Shondel Nero


NNEST of the Month
August 2010

In Guyana, we have what linguists call a “Creole Continuum” where everyday language use ranges from the most Creole forms (called “Creolese” by local people) to standardized Guyanese English. Typically, you’ll here more Creolese spoken among rural folk or those from lower socioeconomic classes with less formal education, and conversely more standardized English among urban, middle class, educated folk, but that is not an absolute. Most Guyanese move back and forth along the continuum depending on the context, topic, and purpose of communication, and often people speak Creolese as a marker of “true” Guyanese identity, or to show ethnic solidarity or difference. Creolese is often used for humor or in informal situations.

In my household, my parents were very different linguistically. Even though my parents were both from a rural village, my mother’s speech was much more Creolized than my father’s. My father is a truly British colonial man, and his speech and writing reflects that. So I was exposed to the full spectrum of language in my household.

I went to a very good high school – actually the top high school in the country. So, while getting very colorful Creole language from my mother at home, I was also getting a dose of British grammar school language and education as well. My generation was the first post-independence generation in Guyana. Guyana got independence in 1966 from the British (I was in high school during the 1970s). So, while there was an early attempt to introduce more Caribbean content into the curriculum during my time, we were still largely experiencing an entirely British curriculum – British textbooks, British exams, etc.

I developed an early interest in language at high school. I starting learning French at age 10, and immediately fell in love with it. The following year, I picked up Spanish. So, I chose the foreign language track in high school, and vigorously pursued language study at both “O” level and “A” levels (Note: These are British exams. There were two levels of British exams – the “O” level, meaning “Ordinary” level, taken at the end of your fifth year in high school. Then, if you passed O levels with a high grade, you could then apply to take “A” levels, meaning “Advanced” level exams a year or two later. Typically, you needed to pass at least five subjects at O levels to be eligible to take A levels). After graduating from high school, I worked for one year at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Guyana. I wanted that experience, as my first career choice was to become a diplomat in the Guyanese Foreign Service. However, during that year, I quickly realized the politics and economic problems in the Guyanese foreign service, so I thought maybe I can use my language skills in other diplomatic organizations such as the United Nations. With that in mind, I applied to college overseas, and I was accepted to Concordia University in Montréal, Canada to major in French and Spanish. So, I left Guyana in 1981 and moved to Montréal for college. I loved Montréal, except for the weather! You can imagine that I experienced my first winter at 19 years old! What a shock that was. Anyway, I graduated from college in 1984, then moved to New York to accept a job at Air Canada’s New York reservations office to be a customer service agent at the “French Desk”, obviously because of my French-speaking skills. However, I quickly realized that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life talking to passengers on the phone, and prospects for working at the UN seemed bleak, so I decided I needed to find a way to use my language skills, but in a multicultural setting, as I always loved language and cultural diversity. Also, I always enjoyed school, as I had a very positive high school experience. So, I decided that teaching immigrant children might be interesting since I’ll have a multicultural classroom.

So, this is how I came to be an educator. I decided to go back to school and pursue a Masters degree in TESOL, while I was working at Air Canada. I went to Teachers College (TC), Columbia University part-time for my MA in TESOL. I graduated from TC with my MA in TESOL in 1990, and immediately got my first teaching job at a high school in East Harlem, New York. I taught ESL – beginner, immediate, and advanced. I also taught two sections of French.
After teaching one year in high school, an opportunity came up to teach ESL writing in the English department at Long Island University (LIU), Brooklyn Campus. I was lucky enough to get the position. During my time at LIU, I became more committed to a career in academia, so I went back to TC and pursued a doctorate in Applied Linguistics. My dissertation focused on the acquisition of standard English by speakers of Caribbean Creole English (CCE). The interest in CCE came about because there were a growing number of students from the “English-speaking” Caribbean such as Jamaica and Guyana (Guyana is considered culturally Caribbean, even though it’s in South America) at LIU who were being placed in ESL classes, and I wanted to understand this phenomenon. It raised a number of interesting linguistic questions such as who is a “native” speaker of English? On what basis are placement decisions made for ESL classes? Is Creole English a separate language or a dialect of English? What are the appropriate pedagogical approaches for speakers of nonstandard varieties of English? These questions have fueled my research over the past 20 years, and I continue to wrestle with these questions and write about them.

After I left LIU, I taught at St. John’s University in their graduate program in TESOL/Bilingual Education from 1998 – 2007. Then I left St. John’s and joined the faculty at New York University (NYU) in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development in September 2007. I’m currently director of our unit in Multilingual/Multicultural Studies, which encompasses graduate and undegraduate programs in TESOL, Bilingual Education, and Foreign Language Education. It’s a challenging but wonderful position. We have a large program, approximately 200 students, about half of whom are international students, mostly from Asia. I teach graduate courses in Second Language Theory and Research, and Doctoral Seminars in Educational Linguistics, and World Englishes and Dialects in Education. So far, I’m enjoying being at NYU.

Ana Wu: Despite the fact that you were born and raised in Guyana, the only officially English-speaking country in South America, you wrote in “An Exceptional Voice: Working as a TESOL Professional of Color” that the combination of being immigrant and Black tends to create an assumption of nonnativeness, specially among White peers (Nero, 2006).

a. As an educator, how has this assumption affected your pedagogical practices?

b. In the same chapter, you wrote about being an “exception” in the professional context, meaning attending to and living with a host of ambivalent (often contradictory) attitudes and expectations from students and colleagues alike (p. 25). What advice would you give to teachers who see themselves as being “exceptions” in their workplace?

Ana Wu: You have done extensive research about language and identity, second dialect speakers and Standard English as a Second Dialect (SESD). We know that a variety of Englishes have emerged worldwide, yet current educational practices generally do not allow students’ creole or vernacular varieties of English in the classroom.

a. What do you think about this practice?

b. You have researched and documented cases of speakers of varieties of English being (mis) placed in ESL classes (Nero 2000 and 2001). How do you think we can better prepare prospective language instructors in teaching training programs to understand the nature of World Englishes and question stereotypes?

Ana Wu: You majored in French and Spanish, and taught ESL and French at a public high school. What were your strengths as a French instructor? What did you enjoy the most as an ESL instructor and as a French teacher? How different were your students’ expectations?

As far as being an ESL instructor in high school, most of my students at that time were Dominican. I had known very little about the DR back then, so one of the things I enjoyed was learning about the DR from them. They loved their country, and every opportunity they got to speak or write about it, they would do take advantage of it. I also really enjoyed the students’ optimism – they were new immigrants, and they had an abiding faith in America. They all said that once they mastered English, they felt they could accomplish anything in America. My husband, who’s American, always says that immigration by definition is an optimistic idea. The immigrant always believes s/he can do better in the new country. When I looked at my ESL students, I saw that. Many of my ESL students were from poor families, and had low levels of literacy in Spanish, but still had high expectations for themselves and for me. They felt that their ESL teacher could best help them to overcome the language barrier, so they were highly motivated. I hope that I was able to help them in some small way achieve their dream.

Ana Wu: Thank you for your time and for this insightful interview!

Nero, S. (2000). The changing faces of English: A Caribbean perspective. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 483-510.

Nero, S. (2001). Englishes in contact: Anglophone Caribbean students in an urban college. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Nero, S. (2006). An Exceptional Voice: Working as a TESOL Professional of Color. Curtis, A., & Romney, M. (Eds.). Color, race and English language teaching: Shades of meaning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


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