Posted by:

Language Chauvinism in EFL: Assuming the missionary position

A lot of readers will be familiar with the scenario: A relatively unqualified or inexperienced white ‘native-speaking’ English teacher gains a position over a more highly-qualified or experienced Filipino or Singaporean because, well, this better suits the hiring committee’s myopic notion of what foreign English teachers are ‘supposed’ to look like. This is not a particularly novel insight of course — such prejudices in hiring practices are well-known among those in the profession.

 

Then there was my experience several years back, when the entire foreign teaching staff at my then-workplace were facing the axe. Now, I understand the nature of the marketplace, the need to balance costs and budgets, and that English teaching may not be a priority on the institution’s must-do list. But, when we asked why the foreign teachers were taking the brunt of the cutbacks, we were told, “Because you can always go back home.” Never mind that the place I considered my home — the one where my Japan-born and bred family lived — was located a few blocks away. Never mind that Mr. Hayashi could equally ‘go back to’ his home in Toyama or Ms. Watanabe to hers in Iwate. There was a prejudice underlying the policy — the belief that foreign teachers had a ‘real’ home elsewhere (and, presumably, a real other house, job, and family too) that made them more expendable. 

 

So I’m certainly aware of these narrow-minded attitudes surrounding all sides of the ELT diaspora, but today I’d rather focus upon one particular type of prejudice, the chauvinism that accompanies much of the teaching of English as a foreign language — often at the expense of belittling or undervaluing local English teachers (LETS). 

 

Several commentators in the field have published upon the possible imperialistic ramifications of teaching EFL and in doing so have discussed the dubious underlying policies or attitudes displayed by many involved in the ‘word trade’. Prominent among these researchers have been Pennycook, Canagarajah, Kubota, and Phillipson. Go ahead — Google ’em (I’m not writing a research paper here.)

 

To be frank, I’m sympathetic to a lot of the arguments they present but will also add a disclaimer: some of these researchers bring along extra socio-political baggage that I’m not willing to endorse. But for many of the arguments pertaining to chauvinistic attitudes underlying much EFL teaching — yes, I’m on board that train. Allow me to go over some of its more egregious manifestations below (and feel free to replace ‘Japan/Japanese’ with your EFL country of choice at any point):

 

The notion that ‘Japan needs to learn English’

 

Putting aside for a moment the fact that nations are not sentient beings and therefore don’t speak languages, it seems to me that the vast majority of Japanese, Indonesians, Poles, Brazilians, what-have-you are getting along with their lives just fine without using English. Why do those people ‘need’ to speak English? Solely to make it easier for Anglophone monolinguals to communicate with them in their own countries? 

 

Do people in certain professions need English — the hotel receptionist, the air traffic controller? Yes. Does mastering English help to open doors and increase possibilities for many? Indeed — I can see this with my medical students and colleagues. Does learning another language benefit learners in some intrinsic way? Generally, yes — languages are good brain food. But these are very different claims from that of the ‘Japan needs to learn English’ sort. That, is linguistic chauvinism.

 

The notion that ‘native’ pronunciation and accents are the goal/standard

 

Japanese English speakers ‘sound Japanese’. Shock! We’d better fix that right away. We all know accents are ‘wrong’. Isn’t this what the EFL chauvinist is thinking?  Why else then have students try to reproduce ‘native-style’ phonetics? 

 

Intelligibility should be the goal. Sure, some EFL learners force English sounds into the phonetic systems of their mother tongues, resulting in pronunciation that no one outside the region can understand (Katakana-ized English being a prime example). That needs work. And when a competent EFL speaker pronounces, for example, the word ‘analyzes’ with the stress on the 3rd syllable and renders it as ‘lee’, that too should be addressed. The point being made is here is that specific pronunciation flaws and overarching accents are different animals. So, why force learners to go beyond the level of intelligibility to that of mimicking native speakers? Why the need to have them sound ‘correct’ — meaning ‘just like us’.

 

The notion that Japanese English teachers emphasize rote memorization, grammar-translation, drills, and are generally mired in outdated pedagogies

 

B-B-But they do!! Claims like these remind me of people who say things like, ‘Everybody is having an affair, cheating on their partner’ — except for themselves of course. It’s what ‘other people’ are doing. Ingrained beliefs like this become articles of faith among the outsider community, gain meme traction on the internet, and eventually become the default interpretive mechanisms for anything that ‘those people’ (apparently hive-minded and monolithic in habit) do. 

 

After teacher-training hundreds of in-service Japanese English teachers, I have yet to meet one who admits to basing their pedagogy on rote and/or GT. Nor have I seen any sign of this in the several hundred ‘sankanbi’ (parent visitation lessons) that I’ve attended with my kids in Japanese schools. There is repetition – that is not rote. There are drills – again, not rote. Really, someone should do an in-depth study on how much LETs are employing rote, GT, or drills in their classes. I’m not sure it would be much higher than the amount being carried out by the foreign teachers.

 

Despite the fact that many leading figures in the field see a legitimate place in the EFL classroom for drills, GT, and choral repetition, many foreign teachers boast that they have climbed up the evolutionary ladder of EFL teaching by toting ‘the communicative approach’. Congratulations. You just placed yourself in 1985.

 

The notion that classes should be conducted only in English, the target language

 

My, isn’t it convenient to advocate, on pedagogical grounds, a policy that benefits people who can’t or don’t speak the local language while devaluing the role of LETs? Namely, us! Not only that but it’s — how can I put this in a hedging way — also stupid.

 

Congratulations to the Japanese Monkasho for their recent Darwin-awardesque creation of guidelines (not ‘rules’) calling for Japanese HS and JHS English teachers to conduct all their classes in English — even though I do not know of one respected authority or researcher who supports this outdated notion. Has somebody not noticed that EFL is not ESL — the latter in which target-language instruction is necessitated by the exigencies of the environment? Why endorse this ‘make-believe we are in an immersion scenario’ in the local language classroom?

 

L1 is a valuable and widely-used tool, a key resource, in the analysis of a 2nd language for anyone beyond the critical learning period. Why amputate this most helpful language-learning limb? Sure, some activities require only the use of English and there are some sections of a lesson that should be limited to English-only. But to require teacher and student metadiscourse to follow suit? Isn’t that the essence of linguistic chauvinism?

 

The notion that EFL teachers should focus on developing critical thinkers and/or global citizens because the ‘local education’ system does not allow students to develop these skills

 

This is the reigning champion of chauvinistic discourse — the old ‘we are critical and free thinkers and they are not’ motif. The corollary is the underlying notion that, ‘They need us. They need us to help them grow and mature as people. We have the truth, the light, and we must bestow it upon them because the poor lost lambs cannot find it by themselves’. Assume the missionary position, folks!

 

Of course, the ‘local system’ is always much inferior to our own because it is apparently self-evident that people of our cultural background are intellectual colossuses in the critical thinking department. Presumably because — ahem — our teachers told us be so. Forget the fact that critical thinking does not mean the knee-jerk rejection of authority or an inherent cynicism towards all and sundry. That’s just posturing — the opposite of critical thinking.

 

And let’s ignore the fact that in many cultures — perhaps most —  people are not inclined to indulge in spouting personal opinions — which is often considered uncouth and childish —  or wish to engage non-intimates in ‘serious’ topics likely to produce tension (especially when the interlocutors clearly don’t know what they are talking about). ‘No one wanted to debate abortion with me in my Cambodian EFL class. I guess those people are just not critical thinkers’.

 

Instead, let’s use our soapbox of EFL teacher authority to confer on the savage natives the divine gift of ‘critical thinking’ and dub ‘good’ learners as  ‘global citizens’, by which we mean — inevitably — people who think like I do and agree with me. The whole idea of ‘teaching’ people how to ‘think critically’ is inherently fraught with irony, which, by the way, is another sensibility ‘locals’ apparently don’t have. “Think freely and critically — so, listen to me and then do the same!” 

 

Recently, at an ELT conference, a presenter said, “Of course, we must also make sure that our students become global citizens, which means questioning the current social system and finding ways to act against injustice.” Translation: It is necessary that students share my political concerns and viewpoints. Often, the (false) notion that languages are inherently political is used as a pretext to indulge in EFL classroom indoctrination, where the buzzword of globalism is used to prop up the teacher’s agenda. Rather, the best application of ‘critical thinking’ to the EFL classroom is with specific problem-solving activities or projects carried out in English (for example, as medical students do when developing differential diagnoses).

 

The notion that Anglo-American English must be promoted or maintained as the global standard

 

Surely most EFL teachers have heard of the English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) movement by now. (If not, Google Jean Jenkins, Barbara Seidlhofer, Anna Mauranen,  or Andy Kirkpatrick). Reality check: Most English spoken in the world now is between two non-native English speakers who achieve productive ends and goals despite not using an Anglo-American variant to communicate. Go figure! And no, they are often not just using some malformed inter-language to do so, but operate using an established system of accepted syntactical, rhetorical, pragmatic, and lexical devices. Many of these are not even endorsed by Uncle Sam or Topham Hatt!

 

This does not mean that native English speaking teachers should suddenly adopt this new variety as their teaching language. What it does mean is that teachers should not focus upon minutiae from the Anglo-American canon to serve as the arbiter of right or wrong but rather to focus upon the students’ attaining a level of English that fosters mutual intelligibility with a wide variety of English speakers. It also means that they should be tolerant of LETs using the innate capacity of the English language to use new forms that might not be found in the, shall we say, King James version of the language.

 

To insist that the final product should mimic the Anglo-American variety is, you guessed it, linguistic chauvinism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest
If you log in, you don’t need to type your name and email address

2 comments

    • Mike Guest
      author
      Thanks Jim. After writing the post I thought of another scenario in which language chauvinism emerges. Often we encourage students not to worry about details or care too much about mistakes but instead to concentrate on conveying meaning and communicating, even imperfectly. But, interestingly, when Japanese English teachers use English imperfectly or inaccurately, we non-Japanese often rant and rave about their 'errors' or failure to grasp/use 'real English'. Many Japanese English teachers then start to doubt themselves: "How can I be a role model if my English is imperfect?" But why should the model for the average Japanese JHS/HS student be 'native-speaker'? If they learned English just as well as their Japanese teachers, even if imperfect or lacking 'native-like' qualities, that would still be valuable and, generally, intelligible. And it's not as if the appearance of 'natives' is increasing native-like performance in Japanese public schools anyway...