Language Myth of Being Native-like!

By: Faten

For a long time, languages are actually associated with certain ideologies and attitudes that shape the way how one language is used or perceived. It is interesting that Van Herk (2012) tapped on the various language myths that we, as ESL learners or teachers, exposed to almost every day which creates somehow language anxiety.

Having Lauren spoken about language anxiety on FaceTime yesterday, she mentioned very sensitive issue that attached with me as English second language learner and teacher. She spoke about three types of people who might experience language anxiety such as; multilinguals, elders and more advanced L2 speakers. Personally, what is make me feel anxious toward the language is the fact that I have to sound like natives of English in order to be advanced L2 learner or teacher. It is actually one of the language myths that strongly appeared in almost all of my language educational life. I remember when I was in the high school that I was pushed to sound like native Americans by my English teacher in order to do the class presentation perfectly! At that time, I spent plenty of time watching American English YouTube channels and movies with no subtitle and I believed at that time these were the most accurate and advanced English version existed in the world.

Interestingly, reading Pavlenko’s (2009) article reminded me of my experience as both language learner and teacher. It brought me to the fact that upon all of my ESL classes in the middle and high school, none of the language teachers have actually mentioned the different vernaculars, dialects or even accents in English. There were only two types of spoken English at that time, good English which is native like or bad English which is in fact the Arabic English accent. In terms of teaching field, American English accent is actually considered as English speaking model which is highly privileged in any teaching language job application in Saudi Arabia. I remember when I was fulfilling my internship in the TESOL bachelor program in Saudi Arabia, I was required to achieve a story telling class for 3rd grade language students. Then by the end of that class, I should receive an evaluation sheet that tells me if I met the requirement to be qualified for teaching a language. I can not forget one of my supervisor comment who stated that “Your English sounds like a native speaker English and that is good for the kids to understand and follow up with the narrative of the story” so I received a good evaluation for that project. Now, when I enrolled in many sociolinguistics classes, I noticed that to be problematic behaviour.  It is an overwhelming responsibility and mis-defined ideology of a spoken language that has created language anxiety for many language teachers and learners.

Hence, my questions to you:

  • As a teacher, how can you create a safe space for your students and help them eliminate the misunderstood vision of being “native-like speakers”?
  • In case of my country and the fact that they only accept teachers who sound like native speakers, what are your suggestions to the ministry of educations who have such an attitude toward hiring only “native-like” teachers?
  • In your opinion, what factors that keep this type of language myth is still alive today in many language classrooms?

 

References:

Pavlenko, A. (2003). ” I Never Knew I Was a Bilingual”: Reimagining Teacher Identities in TESOL. Journal of Language, Identity, and education2(4), 251-268.

Van Herk, G. (2012). What is sociolinguistics (Vol. 6). John Wiley & Sons.

 

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5 thoughts on “Language Myth of Being Native-like!”

  1. Geraldine Gras (comment #5):
    Hi Faten,

    Thank you for your post and sharing some of the emotions you went through as a English learner in relation to the concept of “native-like”. I was not present in our last class so I am quite sad to hear all I missed out on. I wanted to reply to your post because I am about to publish my second blog post, which, I believes somewhat relates to issues you’ve underlined in your post.

    I truly believe that as time passes, the term “native-like” will lose it’s definition because “native-like” today has NOTHING to do with the “native-like” of 50 years ago. The students in our second language courses have also changed, however our perception of a language such as English (and how it should be taught), has not. Many factors contribute to this language myth. For example, most learners of English will encounter Shakespeare (from close, or far) at one point in their English learning. I studied Shakespeare year after year in high school and never once did a teacher refer to Shakespeare’s use of English as anything else but “articulate”, “beautiful” or “proper”. Yet, when teachers heard us signing rap songs in English (even with no swear words), we were told to stop as our use of English was no longer “appropriate” or “up to part”. As 15-16 year old students, we were told that the English we understood and used was not acceptable, and we should be “inspired by the original use of English” done by Shakespeare (thy, the, thi… excuse me, what?).

    Students are only exposed to one form of a language, and this varies from country to country. In North America you are encouraged to use American English, while in Europe – the original English spoken by real Englishmen is the point of reference (UK). In order places such as St-Marteen, you must use local English with a mix of Creole – or else you stand out, not in such a great way. We only expose students to what we believe is the “proper” form of the language, but then ask them to communicate in various contexts using the same old form. In my book, that’s pretty much the same as asking students to always walk – no matter if they’re late, if it’s a race, if their friends are hopping or if the ground as turned into broken glass. We guarantee they’ll miss out on conversations, on the fun.

    I am not sure there’s a solution except the one of showing students that an English speaker has no mold, or specific accent or pronunciation. A English speaker comes in all shapes, sizes and colours. An English speaker uses English to communicate. If he or she does so successfully (is understood), then native-like or not, who cares (a lot of people, I know…).

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  2. Emmanouela Tisizi:
    Dear Faten,
    Thank you for sharing this post! The fact that many ESL teachers are being discriminated against merely for not sounding (or looking!) native-like is indeed very depressing. I believe that the way to confront this is through research coupled with theory. By conducting and publishing studies on the benefits of multilingual and multicultural classrooms not only do we legitimize all the linguistic and cultural resources of the students, but also those of the teachers. I like to think that the more researchers and theorists find evidence to support their case, the more the institutions around the world will be forced to take these into account and adjust their hiring practices.

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  3. Hi Faten,

    Thanks for sharing your experience and opinions with us. The TESOL training is Saudi Arabia is quite new to me and the story-telling training is interesting! However, I think there is nothing like “wrong” in pursuing native-like English because we want others to better understand us. To put ourselves in others’ shoes, we feel much easier and more comfortable talking with people who can speak our mother tongue fluently or at at least clearly. Communication is a process in which both sides are exchanging information and negotiating for meaning. You won’t want to leave the burden to the other side trying really hard to guess what you mean. That being said, accent is reasonable and understandable as well. We can hardly erase that part in our L2, no matter how hard we try. What I want to state is that we should not stop making the effort to improve our pronunciation, meanwhile it is not sensible to judge a person, especially a teacher, by his or her accent. The ideology that is to be passed on to students ought to cover both the necessity to improve their pronunciation together with recognition of their own unique identity. Though saying is always easier than doing, we would find the best way to articulate the idea anyway.

    Liting

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  4. Thank you for sharing this, Faten!

    I think being a native-like speaker is not a bad idea, but the question is: to what extent is it possible for a person who learned English as a second language to speak “native-like” English? This leads to another question: What is the standard that should be set for English as a foreign or second language? In some countries like my country and yours we are encouraged to be a native-like speaker, while we are not equipped to do so. It is especially unlikely to be native-like when the language is learned after the critical period for language learning as it becomes harder for learners to pick up the accent of any of the versions of the target language. I think this idea still has a strong presence in traditional education systems, but the idea of being native-like has started to sound old fashioned as people recognise that the main purpose of language learning is communication and the goal of learning L2 would be achieved as long as the learners could communicate and express themselves clearly using L2.

    Raheel

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  5. Thank you very much for such an interesting and engaging blog post, Faten! I think you’ve done a great job of critiquing the dubious concept of “native-like proficiency,” and it was really cool to read about your personal experiences learning and teaching English in Saudi Arabia. In response to your second question, I believe that recruiting teachers who do not necessarily sound “native-like” is incredibly important for second language learning, as the teacher’s variety of the target language might seem attainable to students who would otherwise feel deficient compared to native speakers. In this way, teachers who do not sound “native-like” serve as positive models for second language learners by broadening the scope of who can speak a language skillfully and proficiently. Thanks, Faten!

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