Tuesday, 2 July 2013
The importance of being a nonnative teacher of English
Non-native EFL teachers are versatile. They are at home with the language(s) and culture(s) they share with their students, but they also know the relevant terrain inhabited by the target language, be that a certain use of ESP/EAP, EIL or maybe English as spoken by native speakers in their communities. This makes non-native teachers uniquely suited to be agents facilitating learning by mediating between the different languages and cultures
through appropriate pedagogy. But in order to do this, teachers need to be able to draw on a solid education: they need to be familiar with current issues in methodology as they are discussed by the profession world-wide, they need to be well informed about their own students’ specific requirements and the local educational framework they are operating in, and proficient enough in the target language so as to be comfortable themselves about the task at hand. Above all, they need to have an understanding of the principles underlying various (and sometimes conflicting) methodologies in order to make informed choices that benefit their learners. This may often require resolving potential conflicts and reconciling seeming contradictions. To look at an example, the consensus about priorities in curriculum design and methodology as seen from the Inner Circle seems fairly unproblematic. For instance, in his survey article ‘TESOL at Twenty-Five: What are the Issues?’, Brown (1993) says the following about these two areas: “efforts are being
made to make curricula more content-centred and task-based, with an emphasis on pressing global issues”, and “our methods are, in turn, increasingly oriented towards cooperative, learner-centered teaching in which learner strategy training plays a significant role” (Brown 1993:16). There is an implication of generality here, but who are ‘we’? And where are these efforts made, and by whom? What can be stated with such confidence in one setting, the one that usually calls the tune, is not so straightforward in another, to which it is transferred: what do the terms ‘task-based’, ‘co-operative’ and ‘learner-centred’ mean to an EFL teacher in Indonesia, or Romania, or Austria for that matter? And what is perceived as ‘pressing global issues’ there? We may be faced here
with what Widdowson (1990) calls ‘problems with solutions’:
One is tempted to suppose that if a particular role-relationship between teacher and learners is transactionally effective in one set of circumstances then it will transfer (and should be transferred) to others. But the effectiveness may depend on a particular interactional role-relationship between teacher and pupil which is simply not sanctioned as educationally desirable in a different social situation. A humanistic, group therapy approach to pedagogy may be highly effective ... in places which favour person-oriented education, but impossible to implement in places where different educational ideology calls for a very different kind of interactional engagement in class, one based on clear positional definition established by tradition.
(Widdowson 1990: 187)
It is precisely with respect to such different traditions that non-native teachers can be versatile mediators: as insiders of the culture in which they teach, they are in a position to exploit materials and methods in a way which is meaningful in their setting and enhances their students’ learning. This may in68 VIEWS some cases involve an interpretation of concepts and a use of materials which is a far cry from the original intentions of Inner Circle authors. Kramsch &
Sullivan (1996) give a beautiful illustration of such a transformation in a Vietnamese EFL classroom. They show how the teacher brings his role as mediator to bear on the British-made textbook in such a way that it becomes consistent with Vietnamese educational tradition, and recast in methodological procedures that are appropriate and meaningful in this totally different context. Thus
activities which, in line with current Western ideas of education, are intended to get students to truthfully answer questions about themselves, individually or in small groups, are instead used for inviting the whole class to respond together, with students calling out answers simultaneously - the singular ‘you’ of the textbook questions is reinterpreted as the plural ‘you’ of the classroom as
family. Also, the strength of Vietnam’s rich oral tradition and love of poetry makes language learning an occasion for verbal creativity and ‘poetic licence’.
The students do not bare their souls to each other with personal opinions. They do not ‘negotiate group consensus’ on issues, or brainstorm ideas. They listen to each other, carefully challenging each others’ wording, completing each others’ stories.
(Kramsch & Sullivan 1996:209)
In this classroom, the teacher is both facilitator, through whom his students encounter the foreign language and culture, and respected mentor in the Confucian tradition, to whom his students look for moral guidance. And it is this skilful negotiation of his dual role, his ‘pedagogic licence’, that makes him a successful mediator."