Being a non-native speaker teacher to native-speaker students???

In my most recent group of students on an international Pathway programme, there were a few native speakers of English (NES) – from India, Nigeria, Singapore. I am a non-native speaker of English (NNES), and I was their teacher (NNEST).

Does this matter?

The recent discussion on the BALEAP list made me think.

I am a native speaker teacher of German. And I think this is important. I used to teach low-level German classes here in England, and I was a “gateway” for my students not only to my native language, but also to my culture. We talked about food, geography, public transport, festival traditions etc. I am sure that having me as a native German speaker added real value to my students’ experience.

However, “nobody is a native speaker of Academic English” (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1994 – Thanks Deborah for pointing me towards this). So are we all equal? With a certain level of English language competence, should we assume that everyone, whether NES or NNES, starts to “acquire” academic English, say, around the start of their University career? Or earlier, depending on schooling – and again, does this include NNESs?

Going back to being a “gateway” for my students, I think I am a pretty appropriate gateway to academic English for my EAP students. I have done successful postgraduate study/research in two different subjects, I have been involved in academic publishing for a long time, and I seem to be able to function well in all sorts of academic English situations.

My students can’t usually tell that I’m not English. Until well into the second semester of the course, no one ever questioned me (not regarding my language “authority” anyway), at least I don’t remember noticing anything. Then, in an informal chat about bilingualism, I let it slip in front of two of my NES-students – that my children are bilingual and we speak a different language at home. A few questions later (yes, it took a while, they were so convinced of my Englishness), we had established that I’m actually German.

After that, I think things changed, even if only a little bit. Now that the whole class knew, I was questioned more often. One high-level student opted to “disagree” with the corrections on his writing paper. “But the correction you made doesn’t sound right to me,” he would say, even after I had explained why in this context and in academic writing this is definitely the right way to express whatever it was. (Go on, accuse me of imperialism – let’s assume that that’s a different issue.) Others would ask “Really?” more often. The difference was not massive, and I am not even sure whether it was the students’ actions that were different or just my perception. But one of them changed, either the students did question me or I was simply more self-conscious.

Other NNESTs of EAP, have you noticed anything similar? It makes me wonder whether I should try and conceal my nationality, just for convenience and just because I can (it would be much more difficult for my Chinese colleague to pretend that they’re English). At the moment, I do it for fun, and of course I never lie about it, just “let’s see how long it takes my students to figure out”.

(Having published this post, this may be a void question if students google their teacher’s name and read this…)


5 thoughts on “Being a non-native speaker teacher to native-speaker students???

  1. Thanks for this post. Very interesting.
    I think you make a valid point – nobody is a native EAP speaker. It is certainly an acquired knowledge. I would venture to say that my English EAP level is much higher than in Polish, my mother tongue. This is because I’ve never actually studied or written a paper in my L1 (I did English Philology in uni so all subjects were in English).
    I’ve been in similar situations when teaching CPE preparation courses. My sts knew from the very beginning I was Polish (my name is a total give-away), and definitely in the first few classes I had to establish my linguistic authority, but once the sts realised I knew much more than they did, ans that they were learning, they didn’t mind my being a NNEST.
    Regarding hiding your identity, please DON’T do it. For convenience or for anything else. I’m sure the sts will very quickly realise that you’re indeed right (perhaps when they fail their first paper).
    You might find my website interesting: If you’d like to contribute an article on the issue of equity between NESTs and nNESTs, etc., please do let me know. Always looking for new and interesting contributions. You can get in touch through the Contact section on the website.

    • Thanks Marek for your encouraging reply, especially the “DON’T do it” part. This time round, I am much more relaxed and making less of an effort to hide anything – at least with the lower level students.
      I did read around on your website when you posted a link on the BALEAP list earlier this year, very interesting! A great forum.

  2. Following up on the original post, I met one of my NES students last week and they were very clear about this: No one minded me being a NNEST. Any comments or actions by the students that may have come across to me as critical were so for different reasons but explicitly not related to my mother tongue / nationality. So apparently it was “all in my head”. Since my “coming out” happened quite late in the course, my “authority” may have been established enough already?
    With my new students, I’m more relaxed and I seem to have told my lower level group that I’m German. The other day they asked me “how did you do it, why is your English so good”, which reminded me of the view of a NNEST as successful role model. With this confidence, I might include my first language (with the implication of being a learner myself) into the “all about your teacher” activity at the start of the next course?

    • That’s great news. and I think it only goes to say that the belief that many recruiters have that all students always want to have classes with a native speaker is not all together accurate. What all students want are good teachers, i.e. teachers who they can learn from and model, teachers who inspire and motivate them.

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