There are periodic bouts of hand-wringing in the blogosphere on the subject of ‘native-speakerism’ – the term that Adrian Holliday coined to capture “the chauvinistic belief that ‘native speakers’ represent a ‘Western culture’ from which spring the ideals both of the language and of language teaching methodology” (2008, p. 49). It manifests itself not only in the adoption of native-speaker models as the most desirable standards of accuracy, but also in the dominance of native speaker “experts” at international, national and regional conferences. (Ironically, it is typically native-speakers who are the ones doing the hand-wringing: there is a dominant discourse trope in a lot of current ‘critical’ theory that consists of native-speaker academics condemning the pervasiveness of native-speakerism, while urging those who are oppressed by it to fling it off and assert their own legitimate identities as users, and hence owners, of global English. It’s as if the poison and the antidote are being administered by the same hand).
I have just come back from a conference in Occupied Palestine/the West Bank/the Palestinian Territories/Judea and Samaria (choose the name according to your political persuasion – my preference is for the first). It was co-sponsored by three UK-based organizations (the British Council, Macmillan Education, and IATEFL) and it featured several native speaker experts, myself included. (There would have been more but the Icelandic ash cloud put paid to that). It had all the hallmarks, therefore, of the kind of disenfranchising native-speaker-fest that Holliday, Phillipson, Pennycook et al, decry. This was doubly ironic, perhaps, since the conference took place in a context where oppression is experienced on a daily basis – an oppression whose origins are directly traceable to the machinations of British imperialist strategists at the turn of the last century.
Yet, the conference was judged – by those who attended – a huge success. I can’t count the number of participants who thanked us for being there and who hoped we would be back. Invitations flowed. Two young teachers from Jenin, for example, urged me to come and visit their university: “We badly need native speakers”. A subsequent day’s training I did in a private school in East Jerusalem was similarly enthusiastically received.
Which leaves me in two minds. Clearly, the presence of foreign “experts” in a country where travel is so constrained, and where visitors are so few, acts as a kind of validation of the teachers’ collective commitment to their profession and to their national identity, as well as providing a rare break from the daily grind of checkpoints and restrictions. At the same time, their readiness to embrace imported methodologies, however capably presented by the (well-intentioned and highly-experienced) visitors, may divert attention away from the real task, which is to develop a homegrown methodology suitable for local conditions. As Holliday points out, “We should not model ‘best practice’, which is ideologically embedded, but encourage spaces for reflection on and scrutiny of existing practice” (op. cit, p. 59). But would a conference with these objectives have been half as attractive to the participants?
I suspect not. Even Holliday is realist enough to concede that “we must recognize people’s aesthetic preferences for types of English and types of speakers, and the possibility that they may prefer flavours from the English-speaking West over indigenous flavours for a multiplicity of reasons” (op. cit., p. 60). It’s this multiplicity that I’m presently trying to untangle, as I face the prospect of more trips to even less familiar contexts.
Holliday, A. 2008. ‘What happens between people: who are we and what we do’. In Gieve, S., and Miller, I. (eds.) Understanding the Language Classroom. Palgrave Macmillan.