Li-fen Lin

                                             NNEST of the Month

February 2012


Li-fen Lin recently completed her Ph. D. in the department of linguistics at the University of California at Davis.  The title of her dissertation was On the Developmental Journey: An Ethnographic Study of Teacher Identity Development of NESTs and NNESTs in a US MATESOL Program.  She began her university education by majoring in English language and literature at National Taiwan Normal University.  After graduation she taught English at Taipei Municipal Ming Der Junior High School and later joined a three-year experimental research project on teaching English to elementary school students at the National Experimental High School (NEHS) in Hsinchu, Taiwan.  While studying for a MA at the University of Southern California, she taught in the OIS ESL program. Upon graduation she returned to Taiwan and became a full-time lecturer in the English Department at National Central University in Taiwan for two years. There she taught undergraduate students academic English, and also designed and taught courses such as English Composition, Oral Training, Language Acquisition and Teaching, and Introduction to Linguistics to English major students.  While she was a doctoral student at UC Davis, she taught academic writing to international graduate students new to UC Davis and also introduction to linguistics. After graduation from UC Davis she was a lecturer in Stanford University’s English for Foreign Students program in the summer of 2011.  Also, Li-fen has been active in the TESOL and CATESOL organizations. She was the web manager of TESOL’s NNEST interest group from 2009 to 2011 and has been the coordinator of CATESOL’s NNLEI interest group from 2010 to present.  She has also given several presentations at TESOL, CATESOL, and AAAL conferences. 

NNEST February Interviewer:  Terry Doyle

1.  Tell us about your educational, linguistic, and teaching background. For example, why did you decide to enter the major in your university in Taiwan to prepare to be an English teacher in Taiwan? Also, what experiences have you had as an English teacher in Taiwan and in the United States?

 I grew up speaking Taiwanese at home and learning and speaking Mandarin Chinese at school. I started to learn English in junior high school as everyone else in Taiwan at that time. I had great luck with my English teachers through high school, which helped me develop my interest in English language and literature. Also because of the high status of English as a foreign language in Taiwan (Chen, 2003; Tsao, 2004), I chose English as my major when I studied at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU). As to why I decided to become a teacher, the feminization and high occupational prestige of the teaching profession in Taiwan (Fwu & Wang, 2002) “encouraged” me to think teaching would be the best career choice for me. And having found how much I love teaching since I was at NTNU, I have been committed to this profession, no matter whether I am given the chance to teach English or Chinese, young kids or adults. 

I began my TESOL career teaching secondary school students English as a foreign language in Taipei. In my third year of teaching, I joined a three-year experimental research project on teaching English to elementary school students. Upon the finish of the three-year project, I attended the University of Southern California (USC) to advance my study in TESOL. At USC, I taught as an ESL Teacher in the OIS English Language Program, teaching English to visiting scholars, international graduate students and their spouses for a school year. Hereafter, I taught English to EFL and ESL students at primary, secondary and tertiary level. After graduation from USC, I returned to Taiwan and worked as a full-time lecturer in the English Department of the National Central University in Taiwan for two years. At UC Davis, besides working as a teaching assistant teaching introduction to Linguistics, I also taught as a graduate student teaching Chinese and Advanced Academic English for International Graduate Students. In the summer of 2011 I was a lecturer in Stanford University’s English for Foreign Students program.

2. How do you compare your experiences as an English teacher in Taiwan vs. your experiences in the United States, especially concerning the development of your teacher identity?

When I taught at the secondary school in Taipei, I was a homeroom teacher as well as an English teacher. I was responsible for every aspect of my homeroom students’ total education. My teacher identity was maintained and reassured through my success in performing the roles of an educator, an empathetic counselor, a language model and a grammar expert. Then when I participated in the 3-year research project, I had the chance to work with NESTs as a team member to design and develop English teaching activities and materials. Even though I was aware of the privileging of NESTs in Taiwan, especially from parents’ perception, I did not find my identity as an English teacher challenged. Rather, I recognized my strengths of sharing the L1 and culture with students and my ability to manage big classes and to act in different roles as needed (Llurda, 2004; Medgyes, 1994; Tatar & Yildiz, 2010). In fact, I embraced my new identities as an elementary school teacher, a materials writer and a researcher. 

In the United States, I strived to reposition myself through my roles as an international graduate student in English in the US academic community, as an NNEST, and as a new member functioning in the society of my target language. At USC, I was the only non-native English speaker teaching in the OIS ESL program. This experience familiarized me with the diverse needs of students from different first language backgrounds and discrepant English proficiency levels. My confidence in ELT reached a new high because I found myself capable of adjusting and adapting teaching methods and styles in responding to these diverse needs. The positive teaching experience at USC gave new meanings to my identity as a TESOL professional. In short, my identity as an EFL/ESL teacher, as I reflected and wrote in the introduction of my dissertation, “has been in constant flux and change in relation to my linguistically and culturally diverse students and the immediate contexts in which we were situated” (Lin, 2011, p. 11).

3.  When did your non-nativeness as an English teacher become visible to you, and how did this affect and shape your future research and career expectations? 

What discrimination and unfairness have you experienced personally, and how have you dealt with these incidents?  Were you treated differently as an English teacher in Taiwan and in the United States? 

It was a discriminatory hiring practice that heightened my awareness of the gate-keeping role my nonnative status and race/ethnicity played in the TESOL profession, especially in American society. At the end of my first year as a doctoral student back in California, I was recommended and assigned to teach academic writing to international graduate students as a graduate student instructor for the following year. However, I was questioned by the graduate ESL program coordinator, who had an MA degree as I did, and was asked by her to take the very class I had been assigned to teach first. Her reason was that I was an international student and a non-native speaker of English. My nonnativeness suddenly became visible to me then. 

My lived experience of marginalization pointed to “the absurdity of an educational system that prepares one for a profession for which it disqualifies the person at the same time” (Canagarajah, 1999, p. 77).  To understand the “absurdity” of such an education system and practice, I started to investigate how the professional identities of both NES and NNES student teachers as ESL/EFL teachers are shaped by professional discourses in the MATESOL program, and how their (non)native status influences this enculturation process and their teaching practices. The purpose of my dissertation was to pursue an understanding of the discursive process of negotiation and construction of teacher identity.

4.  Your dissertation completed for your PH. D. at the University of California at Davis last fall was a longitudinal ethnographic study in which you examined case studies of four student teachers in an MA TESOL program in one of the California State Universities; one participant was an international student, one an immigrant student, and two were “native speaker” students born in the United States. You state that one reason for choosing this topic was because “the NNEST/NEST dichotomy remains the most prevalent way of theorizing teacher identity in TESOL” and that “the process of the search for and construction of professional teacher identity, especially within MATESOL programs, is understudied in the field of TESOL and Applied Linguistics.” Can you explain how your study begins to fill the gap in the literature of TESOL and Applied Linguistics? How has your study added to the literature of Applied linguistics, teacher identity formation, and NNEST issues? 

Before I answer this question, I want to thank Terry again for believing in my work and reading my draft. My dissertation study contributes to the previous NNEST literature and the literature on ESL/EFL teacher identity in three ways. First, drawing on ethnography as methodology, this longitudinal project contributes new insights into the importance of teacher identity development in the process of learning to teach in an MATESOL program from the student teachers’ perspectives. My participant and non-participant observation of the student teachers’ interactions in multiple dimensions inside and outside the classes they took or taught provides a situated description and situational comprehension of the kind of participation and negotiation that student teachers experience in the process of becoming an ELT professional. These are issues that quantitative research neglects to explore, and that interview-based research cannot provide data for (Lin, 2011). 

Secondly, since no study has addressed the issue of teacher identity in TESOL and related fields by comparing the identity construction of prospective NNES and NES teachers within an MATESOL program, this study contributes to the bodies of existing research by providing a comparative study of NNES and NES student teachers’ identity construction within a MATESOL program. By including both NES and NNES student teachers, this study gives voices to student teachers coming from marginalized groups as well as from the dominant group. This dissertation adds to the understanding of  how the idealized NES and the marginalized NNES student teacher negotiate and articulate their professional identities as they participate in dialogic interaction in the MATESOL program and in the wider TESOL community (Lin, 2011).

Finally, this study contributes to the understanding of teacher identity construction through a situated examination of the linguistic choices made by student teachers to position themselves in relation to their colleagues and other interpersonal, institutional, and social contexts. Following Weedon’s (1987) idea that language and identity are mutually constitutive, my dissertation study looks locally at multiple aspects of teacher identity in relation to the larger social, cultural and political contexts through language and discourse.  (Lin, 2011).

5.  The last sentence of your dissertation is “Developing and gaining one’s autonomy to navigate our continuous journey in development should be the central task for teachers, student teachers, and teacher trainers.”  How has your research helped you, the participants in your research, and readers of your dissertation to develop and gain such autonomy?

Working with my participants in this dissertation project has allowed me to continuously examine and reflect on my professional self. In the course of writing this dissertation, I have found that my own teacher identity has been transformed over and over again through their narratives of struggles and growth. Their stories add to our understanding of the realities facing student teachers in the local contexts like this MATESOL program and how they navigate their developmental journey. I feel deeply grateful to my participants and it is my hope that this dissertation brings their voices, NESTs and NNESTs, to the dialogue on teacher identity in language teacher education and teacher development. It is also my hope that this dissertation and the stories of my participants will engage my readers in the dialogues with themselves and others, internally and externally, and hopefully help to develop and gain their autonomy in this life-long developmental journey.

6.  As an ESL teacher in a community college which is in the same city as a well known and respected MA TESOL program in a large public university, each semester I have the opportunity to work with one or more student teachers from this MA TESOL program. What advice can you give me on how to better mentor student teachers? In particular, should I and if so how can I focus on their identity formation as a mentor teacher? 

As I concluded in my dissertation, “a focus on teacher identity construction in a teacher preparation program allows student teachers to become more conscious and in control of their learning-to- teach trajectory” (Lin, 2011, p. 229). It is important that each student teacher has an individual sense of his or her identity development. Teacher educators and mentor teachers should support and encourage their student teachers to explore, experiment with, negotiate, and create their pedagogical selves. As I have known from your work, you have committed a great deal of time and work helping your student teachers develop pedagogy that is sensitive to their immediate local social and cultural contexts. Your work is an excellent example of how mentor teachers’ meta-awareness of student teacher identity development provides space and opportunities for student teachers to self-initiate their professional development.

7.  You are a wife of a busy hard-working husband and also the mother of two young children.  How do you find the time, energy, and motivation not only to complete a PH.D. degree, be the coordinator of CATESOL’s NNLEI interest group, be the web manager of TESOL’s NNEST interest group, give XX presentations at TESOL and CATESOL conferences in the past three years, be busy writing a book version of your dissertation which you hope to publish in the next year, AND take care of two kids and a husband?  

Upon further reflection on my life as a doctoral student and a mother of two children, I am grateful to my family for their unflagging support and love. Without their support and love, I wouldn’t have the time and space to accomplish what I have been inspired to do. 

Balancing motherhood and doctoral work had been a great challenge for me. One thing I learned from my own experience is to be flexible. I was a mother first, though it was my newly added identity. I cooked, fed, played, gave a bath to my children before I could open my dissertation file to take on the role of a doctoral student in front of my laptop. I was a wife last because I thought my helpful husband could take care of himself while I focused on being a mother and a graduate student. But there were always times when the situations went against the priorities I set. Sometimes I didn’t get to go near my dissertation file for two whole weeks when my children got sick. Very often, my helpful husband just wouldn’t take the kids to the park by himself because he wanted me there too. Not to mention that I had other various roles I played at the same: a daughter, a teacher, a friend, etc. So I needed to learn to be flexible to curb my anxiety of not being able to fulfill them all. I had to learn to set realistic goals for my daily schedule. And I had to admit it to myself that it takes a long time to earn a doctorate, especially juggling the conflicting demands of motherhood and doctoral studies at the same time.

As for the motivation, I have been inspired and encouraged by the work done by the leaders of our community. I have been fortunate to meet and get to know and work with some of these extraordinary leaders: Kathleen M. Bailey, Luciana de Oliveira, Terry Doyle, Lia Kamhi-Stein, Ahmar Mahboob, Ana Wu, to name a few. Working with them enables me to see the importance and action of shared leadership, mentoring and collaboration. I believe that active participation can lead to the changes we wish to see. So I follow their lead to assume leadership roles in hoping to help further the goals of our community. Inside or outside of TESOL, I hope I will be a part of the force that leads us to a better world.


 Lin, L. F. (2011). On the Developmental Journey: An Ethnographic Study of Teacher Identity Development of NESTs and NNESTs in a US MATESOL Program  Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Davis.

 Canagarajah, A. S. (1999). Interrogating the “native speaker fallacy”: Non-linguistic roots, non-pedagogical results. In G. Braine (Ed.), Non-native educators in English language teaching(pp. 77-92). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

 Chen, S. C. (2003). The spread of English in Taiwan: Changing uses and shifting attitudes.Taipei: Crane Publishing Co., Ltd.

 Fwu, B. J., & Wang, H. H. (2002). The social status of teachers in Taiwan. Comparative Education, 38 (2), 211-224.

 Llurda, E. (2004). Non-native speaker teachers and English as an international language.International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 14(3). 314-323.

 Medgyes, P. (1994). The non-native teacher. London: Macmillan.

 Tatar, S., & Yildiz, S. (2010). Empowering nonnative-English speaking teachers in the classroom. In A. Mahboob (Ed.), The NNEST lens: Non native English speakers in TESOL (pp. 114-128). Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, Cambridge Scholars Press.

 Weedon, C. (1987). Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

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About Terry Michael Grayling

I was an ESL teacher at City College of San Francisco for 34 years. Now I live near the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene where I read a lot, am working a book on EIL issues for specifically for new MA TESOL students, and work on the NNEST of the month blog and other activities related to NNEST and EIL issues, and enjoy exercising and taking walks.

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