Guest blog: More on the NEST/non-NEST divide (or does it exist at all?)

Istanbul, 2007: your humble blogger glad-handing audience to NEST showmanship
Istanbul, 2007: your humble blogger glad-handing audience amenable to NEST showmanship

When I wrote my original NEST/non-NEST blog, I didn’t think I was even scratching the surface of the discussion which trundles on about the qualities that native speakers or non-native speakers bring to the teaching of English.

My main thought was about the line-ups of plenary speakers we usually see, almost invariably dominated by native speakers (and males, but that’s a matter which I’ll leave to one side for now). I wondered aloud why teachers didn’t want to listen to people who shared both their working conditions and their mother tongue.

However, I got some really interesting replies which quite surprised me. I wasn’t surprised that they were interesting – I knew that would be the case with the brainy readership of my blog :).

I was surprised by the fact that this is a topic which still touches a raw nerve with a lot of people, and not just with non-NESTs who feel excluded from doing plenaries.

I asked two of the people who commented to write a little more. The two I asked were Alicia Afanasyeva  (Алиция Войшнис), a teacher in St Petersburg, Russia and Peter Whiley, an Englishman who’s lived and worked in Poland for many years.

Alicia’s original comment was as follows:

My first desire when I come to listen to NESTs is just to plunge into the language I love. To listen to its authentic music, intonation, phrases. If the NEST’s ideas are worth listening to (and they mostly are, only once I had a feeling that the speaker was just filling the gap) we are all yours.

Wow – a kind of love letter to the NEST plenary speaker.

When I asked her to expand on her idea, this is what she wrote about conference speakers:

They say teachers are the worst listeners: always ready to interrupt, evaluating, impatient, talking with their neighbours in the middle of your monologue. Non-NESTs who want to lecture in front of other non-NESTs must be sure of their English or bold enough to face people who’ll start looking for the mistakes (sometimes unconsciously) as soon as the presentation begins.

In this case, NESTs are safe, for teachers will listen to get new ideas etc.

Alicia shifted the debate by making this additional point about authors who don’t work in the country where they lecture.

Most NESTs I have listened to were AUTHORS, not teachers. They WERE teachers some or many years ago and wrote their books according to their memories. But times change and so do students..

It would therefore be good for the native-speaker authors to write a textbook, then test it themselves or at least give it to a group of non-NESTs of different qualifications (aces and beginners) and then publish the book. It would also be great to have a non-NEST co-author of the country the book is being written for.

And for the NESTs to know the language of the country where they are speaking? Ha-ha, how many languages would you know then?

In spite of all, I would like to be trained by a NEST.

Peter Whiley wrote this original comment:

Having done some MA research into the NEST/Non-NEST issue, I have strong thoughts about it. Sadly, the Non-NESTs are still shy to promote themselves, especially women, from my experiences in Poland. However, there is a factor of enjoying listening to the different styles of NESTs at Conferences….so the Polish Non-NESTs tell me!

Peter added these thoughts subsequently:

Further to my blog comment, I just wanted to add a few more thoughts re NESTs and Non-NESTs. Apparently, your mate Peter Medgyes coined the term ‘Non-NEST’, somewhat ironic that a Native Speaker wasn’t culpable. 

I have written two articles for  ‘IATEFL Issues’ protesting against previous articles promoting the concept of a ‘NEST/Non-NEST divide’. 

I think there is more divide, in reality, between NESTs and NESTs and between non-NESTs and non-NESTs. I am competing against other NESTs for work, but I work side-by-side with non-NESTs. So, there is little cause/need for rivalry between the NESTs and non-NESTs. 

What annoys me is that there are experts who are constantly undermining the work and value of NESTs. Others jump on the bandwagon, and few ever defend NESTs – it’s not ‘politically-correct’. So, I champion the NEST cause, because most NESTs I know do a good job and are contributing something of value to the communities they serve and we are still wanted and appreciated. 

I also champion the Non-NEST cause, because they do a great job very often, as you said in your blog, Ken (and yes, Romanians are especially dedicated and impressive from my experience).  

And this about non-NESTs as conference speakers:  
At IATEFL conferences in Poland, I always attend the workshops delivered by two Polish guys, Jacek and Olek, because they are always so excellent and entertaining as well as useful in terms of ideas. They have built up a big fan base, too. 

However, IATEFL Poland nearly always look to native speakers to fill the plenary spots, as in Romania. This year, though, there will be two Polish Plenary speakers. The main problem is finding them – few are willing, it seems, to promote themselves and get on that big stage.

Workshops are viewed differently. Some Polish colleagues see the big plenary speech concept as a ‘showman experience’. Hence, they like watching Jeremy Harmer in action. His style of presentation is what they admire. 

You, Luke Prodromou, Hugh Dellar, George Pickering, etc. are also seen as ‘showmen’, and that’s what they feel is beyond them. Grzegorz Spiewak, a major Polish speaker, presents in the same style, largely, as you guys. He uses plenty of humour. 

Thanks to Alicia and Peter for adding to their original comments.

As usual, I will leave the last word to my wife Dede, whose MA dissertation focussed on student perceptions of being taught by native speakers and non-native speakers.

In all cases, students were being taught by both in the same week (but not usually at the same time) and also in all cases, the groups were mono-lingual, and the non-NEST was a native speaker of the students’ language.

After sifting through a pile of responses as tall as the average conference plenary speaker, Dede found that there was one over-riding factor which influenced who the students enjoyed being taught by, NESTs and non-NESTs. And that was: teacher enthusiasm.

Any thoughts?


33 thoughts on “Guest blog: More on the NEST/non-NEST divide (or does it exist at all?)

  1. Yes, I’m sure that the teacher’s personality is the main factor of our choice. It’s like going to the theatre- you look for your favourite actors first.

  2. I just tried to tweet a reply to this and Ken said best to post here so unfortunately I have to write more than 140 characters.
    This is my big, huge, massive, enormous, titanic, (any more words for oki) dislike of EFL in Japan.
    We are corralled like cows in our categories: natives v non-natives. We have separate ‘professional bodies’, publishers, seminars, workshops, textbooks and ‘ways of teaching’, perpetuated by a constant flow of stereotypical rubbish from all kinds of places. What is most important though is to go beyond the norm, against the flow, and promote an atmosphere of ‘sharedness’ (not allowed to use the word but made it anyway). In this sense I can work with my Japanese colleagues and not fear the divisions so searched for by researchers (they are like the paparazzi, looking for bad stuff) and get on with our collaborative efforts to make, teach, engage, inspire etc!
    The divide exists and is perpetuated by researchers, teachers, learners but is all dependent on context. Those inspirational white ‘men’ (NS) on your list are equally matched by inspirational Japanese (NNS) but the problem is we still give those NS more credit..

  3. There is much better integration in the area of young learners. As you go up the age groups things become more and more segregated and atrophied. At the young learner events I attend there is a good mix of NS and NNS. Actually the balance there is usually skewed gender-wise. Inordinately more women than men. Can’t win, eh!

  4. I think it is a complex interplay of lots of different factors really, and it is not divided along simple lines. There are plenty of NESTs who support equality, and also non-NESTS who still think NESTs (and their English models) are superior. So for me the defining factor is what world view the individual has and this is not dependent on nationality or passport. Perhaps that is why the debate often ends up in an impasse because it is assumed each ‘side’ will represent a simplified version of how they should react? This debate is deeply embedded in hundreds of years of historical development and the spread of English globally as well so no wonder it takes quite a bit of unpacking. Of course teacher enthusiasm is really important, but I don’t think that it is possible to separate individual character traits from the way people’s social views are constructed. The prevailing view in ELT is *still* that ‘native speaker’ is best (and that is a form of power that circulates around us all the time). It is not really possible, in my opinion, to exist outside this. Of course, if people say that this doesn’t matter, it is not really that it doesn’t exist, just that they are choosing not to acknowledge it perhaps? That is very different. The position of non-recognition is not going to solve the problem, although it may help to make the classroom a nicer place in the short term.

    For me, recognising inequality is also not about jumping on a “politically correct bandwagon”(I found this position a little defensive?) – it is about taking real steps to make sure that the profession reflects those working at the chalkface. In that sense, yes conference line ups should contain a more varied selection, but this won’t happen all on its own, it needs to be pressurised for, as people are not automatically aware of the disparity. Conference organisers have to sit down and actively address this – I am happy to say its not that difficult (having done it on more than one occassion on a conference organising committee) as there are so many brilliant and talented non-NEST (both male and female) speakers who would love the chance to contribute – and when they do, they are very often breath taking (I can give names and examples here if it would help). Additionally, recognising that NESTs and non-NESTs are equal does not mean negating the strengths of either – which is why I think going into a dialogue of defending either one, against the other, is not the solution. What is needed is recognition of the contribution both make on fairer terms. Debates often become polarised when they are approached in this way.

    So we need awarness raising, recognition of how these views became embedded, and action to address the inequality. This of course means NESTs working out how they can do their bit to address this. There are so many things that *can* be done. If you want me to share how I tried to redress the balance in my EL space, happy to share.

    Thanks for the great blog Ken – this is a really important issue.

    1. thanks, sara – can i take just one line from that and comment?

      “The prevailing view in ELT is *still* that ‘native speaker’ is best (and that is a form of power that circulates around us all the time).”

      Isn’t it incredible if this is true? Another difference we haven’t even mentioned is that a non-NEST has had to learn English and has been trained as a teacher.

      There are still an awful lot of NESTs working in this business for whom neither of these things are true. They have acquired English as a first language and have had a month or less (or no) training.

      Fewer and fewer untrained NESTs out there, but the problem is, in many countries in forum situations – courses, conferences – the locals defer to the sometimes batty ideas of the untrained or inexperienced native speakers.

  5. Right Ken. The idea (or ideology if you like) doesn’t reflect the reality. The superiority is granted in terms of beliefs about ownership of the language by the native speakers, as opposed to that being translated into visible “skill” in a widespread sense amongst practising NEST teachers (it is still the case that sometimes having a British or American passport is enough to get someone a job without any formal training after all). Unfortunately ideas, once they take hold, need time and effort to break down. As I said, I think we need to celebrate the strengths of both, whilst working towards our profession reflecting the majority of teachers in the world working at the chalkface, who are, I think we would all agree, Non-NEST teachers of English.

    1. A great part of my job involves choosing people to take a position of a teacher in my language school. Giving priority to a native was notorious in the past. With experience I’ve learned there are lots of native teachers who simply are not able to teach. They don’t have the profile of a teacher. Apart from great language competence there are many other factors that can’t be omitted. Personality and dealing with people skill are major ones.

  6. Ken, it’s a fascinating topic. Alicia Afanasyeva’s comments in what you call her ‘love letter to the NEST plenary speaker’ ring very true to what I’ve heard. You also say in response to Sara’s comment “The prevailing view in ELT is *still* that ‘native speaker’ is best (and that is a form of power that circulates around us all the time).”
    “Isn’t it incredible if this is true? “
    Yes, it is. And it’s similar to the NEST approach to de-culturalizing English which I and many others – perhaps you as well – tried to adopt in the 1980s. Gradually, we realized that teachers at conferences and in our textbooks actually liked to learn more about the cultural background of the language. (Actually, it worries me that this sometimes occurs to the exclusion of other cultures, focusing mostly or only on NEST cultures, but that’s a different matter. )
    Just to follow up Sara’s comments about conference organizers going for non-NEST speakers, the IATEFL committee, of which Sara was a very recent member, and I was ten years ago, went out of our way to ensure that we heard from both genders and from all corners of the world. In 1999 Svetlana Ter-Minasova was my choice as opening plenary speaker, first woman, first non-NEST. She was knock-out! But I now wonder if this positive discrimination is what the international audience wants …

    1. Thanks, Simon…

      I should have given IATEFL UK credit where it was due. I was thinking more of national conferences in country X, where not a single plenary speaker is X-ian (or X-ish).

  7. I really think this whole NS vs NNS dichotomy is a perfect sham, and wish it would go away. I’ve worked in places where NS teachers are the minority, and in places where the NNS teachers represented the minority; but in all of these locations, there was one constant – good teachers., and not so good ones. And it really didn’t depend on whether they were NS or NNS teachers at all.

  8. Ken, in response to your comment to my comment… thanks, understood. Actually, I wasn’t looking for any credit, nor would Sara, I guess. The point you raise is thought provoking, and my thoughts were successfully provoked.
    BTW, I think your last comment to Sandy is spot on.

  9. A blogger types in the middle of nowhere and the world (wide web) resounds with thought provoking discussions.
    Thanks for this edu-hilarious blog – it’s a riveting read! I read the whole things twice and I am looking forward to new posts.
    As to the topic at hand: my experience with NESTs is limited. Sadly, a lot of NESTs who come to teach in Serbia are untrained and sometimes even illiterate which often goes unnoticed by our students (and their parents) who see them as owners of the language whose skills and methods are not questioned.
    On the other hand, trained NESTs are stars of the conferences and I too would rather listen to them (unless the topic is Contrastive Linguistics) than my Serbian colleagues, because NEST plenaries and workshops are a rare treat.
    And I can confirm the idea that non NESTs and women, in particular, are unwilling to face the hungry crowd. But they do throw great workshops and maybe that’s for the best. Let the kings enjoy the fanfare if the knights and dames are intimidated by it.
    does that make any sense? maybe it just sounds right at 2 am…

    1. Thank you for this, Olivera. You may have written it at 2am, but the important thoughts shine through. The issue of untrained native speaker teachers is one which will be recognised throughout Central Europe and beyond…

  10. Working in Nepal a couple of years ago with another NEST colleague, we were trying to set up a system whereby the work we were doing could be cascaded to others, and though the people we were working with were for the most part excellent, more highly qualified than us, and great trainers, they opined that it would be better if we co-trained it with them as that would give the training more weight – just because of our NEST status. I’m not sure how one breaks out of this vicious circle.

    1. Admirable modesty and concern, Andy, but maybe co-training is the way forward everywhere – as long as the NESTs make it clear that they have as much to learn about the local culture and conditions as they have to offer about, say, nuances of language.

      1. Maybe co-training is the way. My Nepali colleagues certainly seemed to think so. (It wasn’t even language teaching/learning stuff, it was leadership and management stuff).

        By the way, I learned a new word in Nepal – “JIJO” – referring to foreign consultants, trainers, plenary speakers, etc who “jet in, jet out” without knowing or learning a great deal about local context.

  11. It’s great to be blogging but doesn’t it look like a small chat of clever people without any practical result?

  12. Hi Alicia, thx for the compliment (I think) about us all being clever (I think that might be stretching it a bit in my case as I failed my maths ‘o’ level three times!). To be honest, blogging for me is only ever about making clearer in my own mind the link between ideas and practice. I would imagine for everyone blogging here they are all applying their beliefs in lots of practical ways out in the world. So the practical result is that from discussion we all change our way of thinking, actions, teaching and relationship to others?? What did you have in mind to widen the blog discussion beyond the blog – I am certainly always open to joining initiatives that are around. Perhaps you have some to suggest? I am happy to offer practical examples of how I have put my blog ideas into action in my real life if you are interested.

    1. Alicia, do you REALLY think conversations like this have no practical result – or was that another coal on the fire of the debate?

      1. I thought about some practical result as soon as I sent my reply, sorry, if my words seemed provoking. The discussions here make me think, make me feel happy that there are so many people who I can share my ideas with.
        Nevertheless. the first thing I look for as soon as I visit this blog is your SHARED IDEAS, Ken. I know, there are some files I’ll definitely use in my work.
        By the way, I could email the tongue -twister “Whether the weather..” sung as a song ( I composed the tune) and I would be happy to find more shared ideas.

    2. Hi, Sara! It would be great to get these practical examples of yours. I’ve just written about a tongue twister which I like to sing with my students.

  13. I’ve just realised reading this post that a great reason non-NESTs are not so keen on being plenary speakers is the fact we would face people who’ll start looking for the mistakes as soon as we start talking. I’ve spent few years in England, taught for about 9 years in Brazil (which improved my English even more), wrote a self-study course book and constantly keep writing and speaking in English but I still am self-conscious about my language skills. Wanting it or not, non-NEST speakers feel that pressure. Maybe we shouldn’t. Since we were not “born” speaking English we have to put an extra effort not only into learning it but also into teaching it. Whoever has mastered both of the skills should be proud of it. But then, how to overcome the self-consciousness…
    Anyway, each of the mentioned: NESTs and non-NESTs, has a great advantage – NESTs in language domination, non-NESTs in knowledge on how to teach in their own environment.

  14. When we see a good group of students with good knowledge of a language we ask who their teacher is and usu. don’t ask whether he is a NEST or not.

  15. Dear NESTs and non-NESTs!

    My congratulations on a Teacher’s Day!
    God bless you and your family!

    Everything has its limit- iron ore cannot be educated into gold.
    Michel Montaign

    Thinking is one thing no one has ever been able to tax.

    Charles Cattering

    INVITATION Shell SIlverstein

    If you are a dreamer, come in,
    If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
    A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
    If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
    For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
    Come in!
    come in!

    1. Alicia, as I told you, you should be blogging – a St Petersburg teacher’s perspective would be very interesting.

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