The Native Rules
Radhika Iyer-O’Sullivan, United Arab Emirates
Radhika Iyer-O’Sullivan is an ESL/EFL teacher educator at British University in Dubai. She is interested in collaborative teacher development among ESL/EFL teachers towards lifelong professional development. Her two children keep her busy but she enjoys writing fiction when she gets some spare time. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Introduction: the job scene
Am I native speaker?
Ethnicity versus language
The native dilemma
Sifting through jobs in the education sector when I arrived in Dubai in 2000, I noticed that most advertisements by educational institutions that were advertising for English language teachers had the caption: 'Only native speakers need apply.' One reputable university even went as far as including this: “Please do not apply if you are not a native speaker” and “applications from non-native speakers will not be considered at all”!!! Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to go on and eventually find employment in prestigious institutions that gave me a job based on my merit and qualifications and not my background and origin.
I joined my present university (one of the few universities who do not discriminate according to native and non-native speaker status) in January 2008 as a teacher educator, training student teachers to teach English in local (UAE) schools. A few months after that, I bumped into an acquaintance whom I had not seen in a while. In our short chat, I told her about my new job and her response was: “But you are not a native speaker of English, how can you train others to teach English?” and then added, “and you are also training other non-native speakers to teach English…which means the standard of English in the UAE is just going to get worse!” I was shocked and flabbergasted. Since I came to Dubai, I had seen such discriminatory requirements in advertisements for teaching jobs or for language courses in particular institutions but this was first time that I had encountered a personal attack on my abilities as a teacher and teacher trainer purely based on my nationality and race.
Having been an English language teacher for more than 17 years and a teacher educator for almost ten of those years, I am compelled to ask the question: Who qualifies as a native speaker? In his book, The Non-Native Teacher, Peter Medgyes (1994, p.10) puts forward several definitions that he collated from several other researchers.
A native speaker is a person who….
- was born in an English-speaking country and/or
- acquired English during childhood in within an English-speaking family or
- speaks English as his/her first language;
- has a native-like command of English;
- has the capacity to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse in English;
- uses the English language creatively;
- able to distinguish right and wrong forms in English”
If you examine my personal language background, I would actually fit six of the seven definitions listed above. I was born in Malaysia, where English is a second language so automatically I do not fulfill the first category but I started speaking English from the tender age of four with family members and friends. For me, English is my first language. My mother tongue is Tamil and medium of instruction at school was Malay language except for English which was taught as one subject but in school, I spoke English to all my friends and most of my teachers. I think in English, I curse and swear in English and I speak and write it more fluently that any other language I know. As far as I am concerned, I do possess a native-like command of the language and I am able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse in English. I definitely use English creatively because I have had short stories and articles published and I am able to understand and tell jokes in English with complete ease. I have also had no difficulty in differentiating between right and wrong forms in English.
I consider English to be my first language. I think in English, I read for pleasure in English and I can sing more songs in English than in any other language I know. I can speak, read and write in Tamil (my mother tongue) but I do not think in it and I definitely do not know how to curse in it. I hardly know any bad words in Tamil. When I curse, I curse in English! I think this alone makes me a native speaker!
I grew up speaking English at home. My sisters and I have always communicated in English and I also used English with my other Malaysian Indian friends. Although Tamil is my mother tongue, I only spoke Tamil to my parents, mainly to my mother. My mother could speak English but she encouraged us to communicate in Tamil with her because she wanted to ensure that we knew our mother tongue. I also used Tamil when talking to my parents’ friends and other older members of the community because it was considered rude if respected elders spoke in Tamil and we responded in English! I also spoke Tamil to Indian shopkeepers, the milkman and the man who came to mow our lawn once month. Even when my sisters did speak Tamil, it was only to say something derogatory about someone else if we were in a situation where we were definite that no one would understand us. So I used my mother tongue, Tamil, in very particular and specific contexts. It was never my language of choice for speaking, reading or writing. I did read Tamil newspapers occasionally but generally, when it was reading or writing for pleasure, I automatically turned to English. My mother took tremendous effort to teach me how to read and write in Tamil and I did peruse the Tamil newspapers in the weekends to read the latest gossip on South Indian celebrities. When I went to Britain at the age of 18 to pursue my studies, I wrote letters in English to my father and in Tamil to my mother. When I was in England, I really missed speaking in Tamil and whenever I returned to Malaysia for holidays, I tried to speak and read as much Tamil as possible, watch lots of Tamil movies and listen to a constant stream of Tamil songs.
The reason I am delving so much into my Tamil language background is to demonstrate how my use and approach to Tamil is more like a second than a first language. I really have to make special effort to find opportunities to speak Tamil, read it and write it. I have to remind myself everyday to do something so that my language skills do not suffer. Since I moved to Dubai, I can already discern a diminishing quality in my writing skills. I do not have to make same effort with English. I do not think about my skills and abilities in English at all. I do not have to think about English in terms of exposure or practice. If there is a concept of language identity, then mine lies with and within English. English comes as naturally and as effortlessly as it does for me to breathe. I do not feel the same way about any other language I know.
Because of my Indian origins, my birth and upbringing in Malaysia and my higher education in Britain, I have an accent that has traces from all three countries. This accent of mine unfortunately does not fall into the category of the native-speaker category. Some of my students and colleagues tell me that I have a British accent. I know I have traces of a British accent merely because I lived and studied in Britain for 6 years but I also know that my British accent is more pronounced when I am at my workplace. I do sound more like a Malaysian when I am relaxed at home or with friends and my Indian accent becomes more discernible when I am within a group of people who are of ethnic Indian origin. So I do it too – I actually subconsciously try to sound more British in carrying out my work because I have subconsciously internalized that if I sound more like a native English speaker, then I would have more credibility as an English teacher and teacher trainer. I think this is an extremely sad state to be in when I am consciously trying to challenge the idea of native-speakers being better teachers of English merely because they spoke the language their entire lives.
However, many people would hesitate to define me as a native speaker of English. This is an issue that I have faced and will continue to face throughout my personal, professional and social life. Thus, I have my own definition. Here it is.
A native speaker is a person who is white, born in an English-speaking country, has an English-sounding name and has an accent that can be traced to one of these: a British variety, American, Australian, New Zealand and Irish. All other accents are unacceptable.
Many of you politically correct folks out there would be leaping up and down about now, challenging my definition. Why white, you ask? Why bring skin colour into it, you ask? You will cite examples of Asians who migrated to England decades ago. Asian children born in Britain now speak English as their first language although their mother tongue may be Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati or Punjabi. They speak English all the time and think in English. Are these folks not native speakers? Yes they are but for many educational institutions, doubt still prevails. The question posed to many of these British Asians (much to their consternation and dismay) is where are you really from? The only reason this question would be posed is because of the skin colour of the person and once the “roots” or ethnic origins have been established, the native speaker issue comes to the fore again.
Now let us look at the second criteria in my definition. Would a British (white) person born, brought up and educated in Indonesia (because his/her parents are based there) still be considered a native speaker? Yes of course, because the passport would still be a British passport. However, if the same child were unlucky enough to have hippie parents who registered the former’s birth in Indonesia, forced him to go to local school and raised him to fit into the cultural context, then his native-speaker status would be questioned until he showed evidence of his parents’ passports. Then, he would immediately be elevated to the status of native-speaker.
I can hear your shouts: English-sounding name counts for nothing. It counts. Look at my name – Radhika. Put that on the cover page of a CV and most institutions would throw the entire document into the bin. If my CV and application for an English teaching job were placed beside someone else’s whose name appeared as Rachel Nolan, guess whose CV and application will be looked at first?
There are hundreds of thousands of people training as English language teachers around the world. But many of these teachers will not get jobs in many institutions because they fall short of the discriminatory criteria used to define native speakers. Medgyes and other researchers who carried out surveys and research on what students thought of non-native English teachers found that students perceived non-native English teachers as having better grammatical knowledge, being able to teach or explain grammar better and focusing on accuracy whereas native English teachers were perceived as better at teaching vocabulary and focusing on fluency. I definitely fall into the latter category because when I look back on my teaching years, my vocabulary lessons were the most stimulating and successful. I still tend to shy away from teaching grammar or explaining grammatical rules. I know what is right and wrong grammatically but I need to research it and prepare for the lesson extensively before I can explain rules or teach a lesson with mainly grammatical input.
So am I then a native speaker of English? I can still hear the loud resounding NO!
If I succeed in changing my nationality to an English-speaking country, will I be a native speaker of English? NO!
If I use skin whitening creams obsessively and turn white, will I be a native speaker of English? NO!
If I change my name to Rebecca, will I be a native speaker of English? NO!
Why? This is because my documents will still say that I was born in a country where English is not the first language and I was born to people who themselves are non-native speakers. Thus, although I perceive myself as a near-native speaker of English, I will be perceived by many as a non-native speaker and that perception can and will affect my social and professional standing in the present and future. Interrelated issues of language and identity that have exacerbated stereotypical prejudices and the failure of particular groups not to accept me as a native speaker have chipped away at my self-esteem and confidence and robbed me of the power being accepted as a valid and fully-qualified ESL/EFL teacher educator.
Most students who attend western-based branch universities would be unhappy if they were told that their English teacher’s name is Arundhati Roy, an Indian or Kazuo Ishiguro, a talented person of Japanese origin who has been living in London from the age of 6. These people are famous writers of English novels who are good enough to be nominated and win the Booker Prize for Literature but they will not be good enough to teach at some institutions in Dubai. Why? They are not native English speakers. One of the greatest English language writers of the 20th century, Joseph Conrad, was a Polish who only learnt English at the age of 37. All over the world, recognition is being given to people who have mastered English. Colleges in Britain, USA, Australia and Canada have non-native speakers teaching English and English Literature. If those countries are willing to employ a person according to merit, experience and qualifications, then why is it that conglomerates representing tertiary education from those very countries who set up campuses overseas are not? For instance, a student who travels from Malaysia to Australia to study would be willing to accept a language teacher of any ethnicity without questioning his/her native-speaker status. However, if that same student was enrolled in the same university’s branch campus in Malaysia, he/she would probably demand that the English language teacher be a native speaker and white.
Most such colleges would defend themselves by saying that they have to conform to students’ demands or to regulations stipulated by local educational authorities of that particular country. Students of any nationality appreciate a good teacher who will respect them and help them to excel. The platform for discriminating against non-native English language instructors is set by the institution itself, not by students. So until these institutions change their racist policy and employ staff according to merit and qualifications, the power remains with the native English speaker.
Medgyes, P, (1994) The non-native Teacher, Macmillan Publishers.
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