on native speaker supremacy
Programs that send native English speakers abroad as language teachers have endured a long history of scrutiny, and for good reason. Simple intuition would tell you that native speakers of any language are better for pronunciation purposes. Sure, but then that raises the question of dialects and accents; especially in the case of English, privilege along racial and class lines is often made apparent by what dialects are represented in classroom materials. The globally recognizable “American” accent overshadows so many regional and ethnic dialects of English within the country, just as Received Pronunciation is a far cry from the diverse dialects across northern England. Not to mention English dialects in liberated colonies such as Singapore and India. I’m sure anyone who’s come in contact with linguistics has heard something like “a language is a dialect with a military” and that’s true!!
Moreover, being a speaker of a language doesn’t equate to being a teacher of the language. There’s a reason we had to take English class. Even I, who am well-versed in grammar through my years of editing, get my head turned around sometimes when trying to explain the particulars of the participle. Being able to explain the nuances of “for most people” and “to most people” with example sentences doesn’t help if you can’t help with the foundations of language learning. A knack for teaching and relating with students has to be coupled with passion for the job in a successful teacher. Don’t get me started on those folks who take up English teaching jobs more for the locale than for the job, which is a whole other conversation about the privilege often afforded to English speakers and that can be misused by world travelers.
The irony here lies, I suppose, in the point that I’m (strictly speaking) not exactly qualified to do what I’m doing. As in, I don’t have any formal training in education—let alone in English as a foreign language. To be clear, this isn’t imposter’s syndrome: I’m smart enough to know that going through formal education isn’t everything, and my experience with learning three other global languages has given me a good place to start. But it still feels… unfair? That my fellow teachers have had to work really hard to get their licenses and make it to where they are while I just graduated college and jumped right in. That native speaker privilege again. Again, I think I’m still a good fit, as I have quite a bit of practical experience from years of language learning, tutoring, and grammar/mechanics-heavy work. But on the larger scale, it speaks to a greater issue.
I don’t expect to solve the EFL neocolonial crisis in a blog post, but I want to encourage everyone—especially anyone who is in my position as an EFL teacher overseas—to think critically about your perspective on English as a global language. At best, a global language helps us all to communicate with each other and transcend borders through a common method of communication. At worst, it’s a language (and the cultures dominant in that linguistic sphere, especially online) imposing itself in places where it may or may not even be necessary. I look at my students and honestly? Most of them will probably stay in this area or maybe the bigger city nearby and not really need English on the daily. I have no doubt that several handfuls of them will be very global adults, but if they don’t, then who cares! As long as they’re happy! I dunno, maybe one day in the far future, we’ll have English everywhere but it’ll be kinda like the northern Europe situation where we can all kinda-sorta-maybe grasp each other’s meaning. But at this time, when the language is still very strongly associated with fair-skinned Europeans and North Americans and their culture, I think it’s important to keep sight of the systems and histories that have made it necessary to global communication—and the new and insidious ways they can perpetuate white supremacy and oppression.
Returning to the point of teaching without a license, I can’t shake a feeling of disingenuity. But I’ll do my best to learn from my coworkers and do my own studying. Already, I’ve encountered the challenge of working with differently-abled students, especially those diagnosed with ASD or ADHD. Ensuring that these students feel seen in a positive way and aren’t unduly criticized for behaviors out of their control is more difficult than you’d think! Uh, unless you think it’s pretty difficult. Which it is.
I was a troublesome kid sometimes. I got kicked out of ballet lessons because I kept sitting under the piano and fiddling with my tutu because it was itchy. I often tripped over my feet because I had to make sure each foot stepped the same number of times, which led to some awkward footwork. I’d get done with work and read in class, then when the teacher sarcastically (?) said I should just go sit facing the wall if I wanna read so bad, I thanked her and did so. I’d tap pens and pass notes and scribble and dissociate not because I was bored but because there was too much [taps forehead] in here!!
And I had teachers who understood. Teachers who gave me extra spelling words to keep me busy, or who let me alphabetize the bookshelves when I finished work, or who let me memorize the “Nations of the World” song for extra credit so I’d stop singing it in class (I still know the whole thing!). School was bearable because they saw me and worked with me. And now that I’m a teacher, I can pay it forward!
Our ADHD students in particular can be disruptive in class. There are four in one of our 7th grade sections, so you can imagine how rowdy they can be. When our special ed teacher filled me in on their accommodations, it all made sense. I saw them. Now I had to work with them. I picked up some yarn and crochet hooks and quickly made a few Mobius strip fidget toys: soft, stretchy, no harm if thrown or torn up. According to our special ed teacher, whenever they come to her classes they have them in hand. I’m delighted! There’s still a lot of work to be done, though. Modifying lessons to be more active will help them release extra energy; making them class helpers will allow for movement while minimizing disruption; team games will help them build bonds with classmates and move and talk. It’s a long road, but my fellow teachers have my back on that.
As for ASD students, I’m happy to see that they’re doing okay. The ones I’ve met don’t seem to experience many of the common difficulties, like sensory overstimulation or ostracization in class. But I’ll keep an eye out.
There are also the energetic overachievers. That was me. Too smart for my own good but not smart (or old) enough to know what to do with myself. One of our 7th graders likes learning English, but class is too slow. I pulled aside one of these students the other day and asked them what they like. Plants? Astronomy? Weather? They like trains. Okay, I said, I’ll come by tomorrow afternoon with something for you. I searched for an English-language article on Japanese train news (a new automatic bullet train in Tokyo) and summarized it in simple English with a short glossary. Bam. We’ll see on Monday if they actually read it, but at least they know I’m firmly in their corner.
I’m learning a lot. My Japanese is improving through both reading books and articles, and speaking with everyone in Japanese. Other teachers have a lot to teach me, often indirectly, about teaching, working with others, and being a good role model. The students are showing me sides of adolescence that I missed with my head stuck in books, or else that I remember all too well. It’s hard to believe it’s been hardly a month! What will I learn next??