Vivian Cook

NNEST of the Month
June, 2010
vivian [dot] cook [at] ncl [dot] ac [dot] uk

Could you tell us why and how you decided to become an educator?
Ana Wu, ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Dr. Cook: I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision. After a BA in English literature, I was awarded a scholarship for the teaching of English in under-developed countries. Unfortunately I was then given medical advice not to go to the tropics. So I took a job teaching EFL at Ealing Technical College in London as the next best thing, where I was immediately involved in writing EFL coursebooks (I was press-ganged into writing Realistic English with Brian Abbs and Mary Underwood on my very first day of work). I became convinced that the only way to improve language teaching significantly was to understand how people learn second languages rather than to follow the latest teaching fashion. So this led to research and books etc to try to tell people what ideas were being developed about second language acquisition and how these might relate to language teaching.

Given everything you’ve written, and the voluminous research on which your work is based, this question may be too simplistic. As a teacher of fourth and fifth grade students who speak another language, it is critical that they develop adequate academic language to comprehend content and progress more quickly than the CALPS timetable of six years.
How can we help our students develop academic language most quickly? Thank you.
Jean L. Hill, tutor at West Street School in Southbridge, Massachusetts.
Dr. Cook: Telling Nature to hurry up is always a problem. I don’t think I know of any magic solutions: language learning is a complex process that takes time. One thing I certainly feel is that setting the L2 user as a target and praising the students as L2 users cannot but help; many are discouraged by thinking they have failed if they are not like native speakers. Whatever little they can do in the second language is still more than any monolingual native speaker can do.

With regard to academic English, it may be helpful to think what academic tasks mean for L2 users, not just for native-speaking students, and to get them to exploit the resource they have which the native speaker does not, namely the other language: a disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners are bilinguals I understand. Of course the snag is that the gatekeepers who control examinations, etc, tend to assume that only ‘native’ performance is appropriate, so, for the sake of their students, teachers do have to bear these preconceptions in mind.

In your article, Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching, you used the term L2 user for the person who uses a second language and L2 learner for the person in the process of learning it. One of the issues that resurrects once in a while in our NNEST Interest Section meetings and online discussion is about which term best defines us, people whose first language is not English. What do you think of the term “Non-native speaker”? What are the pros and cons of continuing using this term?
Ana Wu, ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Dr. Cook: Originally ‘L2 user’ was simply a useful technical term that avoided some of the issues surrounding ‘L2 learner’. I think I object to any definition of people based on what they are not rather than what they are: I am not a non-female, non-young, non-lefthanded person; as Popeye said ‘I am what I am and that’s all that I am’. Inherently any ‘non’ definition discriminates in favor of a particular target rather than acknowledging people in their own right. The term ‘learner’ implies they have never reached some target (native speaker) rather than they have a target of their own (L2 user). I do now worry about the terms ‘L2’ and ‘second language’ as connoting some secondary status; if ‘L2’ were read aloud as cardinal number ‘L two’ OK, but everybody reads it as ordinal number ‘second language’; ‘second’ is a status-ridden term – ‘the First Lady’, ‘a first class degree’ etc come before ‘second …’ as indeed in ‘second-class citizen’.

‘Native speaker’ is now such a sensitive term I tend to avoid it where possible. In the UK at any rate ‘native speaker’ refers to ‘standard’ RP speakers – Received Pronunciation is the name of the standard accent in England, otherwise known as BBC English Oxford English or the Queen’s English. This is spoken by a small minority of English people, who don’t include the native-born inhabitants of Oxford or Newcastle, say, where ‘yous’ is the plural of ‘you’. One of my students is a Newcastle-born Muslim who does contract teaching in different parts of the Middle East; when he arrived for his last job, the head of department took one look and said, ‘We didn’t expect a native speaker like you’. Obviously none of us can legislate how words can be used and we have to accept the terms we are landed with – how much applied linguistics actually uses linguistics? But Applied Linguistics will doubtless remain the title as long as it lasts.

In recent papers I have argued that the umbrella term ‘L2 user’ conceals differences between at least five groups, partly based on the hierarchy in De Swaan (2001): L2 users of central languages such as Portuguese in Portugal; supercentral languages like Swahili in Africa; hypercentral languages like English used everywhere in the world as a second language; identity languages like Mandarin Chinese learnt as a heritage language by overseas Chinese speakers of say Cantonese, and personal languages used e.g. between married couples; plus a group of L2 classroom learners whose only purpose is to pass educational requirements. I think we have to be clear that second language acquisition and language teaching may be very different among these groups: much SLA research is concerned with only one of these groups and not necessarily generalizable to the others; the same with teaching – what works for one L2 user group may not work for others.

As regards to multilinguals, World Englishes, and EFL instructors who are L2 users, what areas do you think textbook publishers have neglected?
Ana Wu, ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Dr. Cook: Having been involved at the start of MATSDA, the materials development association, and as an ex-course-book writer, I became aware of the gulf there was between the bright new ideas of course-writers and the books that publishers wanted to publish. To exaggerate slightly, since the 1980s that there has been in essence one published English coursebook in the UK, produced with different covers, pictures and writers’ names, but having the same mixed ‘communicative’ methodology, grammar, aims etc (now being given labels from the Common European Framework, alias CEFR). I could not fathom why, for example, Krashen’s work was not the source for a whole wave of textbooks; not that I agreed with it, but it was certainly worth trying out in coursebooks and would have sold to large numbers of his fans; Norm Gary had a listening-based course for hotel staff that never I think found a publisher but was excellent material. Publishers have maintained a blockbuster approach to English coursebooks rather than diversifying into the many original approaches to teaching that are around.

Some of the overlooked areas I have described in articles are:

The L2 user target. The students are presented on page after page of their coursebooks with powerful native speaker figures who dispense wisdom to humble L2 petitioners such as tourists and students; celebrities in coursebooks are chosen for their fame not for their ability with other languages, yet footballers, tennis-players or F1 drivers are excellent L2 users, both while playing their sport and when being interviewed on television afterwards. So giving a higher profile to successful L2 users in coursebooks is one priority.

Related to (1) is the question of English as Lingua Franca (ELF). It seems undeniable that most use of English world-wide is between people whose first language is not English. Their need is to use English with each other, not with someone who has it as a first language. This must substantially change the concepts of what the student has to do and to learn; descriptions like the CEFR are not appropriate if they do not take into account the distinctive ways in which L2 users use language. It may be that the description of an idealized native speaker is useful as a standard that can be used internationally, just as the yard was supposedly based on the distance from Henry I’s nose to this fingers: but this is for convenience rather than to kowtow to the native speaker; we don’t honor Henry I every time we measure a yard. Another possibility is to try to write descriptions of EFL grammar, phonology, etc, as practiced by Jenny Jenkins and Barbara Seidlhofer; myself I doubt that there is a common core to ELF but a large range of subvarieties that may need separate descriptions. The alternative I now favor is to see ELF as a dynamic process that L2 users employ to communicate with each other; they need to develop the skills of such interaction, about realworld issues not trivial classroom tasks.

The other concern is writing. Since the 19th century Reform movement, speaking has been seen as the core of the language class. Arguably, however, writing is just as important for life today, what with emails, etc – I am doing this interview on a keyboard not a telephone: students need to send emails, go on Facebook, etc. On the one hand, this has led to a lack of organized teaching of the writing system – spelling, punctuation, etc – where teachers do ad hoc correction or fall back on misleading so-called rules they remember from childhood; yet, spelling mistakes are probably more important than pronunciation mistakes as they carry overtones of lack of education etc for many people. This ignores the difficulties for many learners of transferring from one script to another, say, Chinese or Greek to English.

But also you can see on every page of a beginners’ textbook how written language is used as a prop for speaking exercises as if it did not matter in its own right – checklists, mappings etc unlike any ordinary written text. The written language is systematically distorted for teaching ease. Take the neat idea of making people attend to particular forms by highlighting in bold, italics etc – enhanced input. There are very tight conventions in the written language on how these may be used (look at any publisher’s guide for their authors), which these modifications completely flout. We are sacrificing the system of writing for a short-term gain in speaking.

In your 1999 article, “Going beyond the Native speaker in language teaching,” you conclude that there should be “more emphasis on the successful L2 user” and also more use of the L1 in language teaching. In the past 11 years how much change in attitude among teachers, students, program directors, and researchers has there been on these two points? Also, what further change do you hope and/or think will occur?
Terry Doyle, ESL Instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Dr. Cook: In terms of second language acquisition research, lip-service is now being paid to the efficient L2 user as opposed to the deficient L2 learner. It still has not made much actual difference to SLA research; research methods like grammaticality judgements imply comparison with native speakers; research questions such as the effects of age on second language learning and whether L2 learners have access to Universal Grammar revolve around whether the learner is like a native speaker – to me a side issue that doesn’t look at what they really are. There is a growing band of researchers into how second languages affect people’s thinking, reflected in my book co-edited with Benedetta Bassetti coming out in the autumn Language and Bilingual Cognition (Psychology Press). The research base for the L2 user as a distinctive kind of person gets stronger every year.

I have been encouraged by two recent books:
Ortega, L. (2009), Understanding Second Language Acquisition, Hodder Education.
Scott, V.M. (2009), Double Talk: Deconstructing Monolingualism in Classroom Second Language Learning. Prentice Hall.

These are useful applications of similar approaches, which I would like to have written myself. My old warhorse Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (Hodder) has become much more L2 user oriented in its fourth edition. I am impressed by the extent to which these ideas are now known in places I visit – China, Iran, Italy and Portugal in the past couple of years. I have also tried putting some of my standard talks on Youtube to see if that helps people to access them.

In regards to placing more emphasis on the successful L2 learner, and in regards to the focus of this blog, I’d like to know how your notion of “multi-competence” is important in regards to “non-native teacher” issues. In your 1999 article, you comment on the strength of “non-native” teachers as language teachers because “students may prefer the fallible non-native speaker teacher who presents a more achievable model.” What is the value of “multi-competence” for language teachers? Could you say more about the strengths “non-native” teachers possess as language teachers? Finally, do you believe that perceptions about native vs. non-native speakers as language teachers have changed in the last decade?
Terry Doyle, ESL Instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Dr. Cook: The issue of native (NST) and non-native speaker teachers (NNST) is fraught with difficulty, having financial, political and career implications in many countries: I met one teacher who was hired as a native speaker (which she was) but paid as a non-native local (as she was a naturalized citizen of the country by marriage). A key point is of course ‘everything else being equal’; teachers may be useless because of their lack of training regardless of whether they are native or non-native (though it is perhaps inevitable that many expat teachers have less knowledge and experience of the demands of the local education system); teachers that speak fluently and communicate effectively may achieve more regardless of nativeness, perhaps easier in the L1. If L2 users are different kinds of people from monolinguals, inevitably the monolingual NST belongs in one group; the multi-competent NNST in another group of L2 users. Students can aspire to become part of the latter group, not the former. Assuming that the NNST speaks the same L1 as the students (which is not the case in many parts of the world), they have got there by the same route that the students are following, not by the L1 route that the NSTs followed.

Advantages are then the NNST teachers’ better understanding of the pitfalls and shortcuts on this route, being a visible role model for the students of someone who successfully did it their way, and knowing the students’ L1. Given two otherwise equivalent teachers, the NST has an advantage only in terms of the native model that is being shown to the students; if this is highly valued by society and by the students themselves (as it probably still is), this may be an advantage for the NST. As soon as we can persuade people to aim at becoming effective L2 users rather than second-rate imitation native speakers, this sole NST advantage disappears and what is needed is a teacher who can model successful L2 use, who may or may not be a native speaker – I was once told to my surprise that I had given a talk in ELF rather than in English. As with anything to do with language, the neutral scientific view clashes with the deep emotional and non-rational feelings that human beings have about language; the native speaker construct has been incorporated in language teaching and in popular ideas about bilingualism for so long that the inertia in changing it is immense. But a lead from curriculum designers, examination boards and coursebook writers might help – like the Japanese MEXT‘s goal of ‘Japanese with English Abilities’ or the Israel curriculum which ‘does not take on the goal of producing near-native speakers of English, but rather speakers of Hebrew, Arabic or other languages who can function comfortably in English whenever it is appropriate’.

Ana Wu: Thank you very much for your time and consideration in answering the questions submitted by the members of the NNEST IS!
Dr. Cook: I have enjoyed answering these questions and hope these answers are reasonably coherent. Follow-ups for these ideas can be found on my website, particularly the on-line papers; there are even my first amateurish videos on YouTube (search for itsallinaword). You can email me on


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