Ahmar Mahboob

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the NNEST Caucus

The NNEST Caucus Member of the Month
December 2008

ahmah [dot] mahboob [at] arts [dot] usyd [dot] edu [dot] au

Ana Wu: Could you tell us your linguistic and professional background, and why you decided to become an educator?
Prof. Mahboob: Ana, I am often asked this question and it is very hard for me to answer it in brief. To respond to this questions, please allow me to share with you some (revised) extracts from a chapter that I wrote for Andy Curtis and Mary Romney’s (2006) volume, Shades of Meaning: Articulating the Experiences of TESOL Professionals of Color.

I am a child of the diaspora – a model product of the post-colonial world. My parents were born in British India in the 1930’s: my mother in Bhopal and my father in Gorakhpur (U.P.). Both sets of my grandparents migrated to Karachi in the late 1940’s as British India was splintered into two antagonistic nation-states (1). Having moved to a “new” (2) country, my grandparents struggled to make a life for themselves and their children. I am lucky in that my grandparents considered education to be of extreme importance (3) and took all steps to make sure that their children (my parents) were educated. For my mother, this meant that she had to travel to Lahore (with her elder sister) to take her Matric examination (the matric exam marked the culmination of high school). For my father, it meant that he had to travel to and live in Peshawar to complete his BA. They both earned their MAs from Karachi University: my mother in psychology and my father in English literature. This was in the early 1960s. My parents, like many other young educated urbanites of the time, were actively involved in left-wing politics. However, the government was turning sharply to the right. Thus, with growing political instability and a violent crackdown on left-wing politics, my family decided to move to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in January 1975. I was 39 months old(4).

My formal schooling started in the UAE. I attended a school for Pakistani expatriates in Sharjah (Pakistan College Sharjah – it has since then changed its name due to new UAE government regulations). The medium of instruction in this school was English, which meant that all subjects were taught in English. At school, we were actively discouraged to use any language other than English. At home and in other contexts, I grew up speaking a mixture of English and Urdu – depending on the domain of the conversation, and the people involved.

The series of migrations that started with my grandparents had yet to settle. From UAE, I moved back to Karachi for one year 1985-6. Not being able to settle down in General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamicized Pakistan, my parents decided to move back to UAE. We lived there for another 2 years and then moved back to Pakistan – this time we moved to Gilgit (a small city in the mountains of northern Pakistan), where my parents taught English to children at a local school. In addition to my parents, there was a British couple that was also teaching English at this school. This couple was one of my early professional inspirations – I, like them, wanted to travel the world and support my travels through English language teaching. Of course, this was rather naïve of me as I later discovered that they could do this because 1) they were ‘native’ speakers of the language, 2) they were ‘white’, and 3) they had British passports. I did not qualify for the jobs that came naturally to them.

My year in Gilgit was a series of unforgettable experiences. Just to give you an impression, we lived without running water or electricity – and this in the late 1980’s! I enrolled in a local intermediate college (equivalent to U.S. high school) in Gilgit. During one vacation, I went to Karachi to visit my brothers who were going to college there. On the way back, I was trapped in a landslide for about a week and was unable to return to Gilgit. With winter approaching, and the school back in session, it was decided that I transfer to an intermediate college (equivalent to high school) in Karachi. After graduating from the intermediate college, I found a job as an English teacher in a local school – my only qualification being that I was proficient in the language and had always scored high grades in the subject. For a year, I taught English to elementary and secondary school children but felt unqualified. In November 1990, I joined Karachi University. I completed my B.A. (Hons) in English literature in 1994 and my M.A. in linguistics in 1995. This stay in Karachi, from 1989 – 1995, marks the longest period that I continuously lived in one city – 6 years!

Not feeling fully satisfied with my academic knowledge and with a thirst to learn more, I arrived in the United States on June 19, 1995, to continue my higher education. This was a major move for me. Although I had lived in various places, this was my first exposure to the West. I soon learnt that I had to retool myself to survive in this society.

I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, from 1995 – 2002. However, I did not live there continuously. I was only there during the school year – in the summers (for at least 2-3 months each year), I would either travel to another country to teach English (e.g. South Korea in 1996), or visit my family in Pakistan. On these trips to Pakistan, I worked/volunteered at local educational institutions as an educator or a researcher.

My experiences and readings at Indiana University have had a great impact on my academic life. My interest in and focus on NNEST (non-native English speakers in TESOL) issues, World Englishes, and teacher education developed during my stay there. In addition to my academic understanding, my work visits to various countries during the summers, helped me develop localized understanding of issues of English language learning and literacy. Honestly speaking, at times, I find these localized understanding more important and relevant than academic discussions.

As a graduate student at Indiana University, I was also quite active in the local TESOL affiliate. I was elected the Vice President of INTESOL in 2001 and the President of this organization in 2002. In July 2002, before I completed my Ph.D., I was offered a tenure-track position at East Carolina University, N.C. and left Indiana. At ECU, I was able to work with my department to establish the East Carolina University-TESOL Award for an Outstanding Paper on NNEST Issues. Although I found the department and the university very supportive, I found the political atmosphere in the USA in general, and in Greenville, N.C. in specific, increasingly suffocating – especially for a person with my heritage. I soon started looking for jobs outside the U.S. and was fortunately offered a position in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Sydney (5). I arrived in Sydney on June 28, 2004. Being at Sydney for the last four years has once again had a huge impact on my thinking and work. Working with Jim Martin and other colleagues around Sydney has given me an understanding of language (based on Systemic Functional Linguistics) that now seems so obvious to me, but was totally alien when I first came to Australia. In fact, I now wonder why Applied Linguistics and TESOL programs in the United Stated do not explore SFL as a theory of language that works very well with educational concerns.

At the time of this interview, I plan to live in Sydney – however, with my history, I cannot guarantee how long I will stay here or where I will go to next. Such is a story of a child of the diaspora.

Ana Wu: As one of the former chair of the NNEST Caucus, you raised many important issues regarding empowering the nonnative professionals. You also said that we from this generation are very “lucky” to hear phrases like “NNEST studies” or “NNEST literature” (NNEST Newsletter, 6, 2004). Are there any topics that need further research? What topics (if any) can NNES professionals best contribute using their background as a resource?
Prof. Mahboob: Indeed, we are lucky that we are working in TESOL at a time when issues of race and nativeness have been problematised in the profession. This questioning of the native speaker dominance and the research that followed has been quite useful to many of us – it has brought to the foreground issues of discrimination in employment practices and has demonstrated that NNESTs bring unique assets to the field. By doing this, we have seen a reduction in the number of advertisements that explicitly ask for (white) native speakers (although we still have a fair way to go). We have also, in NABA (North America, Britain, and Australia) countries, seen some change in the hiring practices of English language program administrators and we see many NNESTs being given an opportunity to teach – where in the 80s and 90s you would only have seen native speakers. So, we are lucky to have NNEST studies that show that NNESTs are capable professionals.

Having said this, I should point out there are problems with the dichotomization of native and nonnative speakers as well. Many of the early researchers in this area (including myself) are guilty of highlighting differences between NESTs and NNESTs in terms of their different teaching skills – e.g., NESTs were usually seen as better at teaching oral skills and NNESTs as better in teaching grammar. However, most of this research is based on perception studies. There is still very little research on the actual teaching practices. To examine this, one of my PhD students, Eszter Szenes, is currently analyzing feedback given by NESTs and NNESTs. So far she has not been able to identify any systematic differences in the feedback provided by NESTs and NNESTs. Her findings do, however, show differences in trained and untrained teachers. Trained teachers provide carefully planned feedback, whereas untrained teachers provide feedback to surface level grammatical errors without much discrimination or understanding of the underlying issues. I think that this is an important study because it shows that the NEST-NNEST dichotomy is a political issue, not a pedagogical one. In teaching, the importance is that of training and expertise.

One other thing that I would like to add here is that I believe that NNESTs are not just a group of teachers whose practices we need to research, but rather NNESTness is a lens through which we can understand the larger questions and debates in linguistics, applied linguistics, and TESOL. I elaborated on this point at my presentation at the NNEST Colloquium (TESOL 2008). The main idea here is that NNESTs are bi-/multi-lingual speakers and therefore are part of the majority of English speakers in the world (who are bi-/multi-lingual rather than monolingual). As such, multilingualism, rather than monolingualism should be seen as a starting point for research into language studies: rather than assuming that most people speak only one language (English?), the assumption can be that most people speak more than one language. By shifting this perspective, the NNEST lens can bring a radically different perspective to studies in areas such as SLA and teacher education. NNESTness can thus serve as a lens through which we look at other aspects of applied linguistics and TESOL studies.

Ana Wu: As of July 2008, the NNEST Caucus became an interest group. How do you think this change will affect the caucus and its members? What would you suggest its members do or initiate after the transition?
Prof. Mahboob: Ana, it is important to see this transition in perspective. The shift from being a Caucus to an IS (although debated over the years within the Caucus) was not initiated by the Caucus. The shift came about as a result of TESOL Inc.’s decision to dissolve all caucuses and allow existing caucuses to apply to become a ‘Forum’ or an ‘Interest Section’. In response to TESOL Inc’s decision, the NNEST leadership and members chose to become an Interest Section. This was a prudent decision and based on an understanding that NNESTness is not simply an identity issue, but a professional concern with serious research and professional implications. Having said this, we do need to keep the identity concerns very much on the forefront. I think that the IS members need to work in several area including (alphabetically listed):

· advocating for workplace equity

· awareness raising

· conducting primary research on NNESTs

· conducting primary research using NNESTness as a lens

· conducting workshops that empower NNESTs

· presenting papers on NNEST issues at various conferences and other meetings

· providing support and resources to members

· publishing on NNEST issues in diverse publications (with different types of audience)

· raising and discussing issues of discrimination in our courses (including undergrad and post-grad courses in linguistics, applied linguistics, TESOL, and teacher education)

· sharing pedagogical and professional ideas

· sharing successful stories

· taking on leadership roles in professional organizations at the local, national, and international levels

This is only a sample of things that the members in the new IS can do. Many of the members already engage in this work, and we should encourage our new members and other colleagues who may not be a part of the NNEST IS to all work with us for the benefit of all.

Ana Wu: With Prof George Braine, Prof. Lia Kamhi Stein and Prof. Brock Brady, you taught a summer intensive workshop called “NNESTs at Work: Principles and Practices of Non-Native English-Speaking Teacher Professional Development” for the American University TESOL in 2007. Who attended this workshop? Would you share any vivid memories from this event? Will this workshop be given next year?
Prof. Mahboob: I would like to start by thanking Brock Brady for organizing this fantastic workshop – as part of their annual series of workshops (the topics change every year). The workshop was attended by about 30 participants who came from a number of different backgrounds and with varying levels of experience. We covered a range of topics during the three-day intensive workshop including:

George Braine: Reflections on the NNEST movement, Practicing what we preach, and Getting yourself published

Brock Brady: Teaching and classroom issues in EFL settings-strategies to respond, and Being a responsive NNEST

Lia Kamhi- Stien: Teacher language identity, Using NNEST status as a strength in the classroom, and Preparing for job interviews

Ahmar Mahboob: Familiarity based approach to proficiency, NNEST-NEST collaboration, and Strategies that work

More details on the workshop are available at: http://www.american.edu/tesol/SummerInstitute/SU07/SU07WorkshopDescript.html

I don’t believe that this workshop will be repeated. However, Brock Brady has been considering publishing papers based on the workshops.

Ana Wu: You completed your former education and worked in the US, and now you teach in Australia. How different are your students? What (if any) do you miss from working in an American educational environment?
Prof. Mahboob: Good question. I must confess – and I apologize if I may offend some of you – I do enjoy living and teaching in Australia much more than I did in the United States. There are a number of reasons for this. My students here have been excellent and they keep me on my toes by being extremely curious, energetic, and hard working. This is perhaps because I’m teaching at one of the best Universities in the Southern Hemisphere that attracts some of the best students around. But, it is also because Sydney has five major universities that contribute to an intellectually and academically charged environment. For example, there are a number of weekly seminars focusing on different topics and with speakers from different linguistic and intellectual traditions. These seminars lead to very interesting discussions and exciting new research projects.

I will give you an example here. Over the last 11 months I have become involved in a project that some people are calling the third generation of Sydney School work. What they mean by this is that Jim Martin and I (along with two post-docs, two PhD students, and number of MA students) are taking the work done in educational linguistics at Sydney University in the 1990s and adapting it to help students develop their academic English literacy skills at the City University of Hong Kong who are enrolled in their mainstream classes. This project is quite different from the American model of writing across the curriculum in that it uses the Systemic Functional Linguistics and the socio-cultural theory as a starting point to envisage its pedagogy. As we develop this work, we are also very conscious of issues of World Englishes and the varieties of English that are locally relevant in Hong Kong and those that the language coaches bring with them to the project (our language coaches come from 13 different countries).

In addition to the academic and intellectual life in Sydney, I must say that Sydney is just a beautiful city to live in – friendly, welcoming, safe, green, environmentally conscious, and with absolutely gorgeous weather!

Ana Wu: Tell me about your new book.
Prof. Mahboob:I’m not sure if you are referring to the book projects that I’m currently working on, or the one that I have just published. Let me tell you a bit about all of them.

I just published a co-edited volume, Questioning Linguistics, with Naomi Knight – one of our PhD students. The aim of this volume is to bring together papers that are grounded in different traditions in linguistics and encourage readers to examine how linguists of diverse traditions study and use this expert knowledge. Contributing authors include (in order of appearance): Alastair Pennycook, J R Martin, Helen Caple, Monika Bednarek, Alan Libert, Hyeran Lee, Michele Zappavigna, Paul Dwyer, Anne Burns, Montri Tangpijaikul, Caroline Lipovsky, Masumi Kai, and Michael Walsh.

The book that is perhaps most relevant to the NNESTs – in fact it is for them – is a volume that I’m currently working on for TESOL Publications. This edited book will contribute to the literature on NNESTs because I have used ‘NNESTness as a Lens’ (as discussed earlier) as the guiding principle in editing it. I am working on the draft at the moment and hope that it will be published sometime in 2009.

I am also currently working on a single-authored book on Pakistani English that looks at the history, linguistics, and teaching of Pakistani English. I am hoping to finish this book sometime in 2009. In addition, I am editing a volume on Applied Linguistics in Australia with Caroline Lipovsky, and a volume on Appliable Linguistics with Naomi Knight – we are hoping that both these volumes will be in press by late 2009.

Ana Wu: Thank you for this interesting interview!

(1) The two countries were and are hostile to each other. But, they are antagonistic in another way as well: there are multiple ethnic/religious groups within each country with conflicting interests and therefore have a number of internal conflicts.

(2) ‘New’ as in a newly formed country; and, ‘new’ as in a new country for them.

(3) At this time of turmoil, education was not a top priority for many.

(4) I moved to UAE with two elder siblings. My younger sister was born in UAE.

(5) You may find out more about my current position by visiting my website at: http://www.arts.usyd.edu.au/departs/linguistics/?page=staff&id=ahmmahb


Curtis, A. & Romney, M. (2006). Shades of Meaning: Articulating the Experiences of TESOL Professionals of Color. NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum.

Mahboob, A. & Knight, N. (2008). Questioning Linguistics. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press.

Mahboob, A. (2004). Letters from the Chair. NNEST Newsletter, 6 (2).


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