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!!” [https://twitter.com/Pascalune12/status/1001905158719229959]

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.

References

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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What Chomsky said about “native speakers” in 1985

This is taken from a rambling but fascinating project by lexicographer Thomas M. Paikeday titled The Native Speaker is Dead published in 1985. He sent a 10 point memo to some linguists on the question of what is a native speaker.  I thought it would be useful to put this up here, since notable ELT bods such as Scott Thornbury used a recent native speaker debate to critique Chomsky (see Geoff Jordan’s response). As to whether Chomsky answered the memo is up for grabs. Personally I think, like David Crystal who also responded to the Paikeday memo, that Chomsky deftly sidesteps the import of the initial memo. The Paikeday book is available on the net but takes some searching, let me know and I can email it to anyone interested.

I marked one passage in orange as it is not clear if this was a response to a specific and separate question asked by Paikeday (on what Chomsky meant by “grammaticalness” from his book Aspects of the theory of syntax) or whether it was excerpted from the response Chomsky gave to the Paikeday memo. In Paikeday’s book this passage is the first one but it seems to be oddly placed to me.

Chomsky:

I read your comments on the concept “native speaker” with interest. In my view, questions of this sort arise because they presuppose a somewhat misleading conception of the nature of language and of knowledge of language. Essentially, they begin with what seem to me incorrect metaphysical assumptions: in particular, the assumption that among the things in the world there are languages or dialects, and that individuals come to acquire them.

And then we ask, is an individual who has acquired the dialect D a native speaker of it or not, the question for which you request an “acid test” at the end of your letter.

In the real world, however, what we find is something rather different, though for the usual purposes of ordinary communication it is sufficient to work with a rather gross approximation to the facts, just as we refer freely to water, knowing, however, that the various things we call “water” have a wide range of variation including pollutants, etc.

To see what’s wrong with the question, let’s consider a similar one (which no one asks). Each human being has developed a visual system, and in fact visual systems differ from individual to individual depending on accidents of personal history and maybe even genetic differences. Suppose we go on (absurdly) to assume that among the things in the world, independently of people, there are visual systems, and particular individuals acquire one or the other of them (in analogy to the way we think of languages).

Then we could ask, who has a “native” visual system V, and what is the acid test for distinguishing such a person from someone who has in some more complex or roundabout way come to be “highly proficient” in the use of V (say, by surgery, or by training after having “natively” acquired a different visual system, etc.). Of course, all of this is nonsense.

But I think uncritical acceptance of the apparent ontological implications of ordinary talk about language leads to similar nonsense.

What we would say in the case of the visual system is this. There is a genetically determined human faculty V, with its specific properties, which we can refer to as “the organ of vision.” There may be differences among individuals in their genetic endowment, but for the sake of discussion, let’s put these aside and assume identity across the species, so we can now speak of the visual organ V with its fixed initial state V-0 common to humans, but different from monkeys, cats, insects, etc. In the course of early experience, V-0 undergoes changes and soon reaches a fairly steady state V-s which then remains essentially unchanged apart from minor modifications (putting aside pathology, injury, etc.). That’s the way biological systems behave, and to a very good first approximation, this description is adequate. The things in the real world are V-0 and the various states V-s attained by various individuals, or more broadly, the class of potential states V-s that could be attained in principle as experience varies.

We then see that the question about “native” acquisition is silly, as is the assumption that visual systems exist in some Platonic heaven and are acquired by humans.

Suppose now that we look at language in essentially the same way – as, I think, we should – extricating ourselves from much misleading historical and philosophical baggage. Each human has a faculty L, call it “the language faculty” or, if you like, “the language organ,” which is genetically-determined.

Again, we may assume to a very good first approximation that [the language faculty or language organ] is identical across the species (gross pathology aside), so that we can speak of the initial state L-0 of this organ, common to humans, and as far as is known, unique in the universe to the human species (in fact, with no known homologous systems in closely related or other species, in contrast now to V). In early childhood, the organ undergoes changes through experience and reaches a relatively stable steady state L-s, probably before puberty; afterwards, it normally undergoes only marginal changes, like adding vocabulary. There could be more radical modifications of a complex sort, as in late second language learning, but in fact the same is very likely true of the visual system and others.

Putting these complications aside, what is a “language” or “dialect”? Keeping to the real world, what we have is the various states L-s attained by various individuals, or more generally, the set of potential states L-s attained that could in principle be attained by various individuals as experience varies. Again, we see that the question of what are the “languages” or “dialects” attained, and what is the difference between “native” or “non-native” acquisition, is just pointless.

Languages and dialects don’t exist in a Platonic heaven any more than visual systems do. In both cases, there is a fixed genetic endowment that determines the initial state of some faculty or organ (putting aside possible genetic variation), and there are the various states attained by these systems in the course of maturation, triggered by external stimuli and to some rather limited extent shaped by them. In both cases, there is overwhelming reason to believe that the character of the steady state attained is largely determined by the genetic endowment, which provides a highly structured and organized system which does, however, have certain options that can be fixed by experience.

We could think of the initial state of the language faculty, for example, as being something like an intricately wired system with fixed and complex properties, but with some connections left open, to be fixed in one or another way on the basis of experience (e.g., do the heads of constructions precede their complements as in English, or follow them as in Japanese?). Experience completes the connections, yielding the steady state, though as in the case of vision, or the heart, or the liver, etc., various other complications can take place. So then what is a language and who is a native speaker? Answer, a language is a system L-s, it is the steady state attained by the language organ. And everyone is a native speaker of the particular L-s that that person has “grown” in his / her mind / brain. In the real world, that is all there is to say.

Now as in the case of water, etc., the scientific description is too precise to be useful for ordinary purposes, so we abstract from it and speak of “languages,” “dialects,” etc., when people are “close enough” in the steady states attained to be regarded as identical for practical purposes (in fact, our ordinary usage of the term “language” is much more abstract and complex, in fact hardly coherent, since it involves colors on maps, political systems, etc.). All of that is fine for ordinary usage. Troubles arise, however, when ordinary usage is uncritically understood as having ontological implications; the same problems would arise if we were to make the same moves in the case of visual systems, hearts, water, etc.

About the term “grammaticalness,” I purposely chose a neologism in the hope that it would be understood that the term was to be regarded as a technical term, with exactly the meaning that was given to it, and not assimilated to some term of ordinary discourse with a sense and connotations not to the point in this context.

Such questions as “how many languages are there” have no clear meaning; we could say that there is only one language, namely, L-0 with its various modifications, or that there are as many languages as there are states of mind/brain L-s, or potential states L-s. Or anything in between. These are questions of convenience for certain purposes, not factual questions, like the question of “how many (kinds of) human visual system are there?”

Apparent problems about the number of languages, native speakers, etc. arise when we make the kind of philosophical error that Wittgenstein and others warned against.

I think that looked at [my] way, the questions you raise no longer seem puzzling, and in fact dissolve.

References:

Paikeday, T. M. (1985). The native speaker is dead! An informal discussion of a linguistic myth with Noam Chomsky and other linguists, philosophers, psychologists, and lexicographers. Toronto and New York: Paikeday Publishing

Horses for courses #researchbites

Scott Thornbury weighed into a recent debate on the use of the construct native speaker in second language acquisition (SLA) with this:

“Hi Marek. A bit late in the day but… I suspect that Geoff insists on the NS-NNS distinction because it is absolutely central to the Chomskyan project (to which he is fervently – dare I say uncritically – committed) which presupposes an innately determined (hence genetic) language learning device which, like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period, whereafter general (i.e. non-language specific) learning abilities kick-in, accounting for the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters. If, on the other hand, you take the perfectly plausible view (e.g. argued by Michael Tomasello, Nick Ellis, and many others) that general (i.e. non-language specific) learning capacities are implicated in language acquisition from the get-go, and hence that there is no need to hypothesise either a genetically-programmed language acquisition device nor a qualitative difference between native and non-native speakers, then the whole Chomskyan enterprise collapses, taking with it the distinction between man and beasts, and leading to the end of civilization as we know it.” [https://teflequityadvocates.com/2017/05/13/of-native-speakers-and-other-fantastic-beasts/comment-page-1/#comment-5049]

Here we see an assumption that theories in SLA necessarily have to conflict. This ELT Research Bites blog carnival entry describes a different position by Jason Rothman and Bill VanPatten – On multiplicity and mutual exclusivity: The case for different SLA theories published in 2013.

Why are there various theories about adult SLA?

Why so many and why not convergence onto one theory? An analogy to physics is made – at the macro level there is general relativity, whilst at the micro level quantum theory. Those theories further subdivide depending on the area of interest. More importantly we cannot assume SLA is a unitary or singular thing. It is multifaceted and so there are multiple theories which look at those many different aspects of SLA. This evokes the story of the many wise blind scholars describing the many parts of an elephant.

So SLA can look at the internal issues of acquisition (e.g. input processing, output processing, internal representation, storage, retrieval) or it can look at external issues of acquisition such as interaction and its factors (e.g. context, social roles, identity, communicative intent).

How do various theories treat the S, the L and the A of SLA?

All theories can be said to assume that “second” means any language learned after acquisition of the first in childhood. Rothman and VanPatten go on to put various theories and frameworks into 4 groups:

  1. Language is a mental construct – generative approach, connectionism, input processing, processability theory
    2. Language is a socially mediated construct or originates from communication – systemic-functional approaches, socio-cultural theory
    3. Language is a hybrid mental/social-communcative construct – spoken language grammar, socio-cultural theory
    4. Language is not specified – interactionist framework, skill acquisition theory, dynamic systems theory

If we look into the particular groups we can further subdivide, e.g. for group 1 there is a division between those that see language as domain specific and modular (generative approach, input processing) or not (connectionism). In group 4 there may be no clear view on the precise nature of language but they are clear on what it is not. Dynamic systems theory for example rejects the generative view that language is modular and has innate components.

Each theory’s view of language affects how they think language is acquired and what causes the change in acquisition – e.g. a generative view would see most acquisition from universal constraints by learner internal language specific mechanisms whereas connectionism would see acquisition as exclusively sourced from external stimuli in coordination with general non-language specific mechanisms.

How does environmental context influence theories?

For theories that see language as primarily a mental construct they are interested in how language becomes represented. So generative, connectionism, input processing and processibility theory see external contexts as independent of their concerns. By contrast theories such as skill acquisition and sociocultural are focused on factors unrelated to grammatical representation and processing. Rather they look at the roles of practice, negotiation, interaction, attitude, participant relationships, aptitude, motivation etc.
Consequently some theories that have direct implications or are based on classroom contexts will be popular with teachers. Whereas others with no classroom basis will be seen as more abstract and less useful for teachers.

To what extent are theories in competition?

Coming back to Scott’s implication that either Chomsky is right and connectionism is wrong or vice versa, Rothman and Vanpatten argue that theories can be seen as more complementary than generally thought. For example acquiring vocabulary and surface forms can arguably be best described using connectionism whilst a generative approach can best describe syntactic acquisition.

In skill acquisition theory, it is assumed that domain general mechanisms are at play but this is only so if we don’t see a distinction between learning and acquisition. If we do make the distinction then what skill acquisitionists are describing is learning – a process where meta-linguistic knowledge, independent of competence, forms a separate system of performance. Whilst generative approaches are concerned with acquisition – where syntactical knowledge is processed and represented.

Rothman and VanPatten admit that skill acquistionist bods may well disagree with the description presented but the simple point is that such a description is possible.

So?

Returning to the debate on how SLA conceptualises native speakers, we can say that theories concerned with mental representation of language use the construct of the native speaker at a larger abstract level for their purposes. Meanwhile socio-cultural theorists are concerned with contextual and environmental questions and the native speaker construct at more granular levels is problematic and may need to be discarded.

References:

Rothman, J. & VanPatten, B. (2013). On multiplicity and mutual exclusivity: The case for different SLA theories. In M. P. García-Mayo, M.J. Gutiérrez-Mangado, & M. Martínez Adrián (Eds.), Contemporary approaches to second language acquisition (pp. 243–256). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Available at (pdf)[https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263804781_On_Multiplicity_and_Mutual_Exclusivity_The_Case_for_Different_SLA_Theories]