Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The authenticity trap

Whenever I go to Japanese restaurants outside Japan, I'm always a bit annoyed to find they're entirely staffed by Chinese people. After spending years in Japan, I'd quite like authentic sushi lovingly crafted by authentic Japanese hands. Anything else is cultural appropriation, right?(I kid, but only a bit.)


Authenticity in an age of mass production is a valuable commodity. It also forms part of the communicative ideal of language teaching. We all like authenticity, but isn't it just discrimination to want Mexicans staffing my Mexican restaurant? Can't the Taiwanese or Japanese produce Whiskey just as well as Scots and Irish?




I'm sure a Mexican woman could make sushi just as well as any Japanese man. There's no logical reason this couldn't be the case. But there is something undeniably attractive about the idea that you're getting the 'real deal' -as fictional as that authenticity might turn out to be. 

This is one of the reasons I'm a little wary of shouting ‘racist’ at someone who expresses a preference for native speaker teachers. I can't help but wonder about my Chinese students. Arriving in Leicester, the first UK city to have a white minority, after being brought up on images of a fictional white Britain often leads to ignorant questions like 'where are all the British people?' For these students having possibly their first foreign experience, 'white' possibly equates to 'authentic'. 

This notion is backed up by research. Kiczkowiak points out, that often 'non-white native speaker teachers are rated less favourably on their pronunciation and teaching skills' than white NS teachers. What isn't always mentioned as much, is the flip side of this. I've noticed that white NNS may be given a pass by students.Their whiteness seemingly being enough to be deemed ‘authentic’.

'Native looking'
Kind hearted and loving



The notion that 'white' means 'authentic' is as silly as thinking someone Japanese will somehow be better at making sushi or Chinese people will be Kung Fu experts. Yet, the authenticity illusion is seductive. Even Kiczkowiak, known for his admirable work on NNS discrimination doesn't challenge it when it is presented in the right way. In a podcast episode his co-host and he, discussed the merits of retaining one’s accent when speaking a foreign language:
R: if I pick up the phone and someone's trying to sell me wine and they have a French accent immediately they're going to be much more credible, I'm going to believe that they know their wine, the wine that they're selling me is of a good quality because of our association between good wine and France...if you have a student in your class is going to be doing a job like that you're actually having a negative effect on their sales figures...and if you're a professor of ancient Rome and do you have an Italian accent that's going to be a really positive thing people are going to saying oh this person is from Rome...it's more believable that they know about this particular subject. (source
As I noted earlier, I think these associations are real, and part of the shortcuts brains employ to save energy. Want to know about wine? Ask a French person! Want to get great Sushi? Find someone from Japan. Want to Learn English? -fill in the mental shortcut students have for English speakers. That these stereotypes exist is undeniable. But as with all kinds of mental biases, we get smarter when we learn to recognise and discard them.

7 comments:

  1. The sushi analogy works really well.

    For example, someone who has lived in Japan at least is going to know what sushi is, and roughly how good it is in terms of quality, even if they aren't able to make it.

    I often find 'Japanese' restaurants abroad don't get anywhere close to being authentic.

    On the other hand, someone who didn't spend time in Japan but who has trained under a knowledgeable sushi chef is going to be able to make good sushi.

    Much like a well-trained language teacher, native or non-native.

    So I guess the rule of thumb (Japanese person for sushi, native speaker for language teacher) kind of works *if you aren't able to determine their level of skill*.

    If you can, that is clearly more important.

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    1. Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment.

      You make a good point. Though the argument is even stronger for native speakers as it's possible to imagine some Taro Suzuki out there who despite being Japanese has no idea how to make sushi, it is a little difficult to imagine a NS who wasnt....well...a native speaker.

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  2. Interesting and with the restaurant business connection to this, something I've thought a certain amount about myself. Where this little anecdote connection tends to fall apart (maybe?) is that it's often through experience at say, a Chinese-owned and employed Japanese restaurant (or Thai or whatever), the food made is absolutely not authentically Japanese. There's a fusion or crossover in terms of the way it's made or prepared. This seems more important to a number of us than Italian food, though one having traveled through Italy might disagree.

    I suppose, however, that this authenticity when it comes to language teaching may not be wholly different, depending on who is making the claim and ultimately the adeptness at teaching the language that is being experienced. To me, it doesn't seem to quite be a relevant comparison to that Japanese restaurant we mention, but again, perhaps that student enrolled might have the same type of 'ugggh, this is not real English' experience in their past too.

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    1. Hi Tyson,
      Thanks for dropping by.

      you're right that Italian food is something that people don't seem to care that much about the origin of. We don't care who makes our pizza as long as it tastes good. I think though, despite the exception, the point about authenticity stands. Would you 'prefer' (get excited about) Italian food if someone told you it was coming from some old, Sicilian grandma or bob Jones?

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  3. Is it just an authenticity issue or are there also actual benefits to having a native english speaker teaching english?

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    1. Interesting question. What would those benefits be?

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  4. This is a fantastic topic, and hotly debated. The NS heuristic is a very relevant topic, especially for budding EFL teachers in this part of the world.
    I think that the sushi analogy can be one-upped if we look at things from the "teacher as sage" standpoint, or the 'Michael Jordan' complex (both of which I just made up, but they are one and the same). That is, when a youngster learns basketball drills, it would be an absolute DREAM to learn from Michael Jordan, right? Stay with me here.. An EFL student imagines himself (or herself) as being able to read, write and speak just like his/her native speaker peers. You can't, however, become Michael Jordan by learning from your high school basketball coach.
    That's not to say that NNS are less capable to teach. Indeed, NNS in TEFL often have a deeper understanding of grammatical rules, etimology, etc.
    The difference is not in functionality of the teacher, but rather exclusively in the viewpoint of the learner.
    I have not seen studies (yet) on the correlation between student teacher admiration and test scores.

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