Native-speakerism in the Classroom (with Marek Kiczkowiak)

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You've probably heard (possibly on this podcast) about the discrimination "non-native English teachers" can face finding jobs, in being promoted or receiving equal pay. But how does Native-speakerism affect what happens inside the classroom? How do attitudes about native speakers affect the content in our course books, the confidence of teachers and the goals of our students? We speak with Marek Kiczkowiak to find out.

If you would like to learn how to teach English as a Lingua Franca, promote equality and tackle native speakerism, try Marek’s  TEFL Equity Academy membership. You can join completely for free for 30-days. Afterwards, it’s $9 a month.

Also check out Marek’s book Teaching English as a Lingua Franca, which is available on Amazon, and publishers’ websites: Delta publishing and Klett publishing

Nativespeakerism in the Classroom with Marek Kiczkowiak - Transcription


Ross Thorburn:  Welcome back to the podcast, everyone. This episode, our guest is Dr. Marek Kiczkowiak. Marek teaches in Belgium. He runs a TEFL show podcast, as well as the website TEFL Equity Advocates.

In this episode, Tracy and I interviewed Marek about native‑speakerism inside the classroom. How do our views and assumptions about native speakers, non‑native speakers influence how we teach students, and how does that influence the students and how they use English. Hope you enjoy the interview.


What Does Native‑Speakerism Inside the Classroom Look Like?

My first question, I think most of the listeners out there will be familiar with the idea of native‑speakerism outside the classroom and discrimination that maybe non‑native English teachers face when they're job hunting. Can you tell us a bit about the other side of native‑speakerism and how that manifests itself inside the classroom?

Marek Kiczkowiak:  At the beginning when I got interested in it, obviously the first point that you notice is discriminatory recruitment policies. All the other aspects have a lot to do as well with teaching English.

If you look at all the major coursebooks, if you look at the pronunciation syllabus, the aim is either to imitate standard British or general American English. This perpetuates the idea that your students have to speak like a native speaker in order to be successful.

Of course, coursebooks have been moving forward with a few artificial non‑native speaker accents, usually recorded by actors. Actors are trained to imitate voices and accents, so there's a reason why coursebooks do that.

It's very subliminal, you can call it, or subconscious. It's not overt, but I think if, for a very long time that's how you learn English, it doesn't surprise me that so many students prefer native‑speaker voices. The way we're teaching them leads them to believe that, "Yeah, clearly native‑speaker accents are better than non‑native speaker accents." That would be one example.

Tracy Yu:  I remember when I was a student from middle school to high school and university, maybe 10 years, definitely it's close to either British accents or American accents. At the end, I don't know which accent I have.

Ross:  It seems clear then from the point of view of schools employing non‑native teachers that there's an advantage there, that you can get great teachers.

If you have students that say, "I want to learn authentic American English," or, "I want to learn British English," I wonder what their business argument is to a publisher for saying, "You need to include more examples of non‑native English."

Marek:  There's another reason why publishers have been reluctant, let's say, to abandon this model, where they primarily have American and British accents, is that students and teachers might complain.

I remember talking, at a conference, to a coursebook author from a very big publisher. He said that they went on a tour to Russia. He was approached by one of the local teachers. The local teacher openly told them that, "We don't like your coursebook because there are all these strange accents in your coursebook. We want the British accent. I won't buy your coursebook."

I had spent years persuading the publisher to finally do this, and now I get this. It's probably because those teachers have been educated and teacher trained to believe that, that British accent is the only accent they should aspire to.

Accent is just one belief and factor, but there are many others. One example would be culture. A lot of people say the native speakers are better teachers because they know the target culture. If you look at some research by, Ryan Bank, if I remember the names correctly, in these coursebooks, a vast majority of place names, characters, and so on, were Western and the local Chinese students would never be familiar with it.

That leads to a situation where in order to be a successful language learner, you need to learn a stereotypical image of British or American culture. That further makes native‑speakerisms seem normal and common sense.

Ross:  Something that Vivian Cook has written about, about how non‑native speakers should not be considered equals and failed native speakers. He says that you really need a different yardstick to compare those students. I think that's true if you look at the CEFR.

Probably, there's an assumption if you're a native speaker, you should be a C2 level. Has there even been any research about a different set of standards that are based around something else that do not hold this final goal as being pretty much the same as a native speaker?

Marek:  The difference here that we should make is perhaps not between native and non‑native speakers but between monolingual and bi or multilingual users of the language.

If you look at second language acquisition research that compares the research into critical period or compares the proficiency and intuitive knowledge of grammar, for example, pronunciation, it's usually a group of monolingual native speakers to which non‑native speakers are compared.

That's a bit like comparing apples and pears because your monolingual brain is different from my multilingual brain. I might use the language in a different way. If you were to become, maybe already are a bilingual or multilingual users of English, even if your mother tongue is English, learning those other languages will change your brain.

I remember reading a study where all the monolingual speakers performed completely differently on tests of intuitive grammaticality than those who are bi or multilingual, even bi or multilingual from birth. We do have this idea that the monolingual native speaker is at the top, but why should that be?

All of our students will be at least bilingual. That's the goal. We're trying to create people who can operate successfully in two languages. Comparison points should be somebody who already speaks two or three languages, not somebody who's a monolingual native speaker.

If as a non‑native speaker, for example, you're listening to this podcast and you've never felt confident about your identity because you're a failed copy of a native speaker, you have a foreign accent, and so on, you have to think of yourself as you're a bi or multilingual user of the language. It's absolutely amazing.

There are so many people in Britain or the States who have never learned any other foreign language. Equally, if you're a native speaker and you know other foreign languages, I think your selling point should be not that you're a native speaker, but that you're bi or multilingual user of the language.

Tracy:  I think as a non‑native English speaker, I definitely experienced a lot of the criticism. I totally agree with you, what you just mentioned. Be proud of who you are and what kind of accent you have, and also you can speak more than one language.

In reality, there are a lot of negative information or feedback or criticism just around you. It just damage your confident, you always think, "OK, I'm still far away from the standard that people perceive."

Do you have any suggestions or something that you think, this could help other speakers, and they can feel more confident or boost their confidence, what kind of suggestion you want to give them?

Marek:  Absolutely. One suggestion, sales pitch starts, you can join TEFL Equity Academy where I have a course specifically designed to boost your confidence, end of sales pitch.

First thing, you have to rethink how you brand, market yourself, think of yourself. You really have to, not just on a superficial level though, but deeply believe in yourself in all the abilities that you have. You have some amazing superpowers. For starters, that you've learned English. That can be used as a great selling point to students.

In terms of pronunciation, people will tell you, "Well, you have a foreign accent. That's bad." Why is that actually bad? Ross has an accent as well because that's where he comes from. If we're to be honest, the vast majority of our students will never be able to speak like Ross does, for example because there's...

Ross:  They probably wouldn't want to, Marek.


Ross:  Yeah, I'm not sure if they would want to. The Scottish accent is not specifically desirable, yet.


Marek:  There is a critical period, right? It's an unrealistic model to present them with. Whereas you are a successful user of English, your students can imitate you, and they can improve themselves. They can imagine themselves speaking English as well as you do.

If you're told that, "Well, you've just made a mistake there, clearly you're not proficient enough," but then there's hundreds of examples of native speakers making what we would call "mistakes" by just speaking non‑standard English.

Also, you need to understand as well, why native speakers are not better teachers because they are native speakers. A native speaker can be a fantastic teacher, not because of their first language but because of the skills and experience. You need to understand the native speaker myth, its different components, and why it's not true.

Ross:  I definitely find myself having that cognitive bias. If I'm listening to a non‑native speaker and I hear a mistake, I go, "I heard a mistake there. That's interesting." Whereas if you hear a native speaker making a mistake, you just go, "It's just part of ordinary spoken discourse that we don't always speak according to grammar."

To go back to the other thing you were saying about the lack of confidence there, how much of that do you think there is down to not just the attitude of the non‑native speakers but the attitude of the expat, new teacher who just finished, "I'm a native speaker, come and ask me. I'll tell you the answer."

What do you think, more generally, teacher education needs to do to reverse those attitude?

Marek:  There's a lot of truth to that. As non‑native speakers, everything in our profession or industry, industry is probably a better word here, leads us to believe that native speakers are better teachers. We're constantly told that.

You go on Facebook and the stuff that you see, you wouldn't believe people telling me sometimes, "Marek, you're still banging on about the same thing? Won't you ever stop? It's over, right?" No, it isn't. Go to Facebook, and stuff that you will see, it's just unbelievable.

It's your colleagues, fellow English teachers saying really horrible things about non‑native speakers. You read that.

Some of the students might say those things about you like they're surprised to see a Chinese teacher at B2 level. In some cases, native speakers as well, who will have a very condescending attitude, their place of birth and their mother tongue gives them the right to correct you all the time. All of that can really affect your confidence negatively.

In terms of teacher training and education, there's a lot that needs to change. At the moment, I can't see how CELTA or Trinity, CEFR could ever incorporate that because the courses are just too short. It's unbelievable. It's a topic for another podcast, that we still have four‑week crash courses and we call the people after them professional English teachers.

Ross:  Those are the best courses as well, right? That's the irony. They are four weeks.

Marek:  I think that there should be sessions specifically for non‑native speakers to boost their confidence, to talk about these issues that we've discussed. There should be sessions for everybody to discuss native‑speakerism and discuss how it can negatively affect all of us in the industry, how it makes our industry much less professional than it should be.

It devalues your qualification. It devalues your experience. The only reason why you might be hired is because you're a native speaker.

Ross:  And white. [laughs]

Marek:  And white. Absolutely. A white, native speaker. You want to be hired because you're a fantastic teacher, and you fit the qualifications.

Ross:  Oh, and male. I forgot. [laughs]

Marek:  Sorry?

Ross:  And male. [laughs]

Marek:  And male, yeah.


Ross:  It's terrible. Final thing on this topic then, we've been using the term non‑native speakers. I know Vivian Cook suggested L2 users as a term to use instead. What do you think about the terminology that we use? How does that play into the attitude?

Marek:  I think it's a difficult issue here because none of the other terms capture the same meaning. If we talk about multilingual teachers, that can be both you and me. I think L1 and L2 users perhaps it doesn't have the non‑prefix, perhaps it's slightly better, but in essence, it's still exactly the same.

When we were writing the book with Robert Lowe, we were very much aware of the fact that, on the one hand, we are rallying against and showing that these terms are subjective, ideological, but then we are using them. We did try, whenever possible, to use, for example, multilingual users of the language and so on.

Sometimes, the terms can be good to draw attention to the problem. They do also reflect how some teachers see themselves. I see myself as a non‑native speaker of English and a multilingual user of English, as well.

I do think that perhaps in professional ELT discourse, be it in job ads, in advertising, but also in teacher training, there has got to be a move away from these issues certainly, in recruitments. I've seen absolutely no place for these two terms, in recruitments, in advertising.

Ross:  Once again, everyone, that was Marek Kiczkowiak. If you'd like to find out about Marek, please visit his website

Thanks very much for listening. We'll see you next time.