Nothing More… Nothing Less…

 

Hi. My name is Cecilia, and I am a non-native English speaker.

 

 

 

 

I decided to start this post with this line because that is how I’ve felt for a long time about my “non-nativeness” : As if I were admitting to a flaw. When I studied English I was always ecstatic when my teacher happened to be a native speaker. As I began my career as an English teacher in Recife (Pernambuco, Brazil – where I was born and raised) I frequently felt less of a teacher when I compared myself to NESTs. I thought: “It’s their language, there’s no way I can beat that!”. So I worked hard at trying to achieve the mythical “native-like-fluency”. I listened to the radio, I sang songs, I repeated chunks of language to exhaustion, I watched TV in English (to pick up slang, reductions, intonation, etc)… And sometimes I thought I had gotten there, when a native speaker – usually not a teacher – would compliment on my English, say they’d never say I wasn’t a native. That made me proud. But then another native speaker would burst my bubble by saying tat I spoke English very well, but they could tell I was a foreigner. And that crushed me. Was it unattainable?

 

 

As the years passed and I became a more confident teacher, I started to realize I didn’t have to be a NEST to be a good teacher.  Being a Portuguese native-speaker didn’t make me a Portuguese teacher - I have never taught Portuguese nor have any plans of ever doing so – I don’t think I know it well enough for that. And thinking like that has never made me question my fluency as a Portuguese speaker. So why should I feel any different when it came to English? I finally came to the conclusion I shouldn’t. And that’s where I am today.

 

 

The Dogme Blog Challenge (week 6) focuses on the NEST – NNEST debate and how it relates to teaching in the dogme approach. When it comes to teaching unplugged, am I at a disadvantage because I am a NNEST? I don’t think so. I believe what matters here is not whether I was born (or raised) in an English speaking country, but rather my linguistic competence – and that is certainly not directly related to where I was born. I agree with Luke (Meddings) and Scott (Thornbury) when they say that due to frequent snap decisions commom in unplugged lessons ,choosing/changing paths within the lesson, it is sometimes difficult for a NNEST. However, it can be equally challenging to NESTs. Knowing how to speak a language, being a native speaker doesn’t automatically grant you knowledge of your language – really knowing it – enough to explain. I recall an episode in which a fellow teacher, a NEST, recently hired in the institution I worked (and just as recently a resident in Brazil), came up to me asking what the third conditional was. The topic (Grammar McNuggets, I know!) was listed in his group’s syllabus and he had no idea what it was. I gave him an example of a sentence using it and he still didn’t know it. I had to teach him. My intention in telling this passage is not one of saying my (then) co-worker didn’t have what it takes to be a teacher, or that he was not an educated speaker of his own language or even that he spoke his own language incorrectly. If you ask me pretty much any question about Portuguese grammar I won’t be able to answer it, because I don’t have the technical knowledge.  No. I wanted to illustrate my position regarding the issue raised by Karenne’s challenge. As far as language goes, being an effective teacher – whether in an unplugged setting or not – is not about being (or not) a NEST.

 

 

With that out of the way, let’s focus on the other questionings at hand. For the English learner, is it the same thing having a NEST or a NNEST as a teacher? Of course not. NESTs have broader, authentic and deeper understanding of cultural aspects of his homeland – an English speaking nation. And no one can stay oblivious to the role culture plays when learning a language. He most likely has a broader range of slang, unusual vocabulary (“teacher, how do you call the little ring on top of a soda can?”). He has one of the accents the student might find when he finds himself in an English speaking country. On the other hand, the NNEST was once an English learner himself, so he understands students’ difficulties better, he may be better at predicting which wrong linguistic assumptions the learner will make, and prepare for it – be ready when it happens. If the NNEST teaches in the country he was born in he also has a better grasp at the cultural aspects and peculiarities of the students. The same way a NEST can use the culture and curiosities from his country to motivate students to use the target language, the NNEST can also use his (and possibly the students’ ) own culture to create activities, discussions and projects to motivate students’ involvement, participation and learning . Knowledge of the home culture enables the teacher to better perceive “teaching moments”, the student emergent topics and interests. It enables the teacher to know how to use something the student mentioned that is greatly related to the country’s culture and make it into a lesson, or the means of teaching a communicative function, vocabulary…. take your pick!

 

 

Another question asked in this week’s challenge was  “Is language teaching about creating perfect models of expression?”. As far as I see, language teaching these days is about helping the learners find and create their own tools/strategies and develop skills to efficiently communicate. And communication is not about perfect models of expression. It’s about individual expression and having that expression be properly understood by the receiver. We’re past the notion that to be properly understood people have to have flawless prosody and native-like pronunciation / accent. When learning and especially using a language, the learner/speaker has to do it in a way he is understood – even if it is evident he/she is not a native speaker. The teacher has to pay attention and work in a way to detect and (hopefully) help students fix any deviations on the way the student uses the language that may hinder communication. With that under control we have a fluent English speaker – even if an imperfect one by some people’s standards. Not by mine. I take extreme pride when a student comes to me and tells me how he/she was able to travel to an English speaking country and walk around, order food, talk to people on the streets, in stores… with their heavy accent and sometimes L1 dependent vocabulary. :-)

 

 

 So, is there such a thing as a more suitable kind of teacher in a language classroom – NEST or NNEST? In my opinion, the answer to this is a resounding “NO!” We each bring something different to the classroom – and that should be acknowledged. More than that, I believe that should be celebrated and used for the benefit of the learners. Ideally, learners would have the chance of having both kinds of teachers, cherishing the unique features each bring to class. I wish students would see this. I know many do, but I have to admit it stills hurts a little when I come across a student who, before even having a lesson with me (or any other NNEST teacher for that matter), says he/she is only interested in having a NEST teacher. 

 

 

Because in the end of the day, my name is Cecilia and I am a Non-Native English Teacher. Nothing more… but nothing less. What is wrong about that?

  

Here are some other bloggers/educators views on this issue:

NESTs vs NNESTs – What is the Big Difference? by Henrick Oprea

Are Native Speaker Models So Important? by Richard (@nutrich on Twitter)

 

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26 comments on “Nothing More… Nothing Less…

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Valeria França, Tara Benwell and Thomas Baker, Cecilia Lemos Coelho. Cecilia Lemos Coelho said: Nothing More, Nothing Less : http://bit.ly/93D912 > My new blog post, on the NESTxNNEST debate #dogmeme #efl #elt #eltchat #beltfree [...]

  2. An excellent and insightful post, Cecilia! Maybe the debate shouldn’t be about NESTs and NNESTs but about linguistic competence? You seem to have impeccable English, and you write with good style. You are a fantastic communicator. However the same cannot be said about the majority of NNESTs. In fact, in Spain, where I live, most secondary school teachers (from what I know, please correct me anyone who has had a different experience) have roughly a B2 level or less. They are great at teaching grammar, but not so good at speaking and therefore teach most of the lesson in L1. They also find it difficult to teach pronunciation and intonation and generally leave this out completely. This is because very few NNESTs have had the chance to live or study in an English-speaking country. Now whether the students actually need this or not is another question!

    For this reason, in Spain most learners will choose a NEST over a NNEST, regardless of who is the better teacher. There seems to be some kind of prestige in being taught by a native. This is understandable due to the reasons I have mentioned before, but I know (through Twitter) lots of people born and raised in other countries that speak and write perfect English, and who may have more difficulty in finding a teaching job than those who were born in Britain, Australia, NZ or the US. This is what I find unacceptable. The question therefore should not be about (N)ESTs but about teachers with or without an appropriate level of the language and teaching skills.

    • Hi Michelle!

      You have a very valid point when you mention the linguistic level of many NNESTs. Similarly to your experience in Spain, many secondary teachers (especially in the public schools) have very poor English fluency (and knowledge of the language). At language schools the situation is slightly different, for the salary is usually higher therefore they are able to be more demanding of the teachers they hire (as far as their linguistic level). Many of them are good at teaching grammar, but even at that it seems they know the automatic aspect of grammar, but have great difficulties at adequately using that grammar for natural communication – anything outside the strict forms of the (many times) old grammar books they use.

      I think the focus when hiring a teacher, be it by an institution or a student, should be on linguistic levels but also on the ability the person has to pass on the language – independently of where the teacher was born. The appeal of a NEST teacher is undeniable though. But I also think concepts are changing, even if in baby steps. Part of that change of concepts comes from the experiences of the students themselves, who may have had better experiences with NNESTs, or even because they’ve realized this is irrelevant. I’d like to think we’ll one day get over this NEST X NNEST debate.

      On a last note, there’s one thing you said that I don’t think I see eye to eye with you. You say one of the reasons for the difficulty many NNESTs have in becoming fluent English speakers is the fact few have had the chance to live or study in an English-speaking country – and I don’t think that’s a key point. Throughout my teaching life, the many schools I’ve taught, the many events and conferences I’ve attended I have had the chance to meet quite a few teachers who are extremely fluent English speakers, who have never set foot in another country. Some people are just gifted – we’ve all seen that in students as well. And the ones who are not gifted work hard at it and conquer. I am not in any way underestimating the value of living/studying abroad for the acquisition of a more natural and fluent English. I know how helpful it cna be. I’m just saying it’s not the only way to get there.

      Thank you so much for your great comment and for sharing your experience with the issue in Spain. My favorite part of bloggin is how much I learn from the comments. :-)

  3. Japglish says:

    I think you make a key point when you suggest “the NNEST can also use his (and possibly the students’ ) own culture to create activities, discussions and projects to motivate students’ involvement, participation and learning”. One (of the many) lessons I got horribly wrong in the Middle East was around the topic of movies. Assuming that students would know about “famous” western movies, I kicked off with film posters with titles deleted and asked students if they knew the movies. Bad move. They were able to identify one or two of ten movies. I was surprised since many of these had won Oscars. “I don’t really watch that stuff,” said one student, “but if you want to discuss Lebanese pop stars …”. This experience wasn’t a one off – assuming a shared cultural knowledge just didn’t work. I would also add that those lessons I taught, based upon local news stories, easily generated the most language and debate – if I had known more about local cultural issues, I am sure I could have done more. The NEST often relies upon a non-existent interest in their own culture, not a very successful approach when teaching teens in either the Middle East or Japan I think.

    As to who has the better pronunciation or better understanding of language systems, am not sure this is relevant. It’s all about “pedagogy + 1″ – a principled methodological approach which puts the learners first PLUS that charisma and creativity that sorts the wheat from the chaff in our business. And that is not a NEST vs NNEST issue. It’s all about the PD.

    • Hi Peter,

      My teacher’s heart went out to you when I read about your lesson… :-) How frustrating. But we’ve all been there. Over reliance on anything by the teacher can backfire. I have had a few experiences similar to your in my own country (that’s how I learned I was getting old, when students didn’t recognize some of my favorite bands, or movies that had an impact on me ;-).

      Charisma and creativity are important because they grab the students’ attention, making our jobs in engaging the students in their own learning easier. But I don’t think we can overlook the importance of good pronunciation by the teacher ( not perfect – whatever that means), because it is the teacher’s speaking that students many times are more exposed to, and the one they take as a model to understand others. With this in mind I believe it is benefitial for the students to change teachers regularly, to have the opportunity to be exposed to many different accents, pronunciations and speech patterns, to broaden their “speaking models library” and be prepared for anything they come across.

      But in the end of the day, I think said it all when you said it’s all about PD. Being a good, effective teacher is not about being a NEST/NNEST, knowing grammar structures, having good pronunciation or even being charismatic and creative. It’s about knowing your own flaws and weaknesses, being humble to admit we always have room for improvement and things to learn. And going after that. PD is a never-ending quest. And it can be a whole lot of fun too. Like this here! ;-) Thanks for your comment, for approaching yet another angle.

  4. DaveDodgson says:

    Wow Cecilia! Excuse me while I pick up my blown off socks and put them back on! Are you sure you had an enjoyable relaxing weekend or were you working on this the whole time? ;)

    You raise a lot of interesting points and it’s now my challenge to answer here without using too many ideas I plan to include in my own post. :)

    Your points about lingustic knowledge remind of something my dad said early in my teaching career (when he was still unconvinced that it could be a career). “The only difference between you and me,” he said “is that you can explain grammar simply enough for people with limited English to understand.” I then challenged him to explain a few choice grammar points and after he’d tripped over his own tongue a few times, he gave up. We never even got on to how he would go about teaching them.

    I think experience plays a big role as does continuing to look for ways to improve yourself and develop (I say this for both NESTs and NNESTs). We would not be here discussing dogme if we were not interested in advancing ourselves professionally and we may find it more difficult to teach in an unplugged manner if we were less experienced. In that situation, the ‘safety’ of materials and grammar work might be more appealing. It certainly was for me when I was a newbie!

    However, as Michelle pointed out above, not everyone is as dedicated as you and the other NNESTs taking up this challenge like Henrick, Willy and Sabrina. I’ve seen highly experienced NNESTs who have become almost fossilsed after years of teaching beginner level language to kids. I’ve also seen native speakers who, after years in the one country, have become like those fossilised local teachers, using L1 all the time and sticking to the same old methods and materials.

    The most important thing is to be active, keep your skills (both in linguistic terms and teaching terms) sharp and always be evaluating and trying out new things, even if that takes your job beyond the confines of the school and into weekend workshops, after work chats and social networks. ‘Be a teacher all the time’ as someone once blogged. ;)

    And, man, you, Henrick and Richard have made my job in answering this challenge a lot harder! ;)

    • Hi Dave,

      First I can guarantee I had a very relaxing fun weekend in Rio ;-)! What can I say… these things just come naturally to me. (Yeah right! More like one too many hours at night with my insomnia and especially many many boring hours at the airport with no wi-fi. Put that together with something I felt strongly about: Boom!) I love the anecdote about your dad. With my family it took them some time to understand teaching English could be a serious (and demanding) job, not just something to earn a few bucks with after I got back from an exchange program. Now they respect my choice and celebrate my victories.

      I am delighted to see everyone (at least the people who commented) dismissing the NEST/NNEST debate and focusing on the core of the matter, which is as you pointed out (as Japglish did as well) that the key is the search for constant improvement. The refusal to settle down to old methods and practices even if they are proven efficient. The “itch” some of us – certainly the ones in our PLN – have for experimenting, trying out new things, questioning to see if we can improve our students’ learning process in any way. And no, it has nothing to do with whether we are native speakers or not. Just look around the comments on this post: you, japglish, Michelle…all native speakers. And we’re all in this for one reason: development. Personal, professional… The sharing, the thought provoking posts and challenges – we’re in it because we want to think, reflect , stay updated with what’s new, what’s going on, what’s being talked about – because all os these things can be an open door for change at times, or validation of what we’re doing at others. The important thing here is that we’re not just standing there, watching time go by.

      And sorry if we made your job more difficult – all I can say is that probably it will make your post on this even better ;-) look forward to it!

      • DaveDodgson says:

        Parents, eh? I’m sure they would have had reservations whatever career paths we had chosen!

        Well, I managed to knock something together over on my blog so now I’ll add my last point here. There is a fundamental problem in all this (and it’s a problem that applies to many other areas of language teaching too) – we are all here in the blogosphere/twitterverse and in agreement about this, but many people who are not here disagree with us. Many students, parents, school administrators and educational policy makers believe there is something more desireable about having a native speaker in class, whether their reasons be for better pronunciation, exposure to more ‘authentic’ language or money (ie ‘come to our school – we’ve got x foreign teachers!!!’)

        Until they see what we do, the divide and discrimination will remain.

      • Would you say then, since apparently the whole twitterverse/blogosphere agrees on this issue and the ones who think that way are not around, that this has to do with the fact that in a way we’re looking for development, for new ideas and practices, reflecting upon old concepts – and they’re stuck in old stereotypes. Because in a way, maybe this was true a while back. I mean, 20 years ago, when traveling abroad was not as easy, when we didn’t have the technology we now have available (which is great help to work with the aspects of the language we need to work on – NEST or NNEST) maybe there was a bigger and more meaningful difference between having a NEST or NNEST teacher.

        Whadjathink? ;-)

      • DaveDodgson says:

        Agreed – not so long ago foreign teachers were more of a rariety, difficult to find and perhaps the only chance students would get to interact with a native speaker. Also, at that time, it was more difficult for local teachers to find ways to engage in professional development outside annual conferences…

        But also, think of it this way. You are relatively new to Twitter and blogging but you already came to this virtual world of PD with plenty of experience to share and things to tell. I’m sure you had similar thoughts about the (N)NEST debate back then so not everyone who is not ‘here’ subscribes to those steroetypes – just most of them ;)

  5. [...] * Cecília Coelho’s post about NESTs and NNESTs here. [...]

  6. [...] it was going to be rather controversial, up to now they have all got to the same conclusion.  In Cecilia’s words: Being an effective teacher – whether in an unplugged setting or not – is not about being [...]

  7. [...] debate this week has centred on the merits and drawbacks of NESTs and NNESTs. Cecilia, Rick, and Richard have all perfectly summed up the debate of Challenge#6, and I don’t feel I can [...]

  8. Vicky Loras says:

    Hi Cecilia!

    Amazing amazing blogpost and topic.

    I agree with you that it should not be a case of NESTs and NNESTs (I don’t even like writing these abbreviations!). It is more a case of linguistic competence. I have seen native speakers who have just “decided” to teach English because they think they can do it, as English is their first language and do not have the same passion or abilities as non-native speakers who have gone into teaching, for the reason that they really love the language and teaching.

    I do not even pause to think whether someone is a native or non-native speaker. I look at how they write (and you are fantastic at that!), how they teach and I love getting ideas from teachers regardless where they are from.

    This is a great topic Cecilia, thank you for writing this post on it, for the reason that I sincerely do not understand why some teachers are put on the spot sometimes because English is not their first language. Very often, they seem to have a better command of English than some natives!

    Thank you again and kindest regards,
    Vicky

    • Hi Vicky!!

      I’m so glad you mentioned the abbreviations!!! I hate them! I have a problem with them not because of the abbreviations per se, but because they are labels, and labels generalize, don’t take diversity and individualities into account! Teachers are teachers no matter where they’re from. There are good and bad from all places. And I think we can learn even from the ones we consider bad :-) Thank you for your lovely comments (and compliments). It’s always a great pleasure to have you here, and to receive your feedback. : -) Warm, sunny regards,

      Cecilia

  9. Ken Wilson says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    I think a lot of us NESTs reading this will be astonished to hear that a native speaker who doesn’t know what the third conditional is managed to get a job in a private language school in Brazil!

    Not knowing much about grammar is one of many ways that a certain kind of NESTcan demonstrate their inadequacy. When I did a pronunciation-based activity at a conference in .. um… I’ll keep it secret and say ‘somewhere in Central Europe’ … the NESTs in the audience couldn’t isolate the vowel sounds in pairs of words I gave them (like ‘walk’ and ‘work’). Their inability to do this astounded the non-NESTs present, who were all able to isolate the sounds with no problem at all.

    However much we want ignore this differentiation, the NEST/non-NEST debate will rumble on forever. I will just make two points:

    1 I think it’s very helpful for a monolingual class of students to start learning English from someone who is a native speaker of their language.

    2 As my wife Dede (amongst many other researchers) discovered from a series of surveys she did amongst students of many different nationalities, the most important thing for the learners is not where their teacher was born, but how enthusiastic she is about her work.

    • Hey Ken,

      I guess many NNESTs would be amazed at the third conditional bit of my post, just as I (as a NNEST) have been shocked as I listened to some NNEST teachers speaking (and wondered how could they teach speaking like that. But it’s just like what Dede discovered – and so many people have said on the issue – it’s not about the teacher’s origin, but about what kind of teacher he/she is. Enthusiasm and passion (as @sabridv wrote on her post) are sure differentials. Thankfully we both (as the rest of the PLN) seem to fit into that category! ;-)

  10. Diarmuid says:

    It doesn’t really add much to the conversation, but I really wanted to say that this post was £^*&ing wonderful (and I think you could put out a contract on the nubhead who told you that they could “still tell [you] were a foreigner”. We’ll get them.

  11. [...] Cecilia Coelho Nothing more… nothing less [...]

  12. [...] Can NNESTs do dogme in their classes? Quite a controversial topic taken by a NNEST @cecilialcoelho [...]

  13. [...] like Cecilia Lemos’ (@CeciELT).  In fact, it’s her post from November 2010 entitled Nothing More… Nothing Less… that inspires my post today. When I dug up this post, it actually surprised me how she introduced [...]

  14. [...] like Cecilia Lemos’ (@CeciELT).  In fact, it’s her post from November 2010 entitled Nothing More… Nothing Less… that inspires my post today. When I dug up this post, it actually surprised me how she introduced [...]

  15. Oi Cecilia!
    Thanks for your post. I’ve just stumbled upon it recently, and I think it’s great. I really couldn’t agree more with your post, so I won’t repeat what you’ve just said. I expressed my own view about the NEST/NNEST debate here: http://teflreflections.blogspot.com/2014/02/nonnativity-scenes.html
    And as somebody commented above: you’re a fantastic writer!
    I’m also writing here because together with a group of like-minded teachers I started a blog where we are going to publish articles and materials related to hiring policies, NNEST and NEST issues and discrimination. We would also like this blog to be a place for discussion, exchange of ideas and above all a source of inspiration and motivation that change is possible. In fact, it’s already taking place in front of your eyes.
    We want to keep it as open to contributions as possible, so I was wondering if you would like to write a guest post for us, or perhaps republish this post on our blog.
    I’ll also upload a link to this post on our blog so that the readers can easily access it.
    Here’s the address: http://teflequityadvocates.blogspot.nl/
    Tchau!

  16. […] Cecilia Lemos: Nothing more nothing less […]

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