By Xiaoke Sun
This post is a real story happened lately about myself being Asian and becoming an English teacher in Montreal Chinese heritage school. It happens to correspond with the topic of ethnicity and language learning that we have talked previously. I would like to share the story, and you are more than welcomed to help me to figure out my current puzzle.
For quite a long time, I have questioned what is the fundamental criteria to be an English teacher. There is no doubt that having an advanced language proficiency is necessary. Besides, English pronunciation, as mentioned by Yerim in the previous post, is also commonly judged by people as it demonstrates one’s capacity to express themselves and to be understood. Despite of other factors, such as the ability of curriculum design, assessment, and so on, can it be concluded that one’s ability to exercise a language equals to one’s qualification for being an English teacher? If not, what other factors could influence the way of learning and teaching?
“You cannot teach me English because you are an Asian!” A kid shouted at me while I was walking into the grade 5 ESL classroom as a replacement teacher. Firstly, I felt quite offended in front of the class. Then, I (kind of ) admired his straightforwardness. I tried to comfort the whole class by admitting that English is not my first language, but they could still learn the language from me. However, unfortunately, the whole class was not convinced at all. They tried to shout out every single word that did not correspond to what they have learned in a white teacher’s class to prove I am not able to teach. For example, when I said “younger brother”, they argued “No, it’s little brother. You are wrong! ” Yet, the variety of language could not lead to the questioning of being linguistically right or wrong.
This story made me notice that language teaching is so closely related to ethnicity at school context, especially for students at young age, as they have not yet developed the understanding of learning, which in my opinion is an accumulation of knowledge, delivered by whoever is more advanced than the learners. In fact, students like to judge teacher’s appearance, age, and ethnicity. Being white, by their understanding, is significantly important for an English teacher.
Theoretically, Bourdieu (1991) argues that language has been more than an instrument of communication. It is also where power is formed and performed based on race, gender, sexuality, and social class identity. It is true that by the process of learning a language, people get empowered. However, oppositely, saying that speaking a language means one is empowered maybe not convince at all, because sexuality, gender, and social class may play crucial roles in forming the impression to someone or a certain group. We called it the stereotype or labeling.
Furthermore, students judge teachers by Ethnolinguistic Vitality (ELV). Rubenfeld et al. (2006), defined that ELV is determined according to collective or structural characteristics of a group such as demographic representation, social status, and institutional support. Me, as a young, Asian, female, non-native speaker of either English or French is seen as a low-ELV individual. Students think white individuals, even if their first language is not English, hold more credibility than yellow, or black teachers because of their general high social status in western countries. However, it is far from drawing a conclusion that yellow or black people cannot teach properly.
As being mentioned by Ibrahim(1999), Being and Becoming are two distinguished terms related to identity and ethnicity. “The former is an accumulative memory, and experience, and a conception upon which individuals interact with the world around them, whereas Becoming is the process of building this conception”(p. 354). For English non-native speakers, the Being is determined by born and the surrounding context as they grow up, however, the Becoming can be largely changed by their personal efforts and determination. For teachers candidates, as long as they acquired a high level of language, they are supposed to be able to teach regardless of their background. But at the same time, there are quite an amount of research arguing that non-native speakers could never attain the same language proficiency as native speakers because of Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) (Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam, 2008). Hence, theoretically, it rejects the previous idea that non-native speaker teachers could also teach the language excellently. This opinion also holds water because the pronunciation of a language speaker, as can be shown in this video, can hardly be changed after their critical period. Therefore, are people practically able to teach their second or third language?
My current exploration leads to an open conclusion. I’m still wondering and will keep exploring. Also, I’d like to leave the questions to the readers. What do you think about the issue of non-native speaker teachers? Do you think people are not qualified to teach if the target language is not their first language? I’m looking forward to hearing from you.
Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2008). The robustness of aptitude effects in near-native second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 30, 481-509.
Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and symbolic power (G. Raymond & M. Adamson, Trans) Cambridge: Polity Press
Ibrahim, A. E. K. M. (1999). Becoming black: Rap and hip-hop, race, gender, identity, and the politics of ESL learning. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 349-369
Rubenfeld, S., Clément, R., Lussier, D., Lebrun, M., & Auger, R. (2006). Second language learning and cultural representations: Beyond competence and identity. Language Learning, 56(4), 609-632.