Tag Archives: linguistic competence

Carmen T. Chacón


NNEST of the Month
July 2010
cchacon15 [at] gmail [dot] com

Ana Wu: Could you tell us your professional background, and why you decided to be an educator?
Dr. Chacón: I was born in Táchira, a western state in Venezuela, today Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in South America. I have lived in San Cristóbal, the capital of Táchira, for my whole life, except the two times that I have gone to study in the U.S. I got my B.A in education with a major in English. I remember that since I first studied English in high school, I felt in love with the language and its culture. Not surprisingly, English was my favorite subject, and I always did an outstanding job in my class.

It was not a burden for me to learn by heart textbook dialogues and grammar rules because I was curious to learn vocabulary and be able to read about the U.S. culture. I used to teach grammar to my friends in the high school, and soon I realized that I wanted to be an English teacher. So, I enrolled in a teacher education program in my home town to become an EFL teacher.

I still have vivid memories of some of my professors who were very concerned in teaching us “Standard” English and did the best they could so that we would acquire native-like pronunciation. I particularly remember one of them who used to say, “be careful,” just before we would talk or say something in English, so we wouldn’t make any mistakes.

After I graduated, I felt I didn’t speak native-like; that was frustrating for me. So, I applied for a government scholarship that was granted to me in 1980 to get my MA degree at Eastern Washington University in Washington State.

When I finished my M. A, I came back home and worked at a high school for about 13 years. Teaching at the high school was a highly demanding task because of the heavy teaching load and large classes, as well as the lack of resources and institutional support EFL teachers face in Venezuela.

Despite the context barriers, I never lost my passion to teach. In 1989, I applied for an opening at the University of Los Andes and won a position as a teacher educator. Later, in 1998, I got a scholarship to pursue my doctoral studies at the Ohio State University (OSU). Again, as I finished my doctoral studies, I returned to my hometown university where I am currently a tenured professor at the Modern Languages Department.

Being a teacher educator has been a great undertaking for me. When I looked back into my past as an NNEST, I realized I have rethought my teaching practice and changed my views about ELT, especially over the last years. Throughout my lived experiences as an English learner, an EFL teacher-researcher, and an educator, I am convinced that learning to teach is a never-ending process. I am committed to work hard to help NNES student teachers’ empowerment so that they are confident as English speakers.

Ana Wu: In your book chapter “My Journey into Racial Awareness” (2006), you said that during your master degree program, as a newcomer in the USA, you first perceived your race to be bound to nationality, and that later, your experience of being perceived as an NNES professional of color opened up your awareness of the role of race in the United States (p. 49).
As a teacher trainer, how does this awareness influence your sense of self and instructional practices?
Dr. Chacón: Being perceived as an NNES professional of color during my second journey into the U.S., has definitively made an impact on my identity as well as on my teaching practice. The construction and reconstruction of my subjectivity was a wake-up call that began since 1998, when I was involved for the first time in my life with topics related to language, power, and race during my doctoral studies. I wrestled myself with multiples identities and started to question my racial affiliation trying to figure out my racial ethnicity among U.S labels such as White, Jewish American, Asian American, Hispanic, Latino, etc. This struggle influenced both my sense of self and my teaching.

I came to have an interest and then became an advocate of NNESTs after I took a Seminar for Nonnative Speaker Professionals offered by Dr. Keiko Samimy in the spring of 2000. Sharing common issues faced by EFL teachers from different parts of the world was a comforting experience that in light of the readings (e.g., Braine, 1999; Lippi-Green, 1997; Pennycook, 2001 among others) made me reflect upon the “political” side of TESOL. Back home, in the fall of 2003, for the first time in our program, I offered a similar seminar for EFL teachers inspired by my own experiences as an NNEST.

The following year, I incorporated NNEST issues into the syllabus of the Seminar entitled Psycholinguistics (See Chacón, 2009a, “Transforming the Curriculum of NNESTs: Introducing Critical Language Awareness (CLA) in a teacher education program ”) that I have been teaching since 2004, as a regular class for fifth-year prospective teachers. I have students read, discuss, and debate articles from the NNEST CAUCUS as well as from selected readings by scholars (Amin, 1997; Braine, 1999; Lippi-Green, 1997, among others). The course goal is to help them open up their awareness of the relationship between language, race, and power.

Over the last years, I have shifted the focus of my teaching from a purely linguistic perspective to what Pennycook (2001), describes as a critical applied linguistics. As an EFL teacher, I am not only concerned about language acquisition but also about the interconnectedness of language, race, and power as present in discursive practices.

I keep myself questioning my cultural assumptions and how they influence my teaching.
My self representation as a TESOL professional made me reflect upon the fact that, in my role as an EFL teacher, I can unconsciously reproduce social inequity through discursive practices that have helped perpetuate conceptions such as “Standard” English and the native-nonnative speaker dichotomy. Now, I position myself as an NNEST who, rather than searching for native-like pronunciation, have changed her focus of teaching to intelligibility and to raise students’ awareness of language as ideology, as a marker of discrimination to label the “other” as inferior.

I have been fortunate to have Professors Keiko Samimy and Shelley Wong as my instructors and mentors at OSU. They inspired me to become an advocate of social equity and justice in TESOL.

Ana Wu: Why do you think the issue of race is relevant to English language acquisition?
Dr. Chacón:Let me start by saying that race was not an issue for me until my second experience as a Ph. D student in the U.S. Then, I started to realize that language is not only about acquiring communicative competence; a purely linguistic activity, but a way to express ideology, i.e., to express who we are and where we come from.

For many years, I believed in the neutrality of ELT. I was educated under the applied linguistics paradigm, considering the native speaker as the “norm” and regarding English language acquisition isolated from the sociopolitical and historical reasons that ground the expansion of English in the world. Disempowering discourses such as the superiority of an “idealized” native speaker, usually represented as the model from the Center, and the acquisition of “Standard” English are unconsciously bound to race. That is why most students would rather prefer Caucasian English teachers if they are asked to choose.

In Venezuela, the focus of ELT is the acquisition of communicative competence. English is generally taught from a descriptive perspective. Besides, racism is not openly recognized in my country; however, the majority of Venezuelans hold prejudices against Blacks and dark-skinned people. Western Eurocentric views are present in daily discourse, but most people are unaware of, or do not want to recognize the fact that we practice what Kubota & Lin (2006) describe as epistemological racism.

English from the Center is the most prestigious. When I ask my students to rank different English dialects, not surprisingly, they mention “Standard” American and British accents in the first and second place while African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is ranked last. They do not mention other varieties—e.g., Pakistani, Indian, Nigerian, Singaporean Englishes—because they are not aware of their existence.

The issue of race is relevant to ELT because the construct of race is socially and historically built through language, and through language we construct our identities. From my own experience, I would say that pervasive practices used to discriminate against NNESTs are rooted in colonial view of EIL. For this reason, it is crucial to develop a critical language awareness among NNESTs and empower them to contest social inequity in TESOL.

Ana Wu: We know that there aren’t many international graduate students from Central and South America in applied linguistics and TESOL programs in the USA. In your article “Empowering NNESTs” (2000), you wrote that you tried hard to be accepted into the academic community during your graduate program. As a Latin American, what were your challenges and how did you overcome them?
Dr. Chacón: A major challenge I faced as an International graduate student was a feeling of loneliness and exclusion in mainstream clases where my White classmates usually dominated the discourse. Class discussions were mainly centered on the U.S. It seemed to me that my experience as a Latina did not count, or may have not been interesting enough to be listened to. At first, I dealt with feelings of frustration and a sense of disempowerment for not being part of the “culture” of mainstream classes.

Another challenge was my accent. I got used to hearing comments about my accent and to seeing people staring at me as if they did not understand what I was saying. Later on, I realized that many people disliked or were not used to listen to an accent other than their own. As Lippi-Green (1997) points out, accents are bound to geographical places and represent privilege and social status. It is not only about the accent one may have, but how that accent is perceived in terms of race and power. In my experience, my accent was a marker of race and did not have the same status or prestige than the accent of someone coming from Australia or Canada.

Let me tell you an experience to illustrate what I am saying. It happened to me during the last quarter of my doctoral studies, while I was in charge of supervising a group of White teachers enrolled in a TESOL Endorsement Program. My first contact with the teachers was via email so we could set up an appointment to meet. I was very surprised that one of them did not respond to my emails. Concerned about the situation, I went to see the Program Coordinator. To my astonishment, she explained to me that that teacher who did not respond to my emails did not want me as her supervisor. She had asked the Coordinator to reassign her to the other supervisor, an African American lady. The reason, according to the Coordinator, was that the teacher was afraid she may not understand me.

I came to the realization that in TESOL language is connected to race and social status. That awareness empowered me and made reflect about my identity as an NNEST.

Ana Wu: What advice would you give to people with similar background as yours who are considering getting professional development in the USA?
Dr. Chacón: An NNEST coming to pursue professional development in the U.S. should keep in mind that as a newcomer he or she will face cultural and linguistic challenges. First, as an international student one needs to fit into the academic community and be ready to deal with feelings of loneliness and exclusion that make the adjustment harder. As foreigners, we are generally perceived as the “Other. So, we need to struggle with negative perceptions and stereotypes that affect our sense of self and undermine our confidence as English speakers.

NNEST needs to be conscious that language constructs identity and that as a result of biases and prejudices present in discursive practices, NNESTs’ credibility is not always judged in terms of proficiency. That is why it is very important to trust our strengths and work hard on our weaknesses to succeed in the academia and gain recognition as qualified NNESTs.

In addition, NNESTs need to raise their awareness of disempowering discourses that undermine their legitimacy and credibility as English speakers. Conscious awareness is critical for empowerment and building a sense of agency to transform NNESTs’ particular contexts and adapt their teaching to their students’ needs.

Ana Wu: As an EFL instructor in Venezuela with 26 years of experience, former department coordinator, and now as a teacher trainer, Do you think that local teachers have a second-class status when working with native speaking teachers (qualified or less qualified)? If yes, what kind of support do you think these instructors need and what can they do to promote more equality in the teaching profession? What do you think TESOL, Inc. and the NNEST IS can do?
Dr. Chacón: Well in fact, the native speaker dichotomy is not an issue that directly affects hiring practices for Venezuelan teachers, but it does influence their perceptions and beliefs as non-native speakers of English. When compared with native speakers, teachers generally express lack of confidence in their oral proficiency and judge themselves inferior when it comes to “nativeness,” accent, and cultural knowledge (Chacón, 2009b).

To promote more equality in the profession, TESOL can increase opportunities for NNESTs professional development, dissemination of research, and mentorship. NNESTs need a major support for visibility in the field through publications in the Journals sponsored by TESOL. Also, TESOL should encourage the incorporation of Seminars that address the needs of NNESTs who attend U.S. universities.

The NNEST Caucus, now NNEST IS, has undoubtedly been a powerful source of empowerment for NNESTs since its creation in 1998. I would like to see online communities of practice where teachers can come together and learn from each other.

In sum, I think that TESOL, Inc. and the NNEST IS should join efforts and keep working to increase opportunities for professional development, visibility, recognition, and credibility of NNESTs.

Ana Wu: Thank you for this inspiring interview!

Amin, N. (1997). Race and identity of the nonnative ESL teacher. TESOL Quarterly, 31, 80-583.

Braine, G. (Ed.) (1999). Non-native educators in English language teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Chacón, C. (2000). Empowering NNESTs. NNEST Newsletter. 2 (2).

Chacón, C. (2006). My Journey into Racial Awareness. Color, Race, and English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning. In Curtis, A. & Romney, M. (Eds.), Color, Race, and English Teaching Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Chacón, C. (2009a). Transforming the Curriculum of NNESTs: Introducing Critical Language Awareness (CLA) in a teacher education program. In R. Kubota & A. Lin, (Eds.), Race, culture, and identities in second language education. Exploring critically engaged practice (pp. 215-233). New York: Routledge.

Chacón, C. (2009b). Acento y competencia lingüística: creencias de los educadores de inglés en formación. [Accent and linguistic competence: Beliefs of prospective English teachers]. Entre Lenguas, 14, 44-61.

Kubota, R., & Lin, A. (Eds.). (2006). Race, culture, and identities in second language education. Exploring critically engaged practice. New York: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical Applied linguistics. A critical introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Vivian Cook

NNEST of the Month
June, 2010
vivian [dot] cook [at] ncl [dot] ac [dot] uk

Could you tell us why and how you decided to become an educator?
Ana Wu, ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Dr. Cook: I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision. After a BA in English literature, I was awarded a scholarship for the teaching of English in under-developed countries. Unfortunately I was then given medical advice not to go to the tropics. So I took a job teaching EFL at Ealing Technical College in London as the next best thing, where I was immediately involved in writing EFL coursebooks (I was press-ganged into writing Realistic English with Brian Abbs and Mary Underwood on my very first day of work). I became convinced that the only way to improve language teaching significantly was to understand how people learn second languages rather than to follow the latest teaching fashion. So this led to research and books etc to try to tell people what ideas were being developed about second language acquisition and how these might relate to language teaching.

Given everything you’ve written, and the voluminous research on which your work is based, this question may be too simplistic. As a teacher of fourth and fifth grade students who speak another language, it is critical that they develop adequate academic language to comprehend content and progress more quickly than the CALPS timetable of six years.
How can we help our students develop academic language most quickly? Thank you.
Jean L. Hill, tutor at West Street School in Southbridge, Massachusetts.
Dr. Cook: Telling Nature to hurry up is always a problem. I don’t think I know of any magic solutions: language learning is a complex process that takes time. One thing I certainly feel is that setting the L2 user as a target and praising the students as L2 users cannot but help; many are discouraged by thinking they have failed if they are not like native speakers. Whatever little they can do in the second language is still more than any monolingual native speaker can do.

With regard to academic English, it may be helpful to think what academic tasks mean for L2 users, not just for native-speaking students, and to get them to exploit the resource they have which the native speaker does not, namely the other language: a disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners are bilinguals I understand. Of course the snag is that the gatekeepers who control examinations, etc, tend to assume that only ‘native’ performance is appropriate, so, for the sake of their students, teachers do have to bear these preconceptions in mind.

In your article, Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching, you used the term L2 user for the person who uses a second language and L2 learner for the person in the process of learning it. One of the issues that resurrects once in a while in our NNEST Interest Section meetings and online discussion is about which term best defines us, people whose first language is not English. What do you think of the term “Non-native speaker”? What are the pros and cons of continuing using this term?
Ana Wu, ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Dr. Cook: Originally ‘L2 user’ was simply a useful technical term that avoided some of the issues surrounding ‘L2 learner’. I think I object to any definition of people based on what they are not rather than what they are: I am not a non-female, non-young, non-lefthanded person; as Popeye said ‘I am what I am and that’s all that I am’. Inherently any ‘non’ definition discriminates in favor of a particular target rather than acknowledging people in their own right. The term ‘learner’ implies they have never reached some target (native speaker) rather than they have a target of their own (L2 user). I do now worry about the terms ‘L2’ and ‘second language’ as connoting some secondary status; if ‘L2’ were read aloud as cardinal number ‘L two’ OK, but everybody reads it as ordinal number ‘second language’; ‘second’ is a status-ridden term – ‘the First Lady’, ‘a first class degree’ etc come before ‘second …’ as indeed in ‘second-class citizen’.

‘Native speaker’ is now such a sensitive term I tend to avoid it where possible. In the UK at any rate ‘native speaker’ refers to ‘standard’ RP speakers – Received Pronunciation is the name of the standard accent in England, otherwise known as BBC English Oxford English or the Queen’s English. This is spoken by a small minority of English people, who don’t include the native-born inhabitants of Oxford or Newcastle, say, where ‘yous’ is the plural of ‘you’. One of my students is a Newcastle-born Muslim who does contract teaching in different parts of the Middle East; when he arrived for his last job, the head of department took one look and said, ‘We didn’t expect a native speaker like you’. Obviously none of us can legislate how words can be used and we have to accept the terms we are landed with – how much applied linguistics actually uses linguistics? But Applied Linguistics will doubtless remain the title as long as it lasts.

In recent papers I have argued that the umbrella term ‘L2 user’ conceals differences between at least five groups, partly based on the hierarchy in De Swaan (2001): L2 users of central languages such as Portuguese in Portugal; supercentral languages like Swahili in Africa; hypercentral languages like English used everywhere in the world as a second language; identity languages like Mandarin Chinese learnt as a heritage language by overseas Chinese speakers of say Cantonese, and personal languages used e.g. between married couples; plus a group of L2 classroom learners whose only purpose is to pass educational requirements. I think we have to be clear that second language acquisition and language teaching may be very different among these groups: much SLA research is concerned with only one of these groups and not necessarily generalizable to the others; the same with teaching – what works for one L2 user group may not work for others.

As regards to multilinguals, World Englishes, and EFL instructors who are L2 users, what areas do you think textbook publishers have neglected?
Ana Wu, ESL instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Dr. Cook: Having been involved at the start of MATSDA, the materials development association, and as an ex-course-book writer, I became aware of the gulf there was between the bright new ideas of course-writers and the books that publishers wanted to publish. To exaggerate slightly, since the 1980s that there has been in essence one published English coursebook in the UK, produced with different covers, pictures and writers’ names, but having the same mixed ‘communicative’ methodology, grammar, aims etc (now being given labels from the Common European Framework, alias CEFR). I could not fathom why, for example, Krashen’s work was not the source for a whole wave of textbooks; not that I agreed with it, but it was certainly worth trying out in coursebooks and would have sold to large numbers of his fans; Norm Gary had a listening-based course for hotel staff that never I think found a publisher but was excellent material. Publishers have maintained a blockbuster approach to English coursebooks rather than diversifying into the many original approaches to teaching that are around.

Some of the overlooked areas I have described in articles are:

The L2 user target. The students are presented on page after page of their coursebooks with powerful native speaker figures who dispense wisdom to humble L2 petitioners such as tourists and students; celebrities in coursebooks are chosen for their fame not for their ability with other languages, yet footballers, tennis-players or F1 drivers are excellent L2 users, both while playing their sport and when being interviewed on television afterwards. So giving a higher profile to successful L2 users in coursebooks is one priority.

Related to (1) is the question of English as Lingua Franca (ELF). It seems undeniable that most use of English world-wide is between people whose first language is not English. Their need is to use English with each other, not with someone who has it as a first language. This must substantially change the concepts of what the student has to do and to learn; descriptions like the CEFR are not appropriate if they do not take into account the distinctive ways in which L2 users use language. It may be that the description of an idealized native speaker is useful as a standard that can be used internationally, just as the yard was supposedly based on the distance from Henry I’s nose to this fingers: but this is for convenience rather than to kowtow to the native speaker; we don’t honor Henry I every time we measure a yard. Another possibility is to try to write descriptions of EFL grammar, phonology, etc, as practiced by Jenny Jenkins and Barbara Seidlhofer; myself I doubt that there is a common core to ELF but a large range of subvarieties that may need separate descriptions. The alternative I now favor is to see ELF as a dynamic process that L2 users employ to communicate with each other; they need to develop the skills of such interaction, about realworld issues not trivial classroom tasks.

The other concern is writing. Since the 19th century Reform movement, speaking has been seen as the core of the language class. Arguably, however, writing is just as important for life today, what with emails, etc – I am doing this interview on a keyboard not a telephone: students need to send emails, go on Facebook, etc. On the one hand, this has led to a lack of organized teaching of the writing system – spelling, punctuation, etc – where teachers do ad hoc correction or fall back on misleading so-called rules they remember from childhood; yet, spelling mistakes are probably more important than pronunciation mistakes as they carry overtones of lack of education etc for many people. This ignores the difficulties for many learners of transferring from one script to another, say, Chinese or Greek to English.

But also you can see on every page of a beginners’ textbook how written language is used as a prop for speaking exercises as if it did not matter in its own right – checklists, mappings etc unlike any ordinary written text. The written language is systematically distorted for teaching ease. Take the neat idea of making people attend to particular forms by highlighting in bold, italics etc – enhanced input. There are very tight conventions in the written language on how these may be used (look at any publisher’s guide for their authors), which these modifications completely flout. We are sacrificing the system of writing for a short-term gain in speaking.

In your 1999 article, “Going beyond the Native speaker in language teaching,” you conclude that there should be “more emphasis on the successful L2 user” and also more use of the L1 in language teaching. In the past 11 years how much change in attitude among teachers, students, program directors, and researchers has there been on these two points? Also, what further change do you hope and/or think will occur?
Terry Doyle, ESL Instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Dr. Cook: In terms of second language acquisition research, lip-service is now being paid to the efficient L2 user as opposed to the deficient L2 learner. It still has not made much actual difference to SLA research; research methods like grammaticality judgements imply comparison with native speakers; research questions such as the effects of age on second language learning and whether L2 learners have access to Universal Grammar revolve around whether the learner is like a native speaker – to me a side issue that doesn’t look at what they really are. There is a growing band of researchers into how second languages affect people’s thinking, reflected in my book co-edited with Benedetta Bassetti coming out in the autumn Language and Bilingual Cognition (Psychology Press). The research base for the L2 user as a distinctive kind of person gets stronger every year.

I have been encouraged by two recent books:
Ortega, L. (2009), Understanding Second Language Acquisition, Hodder Education.
Scott, V.M. (2009), Double Talk: Deconstructing Monolingualism in Classroom Second Language Learning. Prentice Hall.

These are useful applications of similar approaches, which I would like to have written myself. My old warhorse Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (Hodder) has become much more L2 user oriented in its fourth edition. I am impressed by the extent to which these ideas are now known in places I visit – China, Iran, Italy and Portugal in the past couple of years. I have also tried putting some of my standard talks on Youtube to see if that helps people to access them.

In regards to placing more emphasis on the successful L2 learner, and in regards to the focus of this blog, I’d like to know how your notion of “multi-competence” is important in regards to “non-native teacher” issues. In your 1999 article, you comment on the strength of “non-native” teachers as language teachers because “students may prefer the fallible non-native speaker teacher who presents a more achievable model.” What is the value of “multi-competence” for language teachers? Could you say more about the strengths “non-native” teachers possess as language teachers? Finally, do you believe that perceptions about native vs. non-native speakers as language teachers have changed in the last decade?
Terry Doyle, ESL Instructor at City College of San Francisco.
Dr. Cook: The issue of native (NST) and non-native speaker teachers (NNST) is fraught with difficulty, having financial, political and career implications in many countries: I met one teacher who was hired as a native speaker (which she was) but paid as a non-native local (as she was a naturalized citizen of the country by marriage). A key point is of course ‘everything else being equal’; teachers may be useless because of their lack of training regardless of whether they are native or non-native (though it is perhaps inevitable that many expat teachers have less knowledge and experience of the demands of the local education system); teachers that speak fluently and communicate effectively may achieve more regardless of nativeness, perhaps easier in the L1. If L2 users are different kinds of people from monolinguals, inevitably the monolingual NST belongs in one group; the multi-competent NNST in another group of L2 users. Students can aspire to become part of the latter group, not the former. Assuming that the NNST speaks the same L1 as the students (which is not the case in many parts of the world), they have got there by the same route that the students are following, not by the L1 route that the NSTs followed.

Advantages are then the NNST teachers’ better understanding of the pitfalls and shortcuts on this route, being a visible role model for the students of someone who successfully did it their way, and knowing the students’ L1. Given two otherwise equivalent teachers, the NST has an advantage only in terms of the native model that is being shown to the students; if this is highly valued by society and by the students themselves (as it probably still is), this may be an advantage for the NST. As soon as we can persuade people to aim at becoming effective L2 users rather than second-rate imitation native speakers, this sole NST advantage disappears and what is needed is a teacher who can model successful L2 use, who may or may not be a native speaker – I was once told to my surprise that I had given a talk in ELF rather than in English. As with anything to do with language, the neutral scientific view clashes with the deep emotional and non-rational feelings that human beings have about language; the native speaker construct has been incorporated in language teaching and in popular ideas about bilingualism for so long that the inertia in changing it is immense. But a lead from curriculum designers, examination boards and coursebook writers might help – like the Japanese MEXT‘s goal of ‘Japanese with English Abilities’ or the Israel curriculum which ‘does not take on the goal of producing near-native speakers of English, but rather speakers of Hebrew, Arabic or other languages who can function comfortably in English whenever it is appropriate’.

Ana Wu: Thank you very much for your time and consideration in answering the questions submitted by the members of the NNEST IS!
Dr. Cook: I have enjoyed answering these questions and hope these answers are reasonably coherent. Follow-ups for these ideas can be found on my website http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/, particularly the on-line papers http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/Writings/; there are even my first amateurish videos on YouTube (search for itsallinaword). You can email me on vivian.cook@ncl.ac.uk

Noam Chomsky

NNEST of the Month

April 2010

chomsky [at] mit [dot] edu

Ana Wu, City College of San Francisco

1. Could you tell us how and why you decided to become an educator?

Dr. Chomsky: I didn’t really decide. It just happened, like many things in life.

Terry Doyle, City College of San Francisco (Questions 2, 3, and 4)

2. Your name is quite often mentioned in papers about the history of the NS (native speaker) and NNS (non-native speaker) dichotomy among teachers of ESL. For example, Braine (1999) writes “In language pedagogy, the linguistic authority of the native speaker has been further bolstered by Chomsky’s notion of the terms native speaker and competence.(p. xv). Canagarajah (1999) in his well-known article, “Interrogating the native speaker fallacy”, writes, “Noam Chomsky’s linguistic concepts lie at the heart of the discourse that promotes the superiority of the native speaker.” Such statements tend to attribute some responsibility or blame to you for the creation of the NNS-NS dichotomy and the native speaker fallacy. In my opinion, this blame is totally undeserved, especially when we consider how you have spent your life advocating for the rights of people who are economically oppressed. In a later article George Braine (2004) mentioned that you defined the native speaker as an “ideal speaker-listener” and therefore you use the term as an abstraction. Braine seems to allude to the fact that you had no idea that the abstract concept of “native speaker” used in your book Aspects of a Theory of Syntax would take on a life of its own. Could you tell us more about your notion of “native speaker” and “native speaker competence” especially in terms of its relevance to the NS-NNS dichotomy in English and foreign language teaching, the native speaker fallacy (Phillipson, 1992) and the discrimination and economic oppression this fallacy has resulted in?

Dr. Chomsky:I do not understand why I am mentioned at all in this connection. The “linguistic authority of the native speaker” was a truism long before I became a college student. The distinction between competence and performance –- what we know versus what we do — should be a truism as well, but it has no bearing on the role of the native speaker, as far as I can see. My notion of “native speaker” is the traditional one, adding nothing new. I have no idea what the fallacy is supposed to be, or how these truisms might relate to oppression. I suspect there must be some serious misunderstanding.

3. My career in linguistics began in the middle 1970s as a graduate student at UC Berkeley in theoretical linguistics. At that time study in applied linguistics was just beginning, and it wasn’t a popular area of study for a young graduate student. Nowadays applied linguistics has grown enormously as a field of study, and it includes separately defined sub areas of studies including everything from applied semiotics to web based instruction, and of course includes non-native teachers issues, the topic of Ms. Wu’s blog. Your work in linguistics has been in theoretical linguistics, but applied linguists often mention your theories and your concepts. How do you explain this enormous interest in applied linguistics and especially sub areas of study such as non-native teacher issues? What do you see as the connection between theoretical and applied linguistics and in particular with the sub area of applied linguistics, non-native teacher issues?

Dr. Chomsky:I presume that applied linguistics developed because there was so much valuable work to do in these areas. Teachers are usually non-native. In the case of indigenous communities, very substantial efforts have been made to provide native speakers with the educational opportunities that would enable them to become teachers, develop educational and cultural programs in their own communities, etc., even in one spectacular case to revive a language that now has its first native speaker in a century (Wampanoag). I am keeping here only to my own department, since the 1960s, under the leadership of the late Ken Hale and now his students. I do not know what other issues there are about native/non-native teachers.

4. Most readers of Ms. Wu’s blog are probably linguists, ESL teachers, or ESL teacher trainers, so we know of your work first of all in linguistics. But for people outside of linguistics and language teaching, you are well known for your research and writing in political science, and especially your arguments for the relevance of an anarcho-syndicalism or libertarian socialism (Chomsky, 2005), which I greatly admire. My reason for asking you the question below in this blog is that I agree with critical linguists such as Pennycook (2001) who view “the inequalities in the relation between the constructs of Native and Non-native teachers” as one manifestation of power and inequality in the field of linguistics. Do you think that the study of political issues such as non-native teacher issues is an area of study for applied linguists, for political scientists, or both? What suggestion would you give to scholars and graduate students who want to study political issues such as non-native teacher issues and also to ordinary ESL teachers, like myself, who want to understand the significance of such issues to our teaching, our profession, and our ESL departments’ personnel and hiring committees’ decisions?

Dr. Chomsky: I do not understand what the “non-native teacher issues” are.The important issues seem to me those I mentioned above.

Ahmar Mahboob, University of Sydney (Questions 5, 6, and 7)

5. In your work on language, you prioritize the formal properties of language in favor of its functional properties (cf work my MAK Halliday and colleagues). While we see that both of these approaches serve useful purposes, we were wondering how they relate to the field of language teaching and learning. How do you see these two approaches to language (formal and functional) in relation to work in the area of language teaching and learning?

Dr. Chomsky: Halliday and others apparently see a conflict between those approaches. I have never seen any. My own work, and that of my colleagues, is both formal and functional. So is Halliday’s, as far as I understand it. There are differences in approach, as one would expect in a complex array of disciplines, but not along this divide, as far as I can see.

6. The use of the concept of a ‘native’ speaker is somewhat understandable in contexts where linguists are trying to study how monolingual speakers of a language construe and realize their language. However, this notion of a ‘native’ speaker is often used in Applied Linguistics and TESOL literature/research as well. How do you evaluate the use of this term in these contexts?

Dr. Chomsky: It should be used where it is relevant. Again, I do not understand the issue.

7. Language descriptions are typically based on language data/intuitions collected from monolingual speakers of the language. Now, we know that the majority of the people in the world are bi/multi-lingual speakers of the language. Are their intuitions not important for describing languages? This becomes quite important in contexts where these ‘monolingual’ descriptions of the language are considered ‘standard’ and other dialects are measured in relation to them (such as in the context of language teaching/learning/assessment). What are your views on the use of native speaker intuitions in language descriptions that are used in language teaching/learning?

Dr. Chomsky:If someone is interested in Spanish, they will not use me as an informant, but rather a native speaker of Spanish, evidently. It is quite true that multilingualism is common -– in fact, ubiquitous if we study individuals very closely. It is an important topic to study. The notion of “standard language” is not a linguistic notion. Rather, it reflects structures of power and authority.

Jayashree Mohanraj, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad

8. Entry of English in multilingual countries is gradually and systematically eliminating smaller local languages. Please comment on the hegemony of English.

Dr. Chomsky: That’s true, and it is one aspect of a much broader development. Imposition of the nation-state system in Europe, for example, has led to rapid disappearance of languages, a process still continuing. The spread of English reflects obvious power relations. As I mentioned, my own department has been intensively involved in preserving, in fact resurrecting, indigenous languages and cultures. A great many factors enter into broader decisions -– for example, should efforts be made to preserve the many languages of Italy (called “dialects,” though they are often mutually incomprehensible), or should the spread of a common “Italian” be encouraged. There are no simple formulas for every situation.

Daniel Steve Villarreal, University of Texas at Austin:

9. Does your Universal Grammar theory draw on the work of Karl Jung (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_Unconscious)? Thank you

Dr. Chomsky: I’ve occasionally mentioned some rather loose analogies, nothing beyond that.

Ana Wu: I’d like to thank Dr. Chomsky for this interview. When I sent him the invitation to be a guest in our NNEST of the Month blog, Dr. Chomsky said that he was utterly deluged with interview requests, and couldn’t possibly keep up with more than a fraction. Yet, he graciously agreed on an interview at my proposed deadline. Personally, working with him was not just a pleasure, but a great honor and unforgettable experience.


Braine, G. (1999) Introduction. In Braine, G. (Ed.) Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Braine, G. (2004) The nonnative English-speaking professionals’ movement and its research foundations, In Kamhi-Stein, L. Learning and Teaching from Experience: Perspectives on Nonnative English-speaking Professionals. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Canagarajah, S. A. (1999) Interrogating the “native speaker fallacy”: Non-linguistic roots, non-pedagogical results. In Braine, G. (Ed.) Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of a Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. (2005) Chomsky on Anarchism. Oakland: AK Press.

Pennycook, A. (2001) Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical Introduction. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Phillipson, R. (1992) Linguistic Imperialism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Katya Nemtchinova

NNEST of the Month
November 2009

Ana Wu: Could you tell us your background and why you decided to become an educator?
Dr. Nemtchinova:I was born and raised in Moscow, Russia. I started learning English when I was seven and fell in love with it, in the large part because the teacher would bring toys to class to introduce new vocabulary- a unique teaching technique in a Soviet school with its strict discipline. As a student of Moscow State Linguistic University (Moskovskij Gosudarstvennyj Lingvisticheskij Universitet; Московский Государственный Лингвистический Университет), I had several opportunities to experience teaching English in a grade school, which made me realize that teaching is an extremely enjoyable and rewarding experience and what I really wanted to do was to teach at a university level. After graduation I worked as a technical translator for two years, all the time looking for a teaching job before getting a position at the University of Friendship of People (Universitet Druzhby Narodov; Университет Дружбы народов) where I taught English as a foreign language for three years.

In 1992 my husband, a physicist, was accepted into the PhD program at SUNY at Stony Brook, and left for the US. I joined him a year later and stayed at home for some time; when the tediousness of being a stay-at-home mom reached the critical point, I applied to the doctoral program in the Department of Linguistics at SUNY. While in the program I taught ESL classes on campus; I also taught methods courses in MA TESOL program during two summers. It took a certain amount of courage and perseverance to teach native speakers of English how to teach their language to people like me, but it turned out to be a very positive experience that came in handy when I interviewed for my current job at Seattle Pacific University.

Ana Wu: You teach methodology and linguistics in a MA-TESOL program, and Russian, your native language, to undergraduate students. With regards of being bilingual and bi-cultural, what are your strengths and challenges as a professor of your second language? What are your strengths and challenges as a teacher of your native language?
Dr. Nemtchinova:
My dual teaching responsibilities of a language teacher and teacher educator are a perfect marriage for me. Teaching Russian language provides me with endless real-life examples to support and exemplify theoretical principles we discuss in the methodology and linguistics classes while teaching ESL methods keeps me abreast of new developments in second/foreign language teaching. It also keeps me honest in front of my Russian students and makes me consciously align my instruction with what we talk about in the methods classes.

Another benefit is the constant exchange of ideas and language learning activities with MA TESOL students: as they design and perform ESL mini-lessons as part of their academic requirements for my methods classes, I note the most interesting and innovative activities which could be adapted for my Russian students.

Each of my teaching roles involves a unique set of strengths and challenges. Beyond the proverbial native language model, teaching my native language fills me with everlasting enthusiasm and an immense joy as I see how students’ language skills and appreciation of the culture grow as they progress. Judging from student evaluations this passion is contagious and it motivates them to study better. As to challenges, I often face the problem of relating to my students’ level and not taking things for granted. I also know first-hand how difficult it might be for a native speaker to explain the finer grammar points without special training. Finally, I constantly have to check my urge to use as much Russian as possible in the classroom against students’ level of proficiency and modify my language without mutilating it.

My greatest asset as a teacher educator is my dual experience as a nonnative speaker learning English and as a native speaker teaching her native language. Students appreciate my opinion on what works and what doesn’t in an ESL/EFL classroom; they also benefit from my awareness of hurdles native speakers face in communicating about their native language. Addressing these problems in my classes in the context of some fundamental questions on the nature of language teaching and learning always results in an animated discussion and helps students develop their own approach to classroom teaching. These discussions are a valuable part of learning; however, sometimes graduate students fail to recognize my authority as a professor. Their inability to see beyond my nonnative-English speaking status, age, appearance, and background can impede teaching and communication and affect the classroom atmosphere in a negative way. While these individual attributes cannot be changed (with the exception of age), recognizing the motives underlying such an attitude allows me not to take it personally, to remain professional, and to assume a strong educator role by striving to improve my professional performance.

Ana Wu: You have done research on language learning, teaching education, using technology, and NNEST issues, particularly on the importance of mentoring and collaboration. In a NNEST-NEST collaborative model, what can both parties gain from this peer collaboration?
Dr. Nemtchinova:
The importance of effective mentoring and collaboration in teacher education is well documented in the literature, which underscores the reciprocal nature of such a relationship as its primary benefit. Both NES and NNES can gain a lot from working together, and I see in my classes how NES and NNES students enhance each other’s teaching and learning experience as they work side by side towards their MA TESOL degree.

NNES students offer an invaluable insight into a variety of EFL teaching situations, either from the point of view of an EFL student or an EFL teacher, if they had taught in their countries before coming to the US. They also have a unique perspective on NES students’ teaching based on their language learning experience; they usually have a solid judgment about the feasibility of a lesson or an activity and can anticipate potential difficulties. Not only do they offer their opinion on how this or that activity will work in a real-life classroom or whether it is too challenging for a given population of students, they are also the best judges of NES students’ teacher talk which sometimes tends to be too fast and/or too complex because of the vocabulary, idioms and cultural references.

NES students appreciate NNES’s ability to present and explain grammar and vocabulary, an appreciation expressed in their highly positive peer evaluations. There is a lot of interest in language learning strategies that NNES employ; as we discuss the strategies suggested by the textbook NNES students are always asked how they found ways to master different skills.

For their part, NES make an important contribution to collaboration by providing personal and academic support to their NNES peers. They supply encouraging and constructive feedback on their teaching, attend to their language needs, and volunteer as an eager audience to help NNES rehearse their presentations. They encourage NNES to be assertive, ask questions, and participate in a class discussion. NES’s friendly guidance and advice is especially beneficial for those new to the country as it facilitates NNEST students’ socialization into the culture of an American university. As both groups get to know each other better, the NNES’s feeling of personal and academic comfort and self-confidence grows tremendously. I hope these collaborative relations will extend beyond graduate classes and will help both NES and NNES become better teachers.

Ana Wu: The NNEST Caucus became an Interest Section in 2008 and you were its first chair. What would you like to see the leaders and members of the NNEST IS do or initiate?
Dr. Nemtchinova: As a long-time member of NNEST Caucus and Interest Section I find the work done by our community leaders inspiring and encouraging. I would like the Interest Section to continue reaching out to NNS members of TESOL who are still not members of the IS and invite them to join us. As I sat in the NNEST IS Booth at TESOL 2009, I was surprised by the number of nonnative speaking colleagues who did not know who we were. Our strength is in numbers, and the stronger we are, the better we’ll be heard. I also think it is important to enhance the presence of NNES in TESOL through education and research, and to extend our mentoring and support to NNES members in the profession. I hope we will continue working towards increasing the number of conference presentations, single-authored and joint publications, and representation in TESOL, and encouraging on- and off-line networking. On a more practical note, it would be nice to have a column in NNES newsletter devoted to successful classroom techniques, particularly related to NNES issues.

Ana Wu: You are currently writing a series of Russian textbooks. How do you balance your professional life – as a language instructor, professor and writer, mentoring students, giving presentations, writing articles, going to conferences – with your family obligations? What advice would you give to graduate students and new teachers who are also parents and want to have a fulfilling career?
Dr. Nemtchinova:
Being a successful professional as well as a caring wife and a devoted mother are both very high on my priority scale, but the balancing act requires a lot of self- discipline, prioritizing and organizing. Preparing classes, grading assignments, providing feedback on student presentations, and actual teaching and advising consume the best part of my waking hours, and then there are demands of being an active scholar and finding time to serve the university and the community. My biggest challenge is to have a fixed block of time for writing once or twice a week. Because I am most focused and alert in the morning, I treat my productive time very carefully and try to arrange my school and home schedule so as to carve a few hours of creative morning freedom for professional writing. This scheduling comes at a price: my “teaching” days are crammed with classes, advising appointments, and meetings to the point of exhaustion. Despite my desire to be substantially involved into university affairs, my options for campus service are limited to committees that only meet once a month; even then I often have to plead with committee members to schedule meetings on my teaching days to avoid a 40-minute commute to campus which will surely ruin my writing productivity. I have to miss university events that take place on my research days and find other ways to increase my visibility and participate in campus life. Nevertheless, having a fixed block of time for writing, even once or twice a week, has proven to be very beneficial for my research.

Family life requires as careful time management and organization as professional life. I have a weekly plan for various family responsibilities and house chores and stick to it. I cannot live without my checklists (one for classes, one for research, one for family, and one for everything else) –they help me remember what needs to be done and stay organized. The most important lesson I have learned while trying to cope with the demands of teaching, research, and family is that it is impossible to be an equally successful and dedicated mother, teacher, and researcher without sacrificing something. I think it’s essential to define your priorities and lower your standards on something you deem less important. My most important priorities are children and work, but I am more relaxed about household responsibilities, particularly cleaning. It’s simply not possible to excel in everything!

My advice to those who are juggling family and career is not to succumb to the feeling of guilt when something is not up to your standards, but be flexible and realistic. Learn to accept that things may not always be perfect, set reasonable goals and have a small celebration when you achieve one of them. It is also important to take time to do things that help you relax and unwind- a hobby, an exercise program, or a stress management practice. Playing tennis, knitting, and listening to audio books help me recharge my batteries when commitments start piling up. After a little break now and then I can focus more effectively on teaching, research, and family.

Ana Wu: Thank you for this delightful interview!


Andy Curtis

NNEST of the Month
June 2009
Andy Curtis, Ph.D.
andycurtis [at] cuhk [dot] edu [dot] hk

Ana Wu: Would you tell us your background and why you decided to become an educator?

Dr. Curtis: Originally, I was scheduled to become a medical doctor, not an English teacher! This was partly because my parents – who left Guyana and went to England in the 1950s as part of what I call “the colonially choreographed migration”, when the Great British Empire was moving its subjects around as needed – had the typical aspirations of so many new immigrants at that time (and possibly today as well). They wanted their children to “do well”, which meant obtaining high-income jobs and occupying prestigious positions in society. My dad worked in a chemical plant and my mum in the local hospital, so adding all those factors together, myself, my brother and my sister were all funneled towards the Sciences. But we all left the Sciences eventually. Needless to say, my parents, who had dreams of being able one day to say “my son the doctor” were understandably very upset when I gave up a generous medical scholarship to become – of all things – a teacher?! One reason I left the Sciences was a growing suspicion of the “objectivity” of the Western Scientific Method, and one of the reasons I went into Education was because teaching and learning are not objective and not scientific, whatever some proponents of the scientific approach to language teaching-learning may still claim. But because of my traditional scientific upbringing, I did initially think that teaching and learning were primarily head-level, cognitive, intellectual events. After some time, I realized that teaching and learning – especially language teaching and learning – are, for me at least, primarily heart-level, affective, emotional events. As for language teaching rather than science teaching, which would’ve been more in-line with my background and educational upbringing, one of my professors pointed out that my assignments and papers were becoming more and more focused on the language of science rather than the methods. This came about because I noticed that there appeared to be an interesting and important analogy between a patient and a doctor communicating, and a native speaker of a target language and a non-native speaker communicating. I know that probably sounds odd to many ears, but I believe that a situation in which a patient is trying to understand what is happening to them and what the doctor is saying has many similarities to a communicative event between a native and a non-native speaker, especially if the doctor is using a lot of technical language, not understood by the patient, though they are both using “the same language”. So, although it certainly was not a typical career path – entering the field of TESOL via Medicine – it made sense to me, if not to many others, including my family and friends at the time.

Ana Wu: You were a TESOL Leadership Mentoring Program Award recipient. How important was this recognition? How did it help you in your career?

Dr. Curtis: I think I was one of the first TESOL Leadership Mentoring Program Award recipients, and it had an extremely important influence on my career in TESOL. In fact, looking back, I would say I did not really realize how important it was at the time, and only later fully realized the great difference that receiving that award made. I must, though, confess that I failed the first time. My initial application to the LMP program, put forward in 1998, was turned down, and I remember being very disappointed. But I was extremely fortunate to have Kathleen Bailey, a TESOL Past President, as the person supporting my application. So, much as I wanted to just forget about the LMP award after being rejected, Kathi would not let me give up, and insisted that I apply again the following year. So, that was one of the first of a great many life-changing lessons I have learned from her over the ten years since 1999 when I received the LMP award.

If it had not been for Kathi and for the LMP award, I might have left the TESOL, Inc. not because of my disappointment at being unsuccessful my first time around , but more because, having been born and raised in England, the IATEFL association seemed like a more natural or logical choice. But the TESOL LMP award, which I think was started during David Nunan’s term as TESOL President, helped me stop and think about my role in TESOL – the field and the association. Kathi, David and I went on to write a book on professional development together, called Pursuing Professional Development: The self as source (Heinle, 2001) and to collaborate on many projects over the years. I am extremely grateful to both of them for their encouragement and support over the years, and I appreciate this opportunity, in this interview, to share with your readers just how grateful I am to both of them, as well as to other TESOL Past Presidents from that time, including MaryAnn Christison and Denise Murray, who have recently co-edited a book titled Leadership in Language Education (Routledge, 2009) to which I contributed a chapter on Leading from the Periphery. This idea, of leading from the edge, has become an important part of my work in the area of leadership and management in language education, which I now realize started with the LMP award.

Ana Wu: In the beginning of your career, you taught academic writing in Hong Kong. In your book Colour, Race and English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning (2006), you describe the expectations and attitude of some of your students on the first day of class.

a. How did those incidents affect you in lesson planning?

b. What advice would you give new teachers who may be in the same situation as you were, not conforming to the native speaker image in language and appearance?

Dr. Curtis: There was not really a one-to-one correlation between the incidents I describe in my Dark Matter chapter in Colour, Race and English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006) which I co-edited with Mary Romney, and my lesson planning. But the experience of some students being so surprised to find that their English teacher was not a white, male Englishman certainly did have an impact on me, as it helped me realize the power of the images that still exist in some countries about what it means to be an English teacher. Although we have come a long way since the incidents I describe in Hong Kong more than a decade ago, we still have some way to go in this area to fully move past what I call the Aryan Super Race Model of ELT.

The Aryan Super Race Model of ELT is a fairly controversial term, and as such it has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. But one of the reasons I left Medicine and became an language teacher and learner was because of my awareness of the power of words, and a phrase like The Aryan Super Race Model of ELT certainly does get people’s attention and provokes thought and discussion of questions such as: Why is it that in some places still all you need to be an English teacher is to be tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed and you’re in? And how much longer will we need to wait before the Native Speaker Myth finally dies its long-overdue and inevitable death?

So, over the years, I have learned to make use of my experiences of not being what people expect, to help them challenge the stereotypes, distorted images and colorful expectation they have of who is a Native Speaker of English and who should be a Teacher of English. One of the ways I have been doing this is to deliberately use material in my language teaching that highlight the fact that the majority of users of English in the world today are not native speakers of the language, and the fact that the majority of teachers of English today are not native speakers of the language either. So, native speakers of English are, by definition, a minority, making the linguistic norms for English, then, logically, non-native.

It is difficult to give to new teachers who may be in the same situation as I was, not conforming to the native speaker image in language and appearance, without lapsing into clichés. But I do strongly encourage teachers in that situation not to fall into the trap of trying to be someone else to meet the expectations of others. If you are not a native speaker of English and you are not white-skinned, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, there is no need to apologize for not being those things! We are not the ones who need to change in those situations – it is the expectations of the others that need to change.

Ana Wu: Besides being the director of the Language Teaching Unit (ELTU) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a consultant working with Prof. Kathleen Bailey, and a workshop facilitator, you have written books and served on many committees. In your career, is there any unfulfilled dream? How do you balance your career with family?

Dr. Curtis: I recently asked some local colleagues in Hong Kong if there is a Cantonese expression for “work-life balance”. Not surprisingly, we found there is no such phrase, because here Work Is Life, so the notion of balance makes no sense! Consequently, one of my difficulties with balancing career and family is the nature of work in Hong Kong – but it’s not fair to blame it all on Hong Kong. As one of my friends here pointed out sometime ago “It’s not Hong Kong, Andy. It’s you!” Like most people I know who have achieved some degree of professional success over time, including the TESOL Past Presidents I thanked above, professional success can sometimes come at the price of success in our personal lives, if we always prioritize our work-life over all the other aspects of our life. So, I am now trying to learn how to be better at balancing work life and real life, the professional and the personal, which really means working less and living more. Spending a little less time at the computer, working on texts, and a little more time talking with family and friends. It’s been noted by many others that nobody on their death-bed says: “If only I’d spent more time in the office”. But many people do say the opposite, “If only I’d spent more time with family and friends”.

This brings me to the other part of your question about whether or not there are any unfulfilled dreams in my career. The short answer is that I have, at this point, barely scratched the surface of what I had hoped to achieve in my career! In terms of quantity, I recently saw my one hundredth publication come out, a chapter in another book on leadership in our field (edited by Neil Anderson, Mary Lou McCloskey, also TESOL Past Presidents, and Christine Coombe and Lauren Stephenson) published last year (2008) by Michigan University Press. Although 100 hundred of anything is a fairly arbitrary number, it represented a milestone for me. But it also made me stop and think about quantity versus quality and the impact of the work that we do. Most of us became educators because wanted to have a positive impact on the world, to help make things better, in the case of language teachers, by enabling better communication between people from different places, using different languages and drawing on different cultures. But I believe that my most important work may still be ahead of me, as there is still so much that I would like to do as a language educator, to help make a real difference in what appears to be an increasingly fractured and divided world. I’ve been told that I’m over-optimistic to the point of romantic naïveté, but I still believe that language teachers do more to improve the quantity and quality of communication globally than so-called world leaders or multinational corporations.

Ana Wu: You have worked with thousands of language teaching professionals in dozens of countries and territories, and given hundreds of presentations worldwide. Would you share some of your most vivid experiences, positive or negative? As a Brazilian I needed to ask this question: What was your impression of Brazil and the TESOL professionals?

Dr. Curtis: My most recent experience was presenting in Penang, Malaysia at the local TESOL PELLTA affiliate conference, and it was a very positive experience of coming full circle (if you’ll forgive the cliché!) in the sense that the conference was attended by fewer than 200 participants and presenters, but representing nearly 20 countries, which is the kind of relatively small conference that I used to attend when I first became active as a presenter. But with the big annual TESOL Association Convention in the US, attended by thousands and thousands of people, and some of the big conferences here in this part of the world, such as Cambodia TESOL, which now attracts around a 1,000 people each year, it’s hard to find conferences of a couple of hundred. So in Penang, I was reminded of how much I enjoy that, and how much easier it is to get to know the participants and presenters with these relatively small numbers. I should also add that the reputation for Malaysian hospitality and great food were both absolutely true in my experience of being there, so I was grateful to the TESOL Executive Committee for asking me to go to the conference, to represent the TESOL Association.

But many of my most positive experiences as a presenter have been in South and Central America. Maybe it’s because my parents come from that part of the world, so I have some special affection for the languages, cultures and peoples in that part of the world. Plus, because of my skin (color), I am usually mistaken for a local person at some point during my time in Brazil, Peru, Mexico, etc. And interestingly, if I am not all dressed up as a conference presenter or participant, and if I am mistaken for a local person, the assumption is usually that I am a local worker, probably working outdoors, on the land and in the fields, because in most of those countries – and in my experience, in most countries of the world – the darker the skin, the poorer the person, as dark skin is associated with physical work outdoors, laboring under the sun, whereas fair skin is often associated with more professional work indoors, in offices, etc. But I am always happy to be taken for a local, as I believe that that is an important part of experiencing another language and culture.

And as for your question about my impressions of Brazil and the TESOL professionals there, I am going to risk upsetting some people in some other countries and say that Brazil is one of my favourite countries of all that I’ve spent time in! I have not been there recently, as it takes up to 40 hours to get there from here in Hong Kong, but I have many very fond memories of working with enthusiastic, energetic and interactive TESOL professionals at different Brazil TESOL conventions and others conferences there. So, I hope to be heading back that way again this year, if possible!

Ana Wu: Thank you for this delightful interview!

Eva Bernat

NNEST of the Month
May 2009
eva [dot] bernat [at] unsw [dot] edu [dot] au
Ana Wu: Could you tell us your background and why you decided to become an educator?
Prof. Bernat:Ever since I can remember, I have always wanted to be a teacher. I recall sitting my younger sister down in front of a small, A-frame blackboard, teaching her reading or writing and imagining I was in front of a classroom full of students. That was back in Poland in the 1970s. In the early 1980s with the rise of the pro-democracy ‘Solidarity’ movement, the inception of Martial Law (a ‘state of war’) and the eminent fall of Communism, Poland went through major social, political and economic changes. During the time of this unrest, my parents had decided to immigrate to Australia. Being the only a non-native English speaker in the whole school in Sydney’s Northern Districts, I was a rather curious novelty to everyone. In the beginning, I had found school challenging and the language barrier daunting, but I never let go of the dream of one day becoming a teacher. Yet at the time, my lack of proficiency in the English language meant that the dream was further from me than at any other time in my life. I had often wondered, how could I teach a language that was not my native tongue?

I believe that this question, to a greater or lesser degree, distresses many Non-Native Speaker Teachers (NNSTs), who tend to feel insecure at times about themselves as EFL professionals. As I have observed during my years of TESOL practicum supervisions, many NNSTs lack confidence in their own teaching skills sadly because they see these through the prism of their perceived inadequacies in English language skills, and worry whether they will measure of up their students’ expectations. A few years ago, I heard a comment from one of my young NNST trainees: “They don’t think I am a teacher; they don’t know who I am!” This comment ignited my desire to address the crippling feeling of ‘impostorhood’ among many NNSTs.

Ana Wu: In your article “Towards a pedagogy for empowerment: The case of ‘impostor syndrome’ among pre-service non-native speaker teachers in TESOL,” (2008) you argue that the native speaker paradigm and the NNS-NS dichotomy create perceptions of inadequacy in regard to English language proficiency.

How can we address negative self-perceptions and feelings of inadequacy among NNESTs?
Prof. Bernat: I teach pre-service and in-service TESOL teachers who come from various non-English speaking backgrounds, many of whom are international students. I have recently become passionate about building a pedagogical model geared towards non-native teacher empowerment in TESOL teacher education courses. This area of research was put forward by the TESOL Research Agenda (2000), which identified issues related to NNSTs as a Priority Research Area, and a question of research interest listed in the document is: To what extent, if any, are issues related to NNS professionals addressed by the TESOL teacher preparation curriculum?

Consequently, I devised a number of intervention strategies to help empower NNSTs. For example, one of the strategies I use is called ‘Near-Peer Role Modeling,’ which is theorized and widely used in social psychology. I found this to be a useful and powerful tool in my teacher education courses in recent years. Near Peer Role Models are people who are in some way ‘near’ to us – for example, in age, background, social status, profession, and so on. This is how it works. During the semester, teacher trainees are exposed to various models and ‘empowering discourses’ in their lectures on issues related to NNSTs – both from their Non-Native Speaker lecturer – myself, and two NNSTs who came to give talks on separate occasions. Trainees become informed of the gradually emerging global changes to the status of NNSTs, and informed that NNSTs currently outnumber Native Speaker Teachers in the world – a fact which the trainee teachers do not seem to be aware of and are always very pleasantly surprised to learn about. Furthermore, the visiting NNSTs who come to give personal testimonials about their own professional journey in the field of TESOL seem to have a very positive effect on the listeners. The speakers engage the trainees in lively and productive discussions and find that they are able to relate to each others’ feelings and experiences very well. I can see almost immediately the changes in attitude following this intervention.

In my lifetime, I hope to make a worthwhile contribution to teacher education, particularly to the education of NNSTs. I believe that well thought-out strategies of empowerment that aim to convince NNSTs of the important contribution they can make to foreign language education is as crucial now as ever.

Ana Wu: Your book “The Psychology of the Language Learner: A focus on beliefs and personality” was just released and you serve as an Associate Editor in two international peer-reviewed journals (The Asian EFL Journal and Journal of English as an International Language).

As an NNES, what advice would you give to graduate students and young professionals who are struggling with their academic writing skills? As a writer, what strategies have you employed to overcome writer’s block and deal with multiple revisions?
Prof. Bernat: I must admit that the proverbial writer’s block is my worst enemy. I admire people who claim that writing comes to them with ease. I wish I had a magic answer for dealing with writer’s block, but what often works for me is to walk away from my writing and engage in something totally different. This allows me to see my written thoughts from a new perspective when I return to them. I also find reading extensively and thinking about the issues from various points of view helpful. I usually go through quite a few drafts before I am happy with what I wrote.

Ana Wu: Besides teaching postgraduate courses, you are an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) research fellow and have been a guest speaker at national and international conferences. How do you balance your career with family?
Prof. Bernat:Balancing a career and family life can often be a challenge, particularly for women. I really admire women who combine the two, and who do it so well. Personally, I have been blessed with extensive support networks and owe much to my mother. In our field in Australia, we are also quite fortunate to have relatively flexible working hours and days, so this allows for juggling of responsibilities on all fronts. However, my biggest challenge is to learn to say ‘no’ to things that seem like a good idea at the time!

Ana Wu: As you attend conferences at various interesting countries, what do you bring back to your teachings, peers and students?
Prof. Bernat:I am currently traveling for a month through Korea, Japan, Poland and Turkey. Taking part in conferences, symposia and the like, and visiting other universities provide invaluable opportunities to build networks with colleagues in the field, as well as to learn about the kinds of issues and problems that exist in other contexts. It is also interesting to learn of new developments that take place in ELT. Just in the last few days, I have learned so much about the spread of English in South-East Asia and the ever-growing demand for English language instruction. I hear that there are some 100,000 Koreans going to the Philippines each year for English courses, and that Singapore is now importing teaching assistants from India to meet their needs. Such developments confirm that native-speaker teachers can no longer satisfy the demand for ELT world-wide, challenging the notion that the native-speaker is the prototypical language teacher of choice. Passing this information onto my trainee NNSTs will no doubt help them to understand their dominant positioning in the global TESOL arena.

Ana Wu: Thank you for this inspiring interview! I am looking forward to reading your next book!

Marinus Stephan

NNEST of the Month
March 2009


marinus [underscore] stephan [at] hotmail [dot] com

Ana Wu: Would you tell us your linguistic and professional background, and why you decided to become an educator?

Dr. Stephan: Since my linguistic background and professional career is inextricably linked with Suriname, my native country, and the name “Suriname” isn’t likely to ring a bell with many people, allow me to provide some basic facts about the country. Suriname is located on the northeast coast of South America; it borders the Atlantic Ocean in the north, Brazil in the south, French Guyana in the east, and Guyana in the west. It was colonized in 1650 by the English who, in 1667, handed it over to the Dutch; it remained Dutch territory until it gained independence in 1975. The population is made up of Amerindians, the nation’s indigenous people, and descendants of Dutch colonists, African slaves, Indian, Indonesian, Chinese indentured laborers, and Lebanese immigrants. As of 2007, Suriname has a population of about 493,000. In all, 18 different languages are spoken, the most prominent of which are Dutch and Sranan. The former is the country’s official language, while the latter, an English-based Creole, is the nation’s lingua franca. Like many other countries, Suriname has a centralized education system which currently breaks down into elementary school (six years), middle school (four years), and high school (three years).

Growing up in the 1960s, I primarily spoke Dutch at home, but with my friends in the neighborhood and on the school playground I spoke both Dutch and Sranan (for much of the last century, Sranan was considered the language of the lower class and parents of every social class, including those who would be considered poor and uneducated, would discourage their children from speaking it at home). In addition, like all Surinamese kids in those days, I had informal exposure to English, thanks to radio and television. Virtually all the songs on the radio were—and still are—in English, and when television arrived in Suriname in the mid 60s, the vast majority of the programs that aired originated from the US. And since there was no dubbing and there were no subtitles, I had direct exposure to the English language. Formal exposure to English came when I started middle school at age 12 (in Suriname, English has been a component of the middle school curriculum for over a century; over the years, various elementary schools took it upon themselves to offer it to their students and currently efforts are underway to make it a fixed component of the elementary school curriculum).

In my first year of middle school, I fell head-over-heels in love with Spanish, a language that doesn’t figure prominently in Surinamese society at large. This may seem surprising, particularly given the country’s geographic location; the fact is that historically, demographically, and culturally Suriname has much more in common with English-speaking Caribbean nations like Guyana and Trinidad than with the Spanish speaking countries of South America. Back in the 60s, though, Spanish, like English, was a required course at middle and high schools in Suriname. Over the course of my years in middle school, I developed such an affinity for Spanish that by the time I was about to attend high school, I had made up my mind to become an interpreter specializing in Spanish. But then, to quote the late John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Since Suriname did not—and does not—have a program for training interpreters, I consulted the Department of Student Affairs (DSA) of the Ministry of Education. I learned that the only way of achieving my goal was to first enroll in a general teacher training program and then specialize in Spanish, an endeavor that would take six years. That is precisely what I did . . . only to learn at the end of those six years that I had been misinformed by the DSA official. By then I was 22, and family circumstances dictated that I enter the work force and so I started teaching. Additionally, due to changes in the educational policies of Suriname, one of which was that Spanish no longer was a required course at middle and high school, I had switched allegiance from Spanish to English. So, in essence, I became an English teacher by mere circumstance rather than by my own volition or some higher calling.

Ana Wu: I read with great interest your article “Musings of a Black ESL Instructor” (2006) because it offers a new dimension to the definition of the TESOL professional.

In the first paragraph (p.107), you wrote that in your homecountry, Suriname, a racially diverse society, the concept of racial profiling is totally alien. If you were arrested by a police officer of a different race and claim that you were the victim of a racial profiling, people would not believe in you.

You also wrote that while teaching EFL in Suriname, you had no reason to believe that your students were racially biased against you (p.114), that they would not question your teaching abilities based on your racial background.

It was only after teaching ESL and receiving unsatisfactory performance evaluation from your students who were primary from Asian origins that you started perceiving an association between your racial and professional identity.

What advice would you give to ESL professionals who grew up in a society like yours and now want to teach ESL in an English-spoken country where they are identified as a person “of color”?

Dr. Stephan: Let me preface my response by pointing out that Suriname is not devoid of ethnic strife. Currently, the Hindustanis and the Creoles, i.e., those whose ancestors came from India and Africa respectively, make up the two largest ethnic groups in the country. There has been ethnic tension between them groups for decades, as in the immediate run-up to Suriname’s independence. While both Creoles and Hindustanis left the country for the Netherlands, fearing the country’s economic collapse upon independence, Hindustanis had an additional reason for leaving: the fear of being ruled over by Creoles. Fortunately, over the years, politicians of all ethnicities have largely refrained from playing up ethnic tension, and as a result, Suriname has never seen a major ethnic upheaval.

Let me now address the question. I don’t know if it is possible to prepare individuals who, like me, come from a society where race and ethnicity go largely unnoticed in daily life. No matter how much you read or hear about the experiences of others on this matter, you are unlikely to grasp the full extent of it until you actually live it. It’s maybe comparable to the rollercoaster experience: I myself have never been on one—and don’t plan to do so any time soon since just seeing the speed with which the cars and the people in it come down makes my stomach turn. So it’s hard for me to understand the exhilaration and excitement of those brave souls.

I do have one piece of advice for ESL instructors who find themselves in a situation in which they believe their capabilities are being questioned because of the color of your skin: avoid paranoia and do not look for an enemy behind every bush and tree! Rather, consider every situation and every individual involved in it on their merits. I always try to find a reasonable explanation for what happened, starting with questioning my own behavior. What did I say or do—or didn’t say or do—to elicit that particular reaction from the person? Did the person perhaps misunderstand my well-meaning intentions? Did the person have a bad day and was it my misfortune to become his or her scapegoat? It is, of course, also possible that a person’s dislike for another has nothing whatsoever to do with the other’s skin color; we all know at least one person we don’t like simply because our personalities clash. It’s important to consider all these possibilities and more before thinking the worst about the other human being.

Ana Wu: What do you think of the term “TESOL professional of color”? How would you name a TESOL professional of color who is also a non-native speaker?

Dr. Stephan: I appreciate the fact that the term “TESOL professional of color” makes some people uneasy or offends them; the reason is that it seemingly injects the issue of race in our profession, pitting, in essence, White ESL instructors against their non-White counterpart. We want to believe that ours is a colorblind profession, devoid of politics in the same way that we believe that, say, the teaching of math or physical education is. However, if scholars such as Pennycook, Phillipson, and Tollefson have taught us anything, it is that politics is engrained in the history of the English language and that of English language teaching (ELT). Moreover, TESOL, presumably the largest organization of ESL professionals in the world, is not only based in the United States but also has a largely US-based membership. The United States has a long history of uneasy race relations that stretches back as far as the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620; it is, therefore, inevitable that issues of race will permeate the nation’s sub communities. Thus, with regard to the “racialization of ELT” the professional ESL community cannot afford to adopt an “ignore-it-and-it-will-go-away” attitude; rather, it ought to confront the matter head-on.

Perceptions of and ideas about race are deeply embedded in English language teaching. Traditionally, Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are considered “the core English-speaking countries,” a term coined by Phillipson in his famous—some would say, infamous—work, Linguistic Imperialism. Demographically, the dominant group in these nations have been White people; and because these nations are often perceived as exclusively English-speaking, the English language has historically been perceived as the “property” of the White natives; put differently, Whites have been granted “ownership” of the language. Consequently, it is not surprising that when the average ESL student envisages a typical ESL instructor, the image that is conjured up is that of a blond, blue-eyed, female (female, because education the world over, particularly at primary and secondary level, is a female-dominated field).

This perception has implications for ESL instructors who are not White: some students and employers perceive ESL instructors who happen to be of color as less “authentic” in comparison to their White counterparts; that is, the former are considered less reliable and trustworthy in meeting the linguistic needs of students than the latter. Therefore, when an ESL instructor of color enters the classroom on the very first day of the semester, she or he is already at a disadvantage before having uttered a single word. To earn the respect, trust, and recognition of their students—and in some cases even that of their White colleagues—, they need to demonstrate that they fully master all aspects of the language, often much more so than White ESL instructors (this claim has been documented by ESL professionals of color like Nazut Amin, Angel Lin, and Anam Govhardan). Thus, given these circumstances, there is a need among ESL practitioners who do not conform to the stereotypical image of the ESL instructor to create an identity for themselves and to share their experiences with their professional community. The label “TESOL professional of color” calls attention to the fact that there is a tension between being a person of color and being an ESL professional. Therefore, I wholeheartedly embrace the label.

The second part of the question—what name I would give to a TESOL professional of color who is also a non-native speaker—reflects, I believe, two misconceptions. The first is that the term “TESOL professional of color” only applies to non-White citizens of core English-speaking nations. Presumably, the term is analogous to “people of color,” a label commonly applied in the United States to individuals who do not identify themselves as white or are not identified by members of their society as such. Note that the phrase “people of color” distinguishes people on the basis race, not on linguistic background. Consequently, I’d argue then that the term “TESOL professional of color” applies to(a) non-White ESL instructors who were born, raised, and educated in countries where English is spoken as a first or second language and (b) non-White English language teachers who were born, raised, and educated in nations where English is by and large acquired in an academic setting.

The second misconception is that the White/non-White dichotomy and the native/non-native speaker dichotomy are two independent entities. However, as I have pointed out in my discussion about “ownership” of the English language and its implication for TESOL professionals of color, these two dichotomies are clearly intertwined in the same way that, for instance, race and gender are in many societies, including the United States. Perhaps no other linguistic feature is more salient in marking the distinction between native and nonnative speakers than accent. More often than not, a person’s accent becomes the means by which his or her interlocutors create a social picture of the speaker: the person’s nationality, native language, social class, educational attainment, and type of job. In addition, if the speaker is heard rather than seen, attempts are often made to determine the speaker’s race or ethnicity.

In her work English with an Accent, Rosina Lippi-Green provides an in-depth analysis of the inextricable relationship between an individual’s accent and the racial attitudes towards him or her. Of interest is also the study conducted by Yuko Goto Butler, who examined the attitudes of sixth-grade students toward teachers with American-accented English and Korean-accented English (in actuality, both accents were produced by a Korean American). Her study revealed, among other things, that the students believed that the “American” individual had a better pronunciation and displayed a greater degree of confidence than the “Korean” individual; the students also preferred the former to the latter as their English teacher.

The studies by Lippi-Green and Butler do more than highlight the accent-race connection; they also shed a distinctive light on the native/nonnative speaker debate. For if we accept the position that (a) accent is the most salient marker distinguishing a native from a nonnative speaker, and (b) having a nonnative accent has social implications, then it is apparent that the native/nonnative speaker debate is a social rather than a linguistic issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the issue of native versus nonnative speaker of English is, in essence, not rooted in linguistics but rather in sociopolitics. This assertion is not new; in his book The Native Speaker is Dead!, Thomas Paikeday cites David Guralnik, an American lexicographer, who claimed that the question of the native speaker had more sociopolitical than linguistic overtones. He went on to say, according to Paikeday, that those who adhered to the idea of native speaker intuition are motivated by elitist or perhaps even racist notions.

Consequently, to frame the native/nonnative speaker debate largely or exclusively in terms of linguistics is, in my opinion, wholly unproductive. A proper understanding of the issue demands that careful consideration is given to the extent to which race, and perhaps even gender and class, inform the debate.

Ana Wu: You also conducted a research (Stephan, 2001) in which students had to order rank ESL teachers based on geographic origin and linguistic background. You explained that all the instructors had equal teaching experience, abilities, and qualifications.

You found out that 74% of the participants preferred native English speaking professionals from Europe and 45% rated non-native English speaking professionals from Africa as “the last resort” (In this study, you had 138 Asians, 14 Europeans, 9 Africans, 8 Middle Easterners, and 5 South Americans. It was also assumed that students associated the terms African, Asian and European to Black, Mongoloid and White).

How did this experience affect – pedagogically and emotionally – how you teach? Did you start discussing social issues in your class?Did you share your experience as a visible minority in the ESL teaching community?

Dr. Stephan: To some extent, my experiences have shaped my professional personality. On a personal level, there was a time when, in introducing myself, I would tell the students where I come from and what my linguistic background is. After two rather painful incidents in the late 1990s, I decided to create a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of my own: if the students do not ask me about my background, I do not tell them about it. And even if they do, I generally do not tell them the whole truth. While it pains me to betray my own identity, I have learned that, in this respect, being less than forthcoming benefits the interaction between the students and me.

On a professional level, because of my experiences, I am more inclined to address social issues in the ESL classroom but I let the circumstances dictate the extent to which I do, if at all. For instance, in 1999, I was teaching two different groups of students at two different schools. At one school, the students who enrolled in the ESL program were primarily “international students,” i.e., students who upon graduation were likely to return to their home country. For many of them, the goal of enrolling in the ESL program was to develop and improve their English language skills so that they could write a decent paper in their field of study. I often had the sense that their attitude towards the ESL class was, “Well, if this is what it takes to get my degree, fine, but don’t expect me to like it.” I just did not think that these students would be open to discussing social issues; all they were interested in were issues of grammar and style, so the content of the course was largely if not strictly pedagogical.

At the other school, the vast majority of students who enrolled in the ESL program were immigrant students. Obviously, they had a vital stake in studying English: for them, developing and improving their English language skills was of major importance in earning a decent living. At the same time, I believed that mastery of the English language alone was insufficient to enable them to successfully integrate and function in American society. They also needed insight in what makes the United States the country it is; and since I am an immigrant to the United States myself, I saw it as my duty to assist them in navigating the sometimes troubled waters of American culture. Therefore, we frequently discussed matters that tend to baffle newcomers to the country, ranging from the more mondane issues such as dating to more complexing and controversial issues such abortion and racism.

Ana Wu: In Ahmar Mahboobs article, “Confessions of an Enraced TESOL professional,” (2006), he says that one of the presenters at 2005 TESOL convention confined that she felt she didn’t belong in the NNEST community. She was the only Black professional and felt left out.

As the former chair of the International Black Professionals and Friends in TESOL (IBPFT) Caucus, how do you think both communities, NNEST and IBPFT, can work together to create an environment in which members gain equal status and are recognized for their professional qualities, instead of race or nativeness? Which topics for research can we work collaboratively?

Dr. Stephan: To begin with, “status” is often not something individuals bestow on themselves; rather, it is something that society or segments thereof bestow upon them. To illustrate, as recently as five years ago, whenever the then state senator Obama walked into a room full of strangers, undoubtedly everyone in the room would have thought, “That is a Black man.” We now know differently: Mr. Obama is, in fact, biracial. Yet, the fast majority of people do not refer to him not as the first biracial president of the United States, but as the first black president of the country. That is because society has developed certain beliefs about what a black person is supposed to look like.

And so, while I believe that nonnative ESL professionals and ESL professionals of color must work towards greater recognition, that recognition will only come when all involved in the education process— employers, students, parents, and colleagues—perceive of them as authentic.

My response to the earlier question makes readily apparent that, from a professional perspective, I do not see a clear distinction between nonnative ESL professionals and ESL professionals of color. As I have claimed, issues of race and (non) native speakerness are not two separate, competing forces but rather intertwined axes rooted in the same phenomenon: social inequality. Therefore, in a perfect world, it probably would be best if both the NNEST and the IBPFT were to be disbanded and TESOL professionals of all stripes were to band together to question how race, native speakerness, and other social forces shape and impact English language teaching and learning. I believe that that would be the most effective way of achieving synergy, that is, producing a result that no group of ESL professionals, working as an independent entity, is likely to achieve. Alas, there is no such thing as a perfect world! So what is next?

First, the NNEST and IBPTF chairs ought to put their heads together and develop strategies aimed at constructive cooperation. During my tenure as Chair of the IBPFT, I attempted to reach out to the NNEST Caucus through the then Chair Lucie Moussu. I suggested that the two caucuses present a joint colloquium; Lucie did put out the request but, unfortunately, no one within the NNEST responded. One reason beyond sheer anxiety of giving a presentation might have been the assumption on the part of NNEST caucus members that they have little or nothing in common with members of the IBPFT. I think leaders of both caucuses should do more to raise awareness among their members that the concerns of the NNEST are not vastly different from those of the IBPFT and vice versa, and that the two groups have more in common than may be apparent at face value.

It is a well-known fact that there a far more countries where English is spoken as a foreign language than as a first language, which means that most speakers of English are nonnatives; among them, there are many are people of color. Consequently, like no other TESOL caucus, the NNEST and the IBPFT are uniquely positioned to raise awareness among employers, students, and parents about the value of NNEST and ESL professionals of color. I readily admit that at the time of this writing I have no clue how exactly one would go about in doing that; this is another reason why the leaders of the two caucuses should consult one another.

One way, however, might be for the two caucuses, possibly in cooperation with the other caucuses, to petition the TESOL organization to have its annual convention held outside the United States, maybe every other year or so. It strikes me as odd that an organization that has the globe as its logo has never held its convention, arguably the largest of its kind, outside of the Americas (and I’m using the phrase “the Americas” broadly here since of the 43 conventions—this year’s included—two were held in Canada (1983 and 1992) while Mexico hosted the 1978 convention). Compare this, for instance, to FIFA, the world soccer federation, which every four years organizes what undoubtedly is the major sports event in the world, the World Cup. While this body has its headquarters in Zürich, Switzerland, the World Cup was only once held in that country . . . in 1954! If FIFA held every single World Cup competition in Switzerland, it would be safe to assume that not many non-Europeans would be able to attend one or more games.

The year 2009, marked by economic turmoil of immense proportions, is probably not the best time to call for TESOL to spread its wings and fly. I ackowledge, furthermore, that TESOL regularly organizes regional conferences, but those may not necessarily contribute to breaking down the barriers nonnative ESL professionals and ESL professionals of color face, precisely because they are regional. Therefore, for TESOL to assist these and other groups of ESL professionals in breaking down barriers, it is important that it looks for ways of taming its convention on the road, so to speak.

As for a research agenda, we need more insight into how social forces in general—nativeness, race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and the like—impact the teaching and learning of English.

Ana Wu: In the field of race, color, nativeness, and ESL/EFL teaching, what seminal papers inspired you? Which ones do you recommend graduate students in applied linguistic or TESOL programs read?

Dr. Stephan: In some of my answers to previous questions, I mentioned some of the works that sparked my interest in the relationship between ELT and politics in general and issues of race in particular. I can’t say that they influenced my day-to-day teaching, but they certainly hightened my consciousness regarding the role ESL professionals, myself included, play in bringing the English language to the masses.

Much criticism that has been leveled at Phillipson’s Linguistic Imperialism since its publication in 1992; for me, however, it will forever be one of the best works I have read on the politics ofELT. Other works that I thoroughly enjoyed reading were James Tollefson’s “Planning Language, Planning inequality” and Alistair Pennycook’s The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language.

When I started my dissertation research in 1997, it gradually dawned on me that published articles on the ELT – race connection were virtually nonexistent. In fact, the only article I managed to find after weeks of perusing a wide variety of journals was Race and the Identity of the Nonnative ESL Teacher by Nazut Amin, published in 1997 in the TESOL Quarterly. So in order to be able to place race in the context of ESL teaching, I studied, among other things, the perceptions of race and racial identity in the countries where the fast majority of ESL students I was teaching at the time came from, i.e., China, Japan, and Korea. Two works I found very informative were The Discourse of Race in Modern China and The Construction of Racial Identities in China and Japan, both written by Frank Dikötter. These works provided me with a general idea of perceptions of race and racial identity in Chinese and Japanese society at large. Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent and Cornel West’s Race Matters also make for fascinating reading.

For students in ESL programs who are interested in investigating how social issues such as race impact English language teaching and learning, I would suggest that they enroll in courses that provide them with some of theissue themselves before they start their investigation into how it may affect ELT. To illustrate, when I initially conceived of my dissertation research, my goal was to investigate why few Black Americans seem interested in career in ESL. I based my belief on the fact that during my MA and PhD studies there had been only one African American in my classes. Since I am not an African American, I felt I needed to develop an understanding of African American history. To that end, I took a number of courses in the Department of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University, where I did my doctoral work; the knowledge gained in those courses served me well during my dissertation research and beyond.

Ana Wu: You are currently working at Educational Testing Services. Do you miss teaching ESL? Do you have any plans for going back to being an instructor?

Dr. Stephan: As an assessment developer at ETS, my primary duty is creating test items for the reading section of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC).

To be quite honest, I don’t miss teaching the technical aspects of ESL, i.e., grammar, spelling, reading and writing, and so on. I began my career as an ESL instructor in 1977 and by the time ETS offered me the position in 2002, I’d been in the field for roughly twenty-five years. With the advent of the new millennium in 2000, I was ready for something different. Obviously, I still have a connection with the English language through my work at ETS; in part, of course, it was because of my knowledge of the language that the company recruited me.

What I do miss by not being in an academic setting is the opportunity to conduct classroom research. I would love to investigate the race – ELT connection in greater depth but that is not feasible precisely since I am not in a classroom setting.

At this point, I see no full-time teaching position in my future; I would welcome the opportunity, though, to teach as an adjunct and hope to land such a position in the near future.

Ana Wu: Thank you for such inspiring interview. I hope to have a chance to meet you at the TESOL Annual Convention in Denver!


Butler, Y.G. (2007). How are nonnative English speaking teachers perceived by young learners? TESOL Quarterly, 41 (4).

Mahboob, A. (2006). Confessions of an Enraced TESOL professional. In Curtis, A. & Romney, M. (Eds.), Color, Race, and English Teaching Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Stephan, M. H. (2006). Musings of a Black ESL Instructor. In Curtis, A. & Romney, M. (Eds.), Color, Race, and English Teaching Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Stephan, M.H. (2001). Lifting the veil of silence: An inquiry into race as a feature of the social and pedagogical dimensions of the English as a second language classroom. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus.