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ELT and the Native Speaker Ideal: Some Food For Thought

by Christina Smolder
English as an International Language (EIL) refers to the teaching of English for the purposes of international communication, or of English as a lingua franca. I first came across the notion of EIL while reading an article by Jennifer Jenkins (2002), called A sociolinguistically based, empirically researched pronunciation syllabus for English as an International Language, which lays the foundations for an EIL pronunciation syllabus.  The aim of Jenkins’ (2002) research and the syllabus she proposes is to learn that which an EIL speaker needs in order to be understood by other (primarily non-native) English speakers; it springs from the notion that, contrary to popular belief, the speech habits of a particular group of native speakers do not necessarily make an ideal model for most of the world’s English learners.
The idea of abandoning the native speaker as a point of reference seemed absurd to me at the time, although I greatly admired Jenkins’ (2002) efforts to determine the pronunciation needs of any learner (there is, regrettably, very little pronunciation research out there).  My tattered copy of her article is testimony to the changes I have undergone in my thinking over the years—I imagined Jenkins’ core to be an attempt to manufacture an artificial standard, doomed, in my opinion, to fail in much the same way as Esperanto.  However, more recent marks in blue and black ink underline facts and important arguments that Jenkins (2002) makes in support of an EIL standard.
My feeling on the subject has shifted dramatically since that first glimpse at EIL.  Later I will talk about the impact this has had on my teaching, but for now I would like to argue that there is an urgent need for greater awareness of some of the issues related to EIL.  The following is a brief discussion of how blind promotion of the native English speaker ideal can be impractical, inappropriate and unfair in most EIL teaching contexts.

Relying upon native speaker norms is not practical.

Most articles on EIL begin with breakdowns of the total number of native and non-native speakers of English in the world, and with good reason.  One such estimate by Crystal (1997) places the total of ‘reasonably competen[t]’ non-native speakers at a staggering 80% of the world’s English-speaking population (1,350 million non-native speakers versus only 337 million native speakers) (Crystal, 1997, from Jenkins, 2002, p. 1)—EIGHTY PERCENT!!!  Statistics like these demand a re-evaluation of attitudes and policies that continue to be taken for granted, most notably, the question of who should own the right to determine future standards of English as an International Language (e.g. Widdowson, 1994).  It also presents for consideration the likely possibility that most of the world’s English speakers will rarely (if ever) need to communicate with a native English speaker (e.g. Jenkins, 2000; 2002).
The biggest problem confronting EIL is the deep-seated myth that all so-called non-standard forms of English are inferior copies of a native-speaker original.  For example, Selinker (1972) refers to new dialects like Indian English as ‘fossilized IL[s]’: partially acquired target language forms that have become habit and are not, therefore, likely to change (Selinker, 1972, from Jenkins, 2000).  Flaws in this reasoning become clear upon more careful examination.  One objection comes from Kachru (1993) who argues that:
The question of why a stable system should be characterized as an IL is not answered.  It is not clear what the difference is between ‘stable’ and ‘fossilized’: that which is fossilized is surely unchanging and therefore stable!  Additionally, if “‘an entirely fossilized IL competence refers to a community…it is difficult to see why it is an IL and why it is ‘fossilized’” (Kachru, 1993, from Jenkins, 2002, p. 31).
Kachru (1993) goes on to suggest that if we were to classify standard English dialects according to how closely they resemble an original native speaker model, then we might also consider American English to be the fossilized interlanguage of its historically large immigrant population (Kachru, 1993, from Jenkins, 2002).  American English enjoys status as a legitimate dialect simply because is spoken as a first (and in many cases, only) language.
A possible defense, then, for persisting with native varieties of English is that they are more comprehensible.  However, research in this area , when it can be found, is often invalid or inconclusive (Rajadurai, 2007).  One study by Smith and Rafiqzad (1979), finds that, among speakers from the United States and eight Asian countries, the American English speaker was consistently among the least intelligible to listeners from eleven Asian countries.  The researchers, however, concede that there was no control for the content or relative difficulty of the lectures delivered in each of the speakers’ samples, and so the validity of these results is questionable (a SMOG Grading readability test revealed that the American English sample was the third most difficult text in the study) (Smith & Rafiqzad, 1979).  Another study by Major, Fitzmaurice, Bunta & Balaubramanian (2002) found few significant differences between the comprehension of Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and American speakers by Chinese, Japanese and Colombian listeners, except that almost every group found the Chinese speakers more difficult to understand.  The role of prejudice or affiliation of one group with the accent of another was not considered in either of these two studies.
No one, to my knowledge, is suggesting that there should be no standard at all.  What Jenkins (2000; 2002) and others are trying to do is find a reasonable target for speakers of different first languages to be able to understand one another. Despite the lack of available research on the subject, it is probably safe to say that certain characteristics of native speaker pronunciation are likely to cause problems for non-native speakers in both production and reception: one of these, Jenkins (2000) maintains, is the tendency of many native speakers to reduce unstressed vowels to schwa.  An important question here is, if the majority of the world’s English speakers do not need to reduce unstressed vowels in order to be able to communicate, then why would we want to waste their time teaching it?

Relying upon native speaker norms is not appropriate.

Another problem with native-speaker models of English is that they are not socioculturally appropriate in most EIL contexts (Alptekin, 2002; Widdowson, 1994).  A characteristic of communicative language teaching is that it advocates the use of authentic materials in the classroom (Alptekin, 2002; Omaggio-Hadley, 2001; Widdowson, 1994).  This is due to recognition of language as a means for carrying out social purposes as described, for example, by Halliday (1970) and Hymes (1972).  Unfortunately, ‘authentic’ materials are often taken to mean authentic native-speaker materials, as is evident by the following definition quoted in a textbook for language teachers:
language samples—both oral and written—that reflect a naturalness of form and an appropriateness of cultural and situational context that would be found in the language as used by native speakers’ [emphasis mine] (Rogers & Medley, 1988, from Omaggio-Hadley, 2001, pp. 190-191).
Limiting the definition to that which would be relevant to native speakers defeats the very purpose of using authentic materials in the first place—socioculturally appropriate language use—since, as already mentioned, most English learners do not live in a native English speaking environment and will probably never come in contact with a native English speaker (Alptekin, 2002).
Teaching language from an inappropriate sociocultural context can have a negative impact upon students’ motivation to learn, and may also affect students’ valuations of their own identities and cultures (Alptekin, 2002; Pennycook, 2001).  An example of this is described by Canagarajah (1999), who looks at an American textbook commonly used in his native Sri Lanka.  He demonstrates how the text is steeped in American culture, which he places in sharp contrast to that of the average Sri Lankan learner.  Canagarajah (1999) argues that the text’s foreignness and culturally inappropriate use of language makes most students feel very uncomfortable, and claims that using such texts force students to choose between language learning (and, as a consequence, future academic success) and their own cultural integrity. Canagarajah (1999) therefore urges that a more grammatical approach is necessary to help Sri Lankan students attain their largely instrumental English learning goals (Canagarajah, 1999).

Relying upon native speaker norms is not fair.

Cook (1999) points out the seemingly evident fact that to be a ‘native speaker’ of a language one must have acquired that language from birth (Cook, 1999). She argues that, by definition, non-native English users can never assume the identity of ‘native speaker’ no matter how hard they try; to expect them be able to do so, she says, is like expecting ducks to become swans (Cook, 1999, pp. 187-190).  Nonetheless, non-native English speakers continue to be defined ‘in terms of what they are not’ [author’s emphasis] (Kramsch, 1998, from Cook, 1999, p. 189); they are portrayed as perpetual second language ‘learners’ and never as second language ‘users’ (Cook, 1999, p. 196).  Such use of the native speaker as a benchmark for English attainment creates many problems for the non-native speaker, as described below.
Many non-native speakers are unable to see themselves as legitimate speakers of English because of comparisons of their speech to that of native speakers (e.g. Alptekin, 2002; Cook, 1999; Golombek & Jordan, 2005; Widdowson, 1994).  This can be seen through the experience of qualified Taiwanese teachers of English described in an ethnographic study by Golombek & Jordan (2005); one teacher, referred to as Shao-mei, reports the following:
When I talk with my classmates or friends graduating from English department, we feel strongly that our English is never sufficient.  There are always new vocabularies and new slang….  Thus, some of us feel unconfident of ourselves and dare not to tell others that we were once English majors because we are incompetent to speak English fluently (Golombek & Jordan, 2005, p. 519).
As pointed out by Golombek & Jordan (2005), Shao-mei sees the native speaker ideal as unattainable: she feels that her English is ‘never sufficient’ and that there is ‘always new vocabularies and slang’ [emphases mine] (Golombek & Jordan, 2005, pp. 519-520).  That Shao-mei is embarrassed to tell others that she was an English major is especially disturbing since English teacher is Shao-mei’s chosen profession and as such a significant part of her identity.  Shao-Mei’s lack of confidence is also unfortunate, since as a bilingual speaker and member of her students’ culture, she is in a far better position to bridge the gap between her two languages and their cultures than her sometimes less qualified, and over–valued native English speaking counterparts (Alptekin, 2002; Sweeney, 2006; Widdowson, 1994).
Negative attitudes towards educated, perfectly intelligible varieties of English also create problems in the way that non-native speakers are perceived by others.  For example, while many native English speakers would label the above account of Shao-Mei’s feelings as being full of ‘errors’ (e.g. the use of the uncountable word vocabulary in a countable form: ‘vocabularies’), it is highly likely that most readers of this article will readily comprehend her meaning.  And yet, such so-called ‘errors’ (deviations from native-speaker norms) continue to stand between speakers like Shao-Mei and the opportunities left available to them in an increasingly English-dominated world. ,

In conclusion

I am an instructor of students from a variety of countries at an English language school in Cairns, Australia.  Our students come to study English with us for reasons related to work, study and travel.  These conditions demand that I continue to teach standard native speaker varieties English.  The first and most obvious reason for this is that there is no current pedagogic standard for English as an International Language (Crystal, 2001, Maley, 2006).  Furthermore, prevailing attitudes and current standards of measurement (including tests such as TOEIC and IELTS) are still based on native English standards (Jenkins, 2002; Taylor, 2006, speaking of IELTS), and it is my responsibility to help students meet their goals in relation to these expectations.
Another factor not to be overlooked is the fact that my students have all come to Australia to learn English.  While I cannot know all of the reasons for them doing so, it must be assumed that at least some of my students have come here to learn about Australia and its culture—which includes Australian language—and to communicate with Australians.  (Nevertheless, one must acknowledge that the English language tourism industry would not be as lucrative in countries like Australia if other varieties of English were more highly valued.)
According to Canale (1983), linguistic communication is ‘judged as successful or not on the basis of actual outcomes’ (Canale, 1983, p. 4) or, in other words, to the extent that the intended thought or purpose behind an utterance is successfully communicated.  The relevance of this to language teaching can only increase as English continues to grow well beyond the domain of any one speech community.   My approach is now likely to be influenced (wherever possible) by Maley (2006) who argues that the current status of English as an international phenomenon calls for an increased focus on ‘the pragmatic ability to communicate’ and the need to develop ‘a relatively relaxed tolerance among teachers and learners toward linguistic diversity (and ‘error’)’ (Maley, 2006, p. 6).  It is also influenced by Sweeney (2006) who similarly suggests that it is our responsibility as teachers to ‘actively promote multilingualism and multiple identities’ in the classroom (Sweeney, 2006, p. 6); by acknowledging students’ right to ownership of English we may encourage them to think more highly of the language itself and, as a consequence, of their ability to speak it (Cook, 1999; Golombek & Jordan, 2005).  At the very least, I think it is important for teachers like myself to introduce students to some of the issues discussed herein, so that they can come to their own conclusions about what their learning targets should be.
References
  1. I use the terms native speaker and non-native speaker in the interest of simplicity.  For a discussion of possible alternatives and the reasons for using them please see Cook (1999), Jenkins (2000) and/or Rampton (1990).
  2. This could be due to the fact that Chinese is a tonal language and therefore the more phonetically distant from English than either Japanese or Spanish.
  3. See Ammon (2003) for an interesting discussion.
  4. I accept that some people may find this point of view condescending.  I do not mean for it to be.  Of course, there is nothing special about the English of a given native speaker that makes it impossible to learn.  What I am proposing is that it should not be necessary to do so.

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