Ana Wu: Would you tell us your linguistic and professional background, and why you decided to become an educator?
Dr. Stephan: Since my linguistic background and professional career is inextricably linked with Suriname, my native country, and the name “Suriname” isn’t likely to ring a bell with many people, allow me to provide some basic facts about the country. Suriname is located on the northeast coast of South America; it borders the Atlantic Ocean in the north, Brazil in the south, French Guyana in the east, and Guyana in the west. It was colonized in 1650 by the English who, in 1667, handed it over to the Dutch; it remained Dutch territory until it gained independence in 1975. The population is made up of Amerindians, the nation’s indigenous people, and descendants of Dutch colonists, African slaves, Indian, Indonesian, Chinese indentured laborers, and Lebanese immigrants. As of 2007, Suriname has a population of about 493,000. In all, 18 different languages are spoken, the most prominent of which are Dutch and Sranan. The former is the country’s official language, while the latter, an English-based Creole, is the nation’s lingua franca. Like many other countries, Suriname has a centralized education system which currently breaks down into elementary school (six years), middle school (four years), and high school (three years).
Growing up in the 1960s, I primarily spoke Dutch at home, but with my friends in the neighborhood and on the school playground I spoke both Dutch and Sranan (for much of the last century, Sranan was considered the language of the lower class and parents of every social class, including those who would be considered poor and uneducated, would discourage their children from speaking it at home). In addition, like all Surinamese kids in those days, I had informal exposure to English, thanks to radio and television. Virtually all the songs on the radio were—and still are—in English, and when television arrived in Suriname in the mid 60s, the vast majority of the programs that aired originated from the US. And since there was no dubbing and there were no subtitles, I had direct exposure to the English language. Formal exposure to English came when I started middle school at age 12 (in Suriname, English has been a component of the middle school curriculum for over a century; over the years, various elementary schools took it upon themselves to offer it to their students and currently efforts are underway to make it a fixed component of the elementary school curriculum).
In my first year of middle school, I fell head-over-heels in love with Spanish, a language that doesn’t figure prominently in Surinamese society at large. This may seem surprising, particularly given the country’s geographic location; the fact is that historically, demographically, and culturally Suriname has much more in common with English-speaking Caribbean nations like Guyana and Trinidad than with the Spanish speaking countries of South America. Back in the 60s, though, Spanish, like English, was a required course at middle and high schools in Suriname. Over the course of my years in middle school, I developed such an affinity for Spanish that by the time I was about to attend high school, I had made up my mind to become an interpreter specializing in Spanish. But then, to quote the late John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Since Suriname did not—and does not—have a program for training interpreters, I consulted the Department of Student Affairs (DSA) of the Ministry of Education. I learned that the only way of achieving my goal was to first enroll in a general teacher training program and then specialize in Spanish, an endeavor that would take six years. That is precisely what I did . . . only to learn at the end of those six years that I had been misinformed by the DSA official. By then I was 22, and family circumstances dictated that I enter the work force and so I started teaching. Additionally, due to changes in the educational policies of Suriname, one of which was that Spanish no longer was a required course at middle and high school, I had switched allegiance from Spanish to English. So, in essence, I became an English teacher by mere circumstance rather than by my own volition or some higher calling.
Ana Wu: I read with great interest your article “Musings of a Black ESL Instructor” (2006) because it offers a new dimension to the definition of the TESOL professional.
In the first paragraph (p.107), you wrote that in your homecountry, Suriname, a racially diverse society, the concept of racial profiling is totally alien. If you were arrested by a police officer of a different race and claim that you were the victim of a racial profiling, people would not believe in you.
You also wrote that while teaching EFL in Suriname, you had no reason to believe that your students were racially biased against you (p.114), that they would not question your teaching abilities based on your racial background.
It was only after teaching ESL and receiving unsatisfactory performance evaluation from your students who were primary from Asian origins that you started perceiving an association between your racial and professional identity.
What advice would you give to ESL professionals who grew up in a society like yours and now want to teach ESL in an English-spoken country where they are identified as a person “of color”?
Dr. Stephan: Let me preface my response by pointing out that Suriname is not devoid of ethnic strife. Currently, the Hindustanis and the Creoles, i.e., those whose ancestors came from India and Africa respectively, make up the two largest ethnic groups in the country. There has been ethnic tension between them groups for decades, as in the immediate run-up to Suriname’s independence. While both Creoles and Hindustanis left the country for the Netherlands, fearing the country’s economic collapse upon independence, Hindustanis had an additional reason for leaving: the fear of being ruled over by Creoles. Fortunately, over the years, politicians of all ethnicities have largely refrained from playing up ethnic tension, and as a result, Suriname has never seen a major ethnic upheaval.
Let me now address the question. I don’t know if it is possible to prepare individuals who, like me, come from a society where race and ethnicity go largely unnoticed in daily life. No matter how much you read or hear about the experiences of others on this matter, you are unlikely to grasp the full extent of it until you actually live it. It’s maybe comparable to the rollercoaster experience: I myself have never been on one—and don’t plan to do so any time soon since just seeing the speed with which the cars and the people in it come down makes my stomach turn. So it’s hard for me to understand the exhilaration and excitement of those brave souls.
I do have one piece of advice for ESL instructors who find themselves in a situation in which they believe their capabilities are being questioned because of the color of your skin: avoid paranoia and do not look for an enemy behind every bush and tree! Rather, consider every situation and every individual involved in it on their merits. I always try to find a reasonable explanation for what happened, starting with questioning my own behavior. What did I say or do—or didn’t say or do—to elicit that particular reaction from the person? Did the person perhaps misunderstand my well-meaning intentions? Did the person have a bad day and was it my misfortune to become his or her scapegoat? It is, of course, also possible that a person’s dislike for another has nothing whatsoever to do with the other’s skin color; we all know at least one person we don’t like simply because our personalities clash. It’s important to consider all these possibilities and more before thinking the worst about the other human being.
Ana Wu: What do you think of the term “TESOL professional of color”? How would you name a TESOL professional of color who is also a non-native speaker?
Dr. Stephan: I appreciate the fact that the term “TESOL professional of color” makes some people uneasy or offends them; the reason is that it seemingly injects the issue of race in our profession, pitting, in essence, White ESL instructors against their non-White counterpart. We want to believe that ours is a colorblind profession, devoid of politics in the same way that we believe that, say, the teaching of math or physical education is. However, if scholars such as Pennycook, Phillipson, and Tollefson have taught us anything, it is that politics is engrained in the history of the English language and that of English language teaching (ELT). Moreover, TESOL, presumably the largest organization of ESL professionals in the world, is not only based in the United States but also has a largely US-based membership. The United States has a long history of uneasy race relations that stretches back as far as the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620; it is, therefore, inevitable that issues of race will permeate the nation’s sub communities. Thus, with regard to the “racialization of ELT” the professional ESL community cannot afford to adopt an “ignore-it-and-it-will-go-away” attitude; rather, it ought to confront the matter head-on.
Perceptions of and ideas about race are deeply embedded in English language teaching. Traditionally, Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are considered “the core English-speaking countries,” a term coined by Phillipson in his famous—some would say, infamous—work, Linguistic Imperialism. Demographically, the dominant group in these nations have been White people; and because these nations are often perceived as exclusively English-speaking, the English language has historically been perceived as the “property” of the White natives; put differently, Whites have been granted “ownership” of the language. Consequently, it is not surprising that when the average ESL student envisages a typical ESL instructor, the image that is conjured up is that of a blond, blue-eyed, female (female, because education the world over, particularly at primary and secondary level, is a female-dominated field).
This perception has implications for ESL instructors who are not White: some students and employers perceive ESL instructors who happen to be of color as less “authentic” in comparison to their White counterparts; that is, the former are considered less reliable and trustworthy in meeting the linguistic needs of students than the latter. Therefore, when an ESL instructor of color enters the classroom on the very first day of the semester, she or he is already at a disadvantage before having uttered a single word. To earn the respect, trust, and recognition of their students—and in some cases even that of their White colleagues—, they need to demonstrate that they fully master all aspects of the language, often much more so than White ESL instructors (this claim has been documented by ESL professionals of color like Nazut Amin, Angel Lin, and Anam Govhardan). Thus, given these circumstances, there is a need among ESL practitioners who do not conform to the stereotypical image of the ESL instructor to create an identity for themselves and to share their experiences with their professional community. The label “TESOL professional of color” calls attention to the fact that there is a tension between being a person of color and being an ESL professional. Therefore, I wholeheartedly embrace the label.
The second part of the question—what name I would give to a TESOL professional of color who is also a non-native speaker—reflects, I believe, two misconceptions. The first is that the term “TESOL professional of color” only applies to non-White citizens of core English-speaking nations. Presumably, the term is analogous to “people of color,” a label commonly applied in the United States to individuals who do not identify themselves as white or are not identified by members of their society as such. Note that the phrase “people of color” distinguishes people on the basis race, not on linguistic background. Consequently, I’d argue then that the term “TESOL professional of color” applies to(a) non-White ESL instructors who were born, raised, and educated in countries where English is spoken as a first or second language and (b) non-White English language teachers who were born, raised, and educated in nations where English is by and large acquired in an academic setting.
The second misconception is that the White/non-White dichotomy and the native/non-native speaker dichotomy are two independent entities. However, as I have pointed out in my discussion about “ownership” of the English language and its implication for TESOL professionals of color, these two dichotomies are clearly intertwined in the same way that, for instance, race and gender are in many societies, including the United States. Perhaps no other linguistic feature is more salient in marking the distinction between native and nonnative speakers than accent. More often than not, a person’s accent becomes the means by which his or her interlocutors create a social picture of the speaker: the person’s nationality, native language, social class, educational attainment, and type of job. In addition, if the speaker is heard rather than seen, attempts are often made to determine the speaker’s race or ethnicity.
In her work English with an Accent, Rosina Lippi-Green provides an in-depth analysis of the inextricable relationship between an individual’s accent and the racial attitudes towards him or her. Of interest is also the study conducted by Yuko Goto Butler, who examined the attitudes of sixth-grade students toward teachers with American-accented English and Korean-accented English (in actuality, both accents were produced by a Korean American). Her study revealed, among other things, that the students believed that the “American” individual had a better pronunciation and displayed a greater degree of confidence than the “Korean” individual; the students also preferred the former to the latter as their English teacher.
The studies by Lippi-Green and Butler do more than highlight the accent-race connection; they also shed a distinctive light on the native/nonnative speaker debate. For if we accept the position that (a) accent is the most salient marker distinguishing a native from a nonnative speaker, and (b) having a nonnative accent has social implications, then it is apparent that the native/nonnative speaker debate is a social rather than a linguistic issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the issue of native versus nonnative speaker of English is, in essence, not rooted in linguistics but rather in sociopolitics. This assertion is not new; in his book The Native Speaker is Dead!, Thomas Paikeday cites David Guralnik, an American lexicographer, who claimed that the question of the native speaker had more sociopolitical than linguistic overtones. He went on to say, according to Paikeday, that those who adhered to the idea of native speaker intuition are motivated by elitist or perhaps even racist notions.
Consequently, to frame the native/nonnative speaker debate largely or exclusively in terms of linguistics is, in my opinion, wholly unproductive. A proper understanding of the issue demands that careful consideration is given to the extent to which race, and perhaps even gender and class, inform the debate.
Ana Wu: You also conducted a research (Stephan, 2001) in which students had to order rank ESL teachers based on geographic origin and linguistic background. You explained that all the instructors had equal teaching experience, abilities, and qualifications.
You found out that 74% of the participants preferred native English speaking professionals from Europe and 45% rated non-native English speaking professionals from Africa as “the last resort” (In this study, you had 138 Asians, 14 Europeans, 9 Africans, 8 Middle Easterners, and 5 South Americans. It was also assumed that students associated the terms African, Asian and European to Black, Mongoloid and White).
How did this experience affect – pedagogically and emotionally – how you teach? Did you start discussing social issues in your class?Did you share your experience as a visible minority in the ESL teaching community?
Dr. Stephan: To some extent, my experiences have shaped my professional personality. On a personal level, there was a time when, in introducing myself, I would tell the students where I come from and what my linguistic background is. After two rather painful incidents in the late 1990s, I decided to create a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of my own: if the students do not ask me about my background, I do not tell them about it. And even if they do, I generally do not tell them the whole truth. While it pains me to betray my own identity, I have learned that, in this respect, being less than forthcoming benefits the interaction between the students and me.
On a professional level, because of my experiences, I am more inclined to address social issues in the ESL classroom but I let the circumstances dictate the extent to which I do, if at all. For instance, in 1999, I was teaching two different groups of students at two different schools. At one school, the students who enrolled in the ESL program were primarily “international students,” i.e., students who upon graduation were likely to return to their home country. For many of them, the goal of enrolling in the ESL program was to develop and improve their English language skills so that they could write a decent paper in their field of study. I often had the sense that their attitude towards the ESL class was, “Well, if this is what it takes to get my degree, fine, but don’t expect me to like it.” I just did not think that these students would be open to discussing social issues; all they were interested in were issues of grammar and style, so the content of the course was largely if not strictly pedagogical.
At the other school, the vast majority of students who enrolled in the ESL program were immigrant students. Obviously, they had a vital stake in studying English: for them, developing and improving their English language skills was of major importance in earning a decent living. At the same time, I believed that mastery of the English language alone was insufficient to enable them to successfully integrate and function in American society. They also needed insight in what makes the United States the country it is; and since I am an immigrant to the United States myself, I saw it as my duty to assist them in navigating the sometimes troubled waters of American culture. Therefore, we frequently discussed matters that tend to baffle newcomers to the country, ranging from the more mondane issues such as dating to more complexing and controversial issues such abortion and racism.
Ana Wu: In Ahmar Mahboob’s article, “Confessions of an Enraced TESOL professional,” (2006), he says that one of the presenters at 2005 TESOL convention confined that she felt she didn’t belong in the NNEST community. She was the only Black professional and felt left out.
As the former chair of the International Black Professionals and Friends in TESOL (IBPFT) Caucus, how do you think both communities, NNEST and IBPFT, can work together to create an environment in which members gain equal status and are recognized for their professional qualities, instead of race or nativeness? Which topics for research can we work collaboratively?
Dr. Stephan: To begin with, “status” is often not something individuals bestow on themselves; rather, it is something that society or segments thereof bestow upon them. To illustrate, as recently as five years ago, whenever the then state senator Obama walked into a room full of strangers, undoubtedly everyone in the room would have thought, “That is a Black man.” We now know differently: Mr. Obama is, in fact, biracial. Yet, the fast majority of people do not refer to him not as the first biracial president of the United States, but as the first black president of the country. That is because society has developed certain beliefs about what a black person is supposed to look like.
And so, while I believe that nonnative ESL professionals and ESL professionals of color must work towards greater recognition, that recognition will only come when all involved in the education process— employers, students, parents, and colleagues—perceive of them as authentic.
My response to the earlier question makes readily apparent that, from a professional perspective, I do not see a clear distinction between nonnative ESL professionals and ESL professionals of color. As I have claimed, issues of race and (non) native speakerness are not two separate, competing forces but rather intertwined axes rooted in the same phenomenon: social inequality. Therefore, in a perfect world, it probably would be best if both the NNEST and the IBPFT were to be disbanded and TESOL professionals of all stripes were to band together to question how race, native speakerness, and other social forces shape and impact English language teaching and learning. I believe that that would be the most effective way of achieving synergy, that is, producing a result that no group of ESL professionals, working as an independent entity, is likely to achieve. Alas, there is no such thing as a perfect world! So what is next?
First, the NNEST and IBPTF chairs ought to put their heads together and develop strategies aimed at constructive cooperation. During my tenure as Chair of the IBPFT, I attempted to reach out to the NNEST Caucus through the then Chair Lucie Moussu. I suggested that the two caucuses present a joint colloquium; Lucie did put out the request but, unfortunately, no one within the NNEST responded. One reason beyond sheer anxiety of giving a presentation might have been the assumption on the part of NNEST caucus members that they have little or nothing in common with members of the IBPFT. I think leaders of both caucuses should do more to raise awareness among their members that the concerns of the NNEST are not vastly different from those of the IBPFT and vice versa, and that the two groups have more in common than may be apparent at face value.
It is a well-known fact that there a far more countries where English is spoken as a foreign language than as a first language, which means that most speakers of English are nonnatives; among them, there are many are people of color. Consequently, like no other TESOL caucus, the NNEST and the IBPFT are uniquely positioned to raise awareness among employers, students, and parents about the value of NNEST and ESL professionals of color. I readily admit that at the time of this writing I have no clue how exactly one would go about in doing that; this is another reason why the leaders of the two caucuses should consult one another.
One way, however, might be for the two caucuses, possibly in cooperation with the other caucuses, to petition the TESOL organization to have its annual convention held outside the United States, maybe every other year or so. It strikes me as odd that an organization that has the globe as its logo has never held its convention, arguably the largest of its kind, outside of the Americas (and I’m using the phrase “the Americas” broadly here since of the 43 conventions—this year’s included—two were held in Canada (1983 and 1992) while Mexico hosted the 1978 convention). Compare this, for instance, to FIFA, the world soccer federation, which every four years organizes what undoubtedly is the major sports event in the world, the World Cup. While this body has its headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland, the World Cup was only once held in that country . . . in 1954! If FIFA held every single World Cup competition in Switzerland, it would be safe to assume that not many non-Europeans would be able to attend one or more games.
The year 2009, marked by economic turmoil of immense proportions, is probably not the best time to call for TESOL to spread its wings and fly. I ackowledge, furthermore, that TESOL regularly organizes regional conferences, but those may not necessarily contribute to breaking down the barriers nonnative ESL professionals and ESL professionals of color face, precisely because they are regional. Therefore, for TESOL to assist these and other groups of ESL professionals in breaking down barriers, it is important that it looks for ways of taming its convention on the road, so to speak.
As for a research agenda, we need more insight into how social forces in general—nativeness, race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and the like—impact the teaching and learning of English.
Ana Wu: In the field of race, color, nativeness, and ESL/EFL teaching, what seminal papers inspired you? Which ones do you recommend graduate students in applied linguistic or TESOL programs read?
Dr. Stephan: In some of my answers to previous questions, I mentioned some of the works that sparked my interest in the relationship between ELT and politics in general and issues of race in particular. I can’t say that they influenced my day-to-day teaching, but they certainly hightened my consciousness regarding the role ESL professionals, myself included, play in bringing the English language to the masses.
Much criticism that has been leveled at Phillipson’s Linguistic Imperialism since its publication in 1992; for me, however, it will forever be one of the best works I have read on the politics ofELT. Other works that I thoroughly enjoyed reading were James Tollefson’s “Planning Language, Planning inequality” and Alistair Pennycook’s The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language.
When I started my dissertation research in 1997, it gradually dawned on me that published articles on the ELT – race connection were virtually nonexistent. In fact, the only article I managed to find after weeks of perusing a wide variety of journals was Race and the Identity of the Nonnative ESL Teacher by Nazut Amin, published in 1997 in the TESOL Quarterly. So in order to be able to place race in the context of ESL teaching, I studied, among other things, the perceptions of race and racial identity in the countries where the fast majority of ESL students I was teaching at the time came from, i.e., China, Japan, and Korea. Two works I found very informative were The Discourse of Race in Modern China and The Construction of Racial Identities in China and Japan, both written by Frank Dikötter. These works provided me with a general idea of perceptions of race and racial identity in Chinese and Japanese society at large. Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent and Cornel West’s Race Matters also make for fascinating reading.
For students in ESL programs who are interested in investigating how social issues such as race impact English language teaching and learning, I would suggest that they enroll in courses that provide them with some of theissue themselves before they start their investigation into how it may affect ELT. To illustrate, when I initially conceived of my dissertation research, my goal was to investigate why few Black Americans seem interested in career in ESL. I based my belief on the fact that during my MA and PhD studies there had been only one African American in my classes. Since I am not an African American, I felt I needed to develop an understanding of African American history. To that end, I took a number of courses in the Department of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University, where I did my doctoral work; the knowledge gained in those courses served me well during my dissertation research and beyond.
Ana Wu: You are currently working at Educational Testing Services. Do you miss teaching ESL? Do you have any plans for going back to being an instructor?
Dr. Stephan: As an assessment developer at ETS, my primary duty is creating test items for the reading section of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC).
To be quite honest, I don’t miss teaching the technical aspects of ESL, i.e., grammar, spelling, reading and writing, and so on. I began my career as an ESL instructor in 1977 and by the time ETS offered me the position in 2002, I’d been in the field for roughly twenty-five years. With the advent of the new millennium in 2000, I was ready for something different. Obviously, I still have a connection with the English language through my work at ETS; in part, of course, it was because of my knowledge of the language that the company recruited me.
What I do miss by not being in an academic setting is the opportunity to conduct classroom research. I would love to investigate the race – ELT connection in greater depth but that is not feasible precisely since I am not in a classroom setting.
At this point, I see no full-time teaching position in my future; I would welcome the opportunity, though, to teach as an adjunct and hope to land such a position in the near future.
Ana Wu: Thank you for such inspiring interview. I hope to have a chance to meet you at the TESOL Annual Convention in Denver!
Butler, Y.G. (2007). How are nonnative English speaking teachers perceived by young learners? TESOL Quarterly, 41 (4).
Mahboob, A. (2006). Confessions of an Enraced TESOL professional. In Curtis, A. & Romney, M. (Eds.), Color, Race, and English Teaching Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Stephan, M. H. (2006). Musings of a Black ESL Instructor. In Curtis, A. & Romney, M. (Eds.), Color, Race, and English Teaching Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Stephan, M.H. (2001). Lifting the veil of silence: An inquiry into race as a feature of the social and pedagogical dimensions of the English as a second language classroom. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus.