On the NEST vs. NNEST issue

When this happened for the first time, I thought it was pretty insignificant. I pondered for a while and then let go of the thought immediately. When it happened for the second time, I realised it was worth a mention here on my blog.
Scene 1: 
I’m sitting in the classroom, cooperating with Margaret, a lady from the UK (a native speaker of English). We’re working on a task Daniele, the presenter of the workshop we are participating in, has just asked us to complete. We’re looking at a list of some vocabulary items when Margaret mentions that she’s really enjoying the day here at the conference. Later on I ask her about her background and she briefly explains that she used to be a primary teacher in the UK. Now she’s retired and she’s been travelling a bit around the world and she’s having a great time. She’s come to the Czech Republic to visit her son – a teacher trainer based in Brno. Suddenly, Daniele, whose name and surname definitely sound English to me, utters a Czech male name with such a perfect pronunciation that it occurs to me that her L1 might actually be Czech. I’ve noticed that it is particularly people’s names, as well as, say, names of Czech places that reveal your true identity when you pronounce them in front of a Czech audience. Anyway, I mention to Margaret in passing that Daniele is one of my favourite presenters and I wonder whether she’s a native speaker of English. Margaret stops to think for a second and then she says: “Well, I really don’t know but she sounds English to me”. And then she adds: “And Paula, the presenter I saw before, sounded English to me too.” I’m a bit surprised because I know Paula is Czech and although her English is flawless, it’s definitely her L2.
Scene 2: 
I’m sitting in the classroom listening to Nick, a very friendly-looking native speaker of English, who’s giving a presentation on a brand new, bottom-up, approach to teaching listening and reading. At some point he asks if there are any native speakers present in the classroom. I think he wants to explain how difficult it is for NSs, let alone NNSs, to understand spoken English and he wants somebody to confirm his assertion. One guy puts up his hand – it’s James. Nick nods and then he looks at David, a nice guy I saw presenting at conferences in the past too, and, a little puzzled, asks: “And you? You are a native speaker, too, aren’t you?” David shakes his head – he’s actually Dutch. “Really?? I thought you were a native speaker”, adds Nick a little doubtfully. His puzzlement doesn’t surprise me because I heard David speak on many occasions before and he sounded perfectly native-like. But I’m a NNEST, so you can trick me easily, you know. 
And that’s the point. Being a native speaker of Czech, I’m convinced that I can tell with an absolute certainty whether somebody’s Czech is their L1 or L2, and I was really surprised to see that native speakers of English can’t. This is truly intriguing. Although both Nick and Margaret came from totally different environments, they had something in common; Nick probably works with teachers all around the world, so he may have adjusted to all sorts of accents which he accepts as fully-fledged varieties of English. Margaret loves travelling, so like Nick, she may have stopped distinguishing between ‘real’ English and other Englishes long ago. 
So it made me wonder why there’s so much the fuss about NESTs and NNESTs because apparently, even NESTs can’t tell the difference between native and non-native Englishes. It really makes no difference what Daniele’s, Paula’s or David’s linguistic backgrounds are – one of their parents may be a native speaker after all, or they might have spent most of their lives in an English speaking country. Or maybe they managed to acquire English in such a way that nobody can say if it’s actually their L1 or L2. Thus it’s clear that it is the outcome, i.e. your linguistic ability (plus teaching qualifications) that makes you a good teacher, not your history, i.e. the place of your birth or the data recorded in your passport. 
Note: the storied above are real stories, both of which happened quite recently, and the names of the people mentioned are real too (even though I admit I might have played with the spelling a bit).  

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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.
This entry was posted in Just pondering ..., NNST vs. NEST, Pronunciation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On the NEST vs. NNEST issue

  1. Very interesting post. Gives us all some food for thought about the usefulness, or rather lack of it, of the NS and NNS labels.
    I thought of something when reading your post. Is it necessary to be able to pass off as a NS to be a good teacher? What is the necessary minimum English level for a NNS to be a good teacher? If we ask for proficiency, then shouldn't we be asking for more than just a four week teaching course from a NS?

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your comment, Marek. I don't think the labels are totally useless; people often use them for practical reasons and I have no problem with that. The trouble is when, under certain circumstances, one of the labels automatically equals better, more qualified, more employable, you name it. There's no reason to be afraid to say 'unqualified NS or qualified NS'. NS is just one of the many attributes we connect to the teaching profession – and it *is* an attribute after all, no matter how much we try to pretend it isn't.

    You ask: What is the necessary minimum English level for a NNS to be a good teacher? I know teachers whose level of proficiency is not very high, yet they can motivate students to become a highly proficient users of the language. On the other hand, there are teachers with an excellent command of English who are absolutely hopeless as teachers (I realize it almost sounds like a cliché but it’s a fact). Again, I won’t pretend that I believe that the level of one’s English is not important when, in fact, they’re supposed to teach the language, but I can’t say what the minimum is – it probably depends on the teaching context.

    As for the four-week courses, I wrote a post some time ago, called A little Rant, where I aired my views on the topic. By the way, the post got tons of great comments.

    Hana

    Like

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