Moving away from the idea of the non-native speaker – interview with Silvana Richardson #3

Alastair Horne

Today, in the final part of our interview with Silvana Richardson, we discuss minimum language proficiency levels for teachers, and how learners, officials, and teachers themselves perceive non-native English-speaking teachers.

So if we change the qualifications and courses to match more closely the experience of 90% of teachers, what else do we need to do to actually reflect the reality and to create a level playing field?

The key issue that we need to address as a profession is that we need to reach a consensus about what constitutes a professional teacher’s minimum language proficiency level. (I know that Donald Freeman was problematising the notion of proficiency in his plenary, but until we have a better, or a more evidence-informed, way of deriving what those proficiencies are, I’m happy to say ‘proficiency’.)

The big problem here, I think, is that in many places in the world, demand for language teachers much outweighs supply. So, you are in a situation where you’re so desperate that you appoint someone who knows a bit of English. And in a way, because this situation is so widespread, it becomes the norm – and when something becomes the norm, it’s what we do, it’s acceptable and it becomes the standard.

I think we need, collectively as a profession, to be more vocal and critical about that and to remind ministries of education and local education authorities that that is not what a professional should be like. We should clearly state what the minimum proficiencies or competencies required are for professional teachers to teach English as a foreign language, and until you get there, it’s all about language improvement. If teachers are put in a position where they have to teach English but they do not have the necessary proficiency, then ministries of education and local authorities have to remember that that’s not optimal or even desirable, and they’ve got to build up that professional development at the same time.

What do we do about the fact that lots of employers and learners seem to prefer a minimally competent native speaker teacher to a well-qualified, very competent non-native speaker teacher?

That’s an equally puzzling conundrum, because it’s about changing perceptions and working with prejudice. In commercial organisations– like private language schools – the behaviour tends to be that the client is always right, and if the client says ‘I didn’t come to the UK to be taught by somebody whose first language isn’t English’, or ‘I only want to be taught by a native speaker’ you can argue about how good this non-native teacher’s English is, but ultimately, particularly in for-profit organisations, you are going to have to listen to the customer and do what the customer wants.

Or they’ll go somewhere where they will get that?

Exactly. It’s an interesting situation – sometimes it’s the customers who want the native speaker and so the directors of studies are happier to recruit the native speaker because of that. But also, sometimes trainees and teachers in training situations who are themselves not speakers of English as a first language – sometimes they want a native speaker, so in a puzzling way they’re rejecting themselves, and that’s really what worries me. I think we need to raise more awareness of what those teachers who speak English as an additional language have to offer, and where they’re really valuable. We’re not really aware enough of that ourselves, and because for such a long time the dominant discourse has been that the native speaker is the ideal, we’ve ended up believing it –even the ‘non-native’ speaker teachers.

We need to start rethinking, and moving away from the idea of the ‘non-native speaker’. I personally am increasingly less comfortable being called a ‘non-native speaker’. Some people think it’s just a matter of a label, but underpinning a label is a concept, and we need to contest that. I know that there are currently no satisfactory replacements for the term ‘non-native speaker’, but just to be defined by what you are not is not very positive for your professional self-esteem and self-worth. It doesn’t help me construct myself and my identity as a professional, capable teacher; it’s actually more conducive to rejecting myself. So, it’s a very shaky start, and we need as a profession to find a more satisfactory term to call ourselves.

Thanks to Silvana for answering all our questions! If you missed parts one and two of this interview, you can read them here and here.

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