Stefan Frazier

Stefan Frazier is associate professor in the Department of Linguistics and Language Development at San Jose State University and the coordinator of SJSU’s basic writing program. Besides his interest in non-native teacher issues, Dr. Frazier’s academic interests also include composition pedagogy, functional grammar, corpus linguistics, discourse analysis, and classroom interaction. He is currently the coordinator of the NNLEI interest group in the California TESOL organization. Over the past decade he has published eight peer-reviewed journal articles, one book chapter, and two book reviews. He received a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2005. | October interviewer: Terry Doyle

1.  Tell us about your educational, linguistic, and teaching background.

I was born in Ft. Worth; my father came from Texas and my mother is German. When I was seven, we all moved to Munich (near my mother’s birthplace), and that remained my home until I graduated from secondary school. My most proficient language is therefore English, while my German is quintessentially “1.5-ish”: fluent (though accented) in speech, limited in mature writing. (To be sure, written academic German is a monstrously difficult genre to master.) After an undergraduate economics degree in San Antonio, I spent some time learning Spanish (my favorite language) and traveling in Central and South America, then fled the early-90s U.S. recession in order to teach English in Taiwan (conversation schools and university IEPs) and travel in China. I learned conversational Mandarin in those two places. Having fallen in love with teaching, I realized I needed an advanced degree; then, having completed my M.A TESOL at San Francisco State (and worked at the ALI there), I realized I needed yet a further step to raise my chances of finding secure work. I completed the doctorate, while working as an ESL writing instructor, in UCLA’s Applied Linguistics program, and came to San Jose State in 2005.

2.  In the article entitled “How TESOL Educators Teach Non-native English-speaking Teachers” (CATESOL Journal, 2011/2012) written by you and your colleague Scott Phillabaum, you discuss the very important topic of whether TESOL educators treat their non-native MA TESOL students differently and if so how they treat them differently. First of all, I’d like to thank you for doing research and writing about such an important issue which as you say has not been discussed very thoroughly in the literature. What made you become interested in this topic?  How do you think your research on this topic contributes to the literature on non-native teacher issues? 

When new professors are hired and start work at a university, there isn’t a lot of guidance on “how to handle students” on a day-to-day basis. At least there isn’t on our campus. So various questions about teaching NNESTs-to-be came to mind in my first years teaching here, and when Scott joined the department, he had similar thoughts. Of course, non-native speakers of English attend U.S. universities in large numbers throughout the country, so the question of how to approach native- and non-native-speakers is relevant to all higher educators. But in TESOL, the concern is heightened by the fact that our students will eventually be teaching English, not just using it to complete their degrees and enter their professions. They will be teaching the very tool that all other disciplines use to teach something else.

The cited article – and another that’s under review right now, the writeup of a survey of M.A. TESOL students – occupies a small niche within the NNEST research, and we hope it provides some guidance to new TESOL educators. That said, there is a lot of much more important NNEST work being done: studies of graduate students’ (self-)identities, language support for all students, and ESL students’ perceptions of their NNESTs and NESTs, to name a few areas. (This is detailed in the “Suggestions for Action and Future Research” in the article.)

3.  In this article one important theme your respondents bring up is the distinction between “equality” and “equity”. As one of your respondents wrote, “equal treatment means you treat everyone the same way…” On the other hand, “Equity means you recognize that everyone has different background experience …. so you have to make adjustments here and there so that everyone has an opportunity to reach the standards (which you have made explicit to all).” I think this distinction points out not only that MA TESOL students have different backgrounds but also different needs.  Considering the importance of equity, how important do you think it is for TESOL educators to prepare their international MA TESOL students for the kind of teaching they will do when they return to their home countries?

I don’t think it’s possible for TESOL educators to prepare all their international students for the teaching conditions they will face in all their different home countries. Most TESOL educators themselves don’t have teaching experience in so many places, and couldn’t fathom it. Yet at the same time, there is also – as your question implies – no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching in all contexts. The best we can do is to teach our M.A. students the principles of good ESP preparation: how to anticipate local teaching situations via comprehensive and complete local needs assessments. We should also encourage them to read the regional journals for guidance, and get involved with local and regional conferences and organizations.

Even a single nation or region will have a multitude of different educational situations. In one particular U.S. city, for example, a citizenship ESL class will have very different needs – and therefore a different teaching approach – than a university academic ESL writing class, or a workplace ESL class. Thus, just as the “NNEST” / “NEST” dichotomy is somewhat misleading, so is the “local student” / “international student” dichotomy, or even the “EFL” / “ESL” dichotomy.

4.   In your suggestions for action and further research you suggest “the continuation of work on NNESTs’ self-perceptions of identity” and also expanding this research “to TESOL students in MA programs, not just student teachers in practicum courses or in-service teachers.”  Clarke (2009) in his research with future English teachers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) concludes that both the new teachers’ classes but also their practicums serve as community of practice which help shape the identities.  How do you assist your MA TESOL students, both NES and NNES, to realize and promote their teacher identities?  Also, how do you suggest that an ESL teacher like me, who mentors one or more MA TESOL student teachers, most of whom are international students from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, help my student teachers to work on self-perceptions of their identity?

Frankly, I don’t explicitly prepare my own M.A. TESOL students in any of these issues nearly as much as I profess we should. I do think awareness of one’s own identities is important for all teachers (and all people, in fact). And I use the plural “identities” intentionally: as is well established, teachers perform many roles (coach, advocate, police, role model, etc.) each of which demands a certain identity that may change from moment to moment. In class I occasionally pose this question to my graduate students: what role do you feel you should occupy at this moment (in a lesson plan, for example)? Then let them experiment with different options. Many of them respond that in the situations they are familiar with, a certain approach or activity wouldn’t work, for such-and-such reason, and as long as they explain that reason well, they are on the way to maturing their definition of self-identity. Posing this question to oneself should never end, though: I certainly occupy different roles – and therefore deploy different aspects of my identities – than I did when I started teaching two decades ago, and therefore need to constantly update my own self-perceptions.

5.  You have taught ESL and currently teach in the MA TESOL program at San Jose University. From your experience working with NNES students, how important is grammatical accuracy compared to other aspects of their writing?

Perhaps ironically – given that I was hired into our department as the “grammar person” – I consider grammatical accuracy (i.e. based on the expectations of standard edited American English) a lower priority than having an original point and a compelling explanation or narrative. That said, I still hold students responsible for grammatical accuracy, underlining and even marking down grades when desirable or necessary. But by no means just NNESs. I’ve had plenty of M.A. students over the years, born and educated in the U.S., whose written grammatical presentation have left me thinking, “Oh My Goodness. Where Do I Start?”

6.  I have participated in many discussions about NNEST issues at CATESOL and TESOL conventions.  I have noticed that some international MA TESOL students have come to view their non-native status as part of their identity. In your opinion, how important is the usefulness of the NNEST label? Should we continue to search for alternative nomenclature? Or should we just concentrate on pointing out the strengths of non-native teachers or as Luk and Lin (2007) point out, we are all native and non-native speakers of some language(s) and it just depends on the context?

This is a concern Scott and I raised in our paper: the idea that it may be immoral to question or criticize a student’s own self-identification as a non-native speaker. What if they’re proud of that label? Would we as educators deny them their source of pride by insisting that “it’s just a continuum – we’re all non-native”? We run the risk of belittling the great effort they put into learning a new language and becoming a role model for others. So while it is indeed important to continue looking for alternative labels, we must always remain respectful of the achievements of all language learners and of the new identities they form as part of that learning. We must also counter the ill effects of the current labels: one of the more frequent sources of anxiety for the M.A. TESOL students I advise, as they are getting ready to graduate, is whether they’ll be able to stay in the U.S. and teach ESL, “since I’m a non-native speaker.” I reassure them that a great many non-native English-speaking teachers before them have found lots of teaching work in the U.S. and done very well for themselves. I then tell them to Google “NNLEI” and / or “NNEST,” and join the CATESOL or TESOL organizations if they haven’t already.

7.  I want to play devil’s advocate for a minute, and say that any student who is accepted into an MA TESOL program should have the English ability to compete with other graduate students, both NNES and NES, and therefore a course that teaches advanced language skills is inappropriate.  I know that you comment on this in your article, but I hope you may comment on it again for our readers. How do you respond to such a question?  Do you think that the TOEFL exam, a GRE exam,  or any exam can really determine whether students, both NES and NNES, will not need extra assistance with their language skills, both written and spoken? 

To answer the final question first: no, I don’t trust any single standardized language exam to predict an prospective student’s language needs prior to entry into an M.A. TESOL program. So to use one of those as the sole determinant for a student’s acceptance would be cutting out a great many TESOL students who would go on to be natural-born, excellent teachers – a disservice to them and the profession. If all they need is some beefing up of their linguistic proficiency, then we should offer it. Just as we offer basic pedagogy classes to those who arrive with high-level language skills but little understanding of or feeling for teaching.

8.  I always like to end interviews with a more personal question, if you don’t mind.  As I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the topic of home language maintenance, I’d like to ask you about this topic. I know that in your family three languages are spoken: German, Japanese, as well as English.  How have you and your wife decided to try to teach your son these three languages?  Do you think your own expertise as a language learning specialist gives your son a better chance as a language learner?  Or is it still mostly up to your son and his desires and motivations?

We’ve been surprised by how easy it actually is. Before my son was born, I predicted that I’d give German a good 12-month try after he started speaking, then capitulate in the face of the dominant language around him (English). It turns out that all I needed to do was stay consistent – absolutely never speak to him in English nor accept a response from him in any language other than German (which, in fact, he never gave, even though at the time his first language was Japanese). The same with my wife and Japanese. And our son isn’t special (well, at least not in this way). The only advantage we (both language professionals) have had, perhaps, is a closer familiarity with the academic literature on child language acquisition and therefore about the importance of consistency. Otherwise, it is indeed the child’s choice – but much more often than not, children will make choices based on their parents’ consistent behaviors, since they are so attached to routines. For a long time, in fact, my son would get uncomfortable when I (very occasionally, experimentally) tried an English conversation with him; though that’s changed as he has grown older and learned English at a local pre-school.

Let me close, Terry, with a big “thank-you” for posing these questions. Having to think through the answers has helped me re-evaluate my own identities as a language and TESOL educator (see question 4 above).


Clarke, M. (2008). Language teacher identities: Co-constructing discourse and community. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Frazier, S. and Phillabaum, S. (2012) How TESOL Educators Teach Non-native English-speaking Teachers CATESOL Journal, Volume 23, No. 1

Luk, J. C. M., & Lin, A. M. Y. (2007). Classroom interactions as cross-cultural encounters: native speakers in EFL lessons. Mahwah , N.J. : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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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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