Andy Gao


Dr. Andy Gao is an associate professor in the Division of English Language Education at the University of Hong Kong. His research includes Teacher Development, Higher Education, Sociolinguistics and Learner Autonomy. He was recently awarded the Outstanding Young Research Award from the University of Hong Kong. 

Interview by: Ju Seong Lee (John) and Cristina Sánchez-Martín 

You have recently received the Outstanding Young Research Award from the faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong in 2015. At the 50th TESOL Anniversary, TESOL International Association recognized you as one of outstanding TESOL professionals who is emerging as a leader in the profession. Congratulations on your recent achievements. What made you become interested in TESOL and Applied Linguistics?

I was motivated to learn English as I believe that it could open a new world for me. Indeed, it did open a new world for me. Then I became interested in exploring why and how people learn languages, in particular English. I initially focused on what strategic efforts language learners undertook in learning English. I wanted to find out not only what language learners did but also why they did what they did in learning English. Immediately after I started my inquiry, I became fascinated by the interaction between agency and context, which underpins individual language learners’ strategic learning efforts. I learnt from my research endeavors that there is never a simple solution to any problems individual learners have in the learning process. I have now become committed to understanding how the interaction between agency and context underpins different types of human action including learning and teaching.

You (as a co-investigator) received the TESOL Award for an Outstanding Paper on NNEST Issues (with Dr. Icy Lee and Mary Shepard Wong) in March 2013 in Dallas, Texas. That project was about problematizing the hiring practices of NEST and NNEST in Hong Kong. Why is or was this issue important? What changes have you noticed since then?

I was involved in the project on the hiring practices of NEST and NNEST since Dr. Mary Wong had a Fulbright project in Hong Kong and needed some sort of local help. In fact, I did not feel that the NNEST issue is that important in Hong Kong until I started the project with Dr. Icy Lee and Mary Wong. I knew that there had been some issue with the Native English-speaking Teacher (NET) Scheme in Hong Kong but I did not think that local teachers were vocally against the scheme. I began to appreciate the challenges that both local teachers and NETs have in optimizing the pedagogical resources they have to promote better teaching and learning in Hong Kong’s schools. While relevant policy discourses could be seen as positioning local teachers, including well-trained, experienced ones, to be on the receiving end of NETs’ ‘expertise’, NETs are also disadvantaged by various school practices and constraints from fully collaborating with local teachers. In some cases, NETs are not necessarily treated as ‘real teachers’ and they are often used as ‘decoys’ to attract students. After Dr Mary Wong’s Fulbright project, I have been involved with Dr. Icy Lee and Mary Wong in a couple of projects evaluating the NET schemes in Hong Kong. We tried our best to propose measures that further enhance the collaboration between local teachers and NETs in Hong Kong’s schools so that they can work together to improve students’ learning experience.

On a wider scale, over the past two decades, the NNEST movement has influenced the TESOL field and contributed to enhance the status of NNES professionals (Kamhi-Stein, 2016). Can you share and discuss your personal insights on the current status (or growth) of the NNEST as a result of the NNEST movement in TESOL?  Are you seeing more about NNEST research as an editor/reviewer?

The NNEST movement has been growing because many NNESTs have to cope with injustice and unfairness. Although TESOL International has been advocating for the recognition of NNESTs as competent TESOL professionals over the years, I believe that many NNESTs still have to deal with situations of injustice and unfairness. Nevertheless, I believe that we, including NESTs and NNESTs, should now overcome the boundary artificially drawn up by these terms. It is quite difficult to define what NESTs and NNESTs are since so many of us have been moving across cultural, linguistic and political boundaries at different stages of our life these days. As members of TESOL International, an international professional organization, we should all look at the core, defining features of our professionalism, such as pedagogical competence. We should target ourselves to be good teachers, culturally responsive teachers or whatever you name it. We should work together to realize our highest professional aspirations. The NNEST movement should no longer be an interest section that takes care of a particular group of TESOL professionals’ interests but it should also become a community of TESOL professionals who are committed to providing the best learning experience for students.

Your recent study (Shao & Gao, 2016) examines the “reticence and willingness to communicate [in English] (WTC) of East Asian language learners from diverse perspectives (e.g., individual, cultural, historical and social condition, etc.).” With this in mind, what are the pedagogical implications for both NESTs and NNESTs?

One of the most important implications that I can think of relates to the fact that NESTs and NNESTs can work together in providing the best learning experience for students as they can learn from each other about their students from diverse perspectives (e.g. individual, cultural, historical and social conditions). NNESTs may have better understanding of NESTs although their familiarity with students does not necessarily mean that they have better pedagogical strategies when teaching them. Sometimes, we need to think out of the box so that we can identify some creative solutions. Collegial discussions with NESTs may help NNESTS identify such creative solutions.

Let’s talk more about publishing. Last May, you presented the topic “Problematizing international academic publishing: the ‘insurmountable’ boundaries of English and journal indexes” at the 3rd English Scholars Beyond Borders Conference in Taiwan. You argue that English remains the boundary for scholars in periphery contexts. Can you unpack that for our readers?

Many scholars in contexts such as China, Japan, and Korea have done excellent research in identifying creative pedagogical solutions but they can only write relevant research articles in their own languages.  For this reason, a wealth of experience and expertise could not be utilized by TESOL professionals in other parts of the world. English, as the de facto medium for international publishing, becomes a boundary for many scholars to share their research with international readership. It is also a barrier that undermines our access to the wealth of experience, expertise and knowledge that has been published in languages other than English.

In your recent book chapter (Gao, 2017), you shared your personal anecdotes as a novice writer (Gao, 2006) and more experienced writer (Gao, 2015) in publishing qualitative studies in Applied Linguistics. What messages do you intend to deliver to the readers?

I would like to stress that the field of applied linguistics has been moving fast forward. The sort of things I did to help me publish my work in an international journal 10 years ago will surely knock the same manuscript out of the editorial process today. It is very likely that the editors would not even send it out for review. As an author, I have been on the receiving end of harsh critique from various reviewers, from whom I learn how to maintain academic standards or rigour in the manuscripts I submit to journals (in the meantime, I learnt from my reviewers to review other authors’ works). Academic publishing is still an ongoing struggle for me.

In your recent paper (Lessard-Clouston & Gao, 2015), it is stated, “it’s always helpful to write about that which you are passionate.” (p.3). What do you mean by that? Can this advice be applied to academic writing?

If we are not passionate about what we write about, it is unlikely that our reviewers will be passionate about our works. As a manuscript reviewer, I can always sense whether authors are enthusiastic about what they have written. Those whose authors are not enthusiastic often bore me to death. Please do not expect me to be nice about such manuscripts.

Since 2013, you have been a co-editor of SYSTEM journal. What are the reviewers’ and editors’ expectations for the writers? What are the common mistakes NNEST writers/professionals make when writing for publishing in international journals? On the other hand, what are the resources that these writers (NNESTs) bring to their writing? What advice would you give PhD students, like many of our readers, who are also NNESTs and want to be published?

Reviewers and editors would like to publish manuscripts that could stand hundreds of readers’ critical scrutiny. Since various researchers have explored the issue of NNESTs publishing in international journals, I do not want to add to what we have already known (e.g. challenges that NNESTs have in publishing in international journals). I would like to stress that no author is a native speaker of academic English. For this reason, all authors, including NNESTs and NESTs, are NNESTs when publishing in international journals (in the medium of English). I also would like to remind many potential authors that their works will be read by hundreds of readers if their works are published in international journals. It is extremely important for them to remember that they are not writing for reviewers and editors. All the potential authors should remember potential readers (more than reviewers and editors) when writing for publishing internationally.

You are geographically remote from major ELT organizations. However, you have been an active member of the academic and professional community of TESOL and AAAL. How do you manage playing various roles? How are you able to engage in professional development in a productive way?

I am simply lucky to work in a well-resourced institution that supports my international engagement. My institution is a research-intensive university. My involvement in the academic communities such as TESOL and AAAL is highly appreciated here. I also benefit from such involvement to promote my research and institution internationally. International organizations such as TESOL International provide me with good opportunities to socialize with international colleagues for collaboration such as editing special issues or volumes.

What advice do you have for graduate students wanting to enter the job market outside of the U.S./U.K. including in the Hong Kong context?

It is highly important for graduate students who are interested in working in contexts such as Hong Kong to attend TESOL’s annual convention or other international conferences so that they can meet colleagues who work in these contexts. It is important for them to find out more information about working in contexts such as Hong Kong, including the recruitment process, working conditions and expectations etc. It is also strategic for graduate students to establish contact with established and emerging scholars in the target career contexts so that they can easily fit into academic communities there.

Thank you for your time and generous advice!


Gao, X. (2006). Understanding changes in Chinese students’ uses of learning strategies in China and Britain: A socio-cultural re-interpretation. SYSTEM, 34, 55-67.

Gao, X. (2015). ‘The ideological framing of “dialect”: An analysis of Mainland  China’s state media coverage of “dialect crisis” (2002-2012)’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 36 (5), 468-482.

Gao, X. (2017). Dealing with criticism when publishing qualitative research. In J. McKinley & H. Rose (Eds.), Doing research in applied linguistics: Realities, dilemmas, and solutions. New York: Routledge.

Kamhi-Stein, L. D. (2016). The non-native English speaker teachers in TESOL movement. ELT Journal, 70(2), 180-189.

Lessard-Clouston, M., & Gao, X. A. (2015). Editorial: Publishing in Applied Linguistics & TESOL. International Journal of Christianity and English Language Teaching, 2, 1-6.

Shao, Q., & Gao, X. A. (2016). Reticence and willingness to communicate (WTC) of East Asian language learners. SYSTEM, 63, 115-120.


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