Celebrating the 100th interview of the NNEST of the month blog: Hami Suzuki

Hami Suzuki

Hami Suzuki is an ESL instructor at the University of Hawaii English Language Program (HELP). She holds an MA degree in Second Language Studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She has taught English in Japan, Thailand, and Hawaii to different age groups and proficiency levels. Her research interests include Second Language Learning/Teaching, Extensive Reading and topics relating to identity and language. Hami will be an instructor at INTO Oregon State University (Oregon State’s academic preparation program) starting in September 2014. | July Interviewer: Madhukar K.C.

1. I welcome you as the 100th interviewee of our NNEST of the Month blog since this blog had its first interview in 2005. First, could you tell us about your educational, linguistic, and professional background? Also, tell us how you became interested in teaching languages (English)?

Thank you for inviting me to the 100th interview, Madhukar. It is a great honor to be able to share my experiences and views with everyone. I hope this monthly interview will continue to foster a stronger dialogue to keep this community better connected, and to celebrate diversity and invaluable experiences. I would also like to thank the blog interview members who have made great commitment to passionately interviewing NNESTs and colleagues interested in NNEST, EIL, and related issues around the world.

Well, I began learning English at the age of six, when I moved to Hawaii because of my father’s job. I only knew a couple of words in English back then, so I was put into an ESL class when I entered a public school. I studied English with a teacher one-on-one, and I gradually started to take the content-based courses with the mainstream group. One of the biggest reasons why I improved English pretty quickly might have been the extensive reading assignment I had for one of my classes. In the beginning, I was motivated to read because I could get fancy smiley face stickers for every book I read. However, after several books, I deeply fell in love with “reading”. It was to the point where my mother had to take the book away from me
because I would keep on reading in the dark at night!

At the age of nine, I moved to Finland again for my father’s job. I attended an international school, where I was exposed to the different languages, cultures, and perspectives of my friends. The majority of the students were global nomads, so the cultural demographic changed
quite frequently. By this time, I was using English more than my L1, which is Japanese.

I moved back to Japan when I was 15 years old. I felt overwhelmingly nervous about going back because I was worried that my Japanese was far behind from where I “should” be. My mother was supportive about maintaining my Japanese literacy skills, so I attended a Japanese school on Saturdays in Hawaii and Finland. In reality, 3-4 hours of intensive Japanese class once a week and an hour a day at home was not sufficient enough for me to catch up with those who had been studying in Japan from kindergarten! It wasn’t surprising that I was pulled-out from the mainstream classes except PE, art, music, and anything else that did not heavily rely on a high linguistic ability in Japanese. Attending a local high school in Japan was one of the first moments when I faced the “I-don’t-know-where-I-belong” phase. I could never find myself strongly relating to Japan, and I hesitated to openly say that I was bilingual.

I attended Sophia University (Tokyo, Japan), which was the first turning-point in my life. I met friends and professors who had similar backgrounds, took applied linguistics classes, and discovered my passion to teach English. One of my friends introduced me to a part-time job as an English tutor at an English language school geared towards pre-school to high school students. Although I was not confident about teaching at first, I was lucky to have supportive mentors and staff who guided me through my four years of teaching. My foundation for teaching was established through these years. I discovered my love for teaching , saw a glimpse of light of where I should be heading, and learned to understand and accept myself as a bilingual. I genuinely felt the joy to teach, as well as appreciating my own abilities to help the learners find or pave their paths towards their goals. Many of the students I taught were studying English in order to study abroad in high school or university, and they were the ones who inspired me to study abroad as an exchange student at Santa Clara University (California) when I was a junior. Studying at Santa Clara University was such an eye-opening experience for me. Many of my friends I met there helped me to see the importance of pursuing education beyond a Bachelor’s degree, and to push myself for what I was passionate about.

After graduating with my BA degree in English Language and Studies from Sophia University, I worked at a Japanese company for a few years and then entered the University of Hawaii at Manoa for my MA degree in Second Language Studies. Within the first few months, I faced my second “I-don’t-know-where-I-belong” phase after being asked, “Where are you from?” and a comment following, “Oh, you don’t sound Japanese,” after I answered I was from Japan. The more people asked and commented, the more I got confused. This sparked my interest to study more about “identity and language”, which was when I coincidentally discovered people and groups interested in NNEST issues.  I worked on a few projects related to NNES students or specifically Third Culture Kids, while pursuing my MA degree. I was also very lucky to be selected as an ESL instructor at the Hawaii English Language Program (HELP), which is an IEP program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I have been teaching there for two years now.

 2. You are now an ESL Instructor at the Hawaii English Language Program (HELP) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Could you share with us more about your experiences highlighting the opportunities and challenges of teaching English in this program being an NNEST?

First of all, I would like to give a brief introduction to the program. The Hawaii English Language Program (HELP) is an intensive English language program run by the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Our program focuses on Academic English preparation for students who have not matriculated into the university yet. The student dynamics changes every term, but most of the students are from Japan, South Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and Thailand to name a few.

I feel that some of the challenges I have had in this program may not have necessarily been “because I am an NNEST”, but more so attributing to the fact that I was a novice teacher. I think many novice and experienced teachers have had a point in their teaching career when they have struggled to create lesson plans and materials, felt anxious and excited about teaching the class, or gained/lost confidence because of student comments. I have experienced all of this, which is what makes me today a passionate ESL instructor.

However, I do remember an unforgettable incident that happened on the first day of my first class at HELP. I was assigned to teach a listening and speaking class for beginners. I was excited about meeting my “first” students, and I took hours thinking about icebreakers and activities to do in class. On the first day of class, I walked into the classroom as confidently as I could with a big smile on my face. The very first question I received after I greeted them was, “Are you Japanese? Not American?” with a suspicious look on the student’s face. As a novice teacher back then, I felt self-conscious, anxious, and insecure in an instant. Given my Asian appearance, I
guess I did not fit into the stereotypical “American” image. That one simple question made me feel as though I had to prove to the students that I was as good as a native speaker. Fortunately, I work with many supportive administrators and colleagues, who have helped me to understand that it is not what you look like or what you sound like. Rather, it is what you can do with the language and what you can bring into the classroom. That goes for the students who come into the classroom too.

Consequently, being transparent about my background and experience has been a way to build rapport with my students. I can share my experience of learning English, and be a role model for the students. I have had countless opportunities to grow as an ESL teacher with the help of the students and the support from HELP. As research shows, many NNESTs share similar language learning experiences. I appreciate that HELP administrators and colleagues are very open to new ideas and are willing to support teachers who propose new courses. Since HELP is closely related to the Department of Second Language Studies, there are multiple research opportunities too.

3. What particular incident in your childhood stands out in your memory as important in your later decision to become an English teacher? What inspires and motivates you in your career? (Question by Terry Doyle)

The incident(s) that led me to become an English teacher were the conversations I had with students I taught in Japan. Many of the students whom I taught loved English. On the other hand, there were some that hated English. I often discussed with my students about why they came to “hate” English, and their answers were very similar: their classroom experience(s) at school. This led me to reflect back on my English classroom experience in my Japanese high school and schools abroad. I have a strong memory of loving to study with ambitious peers and encouraging teachers in student-centered classrooms in Hawaii and Finland. I felt like I had an important role in class to actively participate, where I could use English to gain and share knowledge. However, English classes in Japan were more teacher-centered, and used the grammar translation method to go through the textbook. This experience was a reverse “culture shock” for me. This is not to say that the English classes in Japan were bad. It was just very different from what I had grown up with. It is important to keep in mind that those university entrance exams in Japan, which many students and teachers stress about, are typically tests on grammar, reading comprehension, and translation. Despite the growing emphasis in oral communication skills, instruction usually focuses on grammar and reading comprehension.

The endless conversations I had with my students, and the reflections I made while talking to them, eventually led me think about how I could help the students to see that English is not only for examination purposes. While covering required grammatical instructions, I always made sure to have some time to talk. I found it truly amazing to see how students would open up or become more passionate about learning English when they actually used English to
express themselves. In all of the teaching situations I have experienced, I have appreciated the opportunities of being able to take part in the students’ lives. Although it may only be a small part of the students’ long academic career, it is rewarding to be able to witness students achieve their goals. In order to keep myself motivated, I participate in professional development workshops and conferences. Exchanging conversations with professionals in the field stimulates me to strive for improvement andcreativity, as well as being active in the community. But ultimately… I love to teach!

4. You have  grown up in three different countries, Japan, the United States, and Finland as an EIL user and you are now an EIL teacher (In my opinion, we all should think of ourselves as EIL teachers and not ESL or EFL teachers, and of course nobody is a native EIL teacher). When you were living, growing up, and studying in Finland, in Hawaii, in Japan and also at Sophia University, approximately what percentage of the time do you estimate that you spoke English (1) with people whose first language was English, (2) with people whose first language was not English, and (3) in Japan with people whose first language was Japanese? Also, I have a question about your students in the HELP center at the University of Hawaii. What percentage of the time would you guess that your students use English (1) with people whose first language is English, (2) with people whose first language is not English, and (3) with people whose first language is the same as their own? (Question byTerry Doyle)

The percentage of time I spent speaking English with people whose L1 was English, and with those whose L1 was not, greatly differed depending on the country. When I lived in Hawaii (6-9 years old), I primarily spoke English with friends and teachers whose L1 was English. I hardly had any friends whose L1 was not English, so I think it was 90% of the time. However, the situation changed when I moved to Finland where I lived from age 9 to 15. As mentioned earlier, I attended an international school. The L1s of the majority of the students were not English. Therefore, 80% of the time I spoke English was with people whose L1 was not English. The other 20% was usually with teachers from the USA or UK, and with some friends who were from the USA. At Sophia University, 95% of the time I spoke English was with people whose L1 was not English. All of my classmates in my core English classes were Japanese nationals. The other 5% was with the professors of my classes, who were mostly from English speaking countries (or the countries in the “inner circle”). Now that I look back at how I have been using English closely, it’s interesting to see the change in percentages!

As for the students at HELP, my guess is that 80% of the time they use English is with people whose L1 is not English, and 20% is with people who are L1 English speakers. According to the students, they use English at school with friends and teachers, and with their host families or friends outside of school. It is quite difficult to determine the percentage they speak English with people whose L1 is the same as their own due to the multi-cultural demographic of Hawaii. However, from my observation, most of the students seldom use English outside of school if they share the same L1 with another person they communicate with.

5. EIL scholars such as Hino (2012) suggest that in expanding circle contexts the inner circle norms of English should not be the target for these learners to shoot for, but rather a local variety of English should be their goal. For example, in Japan English learners should try to learn “Japanese English.”. Hino briefly discusses how Japanese English differs syntactically from American English. In your experience did any of your teachers emphasize language awareness when you were learning English?  Do you think it is appropriate to integrate language awareness activities in IEP classes like those you teach at UH’s HELP? What variety of English is appropriate for your students to set as their goal? Do you expect your students to learn American English including its phonology, syntax, vocabulary, or do you think some ELF (English as a lingua Franca) should be their goal? (Question by Terry Doyle)

I do not have experience of any of my teachers emphasizing language awareness when I was learning English. Although I have been aware of the varieties of Englishes through being exposed to it in different environments, I did not have the depth of knowledge I have now until I started my MA degree. Taking classes and exchanging conversations with professors who were interested in the topic sparked my interest to understand more about the topic. Aya Matsuda pointed out at the TESOL Convention in Portland that we become aware or knowledgeable of certain topics, and strive to understand because we see/understand the importance. I agree. I believe that was the process I went through while obtaining my MA degree.

As an instructor, I think it is appropriate to integrate language awareness activities into IEP classes if they are relevant to the course learning outcomes. Sometimes, students at HELP bring up the topic of Hawaiian Creole English, or locally known as “Pidgin”, without knowing it. I think their realization demonstrates the appropriateness of introducing this topic to them. The mix and fluidity of languages in Hawaii is amazingly beautiful, and it creates a localized knowledge that some “community” members may only know (Canagarajah, 2005). For students who are studying in Hawaii, I believe it is appropriate that they become aware of this local knowledge, as well as the varieties of Englishes around the world. In reality, students are more likely to engage in conversations with locals in Hawaii or people from different countries on a daily basis. However, it is also true that these students are expected to perform in class/university using “academic English”, or “American English” as you mentioned in your question.

Having said that, in an IEP class/program that is situated in America, I feel it is difficult to determine or set a certain variety of English to be a goal for the students. As an instructor for students who are aiming to be matriculated into an American university, I cannot ignore the expectation (i.e. knowledge of “American English”) that the students will most likely face. Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, language awareness activities are appropriate and important in students’ lives beyond the classroom.

6. You mentioned that you became aware of NNEST issues through graduate coursework, research, and assignments  while pursuing your MA degree in Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. What’s your take on the native/non-native dichotomy?

I became aware of NNEST issues while taking an introductory course in Second Language Studies at UHM. I delved deeply into the articles on NNEST issues because a lot of it was what I had been wanting to know. However, the more I read, the more I became confused. A part of me was trying to personalize the topic, but another part of me couldn’t understand why I had to label myself (or was trying to label myself) as an NNEST when I had grown up learning two languages simultaneously. Back then, I thought that labeling myself as an NNEST was saying that I was “inferior”, which is absolutely not true. After educating myself about this “dichotomy”, and personally struggling to find an “answer”, I see it very differently. Labels can blind people and cross out an individual’s characters, traits, and qualifications. I have to admit that I was blinding myself at one point in my career.

In the globalizing world, the dimension of complexity within individuals is increasing. As Higgins (2011) mentions, traditional assumptions of what it means to belong to a particular race, nationality, or ethnicity are constantly challenged. I feel that many individuals form their identities among many cultural worlds, which have created hybridity and diversity. Therefore, it is difficult, or maybe irrational, to claim that an individual should be tightly linked with clear-cut national borders or language. There are varieties of Englishes being spoken around the world by many multilingual/multicultural individuals. Ultimately, I hope that the dichotomy between NNES and NES will not be an issue. Rather, the discussion should go beyond the issue of the dichotomy. Seeing that the topics of World Englishes and EIL are becoming more prevalent, the
dichotomy of NES and NNES seems to oversimplify the richness that individuals bring into teaching.

7. What issues in regard to NNEST, World Englishes, EIL are most important to you? Do you realize that NES teachers enjoy more privileges than NNES teachers in Japan and in the States?

That is an interesting question to ask. As a “new” MA graduate, I have recently experienced and witnessed the differences of how NES and NNES are treated in the job hiring process. Truth be told, I have been eliminated from a list of job applicants because I am an NNES. It is true that the native speaker fallacy still thrives in Japan. Some job applications list “must be a native speaker” as one of the qualifications. As a passionate and committed language instructor hoping to teach and collaborate with other language teaching professionals, it is quite disappointing to see and experience this prevalent discriminatory situation.

On the other hand, I personally feel that there is less dichotomy between NEST and NNESTs in the States, especially in Hawaii where it is very multicultural/multinational. I have been lucky to work with the administrators at HELP, who understand the strengths of having NNESTs  as ESL instructors in this program. Nevertheless, more professionals do need to be informed and educated that being NES or NNES should not be a criterion for judgment. In addition, students need to see through textbooks or realize through their teachers that, in the real world, they will most likely be using English to communicate with other NNES people. Being multilingual is an asset. Isn’t that what we strive for our students to achieve as language instructors?

8. You have presented in several conferences in and outside the United States. What do you generally present on at the conferences? How do your presentations at international forums contribute to the literature/issues of NNESTs?

I have presented at conferences in the States and Korea so far. I generally present on research and/or pedagogical approaches to extensive reading, since that was my focus while pursuing my MA degree. I also had the privilege to work with Dr. Richard R. Day, who guided me from day one in graduate school. Unfortunately, I have not had the chance to present on NNEST  issues yet. I am writing proposals related to NNEST issues for future conferences, so I hope to share
that with you in the future.

One of the reasons why I have never presented on NNEST issues was because I had trouble positioning myself while “researching”. A lot of the research that I do takes a qualitative approach, which also means that it usually requires close collaboration with the participants. I was worried that I would have biased views and would take certain things personally. However, my perspective greatly changed after attending the 2014 TESOL Convention in Portland. I met many NNEST presenters presenting on NNEST issues. Their presentations were

sending out powerful messages, which sparked my interest and motivation to become a part of this discussion and research, too. It proved to me how empowering it can be to have our voices heard. I also “stumbled” into the NNEST IS meeting, and discovered how actively the members were contributing to the issues related to NNESTs. Now, one of my goals is to be able to contribute to this discussion very soon.

Madhukar: Thank you, Hami, for taking the time to share your very interesting, insightful, and illuminating perspective and ideas with our readers. Good luck in your new job at Oregon State University’s INTO program. And we look forward to hearing and reading your future contributions to the discussions on NNEST and EIL issues.

Canagarajah, A. S. (Ed.) (2005). Reclaiming the local in language policy and practice Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Higgins, C. (Ed.). (2011). Identity Formation in Globalization
Contexts: Language Learning in the New Millennium (Language and Social
Processes). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Hino, N. (2012) Endonormative models  of EIL for the expanding circle
In Matsuda, A. (ed.) (2012) Principles and Practices of Teaching English as an International Language. Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters
July NNEST blog interviewer: Madhukar K.C.


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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.

4 thoughts on “Celebrating the 100th interview of the NNEST of the month blog: Hami Suzuki

  1. Eneida Coaracy

    Being a NNEST teacher myself, I know how difficult it must have been for Hami to overcome the shock about perceiving that she did not fit into the stereotypical ‘American’ image her students had about their English teacher.. However, it was great to read about how she turned this ‘disadvantage’ into her favor. Also, how she has overcome some native speaker fallacies that still thrive in Japan. Thanks for sharing!

  2. hasuzuki

    Dear Eneida,
    Thank you for your feedback/response to the interview! It’s very exciting to hear the response of the NNEST blog readers. I feel the perceptions and responses from the outside can be a powerful source for an individual to be shaken sometimes. However, it is even more powerful when that person overcomes those moments… probably for himself/herself, which can also send out encouraging messages to other teachers and students.
    Please keep on supporting the blog 🙂
    – Hami


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