N is for Native-speakerism

27 04 2010

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.



33 responses

27 04 2010
Greg Quinlivan

You know, I’ve been looking around at EFL vacancies on and off for a number of years, and I’ve yet to see too many asking for a non-Western accent. Certainly when it comes to employment, foreign governments routinely require passport holders from only the USA, Canada, the UK, SA, Australia or New Zealand.
Given the numbers not from these countries that complete English language training courses, complete will all the current methodologies, this still surprises me.
I think it often comes down to a question of economics. You will only see an EFL teacher from a non-Western country working among the poor, for low or no pay. While underfunded schools accept these teachers, I still suspect that secretly they would prefer a Westerner.
Finally, while these methodologies are being teased out through vast research efforts at prestigious centres of learning, it would nevertheless be informative to uncover some of the local, non-Western, approaches not for their anthropological interest, but for THEIR potential contribution to OUR ways of teaching.

27 04 2010

But how many of the native speaker experts at the conference were actually modelling ” ‘best practice’, which is ideologically embedded “.

Can no ‘native speaker expert’ legitimately make a suggestion about something that a teacher from another culture might like to give a try and evaluate for his/her context?

Is a ‘Westener’ condemned by birth to be a ‘vessel (willing or unwilling) of imperialistic hegemonic intentions’?

27 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

I tend to agree, Glennie. The problem is that – even when the ‘native speaker experts’ do not intend to model ‘best practice’ – their suggestions may be interpreted as such. By virtue of their having come from the centre, their models are assumed to have been validated by the ELT establishment. At the very least, they are ‘modern’. (I was asked – during my Monday workshop – for the ‘latest’ ways of teaching grammar).

27 04 2010

I’m a ‘half-native-speaker’ because one of my parents is English, I went through the German education system but at the same time we were brought up speaking both languages in the home. So what should I claim as L1? My mother tongue, or my father tongue?

My university studies were in the English language, that was my choice, including my qualification to teach English. Yet I still get students asking if I am a ‘native speaker’, which can seem as if they’re running a check on my credibility to teach the language. I’m sometimes tempted to sound them out in return — would they prefer to be taught by a poorly-trained backpacker, trading on (little more than) native-speaker credentials?

27 04 2010
Sara Hannam

Dear Scott,

Can I first say how glad I was to see your post drop into my email inbox. I have been having a bit of an aversion to writing the last few days, and your topic really made me feel excited enough to put finger to keyboard again. Can I also say that I congratulate you for putting yourself out here/there (in public) and expressing your own attempts to make sense of so many different issues – as is the complexity of the modern word and contemporary ELT. I admire this, as not many will take such time or give much consideration. I hope you don’t mind me contributing – and as always I begin by saying that I respect your work to the extent that I am really happy to give you a seriously thought out response (with the afterthought that I am hardly an expert and face all my own daily contradictions of a similar nature).

So……I imagine the experience of being in Palestine is one that causes real moments of self-reflection on return. It is so very different to the glossy world of the happy go lucky ELTer – to not be affected by this would mean having to wrap oneself in a suit that could not be penetrated by Palestine’s position on the world’s stage or recent events. There are some who *would* be able to do this (i.e. travel there and remain untouched) – I am glad you are not one of those people. I would like to hear more about your experiences, just as experiences, at some stage – if you have time to write about them. But I am not at all surprised that your visit there has caused this degree of questioning. What’s important is continuing the dialogue and the questioning.

My thoughts are as follows (in no particular order):

1. Holliday, Pennycook and Phillipson argue such different positions it pains me to see you lumping them together like this. What they share (and I agree with them) is a deep questioning of power structures, both macro and micro. However they do not all share the same degree of self-reflection on how they are implicated in the process, or on how the so-called powerless can also transgress and overturn the hardened categories of oppressor/oppressed in ways that are difficult to capture in meta-analysis. I think to answer your own conundrum with greater ease, you should start by investing a greater degree of detail to their respective positions and contributions to the field. You and I have been down this road before (decaffinated Friere) – I feel you are flirting with the critical, but you are stereotyping it at the same time. This gives the impression that you do not consider it of real use or value which I am sure is not the case.

2. To say that the majority of those who criticise power structures are native speakers (or who adhere to a critical pedagogy) is doing a disservice to many teachers and educators round the work who use critical pedagogies in their work all the time and are most definitely not native speakers. What I would agree is the majority of those widely published and famous speakers (and those you have chosen to mention) who are lucky enough to be talking about these things in conferences and publishing books etc are at present native speakers – though even that is shifting. You have been selective in your targetted voices and in a sense are reproducing the very paradox you set out to dismantle by doing so. If you want further references, please ask as I have many examples of NNS’s arguing a critical position often in their own locality who may not be as recognisable internationally. However having said that, you yourself are also expressing a very strong position as a native speaker, so surely you do not deny the right to others to do the same?

3. It is however inevitable (and IMHO correct) that native speakers are implicated in a different way and should be doing a different kind of ‘hand wringing’ based on the very real fact that they continue to exercise greater degrees of power and influence in the field as you yourself observe (which requires an awareness of why they are in that dominant position in the first place). I am deeply disturbed more handwringing is not being done and is so very absent from so many conferences and ELT settings of which I am part! Being critical about one’s own position does not automatically lead to Glennie’s conclusion above – this is a polarisation of a critical position. There is most definitely a place for native speakers in ELT – but as partners. And this means stepping back and allowing space as much as it means stepping up. So to answer Glennie’s point, suggestions are fine, as long as they are not impositions, and are done with the intention and willingness to learn back and accept that there are countless other ways of doing things that may be better than ways developed in EL1 contexts like the US, UK, Australia etc. We don’t want to tie ourselves up in knots which then result in a fear of speaking as this does not help. But we also do not need to speak before assuming that there is an opinion already out there.

4. Being in the context of Palestine as you rightly point out has been on the receiving end of so much of what is wrong in imperialism makes these issues so much more real I imagine. I suppose what I would be asking myself is how do my individual desires, political beliefs, ethical frameworks interact with those of the organisation I am there with (who all represent quite different things – one is a commercial publisher, the other a teachers’ association and the other a charity/educational organisation/political entity). And how does that interact with the people whom I am trying to ‘help’ i.e. the local populace (in all their diversity of opinion)? This is by no means a question that can be answered in 5 minutes as there is a lot going on there and I don’t want to get into the organisations involved in this project with you in this post. But I would be asking questions like a) how are the local population involved in the work I am doing? b) Are they on board as advisors/partners? c) How are their views listened to? d) How do I seek to integrate my pre-conceptions with what I learn of new ideas/realities in action when I am there? etc etc e) Am I open to change? f) Am I willing to challenge misconceptions in larger organisations around me?

5. Re: Conferences: I am not at all surprised that you encountered people who want more native speaker input. Native speaker remains, in most contexts, the desired target. So it follows that this will be asked for. That doesn’t make it alright to just abandon the idea of levelling the playing field and should not be used as a justification. What seems like the wisest move for now is to seek opportunities to add more voices to this than one’s own (if you are a Native Speaker). You are seem perfectly positioned to encourage and promote the importance of local talent, talking about local needs and local realities in a way that someone who is not from there never can. Why not both types of input?

6. Your last question which is how would such an event be made attractive to the participants? Well I think that is the root of it really isn’t it. There are two ways to go there a) stay with the familiar model which gets the punters in and ensures an audience (for you and other native speakers) b) try something new which starts to challenge the assumed superiority of that model and creates new type of practices/conferences/ways of doing.

I know which one I’d rather opt for. The second is far more reflective of the multiplicity of voices/identities that you allude to in your closing remark. You have a great deal of kudos and a respected position in ELT. Give up some of the stage, find opportunities to promote and include the local talent in the locations you are travelling to and I am sure ELT will be a richer place for it. Perhaps you are already doing this and if so please tell us more about it.

I will very much enjoy reading of your travels and your continued thoughts on this topic Scott.

All best wishes from Greece.

27 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Sara, thanks for coming in on the discussion, and so articulately (as ever!)

I’m not going to address all your questions at the moment (still coping with the backlog that’s mounted while I was away), but I just want to clarify a couple of things about the conference in Palestine.

1. The conference organisers were aware, from the outset, of the danger of riding rough-shod over local needs, or of ignoring local expertise, and worked hard to involve teachers and trainers from across the region. Many Palestinian teachers gave presentations, but there was still a sense that the foreign experts were the big “draws”.

2. The organisers also consulted with the local English language specialists in the Ministry of Education (and the MInister herself opened the conference), but, as is often the case, bureaucrats have their own (political) agenda, one which does not always match those of the other stakeholders. In a country where every word and gesture is charged with political significance, it was not surprising that the organisers wanted to keep the administrators at arm’s length.

3. As I said, the organisers – particularly those on the ground – were exemplary, (and tireless) in trying to provide a conference that addressed local needs, and anything I have said about the conference should not be interpreted as criticism. The conference really was a wonderful event, and all credit should go to those who worked so hard (and in such difficult circumstances) to set it up.

4. My (unoriginal) point is that I feel a tension between my role as conference ‘star’ (trading on my native-speaker expert status) and my desire to improve the lot of teachers (and learners) in Palestine. One approach might be to spend longer in the region, doing some actual teaching, and working alongside practising teachers. But – apart from the practicalities – there are ideological problems inherent even in this. As Holliday implies (in the title of the paper I cited) “just who do we think we ARE?”

27 04 2010
Simon Greenall


I’m amazed you should get down to writing this so soon after arriving home.

Speaking as one of the native speaker contributors (don’t like the word expert) who were part of the conference, albeit one of the three who were unable to attend for volcanic reasons … and speaking as an unwilling heir of British imperialist strategists (it has become a form of original sin) … your take on this is extremely fair and well-balanced.

I don’t wish to detract anything from your and our colleagues’ contribution over last weekend, which has been exceptionally well-received. But I wonder if I might raise the possibility that circumstances in Palestine may be slightly different from other contexts such as those raised by Adrian Holliday’s scenario.

You, like me and others, are always concerned about how effective our contributions as native speaker FIFOs (Fly In, Fly Out) may be when we simply attend a conference and leave. We’re right to be sensitive about how native speakers might appeal as validation of local teachers’ commitment, and at the same time, about they may appear to represent best practice in far-from-ideal circumstances.

But …

The issue of best practice is part of the Ministry of Education curriculum document, both here and in other countries where I’ve worked (Poland, China, Jordan among others). The fact that the ministry/university people who drew up these documents probably did their MAs+ in the UK or the US is obviously important, but the aspiration towards what we consider to be best practice is shared by all our policy making colleagues and many of their teachers too. And actually, I think the Adrian Holliday comment, in all its politically correct positioning and human sensitivity, might be taken as being mildly patronizing. Of course we need models of learning which are appropriate to the local situation, and not overly influenced by a centrist philosophy of imported, one-size-fits-all methodology.

But there are other things which can help, or reduce the risk of inappropriate post-colonial style contributions: time, effort and trust.

We’ve spent eleven years working on the only textbook project in Palestine used in all its schools. Personally I’ve spent six years of meetings and conference calls trying to match what our colleagues in the ministry would like with what we know to be practical in the classrooms.

As you know, we’ve often got it wrong (and I’m not going to assign blame), but there has been a long-term and fruitful collaboration between the people who aspire to a model of best practice, people who are realistic about teachers, students and teaching conditions in Palestine, and people who are experienced in analyzing local requirements and creating appropriate teaching materials.

I don’t want to turn this posting into a defence of textbook publishing. Your original comments weren’t about that at all, and we both know, share and respect each other’s views on this.

But long term projects and collaboration, including and especially aid projects such as the one in Palestine, can produce at least the circumstances for appropriate change, if not real change itself. And sometimes even textbooks are among the most appropriate and practical ways of matching the aspiration of best practice with the constraints of local conditions.

When we have time to to share knowledge, and to create and consolidate trust between all parties, best practice and pragmatism are not incompatible.


27 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Simon. You hit the nail in the head when you say

…there are other things which can help, or reduce the risk of inappropriate post-colonial style contributions: time, effort and trust.

Going back to Palestine on three successive visits (many fewer than you, but more times than I’ll ever go to Bangladesh!) has established a degree of continuity that has been extremely valuable. Not just the continuity of meeting up with familiar faces, of dining in the same restuarants, of watching classes using the same material, of being hassled at the same checkpoints – but the continuity that comes from being a part (if only a small part) in a shared enterprise, i.e. the development of English teaching in Palestine. Visiting the classes in Jerusalem yesterday, and witnessing again the energy and commitment of the teachers, using minimal means, to engage their easily distracted students, and talking with them subsequently about their classes, confirmed a sense of continuity that I hope will not only inform and enrich subsequent visits but will fortify the trust that you mention.

27 04 2010


In my talk about native and NNS (the one you have seen) I find myself saying, repeatedly, that I don’t feel remotely guilty about being a native speaker. There is, after all, nothing I can do about it! But I guess it does matter what you do with it.

I do feel angry, repeatedly, about the status of native versus non-native-speaker teachers, and find the bias towards native speakers by some school owners, by MANY parents of students – and the students themselves – deeply disturbing and aggravating.

I think it is increasingly difficult to define just what a native speaker is in a world where most English is used by people who don’t have it as a first language.

Yes, of course I worry when all the main speakers at a conference are people like us – but I enjoy doing the speaking too, of course, otherwise why bother; and of course we do – unlike one or two of our colleagues – try our best to be informative, entertaining and provocative.

Should we take a back seat as Sara suggests? Well yes, perhaps, but if we were to do that who would we be benefitting right now? I prefer to think (and there is significant evidence to suggest this) that things have changed significantly recently, are changing, and the predominance of old white native speaker (mostly) males is on the wane. Look at all the new young frequently non-native-speaker presenters who are coming through. They are making the running. We will fade!

I often feel, especially when listening to Alistair Penycook and Phillipson, that they are addressing a world that has been, not one which is rapidly changing.

Perhaps it depends on country.

It certainly depends on the attitude of the speakers, whoever they are.

TESOL had an Asian president. IATEFL is headed by NOT one of us (though it is difficult to say in what way he differs!).

Small steps. But the world IS changing.

And one last thing (yes, I know, I do go on). I attended two sessions in São Paulo last January for teachers of Spanish – obviously IN Spanish. I was pleased the speakers were highly fluent and competent (native) speakers. I learnt from them. I felt nervous in case they involved me. I was fascinated to be in the position, there, that many people who listen to me are often in. I felt no issue of inequality. Just respect and a bit of fear!

Too many words. Sorry.


27 04 2010
Sara Hannam

Hi Jeremy,

I enjoyed your words!

Just a coupla clarifications. I advocate sharing and partnership above all, but this sometimes involves allowing others to step forward and leaving space for that to happen (as any unequal situation needs careful attention if it is to be equalised). So not sure a “back seat” is the right metaphor (as it implies inactivity to me and I certainly don’t see myself as inactive).
What I suggested to Scott was using influence wherever possible to ensure the stage is shared – recommending varieties of speakers, helping to open access. This is possible for influential people in ELT without risk to their own position.

Likewise I agree that feeling guilty about a mistake of history (i.e. where you are born) is pointless. What is important is being aware of the privilege (spoken and upspoken) that accident of birth brings and that is something quite different. I know you agree with this, just wanted to clarify that. No to guilt, yes to critical awareness.

I totally agree with you that the real damage done by native speakerism is experienced by teachers in their treatment and pay/conditions. And I really really wish that ELT would take stronger positions in the ways that it *is* possible against this global trend where the vast majority of NNSs are getting a very rough deal in comparison.

I also agree that our field is full of shining examples of much more Non-NEST expertise more and more visible – it is fast changing. And this is a point to be celebrated, nurtured, encouraged. I hope we will see more and more diversity on boards of TAs and in all contexts.

I would say again tho (sorry to insist) there are huge differences in the work done by Phillipson and Pennycook. Pennycook invests enormous amount of time and energy in capturing precisely these kinds of changing trends in localities all over the world in how they are experienced and understood by those in that local environment. That is his strength I would argue and he talks about the way things might look in the future, not only how they were in the past.



27 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that Jeremy – and for reminding me of the excellent talk in which you address these issues.

Perhaps it comes down to deciding where one can be of the greatest use. My familiarity with the Arab world – and, more recently, Palestine – helps assuage some of my doubts when I talk to teachers in the region. Your long association with Latin America, and Mexico in particular, gives you a great deal of authority there. But when I get an invitation to, say, Bangladesh (to use a recent example) I really don’t feel equipped to talk about the things that might matter to the teachers there. At the same time, it would seem ungracious simply to say “I can’t accept your invitation because I am actually not qualified to address your needs.” (Shouldn’t they be the judge of that?!) In an ideal world, a conference appearance should be preceded with a few days, weeks, even months of field work (one reason I asked my hosts in East Jerusalem if I could sit in on some classes prior to my workshop). In reality, most conference presenters who are jetted in for the occasion will simply aim for the ‘imagined common ground’ – the features of classroom ecology which are practically universal. But the risk is that this can lead to some rather vague generalizing and cosy platitudes – and the (sometimes all too audible) response to the effect that “Yes, but that wouldn’t work here”.

27 04 2010
Sara Hannam

In the absence of it being practically possible for you to be there for a period of time (which is the ideal), what is to stop you from contacting writers/commentators/teachers/ELTers (via the TA or whatever) to find out and learn? There has been quite a bit of stuff written about Bangladesh for e.g. and isn’t it a good idea to caucus live opinion (and perhaps make that part of your presentation) from local teachers etc? I think its also perhaps important (and I am sure you already do this) to read up on the development/history/projectory of ELT there? That may make the environment slightly less “imagined”?

Just thoughts……

27 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Sara, all good ideas for preparing yourself for a context that’s strange to you. But in the end, you’re still left with the thought: surely there’s someone else who knows this context better than I do? To which a little voice answers: Yes, but they’re not asking you to solve their immediate problems – they’ve invited you because you have some knowledge or expertise that transcends the local – something you’ve researched, for example. So you report on a study you’ve done of – for example – discourse markers in academic text, or IRF exchanges in online discussions. And everyone is bored rigid.

I’m exaggerating – but these are the dilemmas faced by invited ‘name’ speakers: are you the “after dinner” speaker, good for a laugh or two, but basically forgettable – or the earnest academic – guaranteed to bore their pants off? The third path – much less travelled by – is to speak to the real needs and concerns of the people in the room. But that assumes a fairly initimate acquaintance with their context. Unlikely, if you have been air-dropped in from a great height.

27 04 2010
Sara Hannam

OK all points taken. It seems you are therefore arguing yourself into saying no to any invitations! I hope that your little voice never leaves you even in context with which you are very familiar. And even if you lived in Bangladesh for a month before your plenary, you would still be providing a snapshot.

Now here’s a thought…..a partnership/joint presentation with a local presenter. If input into your presentation ahead of time from local educators is not enough, then join forces with someone who is able to provide the “intimate acquaintance” you are after. I think this is a much more thoughtful model and one I am working with more and more these days myself. It is a new model which I think is much more dynamic, less centred around individual ‘expert’ – more reflective of the balance you seem to be seeking?

Workable? Perhaps the way forward.

28 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

..a partnership/joint presentation with a local presenter….

Nice idea, Sara. This suggests some interesting formats – a conversation, interview, debate etc. Perhaps I shall suggest it.

28 04 2010
Sara Hannam

Yes exactly. Let us know how you get on. As I said, I think it presents a lot of new potential in our field for creating more diverse and richer presentations in localities that really capture what’s going on there.

28 04 2010
Darren Elliott

Very much enjoying this thread…. I was lucky enough to talk to Jennifer Jenkins a few weeks back, someone I have been wanting to get an interview with since I started my little project, and some of what she had to say may be relevent. Please excuse the self promotion.


My take on the FIFO speaker? From a Japanese perspective, I actually like to hear what people from outside the region have to say. I imagine that most local associations feel the same. We have plenty of time to exchange ideas locally… we want fresh input. That’s why I keep active online – I love to read the perspectives of UK ESOL teachers, business English teachers in Germany, textbook writers in West London, DOS’s in Turkey, teacher trainers in Greece… I even like to know what Kiwi grammar gurus might be thinking ; P

Sensitivity to local contexts and native-speakerism notwithstanding, of course…

28 04 2010
Adrian Underhill

As a speaker invited to this conference but who did not make it there, I have thought about this quite a bit. Scott says “…. the presence of foreign “experts” ……… 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” and someone else referred to the importance to a community of having fresh ideas and views from outside.

I agree, and for me this discussion timely and useful. I want to add a few thoughts:

1. It seems to be human to need and to wish to receive validation, to try to grow self esteem. This must be a human thing rather than a mother tongue thing.

2. Status appears to be an important currency in human affairs. There are even schools of drama training where status is almost the number one variable. And status is not an absolute given but is attributed by one to another for complex and shifting reasons. Yet don’t we wish for validation from people we have attributed status to?

3. In the particular setting of Palestine we are choosing to amplify the NNS – NS difference, but there are multiple other differences some of which I can imagine and most of which I may never know. But even when I offer a workshop down the road in my own country to teachers who are share my first language there is already a gulf of projection and assumption between me and them, and possibly between they and each other. I do not always know what is really important to them, though I may act as if I do, and just asking them may not tell me, especially if my unaware assumptions affect my hearing. While doing intelligent homework on the context helps mitigate misunderstandings arising from less visible differences, so too does knowing that I do not fully know what is happening here. How can we work with people when we cannot see things through their eyes, or through their assumptions?

4. I guess that part of the answer to this lies in trying to carry out our work in a spirit of inquiry, of knowing that we don’t know, and meeting this with our capacity to inquire, to listen, to see that our perspective is only a perspective, and to surface our own blind spots. My experience is that a person who is just delivering a message has a different impact from one who is learning while doing so. How, when I am in a new situation, can I try to learn my way into it, in order (hopefully) to catalyse that human quality of learning and curiosity, and perhaps even in a short session to sow the seeds of a community of learning, a temporary but inquiring collective,

5. None of this is new to any of us, but it does appear to me to complement the binary NNS NS difference, which can be in danger of labelling surface qualities and attributing other qualities to those surface qualities (a useful critical inquiry in itself) . and perhaps obscuring other qualities of personal presence that may be necessary for making a worthwhile difference. One of my question is How do inquiry, humility and respect become not just palatable carriers of a message but a crucial part of the ways of knowing embedded in any message? My from-a-distance feeling about the Palestine conference is that these other qualities were present there, and were felt, and that people experienced being members of a community of learning.

28 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Adrian, for your thoughtful comment – and I really mean ‘thoughtful’, as I know these are issues that you have given a lot of thought to over a long time. It’s interesting how Palestine brings them into sharp relief, and I suspect it is something about the nature of the place, and the way it forces the visitor back on the defensive: Why are we here? In what way are we implicated? What can we do that doesn’t simply compound the them-and-us syndrome that Edward Said identified?

The point that you made – that “part of the answer to this lies in trying to carry out our work in a spirit of inquiry” – struck a chord. It made me wonder if my talk on lockstep activities might not have been more useful as a workshop, where the question should not have been “How can we improve lockstep activities” (and its assumption that the teachers are doing them less that optimally) but “What lockstep activities do we do? Why do we do them? What is their effect?” etc.

Thanks for that!

29 04 2010
Simon Greenall

Adrian writes very beautifully and persuasively. I’ve always been in awe of his quasi-spiritual insights into anything he does, or anything we have done together, although I’m not confident he would be pleased for me to describe it in this way.

Scott, I deeply admire your concern about how appropriate your talk was. I’m relieved that you experience something I do, before, during and after every occasion I open my mouth in public.

Someone involved in the conference in Ramallah wrote to me today ‘Palestine is part of the world, they can reach out and be reached, in the face of occupation and volcanoes.’

This makes everything worthwhile.

I wonder if there’s a risk that we may overintellectualize something good the ELT community can do and does do well, which appeals to the emotions in an honest way, as if it’s more palatable to hold it up to scrutiny, than to enjoy it for the pleasure it provides to others and ourselves.

Maybe we should just say, job done, nice work.

29 04 2010
Scott Thornbury


“I wonder if there’s a risk that we may overintellectualize something good the ELT community can do and does do well”

I think you may be right – and this thread has run the gamut from hand-wringing to a certain (but not smug) satisfaction in – as you say – doing the job well (witness Steph’s post that follows).

Thanks for everyone who has taken the time to help me unravel Holliday’s “multiplicity” of reasons why the Palestinian Teachers’ Conference really seemed to work – despite (because of?) its “foreign expert” tilt. And let’s see if we can’t make the next one more evenly balanced.

29 04 2010
Sara Hannam

Dear All,

I just wanted to say that discussion and thought about the role that EL teachers play in my view is perhaps reductively characterised as ‘over-intellectualising’. It is thinking. Perhaps better not to place too many limits on it? In order to assess what a ‘good’ contribution is, surely we have to think through what is there in terms of content, aims, objectives, outcomes, the gap between what we hoped would happen and actually happened, the essence of why something is successful etc. It is obvious that the right spirit was there in all the contributions of those who were there or meant to be there (Scott, Adrian, Simon), and indeed all those other people who do regular presentations abroad who’ve contributed here to this thread (Lindsay, Jeremy). We have also discussed some concrete examples of how to achieve this and I learned a lot from other contributors in that respect.

But I felt the questions that Scott was asking were not only about the right intentions , but about how to ensure he is doing everything he can to make himself relevant when he travels to places he doesn’t live (and recognising the paradoxical nature of being an ‘expert’ in ELT). This is an ongoing debate that in a sense is constantly evolving and I hope will continue as it reflects the fast moving nature of our profession and the world around us.

Getting it right means asking constant questions off the beaten track too and in that sense I don’t think there can ever be too many questions, or the wrong questions, only the multitude of different perspectives (including all of us who contributed here) working towards a meaningful definition within how we wish to practice our art – and on this we may not agree – but the journey is no less valuable as hearing what other people have to say can really change what we think.

The dialectic should remain the celebration of success but always with a questioning of limitations/improvements/oversights (and that is a process always in completion, never completed). I find this a more positive way of looking at things than the idea of either “handwringing” and “over-intellectualising”.

Thank you all for your time and effort on this post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

29 04 2010

Interestingly these points are also applicable in the classroom. Each day we meet and interact with people from diverse backgrounds and all bringing their own unique life experience into the room.

Why do teachers go to conferences? To get inspiration, ideas and also confirmation (that they’re on the right track)

I imagine (because I am not a well known plenary speaker) that at a conference it perhaps in some ways reflects the classroom experience insofar as there are always going to be some people who prefer “to be told something practical and useful” by someone who knows more than they do. And other people who like being invited to “join in reflection on particular things” by someone they feel/sense that they can enter a dialogue with.

And while in my experience there are particular national tendencies – cutting across nationality is the shared experience of being a human being!

My take from the other side of the stage (ie: one of the local teachers watching) is the speakers who I like, and indeed who have a long lasting impact on my way of teaching, are those who are the most “themselves” “real” “authentic” (not acting) indeed who while being brilliant speakers and knowing their stuff, seem to have dropped the role of “speaker” or “expert” altogether. It is this “feeling” rather than anything they say, that I and many others I speak with learn from most and take with us back to the classroom.

With that kind of openness and authenticity I don’t think it matters if you’re in Palestine, the UK or Outer Mongolia – you will reach and speak to the people!

Er may I say, the owner of this blog would be a great example of this kind of conference “presenter”

29 04 2010

As a regular conference speaker and native speaker, I thought I would come into this debate here with my two cents. I have stayed out publicly so far of the hand-wringing about specific conferences but critical reflection on what one does is always important.

I think there is a distinction between the FIFO trainer sent in to train teachers in a certain place and the trainer arriving to talk about a specific book (i.e promotion). I’ve done both and don’t feel too uncomfortable about either as long as the other people know what is going on.

I’ve heard some coursebook authors say that they won’t “parachute” in to a foreign country and tell others how to teach. This sounds fine on the surface, but it’s a bit disingenuous since by writing a coursebook for a large international audience your work is effectively already “parachuting” in. If we are talking about book promotion then the teachers, wherever they are, will have the choice on whether or not they adopt the book, or keep it. In my experience teachers will tell you in no uncertain terms if they don’t like a certain book – be it written by a native speaker or not.

In my case, I had made the decision to write coursebooks and am trying to effect change through the content and implicit values of the material being presented around the world. That’s one way I think positive change can be made.

As for the training aspect, I feel that in the end it is about sharing knowledge and that, to me, is a good thing. Yes, it is important to examine power and status issues but a lot of the trainers I know and respect try very hard to do that. I try to offer sessions which give a lot of suggestions, ideas and options to teachers. They take away with them what they like. Other trainers share their experience or view of an aspect of teaching and invite participants to see it that way. The majority of trainers and speakers shy away from being very prescriptive even though I get the sense that sometimes the audiences really wants the speaker to be MORE prescriptive (e.g. “TELL US WHAT TO DO!!”).

Finally, the reasons for people being at these conferences and training sessions and what they get out of them can differ. Some will be there to try and embrace all the ideas they hear “from the expert” and use them. Some are there to meet friends and for the coffee break. Some are there just to hear English spoken (and in this case, the native speaker often does get preference for better or for worse).

When I go to conferences as a participant and not a speaker I’m with Darren. I like seeing a mix from the “big names” and native speakers to the lesser known people from universities or completely different contexts presenting a paper that could be of interest. I’ve been impressed, and bitterly disappointed, by both groups.

Ultimately, it comes back to what I heard Jeremy Harmer say once in a plenary (I am paraphrasing): “We are helping people to communicate with each other. With all the problems we have getting along with each other, wars and terrorism and so on I think it’s a pretty damn good thing that we are doing.”

29 04 2010
Conferences, VIPs and equality – a corrective? « Jeremy Harmer's Blog

[…] worth discussing in this sometimes unedifying climate (though Scott Thornbury’s musings about the danger of ‘native speakerism’ – and the discussions they have occasioned- seem entirely useful) are the […]

29 04 2010
Nick Jaworski

Absolutely wonderful discussion. I remember a discussion in some way related to this. I believe it was on Ken Wilson’s blog. I made a claim that all this hand-wringing and the fact that native speakers seem to be the ones making the most noise was a result of some kind of post-colonial guilt complex. I really like Sara’s take too that critical teachers will seriously look at their status in the field, ask why they are there, and try to act to correct imbalances.

No matter our best efforts, we will always promote our culture and/or attitudes in some way. I think that’s perfectly fine. Critical observers will take what they need and reject other parts. We have to allow for the fact that the audience certainly isn’t passive either.

Also, we need to consider that just because something is done one way, it doesn’t mean it’s the best. Maybe the local way of doing something could be improved on a lot. Should we reject our own ability to contribute simply because it’s currently done differently somewhere else? I don’t think so.

When I do workshops or plenaries I prefer to go the route of providing really useful lesson ideas. I intersperse this with discussion portions where everyone involved can expand on the activities or question them. This makes the workshop more about sharing and growing together. This is always really useful because then teachers take the activity and adapt it to their local context.

30 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Nick – and the point you make about involving participants in the discussion is not just good methodology but – as you say – it’s a great way of levelling the power structures. Although it’s easier to achieve in a workshop than in a plenary, I have to add!

30 04 2010
Andy Hockley

Great discussion

I don’t have the time to get fully involved in it right now, but there is one other angle here that i think is being slightly missed (and I’m not sure if it’s relevant) – one thing that I heard time and time again in Palestine was how much people there wanted foreigners to go there and tell people back home what they experienced. Because for all the vast quantities of reading one could do on a daily basis about Palestine, there is very little that actually recounts what it is genuinely like there and the hardships and -let’s not mince words here – the brutal and naked oppression which are borne with such stoicism by the vast majority of the local population.

What I’m trying to say, before I get all tied up in my anger at the situation, is that it’s a two way street – FIFOs (or JIJOs as i’d heard it before jet in, jet out) do fly in with perhaps not a huge grasp of the local context, but they also fly out with a greater knowledge and on some level become advocates for that context. For Palestinians this is an extremely important part of the deal.

I wish I had the time to articulate that a bit better, but hopefully it comes across.

30 04 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Andy, for making that point. You’re absolutely right – among the many injustices suffered by the Palestinians is the sense that they are misrepresented abroad, so the presence of visitors offers a chance to rectify the situation. Coincidentally, it was those two young teachers from Jenin (in the pic) who asked me earnestly: “What did you think of Palestinians before you came here?” I remember being asked the same question by a group of jolly ladies on my first trip, and all I could say was: “Well, for starters, for a people so oppressed, I was surprised to find that you’re not DEpressed”. To which one of them replied: “If we didn’t laugh, we’d commit suicide”.

3 06 2010
Matthew Spira

I seem to be making a habit of posting comments on discussions months after they’ve run their course, but since there wasn’t really a genuinely dissenting opinion in this one, I do feel compelled to offer my take.

First, and in the interest of full disclosure, I’m an American and politically I tend towards the conservative side of the spectrum. However, I’m an American who has lived much of his life outside of the United States: in Bangladesh as a child, in Peru as a teenager, in Germany as a young man, and I have officially entered middle age just recently while living in South Korea. I’m also going to state upfront that this is an incredibly complex subject where it’s hard to even come to agreement on what questions should be asked, much less what answers can be conclusively arrived at. That being said, consider the following questions:

Who “owns” a given language? Why should English be treated differently from any other language?

One of the distinct undercurrents of this thread is social justice, and the desire to “do our part” to redress the inequities of the global “power” structure. And I suppose an argument could be made that in assymetric environments, like English as the global language compared to, say, Korean as a much more regional one, different standards need to be applied to entities on each side of the native/non-native equation. I think that’s a perfectly valid argument to make, as long as you acknowledge it’s a political determination, not a functional one.

If we accept the premise that a non-native speaker of English is just as valid a source of learning and teaching authority as a native speaker, and that both groups should be treated as equals, or even- as some of the commenters here seem to be arguing- the non-native speaker should be the preference due to the ability to be authentic to the specific cultural context, then it logically follows the reverse is also true. Which means that within the United States, for example, my sister, who is a Caucasian blonde-haired and blue-eyed expert Arabic speaker with years of experience, should be preferred over a Palestinian immigrant.

I think most people reading this know that in real life that’s not the way it works. If we want to learn a given language, the non-autodidacts among us ninety-nine times out of a hundred will prefer to learn from a native speaker. That you can’t really separate language from culture goes to the affective aspects of learning.

The second point I want to make is about assumptions of scale. That there is any one best universal approach to learning language is (correctly) emphatically rejected. Does it follow there are culturally-bounded “best” methods for all people within those cultures? If so, why? Why should the attributes of cultural identity be the primary factors in deciding what and how a given person learns?

Here I think you have to separate the “what” from the “how.” I do think it’s perfectly valid for societies as collective entities to prioritize what they want citizens within their spheres to know and be able to do. English is the global language, and the reason why countries use invest their public resources, and why private citizens invest their captial into fostering the learning of English is completely utilitarian: English provides access to accumulated bodies of knowledge (e.g., medicine,) global dialogues (e.g., engineering,) and facilitates transactional activities (e.g., business) that directly benefit the given country. This is all the “what.”

As for the “how,” I think when you responsibly follow the logic of what brain research tells us, you come to the point where the inescapable conclusion is all individuals learn in unique ways, no matter their background. Americans are no different from Mongolians in this respect, or anyone else for that matter. Although culture is certainly one of the important factors of learning, it’s just not valid to describe or assume learning styles only exist in culturally-determined fashions. And if learning styles aren’t culturally bound, then it’s important for educators to seek out and consider anything that might help them engage the specific sets of learners they are working with.

To finish up, I don’t think Scott, Jeremy, Jason or anyone else at the level of being treated as a “VIP” in the ELT world- treatment which to be perfectly honest is pretty tame compared to other fields- should feel the slightest bit guilty about what they’re doing, or the compensation they’re receiving. It is what it is. To assume that local teachers within a given country can’t parse, contextualize and select from what the “VIPs” do and say to apply to their specific realities is in itself more than a little patronizing.


22 02 2014
Marek Kiczkowiak

Thank you for a very interesting post, Scott. You raise some really interesting questions.
I’ve actually written a post myself which brings up some of the issues you discuss here, and I was wondering what your take on it would be: http://teflreflections.blogspot.com/2014/02/nonnativity-scenes.html

19 02 2017
Alex Allan

Dear Scott,
Firstly, it is an honor to be writing you and hopefully get your thoughts on a matter that has been dividing the Facebook community I belong to. It’s a “Teach English In Asia” community, where Asian schools and NES and NNES teachers try to inform and help each other regarding work opportunities in Asian countries. The controversy started when an Australian teacher wrote a post where he stated ” It is an unwritten law” and went on defending the notion that any native speaker is always a better ESL teacher than any highly-trained, experienced non-native professional teacher. Please note he sees that one does not need any sort of training, provided one is a native speaker, as a sufficient condition for one to be an efficient teacher and of superior quality to any NNES teacher. Another teacher, this time a professionally-trained NNES argued against it by saying that what really matters is competence and efficiency, that is, which teacher can make his or her students learn the most, the best results. He went on and said that the Asian language school market is simply playing along with the general public who equate nativeness with higher efficiency when
actually there’s a lot more to good ESL than just nativeness. Do you believe such “native speakers only” or ” NNES need not apply” policies are pedagogically justified? Thank you very much! Alex Allan

28 01 2021
Mohammad Alnahas

Thank you very much for this. Native speakerism is one aspect that demonstrates lack of social justice in educational policies. Examine, for example, the shortlisting policy adopted by the British Council in their recruitment of IELTS Examiners. The policy is based on assumptions and generalisations, rather than facts, about non-native speakers. Imagine that I have been applying to become an examiner for 10 years, but never got shortlisted, although I greatly exceed their requirements, just because I am not a native speaker.

First, different centres have different requirements, although the information on their website is the same. For example, someone with a masters’ degree in translation and 5 years of teaching experience is shortlisted and invited to attend an interview, while his friend, based in another country, is not shortlisted although he/she has a masters’ degree in English Language Teaching and has 17 years of experience in the field of teaching and assessment.

Additionally, in some centres, most non-native speakers are not shortlisted unless they sit the test themselves, while in other centres, similar candidates are shortlisted and invited to attend an interview based on their experience and qualifications. There is an obvious lack of consistency in the shortlisting process.

Second, there is an uneven selection process, with clear discrimination between native and non-native speakers. Native speakers are immediately shortlisted if they meet the basic requirements. So, it is merely assumed that they satisfy the language mastery requirement. Most non-native speakers, on the other hand, are asked to sit the test and achieve a full score. In fact, I think not every native speaker is fully operational in his/her mother tongue, especially in reading and writing. (I personally make some errors while writing and speaking standard Arabic, my mother tongue!) I think that there are holes in the argument that people whose mother tongue is English are automatically assumed to be more proficient in the language than those who are not native speakers. There is no evidence in the literature that backs up this assumption. I have personally proofread exams that contained language inaccuracies, and they were written by native speakers! I even proofread my friends’ application forms for the IELTS Examiner position. Imagine how frustrating this is!

Third, when we look at the test, we find that it measures not only the language skills, but also exam taking skills, time-management and reasoning skills. If these elements are essential, why then not require everyone to sit the test? Besides, what does it mean to ask me to sit the test and achieve a full score, which is almost impossible? Why do you want people to feel incompetent? I might not even achieve a full score in an Arabic test!

Needless to say, what is crucial to consider for the examiner position are factors such as the ability to assess and evaluate candidates’ language accurately and fairly, according to the marking scale, besides integrity and language competence, of course. The ability to make sound judgements is vital here as it impacts profoundly on both the test-takers and the whole organization administering the test.

It seems to me that the argument about the supremacy of native speakers over non-native speakers is weak and based on a ‘logical fallacy’, as Aristotle put it. This is because candidates’ linguistic ability is judged at the shortlisting stage, before even gathering adequate evidence for that judgement. It is unduly concluded that non-native speakers are less proficient in English (even if their application shows an excellent use of the language), and therefore they are required to sit the test and achieve a full score to prove otherwise; while native speakers are merely assumed to be fully operational in the language. This constitutes a hasty generalization.

Such lack of consistency, lack of clarity and lack of sound logic in policies and procedures have considerable implications on social justice, on the harmony within different social groups as they cause divisions and frustrations amongst peers and professionals. Such policies adversely affect the individuals and their communities, deny equal opportunities, causing disappointments and negative feelings. Someone reasonable has to step in, for the sake of God and humanity, for the sake of preserving common sense and fighting inequality, to raise their awareness about the danger and consequences of such policies on professionals the long run.

Mohammad Hosam Alnahas,
A Lecturer of English, based in Qatar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: