What is behind the ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ labels

Further to my last blog, my attitude to the ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ labels may have something to do with my own professional trajectory. I don’t recall them being used at all when I took up my first teaching job at the British Council in Tehran in 1973. Half the teachers were Iranian, including one of the people who first observed me teach. It was all to do with who could teach rather than what their childhood first language was. At the same time I was surrounded by Iranian people who spoke English in my wife’s family and amongst friends; and I never thought of the label in connection with them.

There was however what I now recognise as a sinister view that learning and teaching English required adopting a particular and Western cultural orientation which was constructed and imagined as superior. And this was to do with a practice and use orientation in opposition to a theory and literature orientation, which went with the anti-intellectual audiolingual approach of the time. I now recognise this as a native-speakerist ideology, though I didn’t connect it then with the ‘native speaker’ label.

This did begin to change though, with the advent of the first Cambridge certificate in teaching. I have a distant recollection that there was some discussion about whether this would be open to teachers who were labelled as ‘non-native speakers’. At about the same time, I remember the British Council instituting a new layer of ‘senior teachers’ who I think had to be employed from London, which led to the sudden demotion of locally engaged teachers, including of course all the Iranians. This seemed to be part of an efficiency drive and a new moulding of British Council image. Many of the novels in the library, which had a huge cultural attraction, were replaced with science and technology books, and the content of classes became more centralised with less choice for teachers.

When I did my masters degree at Lancaster I don’t recall anyone ever using the ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ labels in our highly multinational class. (Some of my colleagues there might correct me abut this.) My next two jobs were at universities in Syria and Egypt. And here also I don’t recall any question regarding the English of my Syrian and Egyptian colleagues. They were specialists in their fields and accomplished academics; and I don’t recall use of the label ‘non-native speaker’. Again, however, there was instead an insinuation regarding cultural approaches to teaching and learning that only the foreign, British and American teachers could do because of their imagined superior cultural background.

My conclusion to this experience is therefore twofold. First, as expressed in my previous blog, the ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ labels really are not necessary and have become common within a particular professional discourse. They really have not always been there, and we really don’t need them. It might indeed be argued that the labels began to come to prominence as the modernist desire for definition of targeted skills and content increased.

Second, native-speakerism begins not with the labels but with a far deeper and implicit neo-racist imagination about superior and inferior cultures of teaching and learning. This native-speakerism is therefore deeply and often invisibly behind any mention of the ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ labels. This means that whenever they are used within the domain of international English language education, this insidious neo-racism stands behind them, perhaps with the excuse of the modernist need to define and prescribe.

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