Zohreh Eslami

The NNEST Caucus Member of the Month
December 2005
Zohreh Eslami
Amir: Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background (e.g. linguistic, academic, professional, …)?

Zohreh: I was born in Mahabad, Iran . I have a B.Ed in English Education, and an M.A. degree in English language from University of Missouri-Columbia. I received my Ph.D. degree in Second Language Acquisition and Teacher Education (SLATE) from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I left Iran when I was 16 years old and have been back and forth between the two countries of U.S. and Iran since then. I have been involved in ESL/EFL teacher education since 1992 at both national and international level and currently teach as an Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University.

My research interests include intercultural and developmental pragmatics. I am currently investigating issues related to the language enhancement of NNESTs in teacher education programs. Different cultural norms as they are reflected in the way we use language fascinate me. My focus in the area of intercultural pragmatics has been on different speech act realizations in Persian and English. My other research interests include TESOL teacher education and sociocultural issues related to ESL education.

Amir: What is your native language, and apart from that and English, do you know any other language(s)?

Zohreh: My native language is Persian. I have limited literacy skills (reading and writing with some understanding) in Arabic as well.

Amir: Would you like to tell us a bit about your hobbies?

Zohreh: My hobbies include reading literary novels and socializing with friends and families. I also enjoy watching different types of movies. One of my most favorite hobbies is taking long nature walks when I find the place and the opportunity. I do enjoy teaching and one of my rewarding experiences is to interact with graduate students who come from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Amir: Can you tell us something about your teaching context?

Zohreh: At the College of Education at Texas A&M University I currently teach both native and nonnative speakers of English in MA and Ph.D. TESOL program. Also I am one of the faculty members involved in a collaborative teacher education program between Texas A&M University and Qatar university in the preparation of elementary school teachers who will be teaching elementary school students in English.

Amir: How do you differentiate the status of NNES in the US (where English is the first language) and those in Iran (where English is a foreign language)?

Zohreh: While the dichotomy between native and nonnative English speaking teachers and the marginalization of NNESTs is an issue in the US, in Iran, such a dichotomy does not exist. Almost all English teachers in Iran are NNESTs. When I was surveying Iranian NNES scholars a few years ago about this dichotomy, they thought it was irrelevant since we do not have NESTs teaching in Iran and therefore the marginalization and the unequal power status does not apply in that context. However, what I have observed is that if a private school hires an NEST (usually a spouse who happens to be living in Iran), parents will pay high amount of tuition to have their children register in that school or kindergarten. That’s the reason I believe we need to reach out to the general public and educate parents about the strengths of NNESTs.

Amir: How did your interest in NNEST issues begin?

Zohreh: My interest in NNEST issues originates from my own status as an NNES professional. Also I have been involved with teacher education of NNESTs in Iran, Qatar, and the U.S. My personal and teaching experiences have given me first hand experience in the marginalization of NNESTs in the field of TESOL both nationally in U.S. and internationally. One of the areas which has captured my interest is the lack of self confidence of NNESTs related to their language proficiency in general and pragmatic competence in particular. I have presented on this topic at TESOL Convention and published a paper in the NNEST newsletter (2004) and have also submitted one manuscript which is under review. I believe that TESOL teacher education programs should explicitly address the English language needs of NNESTs in all the courses included in their curriculum.

Amir: How would you describe the most important contributions of non-native speaker professionals to the L2 learning/teaching, and applied linguistics?

Zohreh: NNES professionals have facilitated demarginalisation of NNESTs and have given voice and visibility to NNESTs and professionals in the field. Issues related to NNES professionals and teachers have become topic of interest and research as witnessed in several publications in the field (See for example, Braine, 1999; Medgyes, 1996; Kamhi-Stein, 2004). As a result of research on this topic the whole construct of native speaker has become under scrutiny and critical research issues of identity, power, prejudice and ethnocentrisms in relation to native/nonnative dichotomy are being discussed in the field.

Amir: How did you get to know about NNEST Caucus? What are the things (if any) you would like to see the Caucus and its members initiate/do?

Zohreh: I became a member of the NNEST Caucus when I came back to the U.S. in 2002 joined TESOL. I became more actively involved after my presentation at TESOL 2003 with Aya Matsuda, Katya Nemtchinova, and Seran Dogoncay-Aktuna. Regarding the future role of the caucus I believe that we need to extend our research scope to expanding circle countries (Kachru, 1992). We also need to integrate the previous research and go beyond the affirmation of the strengths of NNESTs and also address the challenges that some of the NNESTS face because of their language proficiency level. One of the most important issues I have continuously felt in my graduate ESL classes is the lack of perceived confidence and also low levels of communicative English language proficiency of NNES TESOL candidates. We need to openly address this issue and investigate the best strategies that can be used to enhance the language proficiency of our NNES graduate students. In addition, we need to have well designed experimental studies carried out in different contexts to examine the outcome of students’ achievement in terms of language proficiency when taught by N/NN educators. Finally, as mentioned also by Ofra Inbar, I strongly believe that we need to reach out to the general public and educate parents, administrators, and politicians about the strengths of NNESTs. Their perceptions about NNESTs need to be changed and therefore we should be involved in public awareness raising activities about the NNESTs’ strengths.

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