Go and ask a native speaker

 

Just a couple of hours ago I participated in a conversation that took place on Facebook. A Czech teacher of English as a foreign language asked a question concerning a certain language feature. She wasn’t sure she could use a certain phrasal verb in a specific context. She was looking for hard evidence, which she could present to her EFL learners in order to support her surmise. The thing is that she exclusively addressed native-speaking members of the FB community.

At first I felt a little offended sad that being a non-native speaker, I was implicitly excluded from the discussion (conceited me!). By the time I stumbled upon the post, three native speakers had already responded saying that they would never use the verb in question in that particular sense. However, the inquirer was surprised saying that she’d come across some examples in online dictionaries claiming the opposite. Meanwhile two non-native speakers had also joined in and commented on the post. After having overcome my initial grievance, I decided to take the bull by the horns too.

Whenever I have a question which I think could only be answered by a native speaker (and there’s none around at the moment), I consult a corpus. Dictionaries are great and I have a pile of them at my disposal, but they don’t always provide exhaustive information. They say what is correct but they don’t necessarily include the ‘incorrect’ though frequently used examples. Google is another amazing tool which I use when I want to verify something or I need to fill in a missing word or find a suitable collocation. It’s an enormous, quickly accessible corpus, as well as a helpful prompter. But as Google can be somewhat unreliable, it’s always good to double-check elsewhere.

Although nowadays it’s not fashionable to draw a distinction between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs) in the field of ELT, people do so anyway. The NS will always be the ultimate stop, the god in possession of all the knowledge we turn to for help if we are lost and helpless. I confess I’ve also done that many times in my career and I don’t think it’s intrinsically bad. On the contrary, it can prove helpful, especially if I need to understand the function of a certain language feature, or if I wish to avoid a cultural misunderstanding. Take this sentence, for example: “I can’t agree with you more, Hana. I couldn’t have put it better myself.” When I heard this utterance for the first time, I found it a little arrogant and I thought: Well, this person tries to show me that he knows better than me. How pompous! Since then, though, I’ve heard this phrase many times in many different contexts, so I’ve inevitably come to the conclusion that it’s perfectly all right. The function of this chunk is to express agreement – nothing more or less.

So I’m not trying to imply that we should avoid consulting native speakers. All I’m saying is that we should be careful whenever we feel in awe of the native speaker’s linguistic knowledge. Ironically, we, NNSs feel offended when we suspect that we’re being discriminated on the ELT job market, and we are ready to bravely fight for our rights. But isn’t it us, NNSs, who also contribute to the NSs’ aura of exceptionality? Many Czech students (and their parents) still feel that it’s better to have a NS teacher of English because they believe they know more. And we, invariably, support this conviction by giving up and asking for evidence served on a silver plate, instead of trying to look for answers ourselves.


Shouldn’t we (NNSs), of all people, demonstrate to our students that if they come across a problem they can’t solve on their own, there are loads of tools they can use without sulking about the fact that they will never possess the extensive knowledge of L2 a native speaker does. I’ve just remembered a situation I experienced at a workshop I recently attended: during pair work I worked with a native speaker of English and when talking about my holidays I mentioned we had stayed at a campsite where we had hired huts. She told me that it sounds really odd to say huts in this context. I don’t deny that I will never be able to feel the oddity unless a native speaker draws my attention to it. But there’s no point in concentrating on unachievable goals. What we need is as much autonomy and independence as possible – for our students but also for us, teachers.

As I see it, the sentence: “Wait, I’ll go and ask a native speaker” implies some kind of ownership. Luckily, English is no more owned by its native speakers. There are many Englishes and what sounds all right in one part of the world sounds odd in another. I dare say it doesn’t even matter what a native speaker would say and how they would say it. Not anymore. What matters is that we manage to get the message across but most importantly, that English is a medium of connection and diversity, not a means of division and uniformity.




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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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4 Responses to Go and ask a native speaker

  1. Ahoj Hanko

    I'd like to say I couldn't have put it better myself. The ownership issue is really fascinating. I had a discussion with my CELTA trainees on a related topic just this morning and I always find it sad to see how many NNS shy away from taking on the idea of ownership of English and how many feel they need to aspire to NS model. In fact, I think I meet more of such NNS than NS reluctant to give their ownership up!

    Dita Phillips

    Like

  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Dear Dita,
    Thanks for reading and commenting. I love the way you addressed me! I bet you can speak Czech 🙂 And the opening sentence – LOL. You got me. I'm happy to hear you find the issue of ownership intriguing. I totally understand why your trainees feel the way they do; it's probably because they think that's how the majority perceives the NS vs. NNS dichotomy, which inevitably makes them want to aspire to NS model. It's a vicious circle and my prediction is that it'll take a lot of time before we are all equal and judged by our knowledge, skills, abilities, etc. and not by our native language.
    Hana

    Like

  3. I like the way you look at the NESTs/NNESTs issue, Hana. Sometimes we do need to look at it from both perspectives. I like this line in your post: “Luckily, English is no
    more owned by its native speakers.” English may be my 2nd language but I’ve always considered it my own. It’s one of the two languages that are closest to my heart, the other being Garo, my mother tongue. What I cannot express in Garo, I do it in English; and vice versa. To be honest, sometimes even 1st language speakers stumble. From my own experience, sometimes I am unable to answer questions that learners of Garo ask me regarding the use of the language. I believe it is the same with 1st language speakers of English. However, what you said is also true. They can indeed help us with certain things, especially cultural connotations. Thank you for all your amazing posts. They help me see things that I generally overlook. Good job!

    Like

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. Your words of appreciation are music to my ears 🙂 The things you say about the two languages – Garo and English – are very interesting. Yes, you probably own all the languages which you use to communicate, regardless of the fact whether they are your first or second languages. Of course, one could ask if it’s possible to own a language at all, but they would only be splitting hairs. For me, and I feel it’s the same for you, owning a language means being able to use it for genuine communication.

      Liked by 1 person

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