“All borders are explanations of identity. We construct borders, literally and figuratively, to fortify our sense of who we are; and we cross them in search of who we might become. They are philosophies of space, credibility contests, latitudes of neurosis, signatures to the social contract, soothing containments, scars.”
Frances Stonor Saunder [LRB]
British Journalist and Historian
This month we’re re-visiting a perennial hot topic in ELT, which is, Native (NESTs) vs Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs). I think March is a good month for this debate as it was originally dedicated to Mars, who was the god of war, competition, and glory. The main issue that we come across is that NNESTs are not seen as competitive on the global market as NESTs. I want to address why that is, and also why the discourse around “Native Speakerism” and authenticity have failed to make any headway– We see the same re-hashing of why one is better than the other and vice versa, without any concrete resolution. We’re not going to resolve this here (or any time soon) but a large part of that is because the debate has thus far been relatively insular and myopic. That is to say, we’ve run this idea through the same channels and with the same voices.
This isn’t an issue specific to ELT though. It’s part of a broader anthropology of education and that in itself really resists the kinds of technicalities we as English professionals want to impose on the subject in terms of skill sets and who brings what to the table. So, perhaps the conversation continues to be re-hashed because it hasn’t been framed correctly. The competition between NEST and NNEST isn’t a competition of competing skill sets but the commodification of the western teacher (who is generally speaking, white and Commonwealth). We should consider that language schools (and other LTOs) and their clients aren’t paying for skill, they are paying for an authentic experience, and for many of them a white teacher, a native speaker, is the closest they will come to experiencing the Western world. So instead of an evaluation of of who is a better model for pronunciation or has more extensive knowledge of phrasal verbs, we should be looking at this debate from an interdisciplinary perspective. This issue encompasses the philosophy of aesthetics, i.e. what an English teacher should look like and what they should sound like and also, the cult of fetish that has grown up in the industry around these ideals. Both of these must be explored through the legacy and lens of post-colonialism, history, and the performance of identity.
In this article, I’m going to focus on the NNEST issue as it relates to Europe rather than Asia. Mainly because Europe is really the genesis of this debate yet most of the attention has been focused on European NNESTs struggling to gain access to Asian (including Middle Eastern) markets than vice versa. Also the most prominent voices of the TEFL equality movement are coming from European/EU Academics and teachers at the moment. TEFL Equity Advocates (TEA) is one of the organisations at the forefront of the NNEST equality movement. And while their work is respectable, I find it slightly problematic in the global discourse given that despite their “Non-native” status, the are privileged in the EU/EEA in terms of priority in employment .
Everything starts with Empire. Mars was a major figure in the Roman Empire (especially in the Western regions) and rather than being an agent of destruction, he was seen as a stabilising force, bringing peace and stability through conflict. (Think Orwell, “War is Peace.”) And so the idea of competition as an exercise of peace in Europe and the West is very much ingrained in western narratives. In the West, competition is still considered as a good thing. The evolution of European politics, society, and economics has been a game of one-upmanship for centuries. This narrative though is seemingly at odds with those in the East, which generally place a much higher value on harmony. Unsurprisingly, Asia seems to be the major bone of contention for NNESTs in terms of competitiveness.
“To give just one example, many countries have strict visa restriction whereby only citizens of 7 countries are classified as NES: the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Such visa restrictions legitimize native speakerism and racism, giving the public and the ELT community an impression that discrimination is legal and thus acceptable. They also legitimize the false belief that English is primarily spoken in those 7 Inner Circle countries. That it is their English that NNES students and teachers should imitate. Mind you, there are over 50 countries where English is the official language, and the country with most English speakers in the world is not the US, but India. While on the other hand, only about 5% of South Africa’s population are NES.”
-TEA Website (link to full article)
The author here is completely correct. Visa restrictions by nationality are completely superficial and do little arbitrate the calibre of those teachers who are allowed in. What this fails to take into account is that both NESTs from the United States and Commonwealth countries are essentially locked out of the EU labour market as well despite being native speakers. By law, a company must be able to justify hiring a foreigner over a citizen/national of that country and then the whole of the EU. There are ways around this of course, but most companies don’t want to bother with the paperwork involved or the hefty sponsorship fees. Have a look on any Tefl job board advertising positions in Europe and you’ll see “EU Nationals perferred” or “We can only accept applications from those with the right to work in the EU.” That right to work requires a job offer, which is a nice little catch-22 to get around the fact that they simply will not hire a non-EU citizen. So while I sympathise with the plight of the NNEST trying to find work abroad, they too must acknowledge that they are privileged in many ways. I am, myself, a native speaker, with a Masters Degree, CELTA, and almost 10 years experience in teaching. Yet an NNEST from Italy or the Czech Republic would be given first consideration for a teaching job in the EU since I hold an American passport. If European NNESTs want to have a moral standing in this debate they should be willing to fight against the restrictive labour laws in their own backyard. We should remember that empires, both ancient and modern, don’t fall because of external competition; they usually collapse under the weight of their own moral failings.
What constitutes nativity and specifically the performance of being native is part of a very extensive and nuanced narrative of identity for almost a millennia. The native has always been contrasted against mainstream society as the “exotic other” and in times of empire that otherness was always fetishised. By fetishised I mean the fantasy that the native embodies, e.g. the idea of the noble savage, whose curious yet primitive ways are mythically and morally superior to and uncorrupted by the mainstream/dominant civilization. This too applies to our industry. The white male is automatically perceived as a more authentic choice for an English teacher, and for us teachers it is a mystery as to why that is considering there are just as many qualified teachers who are of colour, who are female, and who are LGBT. The irony here is that in previous eras, the native was always brown-skinned and dark haired under the auspice of a white hegemony whereas now it’s an Aryan aesthetic that is very much sought after in predominately ‘coloured’ societies. Anyone that has lived as an ethnic minority anywhere, of any colour, can attest to this idea that your otherness imbues you with some kind of innate talent and to make that judgement based on a visual aesthetic is specious. The Native English teacher of today has become a commodity to be fetishised over and as much as we can see it as a position of privilege, it’s still racism.
English is a global and inclusive language, our industry should be too.
We have the responsibility to use our privilege in our classrooms, in our schools, in our adopted homes, and in our own countries to challenge perceptions, break down legal barriers, and educate our learners about the diversity of English.