Native Speaker Privilege and Linguistic Racism in ELT

This month we published The Role of Context in Language Teachers’ Self Development and Motivation by Amy S. Thompson. In this post the author explains the inspiration behind the book.

This book is the culmination of years of experience as a researcher/scholar in SLA, before which I was a language teacher. As a researcher, I’m oftentimes hesitant to ask for participants; I feel as if I am encroaching on others’ personal space and time. For the data used to write this book, some of the language professionals represented are personal acquaintances, and some were part of an IREX fellowship program. An unforgettable moment when collecting data for this project was when a dyad of the IREX teachers thanked me for taking the time to listen to and record their stories. During the fellowship program, these teachers, some of whom had over 20 years of teaching experience, had been repeatedly instructed on how to teach more effectively – how to incorporate the American way of doing things. This particular teacher dyad told me “thank you for listening to our experiences, as we also have something to offer to the teaching profession.” In all of the conversations with the teachers, not one of them indicated a desire to be a native English speaker; in fact, their bi-/multilingual identities played a strong role in forming their ideal teacher selves.

I have taught languages both in my L1 (English) and in my L2s (Spanish and French); thus, I have been on both sides of the native/non-native spectrum. Nonetheless, as a white American L1 English speaker, I have enjoyed privileges that others have not. For these reasons, and others, this book is personal. The experience that I had with this data collection made me even more determined to accurately depict the teachers’ stories. I learned all that I could about their contexts when working on the individual chapters and sent the willing teachers, and others familiar with the contexts, drafts of the chapters for feedback. I purposefully did not censor comments from the teachers relating to the impact of American politics on learning English; as academics, our jobs are to push boundaries, which includes breaking down white fragility. English speakers, particularly white English speakers, need to be confronted with their privilege. Linguistic racism is still prevalent world-wide today, and in order to combat it, we need to first acknowledge its existence, as well as the effects it has on language curriculum and policies.

Early on in my university education, I saw the privilege for native speakers of English; I was hired (“hired” being not really the case, as the work was as a volunteer) as an “assistante anglaise” during my study abroad year in Paris where I taught English classes at a public elementary school and at the high school “Henri IV.”  I was 20 years old and had absolutely no training as a language educator; I was hired because of my L1 English-speaking status. After graduation, I was officially hired (with the whopping salary of 743 euros a month) as an “assistante anglaise” in the small Pyrenean town of Bagnere-de-Bigorre.  Again, I had absolutely no training in language pedagogy.

My situation isn’t unique.  Places all over the world are hiring L1 English speakers (or those who can physically pass for L1 English speakers), sometimes ignoring those who have spent years training and have passed rigorous content and pedagogy exams.  My friend’s brother who was hired to teach in Chile; my student who was hired in China so they could put her face on the recruiting brochures; my own situation being hired to teach English in France; the Turkish government’s campaign to bring in native speakers to teach English all over the country – situations such as this undermine and undervalue the years of education of bi-/multilingual English teachers all over the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful for the opportunities overseas English teaching has afforded me; in fact, it was the start of my academic career in Applied Linguistics. Sitting in my small room in Bagneres-de-Bigorre, I remember thinking to myself that I had so much still to learn about language learning and teaching. Fast forward to today, I now have the experience of mentoring future language teachers and researchers. Like many Americans, talking about racism is difficult for me, but I push myself to read and have discussions about race and racism, including linguistic racism. Likewise, these issues are difficult to integrate into classroom discussions; however, these are not topics that we can continue to ignore, and we have the responsibility as language educators and researchers to ensure that our students, as future language researchers and educators, have the tools and resources needed to break down linguistic racism via curricular and/or policy change. What steps will you take today to help move us towards this goal?

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Theorizing and Analyzing Language Teacher Agency edited by Hayriye Kayi-Aydar, Xuesong (Andy) Gao, Elizabeth R. Miller, Manka Varghese and Gergana Vitanova.

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