Reference to native-non-native speaker labels in research

I have said publicly that I’m not prepared to review any journal submissions that use the native-non-native speaker labels without critical discussion of them. This set me thinking when and when not it would be appropriate to use the labels in research – and to come up with the following. It is also to do with how to write about contested issues.

Whenever the core concept that you are writing about is contested you cannot treat it as though it isn’t. Also, you can’t say that it’s contested and how and why it’s contested and then proceed to use it in the rest of your paper as though it isn’t. I’ve seen so many pieces of writing that do this. It’s as though the initial critique is only there because the writer is going through the motions of literature review without really understanding it.

You can critique the constructed, imagined concepts of native-non-native speaker labelling. You can research the nature of the construction of the native-non-native speaker labels.

What you cannot do is research the characteristics of ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ because these groups don’t actually exist except as ideological constructions. You can’t research what students think about ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ teachers because these teachers don’t actually exist except as ideological constructions.

You can however research what students think about what they imagine are ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. If you do that, however, you should continue to remind yourself and your readers that you are dealing with imagined constructions and not actual groups. You are employing a constructivist approach; and you need to show that you understand what that is.

You can’t research anything do to with a sample of ‘native’ or ‘non-native speakers’ because there’s no way you can determine who is and who isn’t. You can’t even talk about a sample of people who are labelled ‘native’ or ‘non-native speaker’ without spending a lot of time getting into who is doing the labelling and on what basis. This would quite likely get into problematic struggles with equally subjective categories such as ‘white’. You can however research people who say that they’re labelled as ‘native speakers’ or ‘non-native speakers’.

You can’t research your own experience of being a ‘native’ or ‘non-native speaker’ because you can’t be a member of a group that doesn’t actually exist except as an ideological construct. You can however research your experience of being labelled ‘native’ or ‘non-native speaker’. You are then discussing what it’s like to be victim of the labelling.

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