NNEST of the Month
Xuan Zheng is a Ph.D candidate in Language and Rhetoric in the English Department at the University of Washington, where she serves as a graduate instructor of College Composition. Grew up in Wuhan, China and finished her BA degree in English Linguistics and Literature from Central China Normal University, she holds an MATESOL degree from the University of Washington. In China and the U.S. she has taught English language classes, Chinese language classes and College Composition. Her research interests include non-native English speaking teacher identity, intercultural rhetoric and communication, and global Englishes. She has presented (and is to present) in several international conferences in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Her publications have appeared in TESOL Newsletters and the International Journal of Learning. She is now writing her dissertation research, which is a qualitative exploration of how four international teaching assistants of College Composition negotiate their identities in becoming competent English writing teachers.
NNEST December Interviewer: Todd Ruecker
Could you please describe your background as a language teacher and talk some about the similarities and differences between your experiences teaching in the U.S. and China?
I started teaching as a student teacher in a high school in Wuhan, China. As a young, novice teacher, I had many creative ideas in making the English class more fun and communicative: e.g. using PowerPoint, pictures, and games. However, many classes in high schools in China at that time were still test-driven, so I didn’t have much freedom in creating materials. Besides, although as a young teacher I naturally got along with the students, I wondered whether the students learned. That’s why I came to the U.S. for an MATESOL program: to become a better English teacher. Once I started the program, I realized how different teaching was in the U.S. In my first ESL class as a student teacher, I was embarrassed by not being able to understand a student’s kind greeting “How are you doing” because I was not familiar with his accent. Luckily, my first-time teaching experience was quite pleasant: working with an experienced master teacher I not only learned to teach without a textbook, but also to provide opportunities (e.g. student-led discussions) for students to take ownership of their learning. The class was also a true intercultural experience for me: I have learned a lot about different cultures from my diverse group of students, who are from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia. Other than having more freedom and diversity teaching in the U.S., the other difference compared to China is that it is more challenging to feel like a legitimate English teacher in an English-speaking country.
How and when did you first become interested in researching NNEST issues?
Being an NNEST was never an issue before I came to the U.S. Since our English curriculum in China was based on a standard American/British English model, and we had relatively little contact with English speakers, students like me assumed that British/American English was more “native” and thus, better. I spent hours watching American TV shows, memorizing idioms, and polishing my accent towards an American one. Not until I got to the U.S. did I realize my English was never considered “true American.” Because of the insecure feeling about my accent, combined with the uneasiness of being a new teacher, I didn’t feel confident in starting teaching right away like most of my American classmates. Besides, I was denied the TA-ship in teaching ESL anyways because I didn’t get 290 out of 300 in an English-speaking test for non-native speakers.
At the time when I was considering whether I should change into teaching Chinese as a profession, I was introduced to the NNEST movement in the very first class I took in the MATESOL program at UW, taught by professor Yasuko Kanno. I felt extremely empowered when reading professor George Braine’s collection Non-Native Educators in English Language Teaching, because for the first time I felt I was not alone. The non-native authors in this collection, many outstanding scholars, certainly became my role models. Meanwhile, the literature on World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca also changed my view on the ownership of English and reshaped my definition of English proficiency: the versatility to communicate with speakers from different linguistic backgrounds in English. I started to view myself as a bilingual, bicultural teacher whose linguistic and cultural background can benefit her students. I am very lucky to have many supportive mentors such as Sandra Silberstein, Suhanthine Motha, and Anis Bawarshi, who have always acknowledged the unique strengths I bring as a bilingual teacher, an international scholar and a human being. I also have many wonderful colleagues, American and international, who listen to my struggles and growth as an English teacher in the U.S. and offer their help generously. Because of these experiences and people I decided to do the NNEST research. I hope the literature can empower other international students like me in becoming a better English teacher.
You have described yourself as “an insider of the Chinese community in U.S. universities.” How has that insider status helped you in researching the experiences of Chinese students studying in the U.S.?
Since I came to the U.S., I have been living in a house with other Chinese international students. In interacting with my housemates and watching them (as well as myself) getting adapted to the life in the U.S., I felt like an ethnographer working “in the field.” When we go out to school everyday, we speak English and learn to become a professional in our fields. But when we return to our house, we discuss in our native Chinese tongue what we see as strange or interesting and share our strategies in surviving the challenges. Speaking Chinese creates this safe space for us to negotiate conflicting identities. Since I have stayed in the house for the longest period, I have interacted with different housemates who shared a similar acculturation process but also with individual differences. These day-to-day interactions and in-depth observations are invaluable resources for my studies on Chinese students in the U.S. because I know first-hand that the struggles many Chinese students have are not academic or linguistic; their academic endeavors are intertwined with their personal lives, their emotions and their investment in the future.
Congratulations on winning the NNEST Paper of the Year award for your recent TESOL presentation, “Teaching World Englishes to Undergraduates in the U.S.” In that presentation, you talked about a unique composition class you taught at a university in the northwestern U.S. Could you please describe that course for our readers and explain the rationale of focusing a composition course on World Englishes and the benefits of doing so?
This is a required College Composition class for freshmen students, which are usually taught by graduate students in the English department. The goal of the class is to practice academic writing. Although the outcomes of the class are the same, teachers all have freedom in choosing topics for students to discuss and write. I have chosen the topic of multilingualism and identity as the course theme. As course materials, I have assigned scholarly and popular readings on language attitudes and multilingual speakers’ lives: Amy Tan’s (2010) Mother Tongue, news articles about the English Only Debate in the U.S., TESOL articles on bilingual education, Lippi-Green’s (1997) Teaching Children How to Discriminate: What We Learn from the Big Bad Wolf, and the documentary American Tongues (see References). For writing assignments, students were asked to write reading responses to the articles, conduct interviews with multilingual speakers, reflect on their use of multiple languages/Englishes, make arguments about language policy, and do research on the value and usage of a non-mainstream variety of English.
I have designed the course this way not only because I have a TESOL background and found the topic empowering for a bilingual teacher like me. I also read that in today’s world where most people live in a multilingual context, it is increasingly important for native English speakers to think about the issues of linguistic diversity and their responsibility in an intercultural communication exchange. Later on I found to my surprise that my “native speaker American undergraduates” were actually a mixed group of Americans, immigrant students and international students. The topic on multilingualism and different Englishes generated a great amount of debate among them because of their diverse background, and it proved to be empowering for multilingual students who tend to struggle in a regular academic writing class where Standard English is emphasized.
In an article based on your TESOL Presentation, you wrote, “Although I am aware that terms such as ‘native speaker,’ ‘non-native speaker,’ and ‘standard English’ are problematic, labeling is inevitable in teaching this topic.” Could you talk more about the problematic nature of these labels and give advice on what teachers and researchers should consider when using labels, given that you acknowledge labeling is necessary?
This is the question that I have always wondered about and may not have a good answer to it. I found the terms problematic because ever since I came to the U.S., I did not meet anyone that speak or write in a “standard English” that I used to learn in China. People all seem to communicate in a different style and with a different accent. My “native speaker” students make grammar mistakes all the time in their papers. I have also met many people in the U.S. who moved here since young and do not know which language is considered their mother tongue.
I think I believed in these terms back then in China because I did not know how English was actually being used. Besides, images of “native speakers” in commercials for language schools as well as textbooks tend to be tall, good-looking Caucasians. In the commercials for test-preparation schools, they wear a tie; if the school is more modern and communicative, the teachers are young and attractive. Besides English schools, anything that has to do with America is good and will be sold well in China. For example, even a heater will sell better if it is named “Harvard Heater,” even when it has nothing to do with Harvard University.
Now, I knew new terms (e.g., “multilingual speakers,” “mainstream English”) were proposed to replace those problematic terms and I do believe the new terms are empowering in many contexts; however, I believe we as teachers and researchers should do more than just changing the labeling terms. In my Composition Class, I encouraged students to use “multilinguals” instead of “non-native speakers,” but later on this word in students’ writing gained the same negative connotation as “non-native speaker.” For instance, one student wrote, “…bilingual programs distract multilingual speakers from learning English fluently.” I think the problem is that the critique of language ideology tends to remain in academia, instead of the general public. There always seems to be a gap between what researchers know and what students (who are going into different fields) believe. To change people’s attitudes, if possible, I think this dialogue should be more accessible to a common audience such as through popular writings
In another article, you report on a case study of a Chinese student Fang and describe her tendency for silence in the classroom as a “situated and strategic” choice. Nonetheless, you find this choice problematic in that her contributions to the classroom were limited. In response to these findings, you suggest that instructors from all disciplines have training in cross-cultural communication. Could you please discuss what this training would focus on and how it could improve the teaching of multilingual students in the U.S.?
I have this ideal notion of a successful intercultural classroom, where the teacher and the students are equally responsible for making themselves understood. Silence from the students, for instance, tend be to considered as passivity or disengagement from a teacher’s perspective. However, in interviewing Fang I have found that her internal thinking was actually very active and critical; sometimes she wanted to speak up but she did not know how to get the floor. Fang chose to be silent for multiple reasons: to save face for not being able to use academic vocabulary freely, to be respectful to the teacher and peers, to rehearse what she wanted to say internally, to avoid stating negative comments about her home country, and etc. While the students know exactly what limits them from participating verbally, the teachers may not, because silence can easily be interpreted as non-participation in a western classroom. Trainings that can raise teachers’ cultural awareness and provide concrete strategies for teachers to equalize participation among students will benefit both sides.
To be specific, a teacher can take more initiative to create an inviting environment in class. A longer waiting time can generate more participation. It’s also important that a student feels comfortable to articulate their ideas: when they have a stake in the class topic (so they can construct positive identities), when they like their classmates (community building), when they trust the teacher (e.g., the teacher showed interest/knowledge in their cultures), and when they are engaged in a variety of activities (debate, presentation, pair work, online discussion), they may be able to participate more. These strategies not only benefit multilingual students, but also native speaker students with different learning styles. In a training for instructors who have multilingual students in their classes, it will be useful to provide them with the students’ perspectives on their academic challenges, the students’ educational experience in their home countries, campus resources that support multilingual students, and those strategies for encouraging students to participate as mentioned above. Multimedia materials seem to work most effectively in such trainings. For instance, the Writing Center at Oregon State University has developed a video documentaryWriting Across Borders (see Robertson, 2011) for instructors to help with international student writers. Drawing on interviews with students, the video describes vividly the cultural challenges students face as well as strategies teachers could use to help students improve.
You explained to me that your dissertation is about the identity development of four international English TAs teaching composition to a diverse group of international students. You mentioned that one aspect of your project is showing the diversity of NNESTs’ experiences. Would you like to share a story or two from your dissertation with us or talk more about the diversity of your participants’ experiences and what we can learn from them?
I took a situated view to identity: that instead of a static category, a teacher’s identity is multiple, changing, and in constant conflict (Butler, 1992; Weedon, 1987; Norton, 2000). A dichotomous view of NESTs versus NNESTs is limiting because it has reinforced the idea that an English teacher’s linguistic background is his/her only relevant identity. In my dissertation study of four international teaching assistants (ITAs) of College Composition, I have found that the ITAs’ identity development is related with their linguistic membership, but not determined by it. Although the four ITAs all have concerns about their foreignness including linguistic differences (e.g., ITAs have to pass a SPEAK test prior to teaching), their self-perceptions, teaching strategies, and positioning as legitimate and competent teachers are all very different due to their personal histories. One of the factors that influences their identity construction is their disciplinary backgrounds: rhetoric, literature, TESOL, or another field. For instance, one ITA had a PhD in Chemistry before she became a PhD student in English. She switched departments originally because her advisor in Chemistry asked her to improve her English for writing her dissertation. But after she has taken a few English classes, she fell in love with it. Compared with other ITAs in English, she was one of the few who had actually taken 100 level English classes in the U.S. Because of the interdisciplinary experience as a student and researcher, she often drew on her expertise in two different disciplines (science and humanities) in her Composition class: e.g. the class theme is centered around the social effects of science; she was able to explain explicitly genre differences in different disciplines as well as linguistic differences (e.g. Mandarin and English). While I am still in the data analysis process and trying to make sense of the personal stories, one thing I learned from the study is that despite of social constraints such as the prevalent “native-speaker fallacy” discourse and ITAs’ limited access to mainstream culture, the ITAs were able to draw on their diverse and rich cultural, linguistic and disciplinary knowledge in their teaching, which greatly benefit the increasingly diverse student population.
You’ve certainly been a successful graduate student, presenting a number of times at major conferences such as TESOL and publishing several articles. What kind of advice could you give for other NNEST graduate students to have similarly successful graduate school experiences?
Thank you for the compliment. “Successful” is a “heavy” term to take on 🙂 One important lesson I have learned in graduate school is that what we think of as “successful” scholars are humans as well. I used to look up to those scholars as if they were perfect superstars, who exceled in everything they do: publishing, giving public speeches, and changing people’s minds. What we do not see is the emotional and physical stress they as humans also have to deal with, especially when they have to work 24/7. Graduate school is about being a scholar, but it is also about being a happy human being. It is about learning to balance work and life (which is a life-long process, so don’t feel bad if you haven’t learned it yet as a graduate student). Many people think after graduate school they can have a life. So they put off things in order to meet the deadlines of papers/conferences/lesson planning. Soon you will learn there is no “end” of it. After coursework there is the general exam; after the exam there is the dissertation; after the dissertation there is job hunting; and after landing a job there is getting tenure…
Start having a life NOW.
If I have any advice to offer at this point, I’d like to emphasize the emotional aspect of your graduate school life, especially for NNESTs who tend to be marginalized in the English teaching profession. Don’t stress yourself out for being different, because you are and it’s wonderful to be different. Also, make friends with people you like, who have positive attitudes. Have multiple mentors that support you in your department as well as other disciplines. If you are burned out, take a summer off to travel to a different place. Meanwhile, exercise, sleep, read non-academic books and love. Finally, don’t blame yourself for not being “successful.” Attempting graduate school as a NNEST is hard enough. Enjoy the challenges because you may not experience this again!
Alvarez, L., Kolker, A., & Center for New American Media (1987). American tongues. New York, NY: The Center. Retrieved from http://video.pbs.org/video/1553932059/
Cummins, J. (2009). Multilingualism in the English-language classroom: Pedagogical considerations. TESOL Quarterly, 43(2), 317-321.
Case Study: The English Only Debate (2005). In P.A. Eschholz, A. F. Rosa, & V. P. Clark (Eds.) Language Awareness (pp.178-179). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Lewis, G. (2005). An Open Letter to Diversity’s Victims. In P.A. Eschholz, A. F. Rosa, & V. P. Clark (Eds.) Language Awareness (pp. 196-199). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.
Robertson, W. (2011). Writing across borders. Retrieved from http://cwl.oregonstate.edu/writing-across-borders
Tan, A. (2010). Mother tongue. In A. Gross, A. Dwyer, and A. Bawarshi (Eds.). Acts of Inquiry (pp. 711-717). New York, NY: Bedford/St.Martin’s Press.