Simon Desmarais – Blog post 1
Over the course of my life, I have devoted a lot of time to learn languages. I come from a small town in Québec, so my first language is French, but since about 2009 I have been living my life mainly in English (as a result of frequent traveling and studying at McGill). I have also spent some time learning Japanese, Korean and Chinese. Even though by linguistic definition I am a L2 speaker of English, I am now at a point where I consider myself even more than near-native: I have a slight accent, but I possess the same language intuition as native speakers.
When I was working in China, I was quite self-conscious of my accent, because in China ‘native speaker-ism’ concerning English is alive and well, and most places are only willing to hire native speakers, so when I was there I was not too open about French and I said that English was my first language, which I wouldn’t really consider a lie, because of my level, but also not the whole truth. Nevertheless, on a more personal level I was also worried about the effect my accent would have on children: would I teach them to pronounce words the wrong way?
Over the course of my two years over there, I realized a few things. First of all, since my accent is Québécois, and very slight, people usually can’t even detect it or they just brush it off as a Canadian accent. Second, I worked with several teachers from the UK, from all parts of England (Liverpool, Birmingham, Yorkshire) and Scotland. The regional dialects many of those teachers spoke was a lot more non-standard than mine was, compared to American English, the standard by which most Chinese schools want their students to learn English. If I considered my accent to be ‘wrong’, then my colleagues’ accents were even more wrong than mine. Of course, none of our accents were wrong, and they all simply belonged to different varieties of English.
These days, when I think about non-native teaching, I also think about the issue of transmission of culture. This is something I thought about a lot in China. Teaching language is teaching culture, and grammar and linguistic knowledge are but a small part of the language learning experience. Indeed, ideologies, attitudes and ways of thinking are also all inevitably transmitted. A Chinese teacher, with a specific set of values, teaching Chinese, a language shaped by this specific set of values, will therefore be a more ‘coherent package’ than me, with my Western values, teaching Chinese, even if my level of Chinese is as high as the native teacher. I can even apply this to my situation: as someone who grew up within a Québec cultural context, rather than a typical American/English context, like most of my colleagues, I could feel that my cultural references when teaching were different. I’ve only recently begun to think about this, and I’m not certain whether this is a problem or not, but it introduces several questions. Can a non-native teacher acquire knowledge of local culture equal to that of a native speaker? Does transmission of culture affect language learning significantly enough that one can perceive differences between students taught by native and non-native teachers? Does it even matter? I still don’t have the answers, but in my mind those questions certainly complicate the debate.