The Natives (Originally Published 9/1/10)

You may notice a slight shift in the things that we end up talking about, as I am now officially a grad student (as of Monday), and most of my reading will be related to that. I'll still peruse other things, but expect to talk about education. And education is interesting, so we'll always have something worth discussing.

All right, so I cracked open my books for the first time the other day, and I came across definitions of ESL and EFL (the F is for Foreign) and other acronyms. By the way, most of us who taught in Korea were actually EFL teachers: ESL is defined as teaching English in a location where the language is used in daily activity. So when I teach the language here in NYC it's ESL, but in Korea, they learn it in school and then walk outside and it's time for Hangeul. Thus, EFL.

Anyway, two of my three readings talked about something called “the native teacher fallacy,” which you have probably intuited without giving a name to it. Essentially, as all of us know, schools love to hire native teachers purely based on their being native speakers with little regard to their, you know, skills as an educator.

Think for a moment. How many people have you met who have our job and should probably just be partying on a beach somewhere instead of in a classroom? The advantage we are assumed to have is our familiarity with the language – and this is true – but the disadvantage of this is what we never had to learn the language, not in terms of structure and rules and such beyond “i before e,” and so we all have had those moments where we're trying to explain things that just make sense to us but are typically illogical features of the English language. And this is a lot of the reason why.

Of course, our pronunciation is going to be better – sometimes. Even if we don't have Korean (or whatever country we're in) accents, we still have idiosyncratic ways of speaking, unless we're trained newscasters or some such. Consequently, the students will pick up our patterns, even if they're incorrect. And if we've been speaking our own way for decades, we're not really going to know if we're incorrect in the first place.

So, the fallacy is just the assumption that native teachers automatically trump non-native teachers. Each of you knows five people that are perfect examples of this not being true.

On the other hand, well, you've seen how lazy and ill-equipped non-native teachers can be. Most of the time they talk vaguely in the direction of sleeping kids, and somehow the kids can reach 12th grade without knowing that you're only supposed to say “Nice to meet you” one goddamn time.

Within each teacher population, there are talented and dedicated individuals, and those that make the rest of the group look bad.

So what's to be done?

Well, if you're a teacher, whether it's ESL or EFL, elementary or secondary school, private or public, just take this into account when you do your job. You are not automatically talented because you're a native teacher, and you do not automatically know more about the construction of the language. Linguistics and related things are an entirely different discipline than fluency.

Knowing this, what we all need to do is evaluate ourselves. What am I an expert in, and where can I improve? What do my co-workers know better than I do, and what can I learn from them? And, of course, what do the students really need?

It is certainly possible that your school won't give you the freedom to do what the students need, and that's probably one of the biggest problems I saw while I was there (and I see it as I work here too).

But if we all take a step back and really think about the job we have, it will benefit us, it will benefit our colleagues, and, most importantly, it will benefit the students.

And if you don't care to take the time to evaluate yourself at all, then go party on a beach somewhere and leave the hard work to the rest of us.

Peace and love,
Justin PBG


Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality