Monthly Archives: October 2009

Thomas Andrew Kirkpatrick

NNEST of the Month

October 2009


Ana Wu: Could you tell us your linguistic and professional background and why you decided to become an educator?

Prof. Kirkpatrick: I was born in England – my father was Irish, from Dublin and my mother English – but I grew up from the age of 2 in Malaysia and Singapore, as my father got a job there as an engineer (working mostly on tin mines). I was sent back to school in England from the age of seven – as was normal in those days – but my parents remained in Malaysia until my father died, which was in 1965.

Growing up in Malaysia and Singapore meant growing up in a diverse linguistic and cultural environment, and when I went to university I wanted to do a degree in Thai and Indonesian, but this was not possible then as no British universities offered this BA in those days, so I ended up doing Chinese Studies at Leeds University in England. I then got a postgraduate scholarship to China and found myself studying Modern Chinese Literature at Fudan University in Shanghai. I should add, however, that this was from 1976-1977, and there was not much modern Chinese literature that was allowed to be taught! I then moved down to Hong Kong where I worked as a journalist and got involved in English language teaching, became interested in it and did an MA in Linguistics and English Language Teaching (ELT) at York in the UK. From there I worked in a number of Asian countries including four-year stints at both the National Institute of Education in Singapore and the Institute of Education in Rangoon, Burma.

In 1989 I got a scholarship to do my PhD at the Australian National University (ANU), where I studied Chinese rhetoric. By this time, I was married, and we stayed in Australia for the next 17 years – 5 years at ANU and 12 years at Curtin University in Perth – while our son went through the school system there. I have been here at the Institute of Education in Hong Kong since the beginning of 2006 and love being back in a Chinese setting and in a place where linguistic issues are so central.

Ana Wu: You have been a strong and persistent voice in challenging the native speaker myth and advocating for the recognition that what learners of English need is well-trained plurilingual teachers who are culturally sensitive and sophisticated. How did you first become interested in issues related to World Englishes and NNEST? What are you biggest frustrations and encouragements?

Prof. Kirkpatrick: Growing up in Malaysia and Singapore, I was exposed to linguistically and culturally diverse societies from a very early age and to people who spoke several languages as a matter of course. I was also exposed to varieties of English from a very early age. Having an Irish father who was always ready – if not eager – to prick the balloons of English pomposity was useful! My school teachers in my early years– from the wonderful Tamil principal of the kindergarten through to the New Zealand rugby coach at primary school – were the personification of diversity, so this was all natural to me.

My major frustration centres around the resilience of the privileging of the native speaker teacher over the multilingual local teacher. This prejudice is embraced by key stakeholders in the region, so that school principals and ministries of education still believe that the ‘native speaker’ represents a better investment than the local multilingual. This prejudice is even more invidious when they use it to justify the hiring of untrained, unqualified (and almost always unvetted) native speakers as English teachers ahead of local trained and multlilingual teachers, solely on the grounds that they are native speakers. My new book coming out soon with Hong Kong University Press ‘English as a lingua franca in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): roles, features and the Multilingual Model’, argues for a radical review of language education policy in the region, proposing that primary schools should focus on local languages and not on English, and that English is best taught by local multilinguals using a ‘multilingual model.’

Ana Wu: Once in a while, in our NNEST IS online listserv, we are notified of a job advertisement that specifically asks for native speakers of English. While most members perceive it as a legitimate case of discrimination, there is always someone who thinks the administration is entitled to hire whoever they want. There was also an example in which the students demanded the school to hire native speakers.

a. How do you define a legitimate case of discrimination? Do you think we have the right or duty to comment or fight against discriminatory practices in other countries? Also, if a type of discrimination is a common practice, for example, age or gender discrimination, is there anything we as professionals and outsiders can or should do?

Prof. Kirkpatrick: I think it should be part of our profession’s ethics that we insist that language teachers should be judged on their training, qualifications and linguistic proficiency, and not on an accident of linguistic birthright. I have spoken to a number of organizations including UNICEF to see if it would be practical to set up a register of schools and institutions that adhere to a code of ethics, but nothing has yet come out of it. I know TESOL itself takes a strong line on this and sets a good example (and see George Braine’s suggested response to this), but I think it should be possible to establish a register of this sort. Hiring someone solely on the basis of their linguistic birthright is a highly discriminatory form of ‘linguicism’ and would be criminal, were the hiring done on the basis of colour, for example.

In terms of age and gender discrimination, we have to be sensitive to local cultural practice. Many cultures give respect to age and, in many cultures, men hold more power and rights than women. These practices are deeply ingrained and are not going to be changed overnight by strident criticism from foreign teachers, especially from those who are only going to be in the respective country for a relatively short period of time. Roslyn Appleby of the University of Technology, Sydney writes very sensitively and sensibly about these issues in the context of international development. and I strongly recommend her work.

b. Still using the job advertisement as an example, what can members of the NNEST IS do to help promote equality in the TESOL profession without being accused of advocating social reform in countries where we do not live and therefore do not know about the social background in detail.

Note: In our official website, we have posted George Braine’s suggested response to discrimination in job advertisement and a copy of TESOL statement on NNEST and hiring practices.

Prof. Kirkpatrick: A major problem is that non-native speakers are often the most prejudiced against non-native speaker teachers. The key stakeholders I mentioned above – school principals and ministries of education and to this could be added many of the owners of private language schools – are themselves non-native speakers and it is their prejudices (along with the prejudices of parents and the students themselves) who see them hiring native speakers ahead of local multilinguals. Like all prejudices, this is based on ignorance, so one major task for all of us in the profession is to educate people about this. But, as I indicated above, this must be done sensitively and with an in-depth knowledge of the local culture(s) and context(s). Joining relevant professional organizations is also beneficial as locals and ‘foreigners’ can then work together, under the umbrella of the professional organisation, to achieve change.

Ana Wu: In your article, “English as an Asian Language,” (2000) you stated that since the majority of learners want to use English as a lingua franca, “educated speakers of the regional variety could provide the models (…) Instead of spending large sums of money on importing native-speaking teachers and externally developed materials, funding should be set aside for the professional development of local teachers and for the development of developing regionally appropriate ELT curricula.”

Taking the case of a country where English is widely spoken as an example, let me play the devil’s advocate by asking if the same rationale would work – meaning, native-speaking teachers would be more suitable than non-native speakers when teaching adult immigrant students because these students will use English to communicate with other native speakers. Why or why not?

Prof. Kirkpatrick: There is, of course, nothing wrong with native speaker teachers per se! As I indicated earlier, language teachers should be judged on their training, qualifications and linguistic proficiency – and I would see being multilingual a crucial part of that. The problem lies in the hiring of native speakers solely on the grounds of their linguistic birthright on the one hand, and in the belief that being monolingual is an advantage for a language teacher on the other. The first is discriminatory, the second seems to me to be plainly absurd. How can someone who has never learned a second or foreign language possibly be considered to be better-equipped to be a language teacher than someone who has?

With regard to the point that the migrants student will use to communicate with native speakers, they will, of course, also communicate with other non-native speakers. ‘International’ students all over the world tend, for example, to communicate more with fellow international students than with local students. Lingua franca communication is always of crucial importance.

Ana Wu: Regarding the hiring of monolingual teachers in some Asian countries as opposed to multilingual locals, in “No experience necessary?” (2006), you asked, “In what other profession would a lack of relevant knowledge and experience be touted as an advantage?”

Considering international graduate students attending a TESOL or Applied Linguistics graduate program in an English-spoken country,

a. What advice would you give to these new EFL teachers who are returning home after getting the degree and are concerned about having a second-class status in the profession when competing with less-trained native English speaking colleagues?

Prof. Kirkpatrick: I think they should join their local professional organisations and also try and find out who the ‘rogue’ employers are and who the ethical employers are. Having said that, these teachers will inevitably meet injustice and at different levels. In Hong Kong, for example, native English teachers tend to be paid more than their local counterparts; and non-native teachers will find it impossible to find work in a range of language schools.

b. What can professors in these TESOL or Applied Linguistics graduate programs do to empower or guide the students who may face hiring discrimination in their homecountries? Should concerns of NNEST be included in the curriculum and training? How?

Prof. Kirkpatrick:This is a hard one to answer as I’m not sure of the contexts you are referring to. One point that is probably generalisable to all contexts is the importance of making people feel good about being multilingual. Hong Kong is full of trilingual people who believe that their English is not good enough – because it differs from a native speaker standard – and/or that their Putonghua is not good enough for the same reason. Actually, though, they are functional trilinguals. They feel deficient, however, because their multilingual linguistic proficiency is measured against a monolingual standard. This measuring of language acquisition against a monolingual standard remains a huge problem for traditional cognitivist second language acquisition SLA. Multilinguals need to be measured against comparable and successful multilinguals, not against a monolingual standard. Language is a social construct and is something that is used in real contexts. Being able to use it successfully in these contexts is what matters, not whether your vowel sounds perfectly replicate some idealised speaker of RP. So I’d like to see a shift from a traditional cognitivist SLA perspective to one that includes a more ‘social’ theory of SLA.

At the same time, all language teachers need to encourage respect in multilingual ability, no matter what the languages involved are. Thus children from minority groups who go to school should never be made to feel ‘small’ because they speak this or that language. Instead, a multilingual repertoire always needs to be valued. In the same way, multilingual students should be made to feel proud about their linguistic heritage and backgrounds.

The concerns of NNEST should certainly be included in the curriculum – a good way of doing this is to shift the focus of TESOL courses so that the multilingual and multicultural contexts of almost all English language teaching contexts are fore-grounded. At the same time, being multilingual and multicultural must be recognised as important advantages and attributes of the language teacher. If US and UK-based TESOL courses gave formal recognition to being multilingual and being multicultural – even making it a condition of entry to postgraduate courses – then employers might start to take this seriously too.

Ana Wu: In your article, “Teaching English Across Cultures: What do English language teachers need to know to know how to teach English,” (2007), you argue that it is time to discard the NS-NNS distinction and instead develop a list of skills and knowledge (p.32) that all language teachers should have.

If we use this list to describe the ideal language teacher, how would we label language learners and speakers? If we discard the NS-NNS labels, how would call we ourselves?

Prof. Kirkpatrick: Do we need labels? It would be nice to discard the NS-NNS labels and just refer to properly qualified and trained people as professional language teachers.

One related point I would make is that English is often introduced to learners too early. This is a particular problem in primary schools through out Asia. As I mentioned above, primary schools in this region should be focusing on ensuring children develop proficiency and literacy in their mother tongue(s) and the respective national language, and not on English. It is perfectly possible to develop excellent proficiency in English (in any language) if you start in secondary school. The current increase in the number of ‘young learners’ of English world-wide enrolling in private language schools is also a concern. Many middle class parents in Asia (and possibly elsewhere) are choosing to educate their children in schools where English is the medium of instruction instead of in their own language. As a result, their proficiency in English often comes at the expense of proficiency (and literacy) in their first language. This seems incredibly short-sighted. In this sense then, the ideal learner of English in the region should be someone who is already bilingual in their first and national language!

Ana Wu: Thank you for this interesting interview! I would like to also thank Terry Doyle for revising and editing the interview questions.


Kirkpatrick, A. (2007). Teaching English across Cultures: What do English language teachers need to know to know how to teach English. EA Journal 23 (2).

Kirkpatrick, A. (2006). No experience necessary? The Guardian Weekly.

Kirkpatrick, A. (2000). English as an Asian Language. The Guardian Weekly.