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Damian J. Rivers
4 Native-speakerism and the betrayal of
the native speaker language-teaching
Ideologists presume their assumptions are facts, and accept only the evidence that ratifies
the conclusions of their ideological assumptions, since they are not interested in scientific
truth, but in their ideals dressed up as ideology…Social phenomena are complex and their
social causation is the result of numerous variables. However, ideologists--often by using an
oversimplified a priori hypothesis--boil down all causes to one or a few simple phenomena.
(Mohan & Kinloch, 2000: 13)
Native-speakerism has become an increasing feature within mainstream TESOL
discourse and a common reference point in discussions of language-related prejudice and discrimination (see Rivers, 2016). Drawing from a variety of sources
and with an intentional slant toward entertaining the unfashionable, this chapter
stands against sectarian interest through a critique of the taken-for-granted ideology of native-speakerism. Motivated by the idea that “awareness of injustice is
a precondition for overcoming it” (Deutsch, 2006: 23), it is argued that the ideological conceptualization of native-speakerism allows only those identifying as
‘non-native speakers’ access to the desirable status of victim and its accompanying discourse of moral righteousness. Moreover, it is demonstrated how the
sanctuary of victimhood then permits those on the inside, in other words the
wronged parties, to engage in a brand of counter violence which mainstream
TESOL frames as “morally distinct from ‘originary’ violence and therefore defensible” (Enns, 2012: 44).
Within this chapter evidence of the rather paradoxical intersection of two
-isms is shown whereby the ideology of native-speakerism, originally conceived
to describe and diagnose a plethora of ambiguous prejudices fails. This failure
contributes to the perpetuation of another -ism, in this case linguicism, defined
as “ideologies, structures and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate,
regulate and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources between
groups which are defined on the basis of language” (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1988: 13).
As Houghton (2013: 66) poignantly describes, “being characterised by linguistic
prejudice makes native-speakerism linguicist in nature”. From a position in which
groups “are defined on the basis of language” one is therefore able to observe
how contemporary discourses surrounding native-speakerism, especially those
presented as victim-led defenses against native speaker oppression, should be
DOI 10.1515/9781501503085-005
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Native-speakerism and the betrayal of the native speaker 75
recognized as perpetrator-led aggressions designed to strengthen binary divisions and mutually-exclusive identities among language-teaching professionals.
Within this chapter the term ‘non-native speaker movement’ is used as a
generic reference to those language teachers, scholars and academics aligning
themselves with the “Nonnative English Speakers in TESOL” (NNEST) interest
section of the TESOL Inc., organization. The generic treatment of individuals
within this movement seems fair given their collective self-definition and alignment as a singular movement (see Matsuda, 2002). Consistent with all self-defined
movements that strive toward the fulfilment of a mission and the achievement of
a political goal, self-identification as a member is an act that demonstrates collective solidarity, strength, cohesion, and more importantly, internal consistency
of opinion and identity alignment. Finally, and with implications for achieving
the end-of-ideology, the NNEST movement is expansionist, and therefore power
seeking, observable through its conscious efforts to indoctrinate others with its
standards, truths and values by “publicizing [their] mission to all reaches of ELT”
(Braine, 2010: preface).
Native-speakerism and the luxury of ideological
While Holliday’s (2005a) definition has been useful in providing a foundation for new theoretical direction through which to forward explorations of issues concerning the dimensions of native-speakerism in foreign language education, we see this definition as now
being limited in its ability to capture the multitude of intricate ways that native-speakerism,
embedded within the fabric of the TESOL industry, is reflected through daily pedagogical
practice, institutional and national policy, as well as legal frameworks which centre around
issues of prejudice, stereotyping and/or discrimination. (Houghton & Rivers, 2013: 7)
The dominant and most cited conceptualization of native-speakerism remains
that of Holliday (2005: 6) who describes the idea as “an established belief that
‘native-speaker’ teachers represent a ‘Western culture’ from which springs the
ideals both of the English language and of English language teaching methodology”. Over the course of the past decade, the “ideology of native-speakerism”
(Holliday, 2005: 8) has frequently appeared within mainstream TESOL discourse,
used to describe supposed prejudices inherent within the domain of English as
a Foreign Language (EFL) education. While often relying upon constructed intersections with more established sympathy-inducing -isms such as linguistic imperialism, colonialism, ethnocentrism and racism for legitimacy, in practical terms,
native-speakerism attempts to condense an assortment of supposed prejudices
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76 Damian J. Rivers
into a coherent narrative intended to reveal the “unfair treatment of nonnative
English-speaking professionals in the TESOL profession” (Selvi, 2014: 581).
In discussions surrounding the ideological conceptualization of native-speakerism, Holliday (2005: 7) is explicit in attributing geocontextual responsibility,
asserting that native-speakerism “originates in a very particular set of educational and development cultures within the English-speaking West”. Demonstrating how ideology trumps evidence, the author is less explicit in detailing the
exact parameters of those professional practices believed to reflect native-speakerism as an ideology. Now, over a decade since the ideology of native-speakerism
was conceptualized, and despite it somewhat prematurely being accepted as a
‘Key Concept in ELT’ (Holliday, 2006), it remains shrouded in mystery with no
consistent or conclusive pattern of motive-action-effect observable. For example,
within the academic literature, claims of native-speakerism are almost never supported by a formal definition of how native-speakerism is being conceptualized
as either a theoretical or practical construct. Also absent is evidence concerning
how instances of perceived prejudice can be directly attributed to this particular ideology. The ideology of native-speakerism has become so malleable that it
can be recruited to describe and diagnose an infinite spectrum of practices thus
wrongly permitting “diverse aspirations and changing practices to be accommodated under the same ideological umbrella” (Deutsch, 2015: 12).
The attribution of geocontextual responsibility for the supposed creation of
native-speakerism, that is, the condemnation of ‘those people’ who enact symbolic violence against ‘these people’, has established an irresponsible foundation from which discussions concerning native-speakerism commence. The
collective condemnation of all individuals from the ‘English-speaking West’
is legitimized, not on the basis of actual professional action, which ideology is
unable to comprehend, but on the exclusive basis of the conditions surrounding
the birth of individuals who in adulthood become language teaching-professionals. A dangerous irony at work here being that the ideology of native-speakerism has encouraged many self-identifying ‘non-native speaker’ teachers from
beyond the “English-speaking West”, those who formerly bemoaned judgments
of professional competence and language proficiency on the basis of variables
related to the conditions surrounding birth, to utilize the same judgment criteria
to condemn ‘native speaker’ teachers from within the “English-speaking West”
as oppressors and the recipients of prejudicial advantage. This practice contains
a further twist when observing how many ‘native speaker’ teachers from within
the “English-speaking West”, believing the myth that their professional existence
contributes to the disempowerment of others, have resorted to guilt-ridden selfharm in dismissing their own professionalism on account of the fact that they
are defined as ‘native speakers’ from the “English-speaking West”. While the
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Native-speakerism and the betrayal of the native speaker 77
specific psychosocial dynamics at work are open to discussion, it seems beyond
contestation to assert that the ideological conceptualization of native-speakerism
functions as a direct facilitator of prejudice drawn on the basis of generalized
Western nationality and first-language status, thus showing how the majority of
native-speakerist claims are actually examples of linguicism.
Unpacking the complexity of the “English-speaking West” within discussions
surrounding native-speakerism is rarely undertaken with the same enthusiasm
afforded to other communities and peoples. There prevails an unspoken assumption that the “English-speaking West” warrants no further attention beyond that
required in its casting as a fixed ideological aggressor. It then follows that within
the academic literature ‘native speaker’ teachers are also conceptualized through
a distinctly different frame of reference to ‘non-native speaker’ teachers.
Some research that has attempted to empower non-native speaker English teachers…has
had the adverse effect of promoting essentialized notions of the native speaker English
teacher…while such research is eager to recognize the multifaceted identities of non-native
speaker students and teachers, it does not accord the same value to the identities of native
speaker English teachers. (Breckenridge & Erling, 2011: 83)
Such covert differential treatment is observable across range of topics. For
instance, Canagarajah & Said (2011: 391) exploit the pejorative assumption
that the “English-speaking West” is a fixed monolingual collective as a means
of boosting the confidence and enlisting the support of ‘non-native speaker’
teachers. In their work, the authors describe ‘native speakers’ using permanent
quotation marks, while ‘non-native speakers’, instead of also being assigned the
same ‘so-called’ status, are elevated to the status of ‘multilingual speakers’. Here,
and reflecting the reproduction of “an unequal division of power and resources
between groups which are defined on the basis of language” (Skutnabb-Kangas,
1988: 13), the authors are furthering two incorrect assumptions. First, the idea
of the ‘native speaker’ is flagged as illegitimate and therefore requires strategic
positioning within ‘so-called’ fixed-quotation marks. If this demarcation were
based upon the idea that “the NS has no basis in reality other than as a mental
representation that exists in the minds of those who believe in it or operate within
social structures that rely on it” (Pederson, 2012: 9), then one would expect the
other side of this bifurcation, the ‘non-native speaker’, to be given the same
treatment. However, this is not the case as the idea of the ‘non-native speaker’
is not dismissed as having “no basis in reality” but is elevated to the standalone
status of ‘multilingual speaker’. In contributing to the denial of diversity within
the “English-speaking West” the professional practice options (i.e., what ‘native
speaker’ teachers can do within the workplace) and the identities available to
them are not only restricted but also stigmatized. Restricted by their assumed
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78 Damian J. Rivers
monolingualism, deductive logic suggests that ‘native speaker’ teachers must
therefore also be complicit in the maintenance of ‘the monolingual fallacy’ and
‘the native-speaker fallacy’ (Phillipson, 1992) as both creations appear, on the
surface at least, to further the self-interests of the ‘native speaker’ teacher.
Returning to the discussion surrounding the original definition of
native-speakerism as ideology, by the time Holliday (2005: 7) declares that “by
no means all English-speaking Western colleagues are native-speakerists”, the
powerful cycles of guilt and shame implied through collective ideological association have begun. Given that ideologies are unable to entertain the autonomy of
the individual, this sudden retreat to viewing colleagues on an individual basis
is ineffective – in other words the damage has already been done. The packaging
of contemporary language-related prejudices as examples of ideological conditioning distances individuals and their real-world actions from responsibility and
accountability. However, on the other side of this observation is the truism that
claims of ideological native-speakerism are able to be made without the traditional demand for conclusive evidence. In many local contexts the consequence
being that the ideological conceptualization of native-speakerism “simply perpetuates the status quo in a new guise, by substituting one kind of hegemony for
another” (Waters, 2007: 281).
Motive and manipulation in the maintenance of
Within this section the reader is encouraged to consider the politics of in-group
identity construction and motive in the maintenance of divisions between language-teaching professionals. It is commonly understood that intergroup positions taken in opposition are dependent upon recognizing the existence of an
out-group. One is therefore compelled to acknowledge that the relationship
between the constructed ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ is symbiotic
(see Rivers, 2017). That is, the existence of the ‘native speaker’ group is dependent upon the existence of the ‘non-native speaker’ group and vice versa. While
the consequences of this symbiotic relationship are various, one of the most significant is observable in the reluctance of many within the ‘non-native speaker
movement’, and among those investing faith in the ideological conceptualization
of native-speakerism, to challenge the legitimacy of the ‘native speaker’ ‘non-native speaker’ distinction.
For example, Holliday (2005: 6) asserts how “I am concerned in this book,
then, not with who is and who is not a ‘native speaker’, but in the ideological
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Native-speakerism and the betrayal of the native speaker 79
associations of this distinction”, while the founder of the ‘non-native speaker
movement’ similarly declares, “I have no wish to explore the NS and NNS debate,
which, in my view, is unlikely ever to be resolved” (Braine, 2010: 9). These declarations remove the authors from having to contend with the uncomfortable
realization that the notion of nativity persists as “one of the founding myths of
Modern Linguistics…not interrogated from within the disciplinary boundaries)”
(Rajagopalan, 1997: 226). In addition, such declarations remove the possibility of
reconciliation between ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers as the
legitimacy of both groups is not challenged, but instead upheld to provide foundation for all subsequent discourse.
The participants begin to realize that if their analysis of the situation goes any deeper they
will either have to divest themselves of their myths, or reaffirm them. Divesting themselves
of and renouncing their myths represents, at that moment, an act of self-violence. On the
other hand, to reaffirm those myths is to reveal themselves. (Freire, 1970: 157)
Within the literature the theme of motive concerning the maintenance of intergroup division on the basis of language is rarely discussed although Davies (2003:
9) hints that, “the native-speaker boundary is…one as much created by non-native speakers as by native speakers themselves”. The construction of the dialectic other remains a vital component in the construction of an outward oppressor
and, in turn, an oppressed or victim-based identity.
A victim-based identity within contemporary society offers numerous advantages when acting within the political arena. It should therefore be expected that
self-identifying ‘non-native speakers’, despite their supposed disenfranchised
status, display professional pride in being referred to as such and show limited
interest in ending the language-based categorization of teaching professionals.
The recent introduction of a financial scholarship for the “TESOL award for an
outstanding paper on NNEST issues” is further indication of the conditional
“warped sense of equality” (Garry, 2006: 9) surrounding the allure of victimhood
with the field. If certain teachers were not configured as a ‘native speakers’ then,
quite simply put, the ideology of native-speakerism would be revealed as fictitious. Moreover, those teachers claiming ideological disempowerment and subjugation would be required to more readily accept individual responsibility for their
professional development and workplace status.
Indeed, for the varied claims of the ‘non-native speaker movement’ to hold
legitimacy the ‘native speaker’ must continue to exist in a position of fixed ideological power and dominance.
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80 Damian J. Rivers
To be a victim is to be harmed by an external event or oppressed by someone else, things that
most people avoid wherever possible. Yet a striking feature of… [contemporary society]… is
that many people want to be classified as victims. They do so because of the advantages it
brings…today to be classified as a victim is to be given a special political status, which has
no necessary connection with real hardship or actual oppression. Victimhood as a political
status is best understood as the outcome of a political strategy by some groups aimed at
gaining preferential treatment. In free societies groups often organise to gain advantages for
themselves, but the increase in the number and power of groups seeking politically-mandated victimhood raises some deeper questions… (Green, 2006: 1)
Concerning the politics of status ascription and the gamesmanship involved in
asserting ‘naming rights’, attention is drawn to an event which adds complexity to the basic psychology and strategy of in-group out-group classification.
In July 2011 the “NNEST of the Month Blog” (proudly “endorsed by the TESOL
NNEST Interest Section!”) made the decision to give their award to the prominent
ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) scholar Jennifer Jenkins. The awarding of the
“NNEST of the Month” to Jenkins should be seen as either an act of gross self-deception, an oddity of political correctness, or as further evidence of the aforementioned denial of difference when encountering the “English-speaking West”
given that Jenkins is a ‘native speaker’ educated and based in the UK. During the
post-award interview, Jenkins, sensitive to context contends that, “native speakerism is disgraceful and I do believe that we should all, NNES and NES, do all we
can to draw attention to it, ridicule it where this is feasible, and contribute to its
demise” (Jenkins cited on the “NNEST of the Month Blog” (2011, July)).
Could it not be suggested that in accepting such an award Jenkins was
actively participating in the maintenance of ideological native-speakerism. One
should ask why and how Jenkins qualifies as the “NNEST of the Month”? Parallels
can be drawn with the practice of awarding Japanese nationals within Apartheid
South Africa the special status of ‘honorary whites’ – a status which many Japanese nationals resented – in order to satisfy South African economic interests
(see Kawasaki, 2001). Could this award be an attempt by the ‘non-native speaker
movement’ to satisfy their own economic interests through showing how a powerful agent of ideological native-speakerism (in this case Jenkins) is sympathetic
to the political agenda of the ‘non-native speaker movement’? One could also
ask how, if the ideology of native-speakerism were more than a mere fabrication,
would Jenkins be able to temporarily exist beyond the confines of her status as
a representative of the “English-speaking West”? Like those Japanese dehumanized through the award of the ‘honorary whites’ status in Apartheid South Africa,
one might wonder whether the imposition of the ‘non-native speaker’ status
(albeit temporary) upon Jenkins stimulates similar feelings of dehumanization
and resentment? Would trickery of this kind be allowed to pass if race, rather
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Native-speakerism and the betrayal of the native speaker 81
than language, was the primary variable being manipulated? Could a movement
interested in promoting equality for black teachers award the ‘black teacher of
the month’ to a white race teacher? Attempts to crossover or transcend the imposition of mutually exclusive boundaries are often received with hostility and ridicule. For example, readers might wish to revisit the recent controversy created
when US civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal claimed to be an African American
despite having two white parents.
A further consequence of emphasizing mutually exclusive group identities is that the potential to settle difference through reason itself is weakened…I have in mind occasions when
the non-victim is defined as incapable of understanding the plight of the victim: no white
can understand the predicament of a black person; no man can comprehend the predicament of a woman. Any comment the outsider makes is unavoidably prejudiced and so the
possibility of resolving conflicts by the exchange of views is ruled out. (Green, 2006: 41)
Taking the awarding of the “NNEST of the Month” to Jenkins a little further,
readers are asked to question whether the scholarly efforts of Jenkins to establish an ELF core are not reflective of the “liberation trap” (Holliday, 2005: 133)?
One might suggest that that ideological entrapment of native-speakerism placed
Jenkins in a Catch-22 situation. If Jenkins attempts to apply her professional
knowledge and experience as a means of assisting and empowering others then,
on the basis that she is a member of the “English-speaking West”, her professional efforts to overcome the ideology are effective only in that they further reinforce the ideology. Discounting the existence of a strategic master plan to use the
symbolic capital of Jenkins to further the movement’s own political agenda, the
selection of Jenkins as the “NNEST of the Month” should be seen as either an act
of self-disempowerment or an admission that the ideological conceptualization
of native-speakerism is illegitimate. There must be an answer to such concerns.
Prejudice in employment: The known and the
Despite their rather neutral and safe surface appearances in popular discourse, there is a
“hidden and dangerous” level to the terms native speaker and non-native speaker at which
non-native speakers teachers of English are being actively discriminated against in the
workplace. (Holliday, 2008: 121)
The focal point for many contemporary claims of ideological native-speakerism is the discourse of English language-teacher recruitment. Studies situated
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82 Damian J. Rivers
across various contexts have hinted that the “native speaker still has a privileged
position in English language teaching…Non-native-speaker teachers of English
are often perceived as having a lower status than their native-speaking counterparts, and have been shown to face discriminatory attitudes when applying
for teaching jobs” (Clark & Paran, 2007: 407). Evidence revealing how English
language-teacher recruitment advertisements demand ‘native speaker’ status as
a qualification for employment is unquestionably widespread (see Rivers, 2016;
Ruecker & Ives, 2015; Selvi, 2010). Nonetheless, the ideology of native-speakerism
and its universalist divorcing from individual considerations of time, context and
motive has limited the conclusions such studies have been able to make, often
restricting them to surface-level observations showing a “preference for native
speakerness over teaching or educational qualifications” (Mahboob & Golden,
2013: 78). While these observations are valid, such conclusions are insufficient to
claim that such practice reflects the ideology of native-speakerism.
While it might well be reasonable to speculate that the widespread utilisation of the nativespeaker criterion as a qualification for employment is the product of native-speakerist ideology, speculation does not provide stable ground for challenging practices, pedagogies
and policies that discriminate against certain individuals on the basis of their speakerhood
status. (Rivers, 2016: 92)
Even if the ideological conceptualization of native-speakerism were to allow evidence to surface accounting for the specification of ‘native speaker’ status within
local language-teacher recruitment advertisements, it would still be unable to
provide a framework through which such practices could be challenged within
legal frameworks related to local employment laws. Referencing the specification of ‘native speaker’ within employment discourse as an example of ideological native-speakerism also creates further problems, problems that are currently “hidden and dangerous”. The ideology of native-speakerism is unable
“to explain why some teachers despite being endowed with so-called desirable
characteristics also feel victimized, discontent and frustrated when imagined as
a ‘native-speaker of English’” (Rivers, 2013a: 89). According to the ideology of
native-speakerism, the perpetrators and victims are seen as mutually exclusive
rather than as “fluid categories” (Jacoby, 2015: 515).
When using pre-determined terminology to discuss different kinds of prejudices, the perpetrators and the victims may or may not be implied by the terms themselves, with the obvious
danger being that the mere use of any given term (especially terms such as orientalism,
sexism, male chauvinism and feminism) may accuse a certain group by automatically suggesting in the minds of people who are the perpetrators (in need of challenge) and who are
the victims (in need of protection). And the same can be said of native-speakerism, a term
which, within its present (albeit rather recently coined definition) primarily casts ‘native
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Native-speakerism and the betrayal of the native speaker 83
speakers’ from the English-speaking West as the perpetrators of native-speakerism (the subjects of the verb) and ‘non-native speakers’ from the English-speaking West as the victims
(the objects of the verb). (Houghton & Rivers, 2013: 3)
If the “English-speaking West” and its collective of ‘native speakers’ are cast as
the benefactors and perpetrators of ideological native-speakerism, then an identity option automatically denied is that of victim. One can therefore suggest that
the TESOL profession has failed to offer protection from language-related prejudice to all of its members. Instead, it has found it easier to accept the trappings
of ideology and cast certain members as more deserving of protection (and financial award) than others (see the 2006 TESOL Inc., “Position Statement Against
Discrimination of Nonnative Speakers of English in the Field of TESOL”). Official
acknowledgements such as this should not be seen as a solution as they actively
contribute toward the development of victim-based identities and the further
marginalization of those not entitled to access such identities.
Victimhood is achieved when a target audience in a position of power or authority recognises a set of victim claims. The audience can be the narrow stratum of an authoritarian
regime, the voting public of a democratic regime or even international public opinion.
Whether by guilt, empathy, moral rectitude or confluence of interests, a powerful audience
must actively support the victims towards the achievement of their goals. (Jacoby, 2015: 526)
Institutional acceptance of ‘native speakers’ as the hegemonic out-group and
‘non-native speakers’ as the negative reference in-group illustrates how birthright
divisions between language-teaching professionals continue to be legitimized
and upheld in places one would not expect. Current studies on language-teacher
recruitment have overlooked the extent to which all language-teaching professionals have the potential to be victims of language-related prejudice. Very few
studies have given attention to the real-world-behaviours of here-and-now actors
as this would require the acknowledgment of a social reality beyond the ambiguity and collective nature of ideology. To even suggest that the victims of ideological native-speakerism could also be perpetrators of language-related prejudice
is not a position many are willing to entertain on account of a belief that “calling
attention to the agency of the victim is considered wrong, a betrayal of the victim’s status as victim” (Enns, 2012: 27). Moreover, as professional experience has
revealed, it is often “useless to try to refute an ideology [as the] attempt to refute
it is likely to elicit defensiveness and hostility” (Deutsch, 2015: 12). Regardless,
calling into question the exclusivity of victimhood should be seen as vital given
that “the self/other opposition or victim/perpetrator logic can be reproduced,
with all of its potentially damaging effects, from within the worldview of both the
oppressed and the oppressor” (Enns, 2012: 27).
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84 Damian J. Rivers
When a language-teaching professional defined as a ‘native speaker’
responds to an employment advertisement demanding ‘native speaker’ status,
they are compelled to discard all identities derived from professionalism, educational achievement and teaching competency. The outcome being that teachers
“often develop feelings of objectification in being appraised on largely imagined
criteria rather than on professional or academic measures of ability” (Rivers &
Ross, 2013: 52). Further absent within previous studies is attention to the dynamics of post-recruitment in relation to the imposed status as either a ‘native speaker’
teacher or a ‘non-native speaker’ teacher. Being defined as a ‘native speaker’ of
English often facilitates the misconception among colleagues and students that
employment was obtained on the primary basis of being a ‘native speaker’. This
further perpetuates the perspective that all ‘native speaker’ teachers are a generic
collective qualified by birth. This also supports the idea that a constant supply of
‘native speaker’ teachers exist who are willing to work in term-limited teaching
positions with no possibility of their professionalism ever being acknowledged
(see Rivers, 2013b: 68).
The term ‘native speaker’ undoubtedly has positive connotations: it denotes a birthright,
fluency, cultural affinity, and sociolinguistic competence. In contrast, the term ‘nonnative
speaker’ carries the burden of the minority, or marginalization and stigmatization, with
resulting discrimination in the job market and in professional advancement. (Braine, 2010:
While responding to an employment advertisement demanding ‘native speaker’
status is in the first instance beneficial to those defined as ‘native speakers’ on
account that they are granted access to employment opportunities, the status
of ‘native speaker’ in the post-recruitment context is often used to marginalize,
discriminate and exclude. With reference to these dynamics within the Japanese
university context, Table 1 illustrates how local assessments made on the basis of
‘native’ language can be used to promote forms of language-related prejudice not
currently imagined by the ideological conceptualization of native-speakerism.
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Native-speakerism and the betrayal of the native speaker 85
Table 1: The institutional positioning and employment rank of 183 teachers employed within a
single department of ‘language and culture’ at a national university in Japan.
Associate Professor
Assistant Professor
Specially Appointed Associate
Specially Appointed Associate
Foreign Lecturer
‘Native Speaker’
‘Native Speaker’
Note: All data obtained by the author through emailed internal documentation during previous
employment at the institution.
Table 1 indicates that ‘native speakers’ of languages other than Japanese are almost
exclusively excluded from positions within the regular academic employment
structure and instead limited to peripheral roles. This split-system environment
reflects the observations of Fairbrother (2014: 61) who describes the emergence
of “a new type of Japanese-language-proficiency-based native-speakerism” one
which “has unintentionally resulted in the creation of a racially divided two-tier
system, where phenotypically non-Japanese will be hired for contract positions
only but Japanese/hyphenated Japanese will be hired for tenured positions”. In
this case, those teachers occupying those subordinate ‘specially-appointed’ positions were all defined by the institution as ‘non-native speakers’ of the dominant
local language, but were employed as ‘native speakers’ of the target language.
Although the TESOL profession has shown an active interest in racism – as
race is crucial to claims of native-speakerism – it has not yet shown a concern for
nepotism, quite remarkable given that TESOL is big business within many societies who favour ethnic rather than civic participation. Where do such dynamics
leave the current ideological conceptualization of native-speakerism which is
unable to account for context-based variations in teacher recruitment and retention practices?
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86 Damian J. Rivers
Shared professional struggles or an enemy
It is our destiny as non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) to face a variety of challenges with many issues, including, among others, highly required language and pedagogical competencies, proper cultural orientation, native-like accent, native-speaker fallacy,
credibility, and more… (Al-Seghayer, 2003: 1)
To date, the ideological conceptualization of native-speakerism has been widely
accepted by self-ascribing ‘non-native speakers’ and not subject to challenge
or critical inquiry from within the movement. It has provided a catchall banner
under which perceptions of unfair treatment can be filed by ‘non-native speakers’
while also marking forms of employment prejudice experienced by ‘native speakers’ as unknown, invisible or invalid. It is therefore possible to suggest that the
‘non-native speaker movement’ has contributed to undermining the professional
status of qualified ‘native speaker’ language teachers. Within the literature of the
movement, attention should be given to the role of emotional manipulation as a
means of advancing their political agenda. Much of the literature produced from
within the movement encourages the “audience to see one’s point of view, often
to the point of empathetically feeling the emotion themselves” which also functions to “cast an opponent into a weaker position or constrain the opponent’s
options” (Parrott, 2003: 32). One might also consider the embracing of a victimas-hero mentality combined with a distinct lack of modesty, traits quite uncommon within the discourse of legitimately disempowered groups. As the self-declared founder of the movement demonstrates:
I am walking down a hallway during a TESOL convention. A young woman from an Asian
country approaches (racial profiling?), smiling shyly, and begins a conversation. She says
how much my book Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching has meant to her.
Soon, tears streaming down her face, she says that, as a non-native speaker studying in the
United States to be an English teacher, she felt so much confused and alone. The struggle to
keep up with her native speaker classmates seemed hopeless. She then read the book and
realized that she wasn’t alone, that others had struggled and triumphed before her, and that
she had their support and guidance to succeed. (Braine, 2010: preface)
Framed within the broader storyline of victimhood and disempowerment, such
discourse is designed to appeal to the masses of ‘non-native speaker’ teachers
who believe that this self-imposed status functions as the primary reason for a
plethora of personal and professional challenges (i.e., as opposed to poor language proficiency or a lack of higher level qualifications). To attribute one’s struggles to the unchangeable allows one to take the moral high ground in subsequent
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Native-speakerism and the betrayal of the native speaker 87
disputes. This is advantageous in that those cast in opposition are less likely to be
received sympathetically due to the fact that “what they say or do is interpreted
according to a story line and as a speech act that suits one’s own case” (Harré &
Slocum, 2003: 129). Those victims believed to have the power to offer salvation,
such as movement leaders, are subsequently elevated by the helpless masses and
subject to endless praise and admiration. Lesser status members, through their
own learned helplessness, appear blinded to the ways in which the storylines
constructed also have an oppressive influence. The emotionally charged framing
of regular members as helpless victims in turn works to further empower the
already powerful who are then able to claim to be working not for self-interest,
but for the interests of the masses.
A publication embodying many of the views documented thus far is the
“Newsletter of the Nonnative English Speakers in TESOL”, hosted and thus
legitimized by the largest center-based TESOL authority in the world. The official ‘non-native speaker movement’ attached to this newsletter states that one of
its four goals is to “create a nondiscriminatory professional environment for all
TESOL members regardless of native language and place of birth” (Braine, 2010:
4). However, this is soon downplayed through reference to such a goal as “more
an ideal than a pragmatic reality” (Braine, 2010: 5). Similarly, Selvi (2014: 598)
has recently stated that the “ultimate goal of the movement is to replace the circle
of native speakerism that shut many TESOLers out with an all-encompassing one,
which takes everybody in and welcomes diverse uses, users, functions, and contexts of the English(es) around the world”. The reader is not told explicitly who
has been shut out by “the circle of native-speakerism” but is left to presume that
reference is being made to ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. Identifying as a member
of a politically-orientated movement whose core identity is derived from their
mutually-exclusive language status, while claiming an interest in equality for all
members “regardless of native language” is a contemporary exercise in Orwellian
doublethink. Within the literature this is readily observable as divisions, assumptions and falsehoods are repeatedly drawn on the basis of language while self-defining ‘non-native speaker’ teachers are encouraged to “take advantage of our
uniqueness” (Tseng, 2013).
We might go further and ask ourselves whether we have fallen into the trap that George
Orwell warned about in Animal Farm – the corruption of the ideal of equality by power?
Initially the ‘seven commandments’ on the farm wall included ‘All animals are equal’. Later,
the wall was repainted overnight leaving only one commandment: ‘All animals are equal,
but some animals are more equal than others’. (Green, 2006: viii)
Indeed, ‘non-native speakers’ are now fully engaged in the pursuit of self-interest
and status through the promotion of characteristics and abilities deemed accessi-
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88 Damian J. Rivers
ble according to conditions surrounding one’s birth. Although it is unheard of for
‘native speaker’ language-teaching professionals to assert dominance on the basis
of birthright claims, birthright claims are acceptable when made by ‘non-native
speaker’ teachers to promote their ‘uniqueness’. So entrenched within the TESOL
profession is the idea of the ‘non-native speaker’ as victim that such discourse,
conditioned by ideological thought, goes unchallenged.
Within publications associated with the movement individuals are encouraged to identify themselves as disadvantaged, even though many authors list
affiliations with prominent American universities and have therefore benefited
from the symbolic capital of the “English-speaking West”. Despite claiming
an interest in creating “a nondiscriminatory professional environment for all
TESOL members regardless of native language and place of birth” (Braine, 2010:
4), in practice the idealized nondiscriminatory professional environment is not
extended to ‘native speaker’ teachers. The published extracts below, ignorant to
individual context, demonstrate contempt for the generic ‘native speaker’ teacher
who is positioned as lacking in first-hand experience, lacking in patience and
understanding, unable to understand and appreciate cultural difference, as
being difficult for students to relate to, as having a demotivating influence in the
classroom, as contributing to student anxiety and distress, as being monolingual
and as being unable to relate theory to experience. As such claims are consistent
with the victim-based identities and literature welcomed by the movement, these
claims are deemed publishable by an editorial board despite their prejudicial
nature and lack of supporting research evidence.
…the most important, advantage NNESTs have is that of firsthand experience in what
the students are encountering as they struggle to learn English…the difficulties that ESL
learners experience can only be fully understood by someone whose native tongue is not
English… aNNEST is far more likely to be patient and understanding when students make
mistakes, because, in the past, the NNEST has probably made similar mistakes at one time
or another. By contrast, no matter how patient and understanding native speakers are, it is
hard for them to shake off the idea that fears and culture shock [sic]…The third advantage
that NNESTS bring to an ESL class is an understanding of a culture other than the mainstream American or English culture-at-large. This enables teachers to be more appreciative
of the cultural varieties present in any ESL classroom and also helps them ease the students
into appreciating and understanding the cultures of countries other than their own…there
can be no doubt that it is easier for an ESL student to identify with a non-native teacher than
with a native one. The NNEST creates an easy rapport with students and leads to a better
understanding and stronger motivation to learn English. The fact that the teacher is seen as
“one of us,” and not as someone different than the students, makes a big difference in the
way students view the lessons, and it helps them to overcome anxiety and distress. (Myint,
2002: 9)
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Native-speakerism and the betrayal of the native speaker 89
With reference to the literature on intergroup dynamics, the above extract reflects
a rather predictable engagement in out-group denigration as a means of legitimizing the in-group and its own anxiety and insecurity. Highlighting the need
to blame someone for our own failures, Gunder (2005: 95) discusses how “we
need an outsider for the dialogical character of an identity to occur…Difference
becomes necessary for our fantasies of harmony and also to provide the scapegoat on which to pin the failure of that fantasy”. Cast as the exclusive aggressor and benefactor of ideological native-speakerism, the ‘native speaker’ serves
as an ideal scapegoat for the ‘non-native speaker movement’. Those language
teachers (note the term ‘professionals’ has been withheld here) engaged in such
rhetoric would be wise to consider Freire’s (1970: 44) warning concerning how
“the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to
create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the
humanity of both”.
Readers are invited to question why the ‘non-native speaker movement’ frequently resorts to challenging, undermining and/or attempting to deny the professional capabilities of the ‘native speaker’ teacher? While such moves might
appear as honorable to the disempowered masses, should such discourse not be
disregarded as unprofessional and without evidence?
NNS teachers apply their experience in learning English as a second language when
they teach English (a characteristic which no NS teacher can claim)…The ability to relate
L2 learning theories to their own learning of English. Teachers’ experiences inform their
beliefs and in turn influence their teaching. Thus, when theories they encounter in teacher
training reflect their own experiences as language learners, the two blend smoothly in their
classroom practices. This ability, to place theory within the context of one’s own learning,
is not available to NS English teachers. (Braine, 2012: 24)
Unfortunately, this genre of ‘honorable victim’ discourse is no longer limited
to the newsletter of a TESOL sub-group. Evidence reveals its acceptance within
mainstream applied linguistics. In a recent article published in Applied Linguistics (arguably the power center of mainstream publishing in Applied Linguistics)
the self-ascribed ‘non-native speaker’ author (albeit trained and educated in
the “English-speaking West”) calls for “recognition of their [non-native teachers] advantages over native teachers” (Yoo, 2014: 85). Echoing the rhetoric of the
‘non-native speaker movement’, the author discredits efforts made by ‘native
speakers’ to empathize with students in stating that although “native teachers
can try to experience this unfamiliarity by learning another language, they will
never be able to experience the unfamiliarity of English and its foreignness that
their students are experiencing” (Yoo, 2014: 85). Following a series of further
prod-and-pokes, self-interest is soon revealed as the motive behind such views
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90 Damian J. Rivers
through the author’s dash-for-power proclamation that, “the ‘ideal teacher’ never
was a category reserved for native teachers…The ‘ideal teacher’ thus seems a category reserved only for nonnative teachers as only nonnative teachers can experience, or have already experienced, the reality of English for people learning it”
(Yoo, 2014: 85).
These views are complemented by extremist claims of rightful entitlement
as the author argues how ‘non-native speaker’ teachers “should thus resist the
temptation of claiming the ownership of English because there is nothing to gain
from acquiring it. Instead, we should rightfully claim the status of the only ideal
teachers of English to our students” (Yoo, 2014: 86). Birth related entitlement discourse of this kind can be more commonly found within the rhetoric of extremist political parties that trade with the anxieties and insecurities of their own
supposedly disempowered members by urging them to rise up and “rightfully
claim” what is theirs (e.g., a language, a homeland, an identity) from a supposed
oppressor. This discourse, presented within a journal demanding ‘outstanding
scholarship’, demonstrates the masking of “strident ideological contentions for
serious scholarship” in which the author views “social science as simply a power
game, one won or lost by political means”. Consequently, and to the detriment of
mainstream applied linguistics, “theory becomes dogma, and research becomes
mere demonstration of ideological assertions” (Pettigrew, 2008: 285).
Relating to the previously mentioned point concerning the assumed mutual
exclusiveness of categorization and the hostile reactions often encountered when
attempts are made to transcend the boundaries of classification, one can speculate as to the editorial decision to publish the article if the author’s claims of
rightful entitlement were made in relation to some other characteristic beyond
the direct control of the individual. For example, could a female language teacher
write an article calling for “the recognition of their advantages over” all male
language teachers and not be accused of sexism? Could a black language teacher
write an article calling for “the recognition of their advantages over” all over all
white language teachers and not be accused of racism? Could a Japanese language
teacher write an article calling for “the recognition of their advantages over” all
Chinese language teachers and not be accused of ethnocentrism? Surely, if such
articles were presented as ‘outstanding scholarship’ they would be immediately
dismissed as advocating prejudice drawn from sex, race and nationality, forms of
prejudice considered more legitimate than prejudice drawn from language status.
For a professional person to even question this fact would lead to repercussions
within their workplace and/or local community. It is one thing to point toward
freedom of speech and diversity of opinion, but even the most reluctant reader
should acknowledge that some of the above examples would be prohibited on
legal rather than moral grounds.
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Native-speakerism and the betrayal of the native speaker 91
To test the invisibility of language-related prejudice I made a formal written
complaint to the journal editor concerning this particular article. However, the
editor of the section in which the original article featured refused to entertain
the complaint suggesting that the material was not prejudicial toward language-teaching professionals on the basis of their native language. This shows
that language-related prejudice is invisible when acted out toward the ‘native
speaker’, that attempts to challenge the exclusivity of ‘non-native speaker’ victimhood are often met with hostility (the section editor ended up sending to me
a dismissive email in BLOCK CAPITALS which is generally believed to denote
shouting), and that the moral high ground remains the exclusive property of the
‘non-native speaker’.
The future of TESOL professionalism
Once upon a time it was considered morally desirable to be a person who took responsibility
for your own actions. This was before we reached a cultural awareness of how prejudices,
roles and external structures affect the lives of different groups of people. Once we gained
insight into the ubiquity of these external structures, and how we are all influenced by them
in different ways, we seemed to forget the concept of personal accountability. (Billing, 2009:
Assessing the current state-of-affairs within the TESOL profession, Braine (2012:
24) describes how “unfortunately, a nondiscriminatory professional environment
(the first goal) is still in the making. Like sexism and racism, it will stay with us for
years to come”. What can be taken from such a statement? One should note the
common technique for the elicitation of empathy used by the ‘non-native speaker
movement’, this being the linking of their own struggle to more established and
socially embraced forms of prejudice. Also, the ‘non-native speaker movement’
declared their intention to create a “nondiscriminatory professional environment” in 1996 and today, two-decades later, readers are still expected to believe
that this goal is “still in the making”. This declaration can be viewed in one of
two ways, either the movement has failed spectacularly to achieve its aims or that
the ideological struggles positioned as oppressing the group are not intended to
be overcome.
The continued self-positioning as a minority group working to overcome a
fictional oppressor should be viewed as the removal of sincere hope in favor of
a permanent status of victimhood guaranteed by fabricated conflicts. The declaration that a discriminatory professional environment will “stay with us for
years to come” is a worrying admission that for the ‘non-native speaker move-
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92 Damian J. Rivers
ment’ to continue to avoid promoting individual responsibility, ideology cannot
be allowed to end. Indeed, the common social function of ideology is not to unify
social groups, but instead to place them in opposition to one another.
The acceptance of ideology can also be observed via the ‘non-native speaker
movement’s’ decision to mainstream as a sub-group within the structural parameters of the dominant TESOL Inc., organization for two-decades. This relates to
“the classic dilemma between organising through existing political structures
(mainstreaming) with the risk of cooptation versus organising outside of existing
structures (independence) with the risk of incapacity” (Jacoby, 2015: 525). In this
sense, the mainstreaming of the ‘non-native speaker movement’ indicates that it
remains in a state of infancy; incapacitated by a fear of freedom the movement
seems unable or unwilling to mature toward independence and responsibility.
Looking at the formal list of 21 interest sections listed on the TESOL Inc., website,
the impact of two-decades of mainstreaming upon ‘non-native speaker’ anxiety
and insecurity is obvious. From the list of 21 interest sections only two are directly
related to the professional identity of the self (i.e., they concern ‘who we are’ as
opposed to ‘what we do’). Accepting that one’s fundamental professional identity
and sense of self is given equal status to what most people consider as merely a
professional interest cannot be seen as promoting a positive professional self-image. If assuming that the TESOL Inc., organization is predominantly a ‘native
speaker’ organization, as the sub-group positioning of the ‘non-native speaker
movement’ suggests, then how can ‘non-native speaker’ teaching-professionals
continue to participate in their own self-disempowerment?
The oppressed having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines
are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them [the oppressed] to eject this image
and replace it with autonomy and responsibility…the oppressed, who have adapted to the
structure of domination in which they are immersed, and have become resigned to it, are
inhabited from waging the struggle for freedoms as long as they feel incapable of running
the risks it requires. (Freire, 1970: 47)
From the perspective of the TESOL Inc., organization the continued hosting of
the ‘non-native speaker movement’ as a sub-group, offers numerous benefits as
the incorporation of victims within any political campaign structure often acts
to further legitimize the work carried out within such a campaign. Given the
reluctance of the movement to challenge the status quo in a meaningful way, the
TESOL Inc., organization remains unthreatened and in a position of authority
and symbolic power (i.e., the movement as a sub-group must conform to rules
dictated to them). However, individual members of the TESOL Inc., organization
should question the continued acceptance and hosting of the ‘non-native speaker
movement’ on the grounds that the movement are afforded special victim status
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Native-speakerism and the betrayal of the native speaker 93
and protections despite the fact that their own brand of discourse promotes language-related prejudice toward the ‘native speaker’ language-teaching professional.
Does the TESOL Inc., organization and the profession-at-large accommodate
the ‘non-native speaker movement’ as a means of appeasing ideological guilt or
as a means of maintaining the status quo? The recent introduction of a financial
scholarship for the “TESOL award for an outstanding paper on NNEST issues”
is further indication of the conditional “warped sense of equality” (Garry, 2006:
9) surrounding the movement and a reflection of the extent to which the movement functions like the recipient of an affirmative action mandate. Do ‘non-native
speaker’ language-teaching professionals not consider such charity as undermining their professional status as equals? Should it therefore be assumed that all
‘non-native speaker’ teachers, in addition to being victims of language-related
prejudice, are also socioeconomically challenged? Does the offering of a special
award not encourage researchers to embrace ideological claims and to produce
work that attempts to formalize the disempowerment of NNESTs?
The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being.
They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet, although they
desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and
the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized. (Freire, 1970: 48)
As a scholar sincerely interested in the creation of a nondiscriminatory professional environment I see the continued hosting and acceptance of any group who
seek to uphold divisions and discussions on the basis of native language as being
counter-productive. The TESOL Inc., organization should demonstrate its inclusivity and work to move the profession, and all of its members, beyond the confines of an ideological existence. This shift could be initiated through the disbanding of the ‘non-native speaker movement’ and the adoption of policies that insist
that divisions on the basis of ‘native’ language be considered as outside of the
profession. After two-decades of comfortable mainstreaming, this move would
force the ‘non-native speaker movement’ to remain within the TESOL Inc., organization as equal-status professionals. While this would award equal professional
status to all members, it would also involve having to move beyond self-definition and the definition of others as ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’.
Alternatively, the movement could achieve the independence and autonomy that
they profess to seek, choose to maintain their identity as ‘non-native speakers’,
thus legitimizing mutually exclusive categories decided at birth, and leave the
TESOL Inc., organization. The current situation in which the ‘non-native speaker
movement’ seeks a dominant voice of authority and leadership, while simultane-
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94 Damian J. Rivers
ously claiming an identity based on ideologies of victimhood is untenable. Why
after two-decade has the ‘non-native speaker movement’ not already mobilized
beyond the restrictive structures of the TESOL Inc., organization?
Final thoughts
…our discomforts (i.e., anxieties, insecurities and fears) should be cast not as products of
‘the unknown’ but rather as direct products of ‘the known’ and its stubborn ideological
reluctance to release individuals from a subjugating repetition of thoughts, beliefs and
actions. (Rivers, 2015: 3)
Despite Deutsch’s (2015: 12) warning that “it is useless to try to refute an ideology… the attempt to refute it is likely to elicit defensiveness and hostility”, this
chapter has drawn attention to the failure of “the ideology of native-speakerism”
(Holliday, 2005: 8). Acknowledging that, “victim and perpetrator are often fluid
categories” (Jacoby, 2015: 515), it has been shown how the ‘non-native speaker’
victim frequently assumes the role of perpetrator of language-related prejudice.
Furthermore, it has been emphasized that such prejudice has not yet been recognized within the academic literature or general TESOL profession beyond muted
associations with linguicism. I ask the reader to take from this chapter the idea
that in order for language teachers and language teaching to achieve professional
integrity, accusations of prejudice drawn from ideology cannot be sustained as
no escape is offered from a status quo characterized by accusations of violence
and counter violence. The contemporary dynamics between dominator and dominated should be more closely observed within localized contexts giving due
consideration to the actions and motives of real-actors and the here-and-now
consequences of such actions. Finally, this chapter has opened for discussion
the question of professionalism within the TESOL Inc., organization in relation
to the continued hosting and institutional support of the ‘non-native speaker
movement’, a sectarian group of language teachers who take pride in dividing
the profession according to language status, quite ironic given that many of their
claims of inferior treatment and opportunity are based upon the very same divisions which their existence maintains. Like “the ideology of native-speakerism”
this group and their vested interests should be seen as a threat to all involved in
language education and as having an oppressive influence upon those language
teachers who, regardless of language-based categorizations, wish to construct
a truly “nondiscriminatory professional environment” free from ideological
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