Confronting Native Speakerism (Part One)

On March 9th, 2019, I spent a lovely afternoon at the KOTESOL Gwangju-Jeonnam Regional Conference.  I embraced opportunities for professional development, networking, and distraction from more vice-like pastimes.

One presentation entailed a discussion on Native-Speakerism in Korea.  As a U.S. citizen, I grew up learning that most sociological -ism’s implied “discrimination against” or “systems that oppress.”

Racism = systems that oppress people of color.

Sexism = systems that oppress women.

Ageism = systems that oppress the elderly.

As a privileged white male, my ignorance often blinds me to the opposite side of ism’s – “systems of privilege.”

Racism = systems that privilege whites.

Sexism = systems that privilege men.

Ageism = systems that privilege the young.

Craftism – A system of discrimination that privileges craft beers over more mass-produced brands.

I never heard the term “native-speakerism” prior to the discussion.  My initial impression chose the wrong side of the coin.  I initially guessed that native-speakerism was “systems that discriminate against native English teachers.”

Fortunately, I admitted ignorance and my discussion partners set me straight.  After that, the discussion leader displayed the academic definition.

Native-speakerism is a neo-racist ideology that has a wide-ranging impact on how teachers are perceived by each other and by their students. By labeling teachers as separate ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’, it falsely positions them as culturally superior and inferior with separate roles and attributes. While Western in origin, native-speakerism is present across the profession and results in employment discrimination and divisive professional discourse.”  (Holliday, 2018)

The neo-racism stems from the preferencing of mother-tongue English speakers from predominantly white, Western nations (U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa) over mother-tongue English speakers of color (from Nigeria, Phillippines, Jamaica, Bahamas, etc.)  This ideology saturates Korea, where the vast majority of E-2 visa holders come from the aforementioned seven “white” countries (E-2 visas allow foreigners entrance for the purposes of teaching English conversation). While many Filipino English teachers do work in Korean public schools, they often work more hours, earn less pay, and engender less accommodating treatment than an English, Irish, or Canadian teacher.

Some extrapolate this evidence to theorize that native-speakerism serves as a proxy for race, class, education, and cultural superiority.  This is tough to ignore, especially when some private academy jobs still use the words “whites only” in 2019 job postings.  In essence, some contend that Korea adopts the concept of “native speaker” as a euphemism to say “Western-educated English speakers who are preferably white.”

I do, however, prefer my cherry blossoms white (which a tinge of pink).

One issue that many university teachers brought up is native-speakerism’s role in workplace isolation.  Despite many native teachers holding masters and doctorate degrees, schools often pigeonhole them into English conversation classes.  Many hold degrees in wide-ranging disciplines such as education and political science. Some even possess the requisite Korean knowledge to teach courses in Korean.  Yet school administrators prefer to keep them in a box – an “English class only” box.

Others hypothesize that native-speakerism contributes to an inferior teacher quality here in Korea.  It seems that many private academies and educational offices give preference to applicants’ country of origin and physical appearance over actual teaching qualifications.  In this case, native-speakerism serves as a false proxy for language teaching competency.

In the classroom, I sometimes felt the pull of native-speakerism – a kind of otherness and cultural power imbalance.  Early in my Korean teaching experience, one of my co-teachers kindly cautioned me to speak only English in class.

“Ian, it is probably best if students don’t think you know Korean.”

His advice came from a place of care.  I understood why he said it. In an English speaking and listening class, students get the most value when they are exposed to the most English input as possible.  Moreover, if they cannot fall back on Korean to ask or answer questions, they must strain their English linguistic resources – a process that can improve fluency.

“Speak English, I say!”  “Yes, teacher.  I am sorry.”

However, I building a linguistic barrier between myself and my Korean-speaking students also wasted an opportunity for empathy.  I am a native English-speaker learning Korean as a foreign language. My students are native Korean-speakers learning English as a foreign language.  We can relate to each other on a fundamental level as language learners.  Yet I sometimes worried that my feigned ignorance suggested a cultural arrogance.

“He doesn’t care to learn Korean, so why should I care to learn English?”

This brings up a whole host of other questions regarding the use of L1 (mother tongue) in the classroom.  How much Korean should a native English teacher speak in a classroom? How much Korean knowledge demonstration is necessary to communicate empathy between two language learners?  Would too much Korean damage the purpose of the class (challenging students to listen and speak in English)? If so, is there a “safe dose?” These questions extend beyond the scope of this topic but are worth considering nonetheless.

Next week I will consider my own thoughts and feelings about native-speakerism and how it affects my perception and life in Korea.

In the meantime, here is a tastefully-painted baseball mural.

One thought on “Confronting Native Speakerism (Part One)

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