Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the NNEST Caucus
Ana Wu: Could you tell us your background and how you became interested in being an educator?
Prof. Braine:I grew up in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in the 1950s and 60s. My childhood was idyllic. We lived mainly in the countryside, in some places without electricity, plumbing, telephone, or TV, but we didn’t feel deprived. Most people are nostalgic about their childhood, but mine was special. Michael Ondaatje lovingly evokes this Sri Lankan lifestyle in his memoir Running in the Family. Although I have lived abroad for more than 20 years, I am still a Sri Lankan citizen and I visit there often.
In the late 1960s, I wanted to become a journalist, but there were few jobs in that field. So I took an open exam for admission to teachers colleges. I soon discovered that I not only loved the English language but enjoyed teaching it, too. I’ve never looked back, sticking to English and applied linguistics throughout my career.
Ana Wu: You are much known for your research on second language writing and for providing leadership to teachers who are nonnative speakers of English. What were your most vivid memories as you were engaged in establishing a reputable space for NNES professionals?
Prof. Braine:I have always been a voracious reader and reading has made me a better writer. I enjoy writing and teaching it. Most of my academic publications are on various aspects of writing – academic, across the curriculum, in exit tests, on computers, and at the graduate level.
Going onto nonnative speaker matters, yes, I do have vivid memories of that cold Chicago morning in 1996, when the first colloquium was held. Ulla Connor and Suresh Canagarajah were panelists. In the audience were Diane Belcher, John Flowerdew, Ruth Spack, Jun Liu, Lia Kamhi-Stein, Ofra Inbar, Aya Matsuda and others. At that time, I didn’t know all of them but we’ve become friends since then.
I also remember the years following the 1996 colloquium. When Jun, Lia, I and a handful of supporters met at the TESOL Conventions in 1997 and 1998 to plan strategy, we were a somewhat lonely group. To form the Caucus, we were required to have 200 signatures of TESOL members. Those were the years during which I organized a second language writing colloquium at TESOL Conventions, so another memory is that of Jun Liu, working the audience at these colloquia, row by row, to collect signatures.
My edited book Nonnative Educators in English language Teaching was released at the TESOL Convention in New York in 1999. What began as a dream had become a movement, with a publication featuring many of the founding members, and it was a joyous occasion.
Ana Wu: I think you will always be best known as the founding chair of the Nonnative-speaker English Caucus in the TESOL organization, which was officially created in 1998. After ten years of witnessing the transformations and growth of the caucus and its representation in the world and at TESOL organization, is there anything more you would like to see?
Prof. Braine: The Caucus has more than achieved its aims, especially in North America. Since its formation, the number of nonnative speaker serving as English teachers in the USA has swelled to thousands. Discrimination still exists but it isn’t as open as it used to be. After 40 years, we have had a nonnative speaker as TESOL President and the editor of TESOL Quarterly is a nonnative speaker, another first. A number of Caucus members have held notable positions in TESOL. The nonnative speaker movement has changed the landscape of ELT.
Outside North America, in affluent countries, visiting native speakers are often preferred over local nonnative speakers for the better paying teaching jobs. For the millions of nonnative speaker English teachers from poor countries, the challenges are the lack basic resources to improve their proficiency in English and their teaching methods. But, I believe in individual responsibility. Both groups of teachers, whether from affluent or poor countries, need a lifelong commitment to the English language. My main concern now – and I won’t repeat it at length here because I have written and spoken out about it often – is the low English proficiency of many nonnative speaker teachers. “Critical pedagogy” may be fashionable term, but I would like to turn it upon its head and say that it’s ELT pedagogy that’s in critical shape now, mainly because many English teachers are simply not competent enough.
Ana Wu: In your chapter “The Nonnative English-Speaking Professionals’ Movement and Its Research Foundation,” (In Learning and Teaching from Experience, edited by Lia D. Kamhi-Stein, 2004) you said that back in the 80’s, there were topics and issues which could have been better dealt by NNES being handled by researchers who would report secondhand on the experiences of others, NNES professionals. Does this still happen? Compared to other topics, what is the status of research on NNES? What issues can NNES professionals best contribute using their background as a resource?
Prof. Braine: Actually, there’s nothing wrong with being the subjects of research. But, I felt that we nonnative speaker should have a voice, that we were quite capable of speaking on our own growth as professionals, on our acquisition of academic literacy, and other topics relating nonnative speakers. My 1999 book gave voice to nonnative speaker English teachers in North America. In the 2005 book, Teaching English to the World, I extended this to English teachers from other countries, too.
In the past decade, the growth in research on nonnative speaker English teachers has been phenomenal; in fact, our movement has created an entirely new area of research. But, much remains to be done. We need to move beyond comparisons of native speaker and nonnative speaker teachers or self-perceptions. We need ethnographic research on the lives of individual nonnative speaker English teachers from around the world. What role does English play in their lives? Do they develop as English teachers or stagnate due to lack of motivation or support from the local system? We only have anecdotal evidence now so there’s room for much research.
Another issue is that most studies on nonnative speaker teachers have been conducted by nonnative speakers themselves. Because the credibility of such studies could be challenged, we need to involve native speakers colleagues as co-investigators. Ahmar Mahboob has shown us how this could be done.
Ana Wu: You arrived in the United States in 1984 to enroll in a master degree in TESOL program. Since then, you have published and given presentations extensively, edited journals, served as professor, supervisor and director, and been a very vocal advocate in the teaching field. Have you ever thought you would have gone this far? Professionally, are there any unfulfilled dreams that you look forward to pursuing?
Prof. Braine: Of course, growing up in Sri Lanka, where even travel abroad was restricted those days, I couldn’t have hoped for much. However, at the back of my mind, I knew that my fluency in English and the love I have for the language would take me somewhere someday. My Sri Lankan English teachers were the best I’ve ever had, but I didn’t learn much in the classroom. My English came mainly from acquisition, through reading.
I remember the conditions in Sri Lanka clearly. In the 1999 book, I have described my experiences as an English teacher in rural Sri Lanka. I also taught as a university English Instructor for 8 years and what I remember most vividly is the lack of resources, for teaching or for professional advancement. The university library is a good example. The focus of the collection was on the sciences, and most books were in Sinhala and Tamil, the local languages. On the English shelves, there were some current literary texts; on the linguistics side, only a few outdated, tattered books donated long ago by the British Council and the USIA sat forlornly. The shelves were filled with bulky “collected works” of Kim Il Sung, the North Korean dictator, that had been donated. No one ever read them, of course, but they did fill the empty spaces.
We all have disappointments, unfulfilled dreams, don’t we? Unfortunately, they accumulate as we age! But time is a great healer. Professionally, I am only a few years from retirement. I am finishing up my research projects and publications and spend most of my time helping former students to publish their research and further their careers.
Ana Wu: As a tourist, I find Hong Kong a very lively and exciting place. How do you find living there?
Prof. Braine: I am glad you asked this. I came to Hong Kong in 1995 for two years, and here I am 12 years later. There’s no place like this anywhere. Hong Kong is less than 500 sq. miles and is packed with 7 million people, yet half of land area is reserved for forest. This is one of the most affluent societies in the world, yet less than 10% of the population own cars, and public transport is probably the best in the world. We live in the shadow of China, yet academic and press freedom is among the best in Asia. There’s no question that the air here is polluted and people live in crowded surroundings, but the men and women of Hong Kong have the longest life spans in the world. I can go on … To an English teacher, the only drawback is the lack of ethnic, linguistics, and cultural diversity in the classroom. In comparison, American classrooms were much more interesting.
There could have been no better place for professional growth. Hong Kong has eight universities, all within a radius of about one hour, and, in terms of applied linguistics, the professionals who have taught/teach here read like a “Who’s Who” in our field. Our academic libraries and IT facilities are second to none. Being part of China – the emerging ELT powerhouse – is also an interesting experience. I travel there whenever I can, conducting workshops on L2 writing and academic publishing. The lack of basic facilities for research at many Chinese universities reminds me of the situation in Sri Lanka, so I have much empathy for Mainland Chinese English teachers and scholars.
In Hong Kong, I live in the tranquil countryside, surrounded by water, hills, trees, and silence. And there’s a stack of unread books at home!
Ana Wu: It’s an honor to post your interview. May your lessons and efforts always remind us of the values and ideals to create a better environment for nes and nnes professionals! Thank you for the great work!