Beyond the symbolic violence dome of the native speaker teacher

An article titled How to end native speaker privilege was posted recently on the always readable site Language on the Move. It includes an intriguing historical account of teachers of Persian in India and England in the 18th and 19th centuries. It also includes a framing of the native and non-native (English) speaker (teacher) which is problematic.

The first problem is the othering of native speaker teachers – who are implicitly depicted as a homogenous, static, monolithic entity, an undifferentiated mass of native speaker teachers.

The second problem is seen in the symbolic violence of phrasing such as “Subordinating native speakers” and that the injustices suffered by non-native speaker teachers can be resolved by “replacing” native speaker teachers with non-native speaker teachers.

Research in France by Martine Derivry-Plard and Claire Griffin reveals a picture of native speaker teachers and non-native speaker teachers in a more differentiated light. And it explores the question of going beyond the widespread symbolic violence that is due to a monolingual-monocultural world view.

Symbolic violence is a way to impose social order by social agents. The social agents act to position themselves favorably in a field. In the present case the field is the foreign language teaching field which is part of the language teaching field which in turn is part of the linguistic field of teaching which itself forms part of the linguistic field.

It is certainly the case that in the foreign language teaching field of English non-native speaker teachers are subject to various forms of symbolic violence. The Language on the Move article notes in passing that certain aspects of this violence are being addressed such as legal prohibitions on discriminatory job adverts and growing discussions of complementary strengths of non-native and native speaker teachers. Derivry-Plard and Griffin (2017) report on symbolic violence present in the experiences of native (mainly English) speaker teachers working in France.

In the first study 19 native English speaking teachers (NESTs) and 19 non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs) teaching a BTS course (a 2 year course after the baccalaureate) are interviewed. The interviews revealed that NNESTs criticized the teaching skills of their native colleagues, that is NESTs were seen more as speakers than as teachers of English:
“some had not the project of teaching English …I have seen native English-speaking teachers who did not do the job … but, it is just because they are not teachers, they turned up in a classroom … they delivered what they could, they thought that speaking English for two hours is enough! … but this is not having a conversation, speaking about this or that for an hour ? …And some do not know French enough, which is a problem .. Some do not teach!” (Derivry-Plard & Griffin, 2017:39)

Conversely the NNESTs are denied as speakers of English by their native colleagues and consequently NNEST’s cannot be good teachers of English:
“well, it’s second language, it’s second-hand! … in this schoolbook written by French, there are a few mistakes … they make mistakes, with English vowels, their accent is not as good … Sometimes, her accent was awful and there were English teachers I could barely understand …She made so many mistakes .. and some pupils were as good as she was in English! …She could not give a precise meaning of a word with all the connotations… even if the dictionary gives that meaning, it has no longer that meaning…at a certain point, a non native teacher will be embarrassed, this is for sure because, at one point, he/she will apply a grammar rule that we no longer use …they will never get all the shades of meaning ...” (Derivry-Plard & Griffin, 2017:39)

These attitudes reflect the two teaching legitimacies that have developed in the foreign language (FL) teaching field of English in France, since the 19th century, from the spaces of the public education system (institutional) and the private educational system (non-institutional).
1. The professional legitimacy of non-native teachers in institutional spaces was based on the assumption that they were the best teachers as they went through the same learning process as their pupils, so they would be better able to explain the target language to learners sharing the same mother tongue. This is the legitimacy of the FL teacher as a learning model.
2. The professional legitimacy of native teachers in non-institutional spaces was based on the opposite assumption that they were the best teachers because they taught their own “mother tongue” and that they knew more about it. This is the legitimacy of the FL teachers as a language-culture model. (Derivry-Plard & Griffin, 2017:34)

For some time these two legitimacies were not challenged, but with the globalization and marketization of education the boundaries between institutional and non-institutional are breaking down and with it the increase in symbolic violence on non-native and native speaker teachers.

In the second, doctoral study, Claire Griffen interviewed 24 native speaker teachers. 21 were native English speakers from the UK and the Republic of Ireland and 3 were native speakers of Italian, Greek and German who worked in the secondary education sector. These teachers experiences were grouped and analysed into various themes. For example: experiences of resentment at native speakers being able to take the national competitive exams; encounters that NEST’s are not already qualified even if they have in fact more qualifications than their non-native colleagues –
“sometimes people assume that you’re only an English teacher because you’re English. “Well what else is she going to do, she’s married? What else is she going to do? She’s got children. What else can she do? She can speak English” (Derivry-Plard & Griffin, 2017:43);

NESTs are forever operating in the mode of a “learner” as they were not initially socialized in the education system as children; experiencing symbolic violence such as “but you never had to learn English like us, you just have to open your mouth” (Derivry-Plard & Griffin, 2017:46).

I remember when I started teaching in France a student was impressed by what he described as an Oxbridge accent. His subsequent question of where I had studied made me embarrassed to reveal to not having been educated at either Oxford or Cambridge. Although to be fair to the student he did not seem to show any disappointment at my un-elite education. Also, back then, when new English friends and acquaintances found out I teach English as a foreign language they would joke that there would be a generation of French people speaking English with a Welsh accent. Though that joke has not been heard for many a year.

Having described some of the issues faced by native English speaker teachers in France there is a danger that we move from talking about who is the best teacher to who is the most discriminated teacher (Derivry-Plard, 2018). How then do we go beyond the symbolic violence? The embedded fields given earlier i.e. linguistic field < linguistic field of teaching < language teaching field < foreign language teaching field can help us to see the multilingual multicultural paradigm of today. The linguistic field of teaching involves all subject matter as language is the medium used to deliver the subjects. i.e. all teachers are to some extent language teachers (this is very evident in say CLIL contexts). Next the field of language teaching can be divided into first language, second language and foreign languages. In this way the embedded model of fields takes into account language diversity, lingua cultures and cultural repertoires.

A French teacher of English in a recent twitter chat on native and non-native speaker issues commented jokingly on teaching French teenagers :
“To tell the truth, I feel like speaking their native language doesn’t help either…. someone speaking the “teenager” language would be better off!!” []

Can we say here that the appearance of “teenager language” in the humor is a glossed acknowledgement of the pluricultural landscape of teaching? The native speaker paradox derives from a monolingual and monocultural assumption that is largely due to the centuries old drive to nation states which culminated in the 19th century. The multilingual, pluricultural paradigm encompases the monolingual-monocultural one. While in the old monolingual paradigm native speakers are included and non-native speakers are excluded in the multilingual world the native speaker is not excluded as a way to right wrongs but is part of the plurilingual continuum.

As Derivry-Plard puts it:
“There are no longer any dichotomies but continua for defining languages, cultures, speakers, and teachers as social actors. In other words, the monolingual paradigm is restrictive and exclusive, whereas the multilingual paradigm is comprehensive and inclusive and accounts for a broader perspective and better understanding of the linguistic field and the linguistic markets.” (Derivry-Plard, 2018:143)

She does not deny that embracing this is a difficult task however ignoring the necessity of this challenge is unethical and counterproductive.

Thanks for reading.


Derivry-Plard, M. & Griffin, C. (2017). Beyond Symbolic Violence in ELT in France. In Agudo, J. D. D. M. (Ed.) Native and Non-native Teachers in English Language Classrooms: Professional Challenges and Teacher Education (Vol. 26) (pp. 33-51). Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.

Derivry-Plard, M. (2018). A Multilingual Paradigm in Language Education: What It Means for Language Teachers. In Houghton, S. A. & Hashimoto, K. (Eds.) Towards Post-Native-Speakerism (pp. 131-148). Springer, Singapore.


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