Monthly Archives: August 2008

Lia Kamhi-Stein

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the NNEST Caucus

The NNEST Caucus Member
of the Month
September 2008
Master of Arts Degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
lkamhis [at] calstatela [dot] edu

Ana Wu: Would you tell us your background and how you became interested in being an educator?
Prof. Kamhi-Stein: I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As a child growing up, my mother thought that if I knew English, I would have access to higher paying jobs. While her goal for having me study English at my neighborhood EFL institute was purely instrumental, my goal could not be more different. At the age of 10, my parents took me to see “The Sound of Music.” At that point, I did not know a word of English. However, when the movie finished, I left the theater dancing and singing in English, thinking that I was or would become Julie Andrews. It was right there and then that I fell in love with the English language and everything the language represented.

From the age of 10 unto the end of high school, I continued studying English at various institutes (where I took lessons twice or three times a week for two or three hours each day). I loved the English language and I loved listening to music in English. I listened to The Beatles, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, James Taylor and I played their songs over and over again so that I would be able to understand what they were saying.

In high school, when it was time to start thinking about a college degree, I decided that I would study to become a translator. I chose to study at Universidad del Salvador, where I graduated with the degree of Public Translator. However, growing up, I had always taught EFL, first informally (helping friends with their English language needs, since in those days, English was often considered to be a “dreadful” school subject) and then formally (teaching for various institutes). I loved teaching and working with students! On the other hand, I did not obtain any personal satisfaction from working as a translator; I was isolated and bored. Therefore, I decided to go back to Universidad del Salvador and obtain my EFL teaching degree. Like many of your readers, I worked as a teacher for many British institutes and universities (teaching principles of translation and English for Specific Purposes). In the early 1980, I was hired by the Instituto Cultural Argentino Norteamericano (ICANA), where I worked as a teacher, program coordinator and academic secretary. Working at ICANA gave me the opportunity to collaborate with outstanding colleagues and friends and to travel to the US to attend the 1986 TESOL Summer Institute (where Kathi Bailey was the Director) and TESOL conferences.

In February of 1990, I immigrated to the US when I married Alan, my husband. Then, I decided to fulfill my dream of obtaining an MA in TESOL degree. I completed my MA studies at Cal State LA, where Pat Richard-Amato and Ann Snow were my teachers. In 1991, I entered the Ph.D. Program in Language, Literacy, and Learning at the University of Southern California, where I was fortunate to have professors like David Eskey, Robert Rueda, and Robert Kaplan.

Ana Wu: According to George Braine (1999), before the formation of the NNEST Caucus, you collected signatures for the caucus petition in the US and abroad. A few years later, you founded the Non-native Educators’ Issues Interest Section at CATESOL (the California affiliate). Could you share any vivid memories from these experiences? Did you encounter any resistance?
Prof. Kamhi-Stein: One of the most vivid memories of the “early days” was listening to Jacinta Thomas’s presentation which was part of George Braine’s 1996 TESOL colloquium (held in Chicago). Her presentation had an enormous impact on me (and the audience). I will never forget “hearing” the silence in the room. We all saw our experiences and inner thoughts reflected in Jacinta’s paper. Jacinta’s autobiography has been published in George’s book. I personally think it’s a “must read” because it is inspirational.

When I was collecting signatures, almost everyone that I approached was supportive of the caucus. Among the people who supported the caucus was Robert Kaplan, a past President of TESOL, AAAL, and CATESOL. I thought that if scholars like him were supportive of the caucus, then we had a good chance of getting it approved by the TESOL Board. On the other hand, I was disappointed to see that a couple of colleagues from Latin America declined to sign the petition. Their rationale for not signing was that nonnative speaking professionals’ issues were constrained to Inner Circle countries. They did not believe the caucus would be relevant to them. Now, I am glad to see that caucus members come from all over the world. More importantly, the research, publications and presentations on NNESTs originate from every geographical region of the world.

In CATESOL, my most vivid memory is the first NNEST colloquium that I organized at the 1998 state conference in Pasadena. I was reluctant to organize the colloquium because I was the conference program chair, so I was very busy. But Alan, my husband, insisted that the topic was timely since so many TESOL programs in California have large NNEST enrollment. Prior to the colloquium, I wondered whether anyone would be interested in attending the presentation. To my surprise, there were over 80 people in attendance. The room was packed. In the question and answer part of the session, I asked the audience if they would support the formation of an interest group (IG) (in CATESOL, we don’t have caucuses) focusing on NNEST issues. The response was overwhelming. I remember that Luciana C. de Oliveira was one of the people, sitting in the back of the room, who became very emotional when expressing her support for the IG. That colloquium was the beginning of the CATESOL IG.

Ana Wu: As of June 2008, the NNEST Caucus officially became an interest section. What would you like to see its leaders do or initiate? What do you think will be the impact (if any) of this transition in the teaching training field?
Prof. Kamhi-Stein: I don’t want to sound repetitive, but I have to agree with many of your interviewees: We have accomplished a lot in 10 years and we have had great impact on the field! I believe that the caucus contributed to the field and to the TESOL association in several ways: 1) it created conditions in which new leaders were groomed; 2) it promoted the creation of support networks among NNESTs; 3) it created awareness about NNESTs; and 4) it promoted research and publications on NNESTs.

Now, it is time to move forward. I know that we will continue doing research and publications on the topic of NNESTs. However, I believe that we need to expand the research to look at issues of NNEST language proficiency (this is something to which George Braine and Keiko Samimy have made reference in their interviews). My research with Ahmar Mahboob shows that there is a relationship among teacher language proficiency, self-perceptions about language proficiency, and the use of English in the classroom.

We also need to begin to publish more differentiated profiles of NNESTs. When we started doing research on NNESTs, we tended to overgeneralize. Now, we know that there are many different types of NNESTs, just as there are many different types of second language learners. For example, I have found that NNESTs who have lived in the US for a long time (generation 1.5 teachers) are more similar to teachers who speak English as a home language than to NNESTs who are usually labeled “international students.”

An area that we need to focus on is related to the work by Mahboob (and his colleagues) (2004): hiring practices in and outside the US. We have a lot of members who live in Expanding Circle countries; these professionals are in an excellent position to look at the hiring conditions in their contexts. I think that this is a big gap in the literature. And we need to address it.

Now, I believe that for the IS to be successful, we need to continue supporting the development of new leaders. This is a must for the IS to grow in the TESOL association. We should also continue working with other ISs, especially sections like the Teacher Education IS and the Program Administration IS. If we want to change perceptions about NNESTs, then we need to work with teacher education programs and program administrators.

Finally, I will repeat something that Aya Matsuda said in her interview. While we need to advance the research, we should keep in mind that every year new NNEST professionals enter the field. And many of these professionals are not aware of the work that has been done or feel insecure about their status as NNESTs. As an IS, our publications and work need to continue supporting these new professionals.

Ana Wu: In 2000, you wrote the article “Adapting US-based TESOL Education to Meet the Needs of Nonnative English Speakers” (2000). Since then, have you witnessed any changes in TESOL teacher preparation programs in terms of catering their curriculum to the needs and concerns of NNS students? What advice would you give international students admitted to TESOL MA programs in the USA?
Prof. Kamhi-Stein: I think that the biggest change that I have seen is that now there is increased awareness about NNES students. Also, I have seen that some TESOL MA programs now integrate curricula—or at a minimum discussions and activities–that address NNEST issues. Two articles, one by Pavlenko’s (2003) and the other by Golombek and Jordan (2005) discuss how they integrate classroom activities that challenge the notion of the nonnative speaker, and by doing this, allow students to “imagine alternative identities” (Golombek & Jordan, p. 513).

Keiko Samimy’s seminar has been groundbreaking in the sense that to my knowledge, it was the first one to address issues of NNESTs. In my program, from time to time, I teach a seminar that is modeled after Keiko Samimy’s work. The seminar has had an impact on the students who take the class. However, I have to say that I have had much more of an impact–both on NESTs and NNESTs–by integrating discussions and activities on issues of identity and the native and the nonnative speaker constructs in courses like Educational Sociolinguistics of English as an International Language. The benefit of integrating the topic across the curriculum is that all students, regardless of whether they are native or nonnative speakers, develop expertise on the topic.

Now, regarding my suggestions for international students, I always share my own story with my new students, regardless of language status. I tell them that in my MA studies, I was silent in the classroom; therefore, “to compensate” for what I perceived to be a problem, I met with my instructors during their office hours. So I usually share my experience with them and discuss strategies for becoming members of our TESOL program community. Following are some of the ideas I share with them:

You are the success story that the SLA books describe. So you are an asset to the program since you bring a point of view that is unique. However, you need to understand that your course instructors are responsible for creating conditions in which all students, regardless of language status, feel that they have the right to participate. You should not see yourself as being solely responsible for participating or not participating. If you see that you have trouble participating in a class, meet with the instructor and suggest ways in which he/she can promote an environment in which all students feel that they have the right to speak. At the same time, discuss ways in which you can start participating. Once you start “hearing your voice,” you will develop a sense of comfort and this may contribute to higher classroom participation.

Remember that classroom participation is not limited to participation in face-face-discussions in the classroom. Some of my students (due to issues of personality, language status, gender, cultural factors, social factors, etc) choose to participate more often in forum discussions; others may choose to meet with me on a regular manner; and eventually, they begin to participate in class discussions; others may be very vocal in face-to-face discussions. So it is important to understand that there is not a “right path” to classroom participation. Meet with your course instructors and discuss expectations and possibilities. But again, remember that the classroom is co-constructed. You are not solely responsible for participating or not participating.

It is important to become a member of the TESOL community, as a graduate student and as a future professional. Therefore, develop a support network, do not limit your activities in the program to those in the classroom. In my program, we have an excellent TESOL Society, consisting of graduate students who organize a variety of professional and social activities. Participate in their activities and you will benefit both professionally and socially. Also, to become a member of the TESOL community, it is important to participate in professional conferences and exchange ideas with other professionals. While I can’t “require” that students present at conferences, I integrate classroom assignment that require the submission of conference proposals. Then it is up to individual students to decide if they want to present or not. I think that what is important to understand is that employers prefer to hire teachers who show professional involvement. Therefore, it is important to start developing a resume in the MA program.

Work to enhance your language skills. It is important to understand that the goal is not to sound like an “ideal” native speaker. The goal is to develop a sense of legitimacy about yourself as a professional.

Rather than thinking about yourself as a nonnative speaker of English, begin thinking about yourself as a bilingual (or in many cases, multilingual) speaker of English. In this way, you will begin to view yourself in a more positive light.

I want to point out that it is important to avoid generalizations since not all NNESs are international students and not all international students have the same backgrounds, needs or experiences. Also, there may be “domestic students” who perceive themselves as nonnative speakers, who view themselves as foreigners in their own land. So I don’t want to give the impression that there is such a thing as a “prescriptions for success.”

Ana Wu: Besides being a distinguished researcher, presenter, editor, and consultant in the teaching field, you were the recipient of many awards, including the Outstanding Professor Award in 2003-04. Also, you were the President of CATESOL and served in the Board of Directors at TESOL. I know that you are very dedicated to your family and have a very small daughter. How do you manage your time? What inspires and motivates you in your career?
Prof. Kamhi-Stein: The reason why over the years I have been involved in a variety of activities is because I enjoy collaborating with colleagues and learning from them. But more than anything, I love the classroom since it is the setting where I feel happy. I love interacting with students and practicing teachers and learning from them. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would have the honor of being elected CATESOL President or serving on the TESOL Board. If I was able to do those things was because a lot of people mentored me and helped me develop as a professional. Now I believe that I have the responsibility to support colleagues and students much in the same way that I was supported when I started participating in professional associations.

Alan, my husband, who passed away recently, was my biggest source of support and inspiration. While many of the professionals whom you have interviewed come to the US to further their education, I came to the US when I married Alan (I came to the US for love!). So in many ways, Alan felt responsible for creating conditions that would help me achieve the same level of professional satisfaction that I had had in Argentina.

I was fortunate because Alan always supported me in every activity I was involved in. His support involved helping me with my library research (Alan was a Business and Law Librarian who “adopted” TESOL as his second area of expertise), doing the grocery shopping and paying the bills, giving me input on my work, helping me understand how academia in the US works, and buying me Starbucks coffee, etc. And he did all of this on top of his job as a Business and Law Librarian at Cal State LA. So he should have answered your question, not me! Whenever I said: “I cannot do this!,” he said “Of course, you can” And he was right. So now that I am alone, whenever I say to myself: “I can’t do this,” I hear his voice saying “Of course you can!” He is my source of inspiration. And Hannah, our daughter, is my source of strength and joy. I love hearing her speak and sing in Spanish and English. And she is even saying some words in Vietnamese and Chinese! So I am proud to say that she defies the notion of the native speaker and instead exemplifies Cooks’ (1999) notion of the “multicompetent speaker.”

To conclude, I don’t want to sound preachy, but as a “novice” single parent I have developed a new perspective on life, so let me say that often times, we become too invested in things that are not that important (Why can’t I have my own office? Why isn’t there a budget or a bigger budget for xeroxing? Why did an editor change the wording in a sentence I wrote?). Please keep things in perspective! Do not waste time and energy on minutia. Enjoy life, enjoy your family, enjoy your children! Having a balanced life will help you become a more productive professional.

Ana Wu: Thank you for this inspiring interview!


Braine, G. (1999). From the Chair. NNEST-Newsletter, 1(1).

Cook, V. (1999). Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2), 185-210.

Golombek, P., & Jordan, S. R. (2005). Becoming “black lambs” not “parrots”: A poststructuralist orientation to intelligibility and identity. TESOL Quarterly, 39(3), 513-533.

Kamhi-Stein, L. (2000). Adapting US-based TESOL Education to Meet the Needs of Nonnative English Speakers.” TESOL Journal 9(3).

Pavlenko, A. (2003). “I never knew I was a bilingual”: Remaining teacher identities in TESOL. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 2(2), 251-268.