Fighting my personal biases

The debates about discriminatory hiring practices in ELT are giving me sleepless nights. Although I’m trying hard to be a good girl and stay on the right side of the barricade, I can’t pretend there are no fleeting moments of hesitation and doubt. I mean, I strongly admire all those educators who publicly stand up for the rights of non-native teachers of English. As a NNEST myself, I am happy to see that brave people all over the word are fighting for my rights. Thanks for your bravery; I honestly appreciate it.

My problem is that most of my formal education took place at the time when such a debate was absolutely unthinkable. What? NNESTs can be as good as NESTs? Are you kidding me? We used to look up to them and what they said was taken as the ultimate truth. Ironically, later on at university, right after the fall of communism, when there was a boom of ‘backpackers’ from the west, we students preferred NNESTs – probably because they seemed more organized in what they did and because they could teach us the rules of the language. Lessons with NESTs were generally fun and truly beneficial acquisition-wise, but they were utter and complete chaos (with some exceptions, of course). But still, whenever there was a problem, we were told to go and ask a native speaker.

Anyway, the debate which is going on these days is intriguing. Sometimes, though, to my utter consternation, I catch myself not nodding all along the way. Throughout my career, I’ve taught very young kids, as well as teenagers and adults. I also became a student at the tertiary level again for a while back in 2011. I apologize for my impudent generalization, but judging by what I’ve observed so far, I can’t say that here in the Czech Republic we are ready to claim that qualified NESTs are as good as qualified NNESTs. Based on my random observations, in other countries the situation is slightly different – they have a much longer tradition of learning languages, their mother tongue is somehow related to English and thus they acquire it faster or easier, they have been able to travel more, etc. It’s getting better here, it surely is, and I believe there are loads of teachers who are already exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking, there’s an awful long way for us to go before we’re able to join the crowd of confident NNESTs fighting boldly for their rights in the ELT business. We need to remain humble and work hard rather than ‘join the demonstration’ just because everybody else has. If you are from the Czech Republic and you feel I’m being biased and unfair, I’m sorry but that’s how I see it….

The debate about discriminatory hiring practices in ELT I’m following with great interest constantly makes me ask hypothetical questions: What if there are two equally qualified teachers, with the same amount of experience, applying for the job of an English teacher at a Czech school – one NEST and one NNEST? What criteria come into play in such a situation? I’m sure that the employer will probably have to consider other factors, sometimes equally discriminatory, without explicitly saying so, such as the applicant’s ability to speak the students’ L1, her pretty face, his congenial manners, or the fact that one of the applicants is a young female about to start a family.

Or what if a school really likes to have a mixture of NESTs and NNESTs, which is perfectly justifiable in our teaching environment, and as they already have six NNESTs and no NESTs, they desperately need to hire one NEST. Is this discriminatory?

In one of my previous posts, I had a fruitful discussion with Vedrana Vojkovic, touching on the issue of NESTs vs. NNESTs. When re-reading the comment section, I realized I had sounded pretty biased. Unfortunately, I can’t change my view yet. The debate revolved around teaching English to very little kids, precisely those at kindergartens (which, by the way, wasn’t Vedrana’s original intention, but I stubbornly stuck to the topic anyway). As I see it, the more proficient the teacher, the higher level they usually want to/are asked to teach. So it goes without saying that those who have achieved a native-like proficiency are not likely to end up teaching English in kindergarten, unless they really love small kids. They will become teachers at the tertiary level or do something completely different. Yet, quite a few pre-school institutions offer optional English lessons. These are usually taught by someone, anyone, who can speak some English. These teachers are either fully qualified kindergarten teachers, who are, however, not qualified to teach English, or students who need some pocket money. One way or the other, it seems to be a general consensus that after all, you don’t need to be terribly proficient if you want to teach little kids.

One thing is certain; as far as I know, there are no teacher training programs for language teachers working at a pre-school level. Taking into account L1 acquisition principles, I’m convinced that if you want to teach very young learners, you need special training, very different from the one we normally get as teachers aiming at the primary/secondary/tertiary level. And I’m not only talking about methods but also about one’s language proficiency. This lead me to a conclusion that a chatter with a NEST might be more valuable at this level than a lesson with an unqualified teacher of English, who teaches a few random words a day. Needless to say, little kids acquire these words precisely the way they hear them, i.e. out of context, sometimes with totally wrong or imprecise pronunciations, which later on hinder understanding and communication. I was once told by an owner of a language school: “Just go there and do something. It doesn’t really matter what you’ll do, does it?”

These were some of the random thoughts that are swirling in my head these days. If you happen to have sensed some kind of bias in my voice, I’d like to make it clear that the way I reason stems from my life experience. Also, I realize that some of my convictions may appear as mere generalizations. However, I’m not saying that what I claim here is right or wrong. It’s just the way I see it now.

Some of my nostalgic (linguistic) memories of the Netherlands

I’m finally back home from a short visit to a lovely Dutch town called Valkenswaard. My heart still aches a bit since I’m missing all the friendly people I met there – the students and teachers from six European countries that had got together to work on a music/poetry project. But I know the memories will soon fade and life will return to normal. Well, not quite, I’m afraid…. Things will never be the same.
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As a Czech tourist, when you land in Eindhoven, you immediately notice a few things. The architecture is slightly different from what you can see in a typical Czech town. The lovely traffic lights that look like children’s toys make you feel you’ve just come to see Legoland. But the main difference can’t be perceived visually – it is when you open your mouth to speak and prick up your ears to listen that you finally realize you are in the Netherlands; everybody speaks English there. Every bus driver, every shop assistant, and every waitress will reply fluently once you start asking them questions in English.

This is something you will hardly experience in the Czech Republic. In an extreme situation, once they are approached by a foreigner, people will even run away or pretend they don’t speak English. The reason is simple – generally, Czechs are not very confident in English.

So while in the Netherlands, I asked myself (and other people too) the same question over and over again: How come Dutch people are so proficient in English? I always got the same reply: we don’t dub English programs and thus we’re exposed to heaps of English from a very early age.

But I think there is another reason behind their high English proficiency. Dutch is a Germanic language and it is closely related to English and German. Dutch shares with German a similar word order, grammatical gender, and largely Germanic vocabulary, which contains the same Germanic core as German and English. Nonetheless, the fact that Russian is a Slavic language closely related to Czech didn’t help me achieve a native-like proficiency in it when I was forced to learn it back during the communist regime. Apparently, one ingredient vital for a successful acquisition of an L2 was missing – motivation.

Now, considering the fact that the Netherlands has a tradition of learning languages and almost 90% of the population can easily converse in English, it’s obvious that the L2 proficiency of their English teachers reflects the situation. I met a Dutch (as well as a German and a Belgian) teacher of English, whose L2 proficiency was absolutely stunning. Had I not known what their nationalities were, I wouldn’t have guessed they were non-native speakers of English. The NNEST vs. NEST dichotomy suddenly seemed useless and redundant. If I had ever doubted that non-native speakers of English can achieve native-like proficiency, this was the final proof that they can.

But I also met a German teacher of geography and a Belgian music teacher whose fluency in spoken English (and several other languages) was equally astounding. I remember a few occasions in the past when my English had been described as flawless but honestly, now I think people were only trying to be nice to me; most of the time in the Netherlands I felt humbled. In spite of this, I’m immensely thankful for this experience.

If only I could spend more time at the school – observe lessons, talk to the teachers, students, and other members of the staff. I would like to get under the surface and find out if their approaches to learning and methods of teaching English are very different from what we do here. I’d like to interview more people in the streets and pubs; I’d love to ask about their motivation and general attitudes to foreign languages….

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).