Monthly Archives: May 2011

Péter Medgyes

NNEST of the Month

June, 2011

Péter Medgyes is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest. Previously, he was a school teacher, teacher trainer, vice rector of his university, deputy state secretary at the Hungarian Ministry of Education and the ambassador of Hungary posted in Damascus. Professor Medgyes is the author of numerous books and articles, including The Non-Native Teacher (1994, winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Book Competition), Changing Perspectives in Teacher Education (1996, co-edited with Angi Malderez), The Language Teacher (1997), Laughing Matters (2002), and Golden Age: Twenty Years of Foreign Language Education in Hungary (2011). His main professional interests lie in curriculum studies, language policy, and teacher education. He can be reached at

NNEST blog June interviewer: Shu-Chun Tseng

1. Could you tell us why and how you decided to become an educator?

(Ana Wu, ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco)

Dr. Medgyes: Frankly, when I was a university student the last thing on my mind was to become a teacher. In my youth I didn’t like going to school plus my mother kept saying that she didn’t want her son to become “a slave of the nation”, implying that teachers in Hungary have always been very poorly paid. My dream was to become a literary critic. However, I was so exhilarated by the practicum experience in the last year of my university studies that I felt I was born to be a teacher. (Youngsters are full of self-confidence, you know.)

2. In your teaching journey, what are your own terms of being “an ideal teacher”? And, how do you achieve your own goals?

(Shu-Chun Tseng, PhD, Indiana State University)

Dr. Medgyes: I don’t believe there’s such a thing as an ideal teacher. However, the best way for a teacher to approximate this ideal is to take into consideration the personal and learning needs of their group of learners. So if you teach seven-year-olds, for example, don’t expect them to understand the difference between the past tense and the present perfect, whereas if you happen to teach adults preparing for a tough language exam, don’t waste time on light-hearted activities.

3. Your work has led us to understand the bright and dark sides of being NNESTs. However, in the real society, it’s not just how we, NNESTs, perceive ourselves, but also how others (like parents, students, or administrators) perceive us. Some of them still believe that the native speakers are better role models for English language learners. With your own experience, have you ever noticed these negative attitudes? Also, how would you suggest NNESTs to overcome the negative attitudes and communicate with parents, students, and administrators?

(Shu-Chun Tseng, PhD, Indiana State University)

Dr. Medgyes: To answer the first part of the question, I don’t think we can directly overcome the negative attitudes of parents because we scarcely meet them. School administrators are a different matter. In Hungary this isn’t really a problem because there are hardly any native speaker teachers available to emulate us nonnatives. Private schools, on the other hand, are driven by survival and profit, and native teachers are undoubtedly a major attraction. As for students, they may have reservations about me as a nonnative in the beginning, but I hope to prove through my professionalism and dedication that I’m well worth it.

4. Much research has been done and much has been written since your groundbreaking work was published in the early nineties. As the NNEST “movement” continues to grow stronger and move forward, what advice would you have for beginning scholars and researchers in this area, both in terms of research questions and research methods?

(Davi S. Reis, Assistant Professor of Education, Duquesne University)

Dr. Medgyes: The native/nonnative issue is a very complex one, including political, educational, linguistic and other aspects. If you are a beginner researcher, I’d suggest you should not be carried away by your emotions but focus your efforts on searching for impartial evidence, which may or may not corroborate your assumptions. Nothing can be more elevating than when a researcher admits the illegitimacy of their prior beliefs.

5. Your work on the differences between NESTs and NNESTs (especially Medgyes, 1992 and Medgyes, 1994) has been regarded as pioneering and has been widely cited in the Applied Linguistics literature in general and in the expanding body of research on NNEST-related issues, in particular. But some scholars have also criticized certain aspects of your work, claiming, for example, that it helps fuel the NS/NNS dichotomy and that it positions NNESTs as inherently deficient speakers when compared to NESTs (Mahboob, 2010) . How have these criticisms, as well as your professional experiences in the past two decades, affected your thinking about the NS/NNS dichotomy, if at all?

(Davi S. Reis, Assistant Professor of Education, Duquesne University)

Dr. Medgyes: First of all, I must admit that the native/nonnative dichotomy doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Several other terms have been offered to replace it, but none of them seems to have stood the test of time. The most promising new avenue of research has been conducted on disentangling the complexities of the term English as a lingua franca. While there have been several attempts at describing certain features of ELF, a thorough description thereof has not as yet been made to my knowledge. Considering the heterogeneity of ELF that is spoken by a rapidly growing number of people all over the world, I doubt that there ever will be such a description available.

(Ana T. Solano-Campos, PhD Candidate at Emory University, Questions 6, 7, and 8 )

Dr. Medgyes, humor is an important theme in your work and a key element of some of your narratives.

6. When did you first encounter “humor in the language classroom”? Do you have any funny anecdotes about the challenge of being humorous in another language?

Dr. Medgyes: What I’ve come to realise over the years is that humour doesn’t equal jokes – it’s a far more comprehensive feature of human beings and far more valuable too. The point is not so much whether you as a teacher are good at cracking jokes in the classroom (I’m not a very good joke-teller myself – by the time I reach the punchline I usually forget what it is), but rather whether you are a person who can look at the world (including the school and the English language) from both sides. The funny and serious perspectives shouldn’t be separated, they belong together. That’s why I love understatements and tongue-in-cheek remarks. Humourless people are dangerous – and so are humourless teachers. Oh, and the most important thing: self-irony is one of the most valuable human traits. No funny anecdotes about the challenge, I’m afraid…

7. What prompted you to write “Laughing Matters: Humor in the Language Classroom”?

Dr. Medgyes: What triggered my thoughts was that I realised there was a gap in ELT literature. By the way, never before had I suffered so much as while I was writing this book. Since I was aware that this book was going to be used anywhere in the world, I found it was terribly difficult to find the common denominator. Will this joke go down well in Patagonia as well as in Myanmar? Is it PC enough? I was full of doubts (and still am), but I trust I found the right balance on the whole.

8. In what ways have you incorporated humor in the different stages in your life, as a student, teacher, professor, vice-rector, and Deputy State Secretary for International Relations in the Hungarian Ministry of Education and Culture?

Dr. Medgyes: Need I tell you how difficult life can be? We all know it, don’t we? The only thing that kept me going through the ups and downs of my career has been the invincible yen to laugh. As long as I can laugh at other people’s and my own folly, I can be sure that I’m still alive.


Special thanks to Dr. Péter Medgyes for his generous participation in this interview. Many thanks go to all NNEST Blog Team members. This interview was a collaborative process to which all NNEST Blog Team members contributed in different capacities.


Mahboob, A. (Ed.). (2010). The NNEST lens: Non native English speakers in TESOL. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or nonnative: Who’s worth more? ELT Journal, 46(4), 340-349.

Medgyes, P. (1994). The non-native teacher. London, UK: Macmillam Publishers Ltd.

Medgyes, P. (2002). Laughing Matters: Humor in the Language Classroom. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.