him go from not bald to bald either. If he loses one more hair after that, this loss of a second hair also does not make him go from not bald to bald. Therefore, no matter how much hair he loses, he can never be called bald."

      This clearly isn't true. We quite happily use the terms, Bald, male or orange despite the problems. So what's wrong with the term "NS".

  5. Dear Russell,

    Not sure where I should begin - apologise for missing your name on the blog (cool title BTW) or for using the female pronoun (I think I may have done that to rattle your cage and get you to "come out") ;-) The point is mute in your case - now...and I will look at "about sections" more carefully in the future ;-)

    I think I was a little miffed as I had been getting a few anonymous comments (quite rude in some cases - as Alice notes) on my own blog. At the time, I just did not get it - and I kinda jumped when I saw your post and Mike's comments (it was the wrong time and place to make the point). Mike (and Alice) is perhaps right - there are some cases when not handing out one's name is necessary. I guess I do not get why someone would would do this with a whole blog - in every post.

    Anyways, back to NNS's and NS's. I hear you (I do) - I know many teachers (and students) that feel the same. However, I'm not sure what people really mean when they say "I want to speak like a NS" is that they want to "be" a NS - I think what they really mean is "as well as I can".

    The NS "standard" is a bit of a false one - and there are many decision-makers that use it to make the "wrong" decisions - for example, hiring a NS because they assume that a NS is a "better teacher". There is no logic to this - and, in many cases, it is clearly a false assumption...a false assumption that can, and does, harm the quality of student learning.

    I also know many teachers who use this notion of "NS-like qualities" to present themselves as something that they are not. For example, I once observed (a couple of times) an excellent teacher (with very solid EL skills)...the problem was - when she was in a classroom, she "put on" an accent, "upped" the level of her accuracy and also changed her body language. When we discussed this (and it was a difficult conversation to have - a very difficult one) - I suggested that this may be giving her more trouble/stress that she deserved...and that she may, in fact, be giving students a "false understanding" with regards what was "good language". The good news is that she did hear me - and also got that it was important for educators to be as "real" as they can be...that is the best type of role-modelling we can give students.

    As Mike said in his original post - I do not think the labels help at all. Is NS language "better" than NNS varieties? I guess "beauty" is in the eye of the beholder - but then we are talking about NNS teachers and their NS counterparts, the quality of language is just one factor. Passion for learning and talent for LEARNing others trump EL skills any day ;-)


    Take care,


    1. Sorry it's taken me so long to reply. You wrote:
      "The NS "standard" is a bit of a false one - and there are many decision-makers that use it to make the "wrong" decisions - for example, hiring a NS because they assume that a NS is a "better teacher". There is no logic to this - and, in many cases, it is clearly a false assumption...a false assumption that can, and does, harm the quality of student learning"

      I agree, but are schools hiring NS because they think they teach better or because their customers think they teach better? It's hard to take a stand when you're out of business.

      you ask "is NS language better than NNS varieties" to which I would reply "I don't know". The point of my post was merely to say there IS something we can call a NS and likewise a NNS. Whose English is better is a different question.

  6. About your first question, as there are more second language English speakers and EFL speakers in Asia, on the face of it, that should become the seat of English language. Anf if it does, does it matter? But then many of the Asian speakers use it for business purposes to speak to other foreigners; it is a tool and not regarded in the same way English language is by the, now, minority of NS.

    Get out your chopsticks.