Hands up, dear readers, those who of you who think I am a ‘native speaker’ of British English.
Hands up if you think I am from England.
“Where are you from?”
It’s one of the earliest questions we teach learners how to ask. And yet it can be one of the most difficult and complicated to answer.
I was born in Chichester, a little town in the south of England.
I’ve never lived there. I spent the first two years of my life in a little village near Bognor Regis (Felpham, for any Sussex dwellers!). My earliest memories of this part of England, though, come from visits to relatives subsequent to moving to the other end of the world.
From the age of 2 to the age of 17, I lived in Botswana, though I went to a boarding school in South Africa (Mafeking) for secondary school.
My mum is English but if you follow her side of the family tree up a very little way, you will find one Mr Galindo from Spain.
Also, once she finished university, she moved away from England permanently (apart from short periods of time when she had my sister and me). She lived in Barbados, Indonesia, Libya and Botswana and, of all those place including England, spent most of her life in Botswana.
My dad is Dominican.
His father’s branch of his side of the family, though is originally from France (his mother was indigenous Dominican).
He has lived in Dominica, Barbados, Grenada, UK, Belize, Indonesia, Libya and Botswana, and, again, of all those, Botswana is the place where he has spent the most time. He jokes that if he were asked to pick up arms in a world war, he wouldn’t know which way to point them.
I feel the same. Of my nearly 33 years, I have spent a grand total of about 10 or 11 (not continuously) in various parts of the UK. Two initial years, two years of A-Levels, 3 years at the University of Warwick (each year in different accommodation), a year up in Durham, 2.5 years in Sheffield, my M.A. year in Leeds. So, for 2/3 of my life, a big majority, I’ve been exposed to non-British English. In Botswana, South Africa, France, Indonesia and Italy. Add to that, of course, Dominican English via my dad!
What am I a “native speaker” of? Errrm a variety of English that doesn’t have an actual name? A cross between Botswana English, South African English, British English and Dominican English. I know the Botswana National Anthem (in Setswana) and the South African National Anthem (contains multiple languages) by heart, while the British National Anthem I know about one verse, possibly. Playground chants/skipping games were in Setswana. The mediums of instruction at school were various varieties of English (I had teachers from all over!). I studied French and Setswana at primary school, French, German and Afrikaans (but just as an afternoon activity) at secondary school, French at University and recently learnt a fair bit of Italian through living in Italy and self-study. I learnt a few words of Indonesian while I was in Indonesia too.
When I came back to the UK to do my A-levels, I had to make some adjustments to how I spoke (grammar and vocabulary) and my accent drew a lot of comment. For example, I had to learn that Botswana/South Africa and the U.K. refer to time differently. Look at these two timelines to see what I mean:
You can imagine, when I told matron at the boarding school in UK, “Ok, I’ll do it just now”, there could be some confusion. Another example: in South African English, we say “is it?” (izzit?) in the same way as someone from the UK might say “really?” or “is that so?” (Funnily enough, my dad would always correct us when we used that particular structure.) So, I had to learn British English when I started to live (on and off!) in the UK. (That said, I have a fairly limited command of it – put me in a conversation with someone speaking broad Liverpudlian, for example, and I struggle – as I did at IATEFL 2013 when trying to get instructions on where my friend should park her car!) I also had to deal with the absence of a whole swathe of cultural references – we didn’t have British TV in Botswana (and this was long pre-internet as we know it nowadays). Come to that we didn’t have TV, other than the one local channel that operated for a few hours a day, until I was about 12 or 13. (Which was when satellite TV arrived – prior to that we could only have had South African television and my parents didn’t want it because there was apartheid going on in SA and they didn’t agree it with it!)
So, where am I from? At the moment I say Sheffield. It’s where I consider home in the UK. But that’s a relatively recent phenomenon (I would say I have considered it home and where I come home to between contracts etc since 2007) . If we are talking birth, then Chichester, which otherwise means very little to me. I’m also and always will be from Botswana. And half Dominican. The strange thing is, I got a job in Indonesia on the basis of being a native speaker of British English, with my British passport. This clearly exemplifies how meaningless certain bits of paper and labels can be, not to mention job selection criteria of this nature! (My mum nearly had me prematurely in Libya so even my passport is a bit of an accident!)
Humans, however, love labels. Putting things into categories is something we are good at. We name things and group things. This is something we use to our advantage in language teaching, to help our students learn vocabulary. I actually rather dislike labels by and large. Particularly the sort that require you to tick boxes on forms – there is never a box that I actually fit all the way in! (On equal ops forms I either tick ‘other’ or, for the origins questions, ‘mixed white and black Caribbean’ – and you can bet that whoever reads that box tick wouldn’t be expecting me to show up, but there we are!) We like to tick box people by race, gender and sexuality, all of which are very fluid. It’s all well and good, the trouble comes when labels start to be abused, to be used as a basis for discrimination, hate crimes and so on.
Another thing to consider is that, issues with labels aside, the way we call things changes over time. David Crystal’s opening plenary gave many good examples of items of language coming into and going out of use. This year’s IATEFL would suggest that the labels “native speaker” and “non-native speaker” are finally ready to become obsolete, thank goodness. The world has changed since the terms were coined and it seems absolutely ludicrous that these outdated labels are still being used to discriminate against people. “Nativeness” in terms of language is really a very dated concept, due to the increased mobility of the global population. This was alluded to by David Crystal in his talk at IATEFL 2015, in which he answered a series of questions:
11. With the rise of EFL, what are your thoughts on dropping native speaker and referring simply to variants of English?
David only uses it in a biological context not a linguistic context. There has always been variety – accents, dialects. This has increased enormously, because of the enormous immigration into Britain,producing lots of diversity, and globally. Recognising this has an impact on everything we do. The fact that there is now so much “non-native” variation is simply a natural development similar to the diversity amongst people in the biological native context. People are all just speakers or writers on youtube, for example. There is a blurring of distinctions. Think of the couple who speak English as their mutual language, EFL, have a child, and speak to that child in English, then that child is a native speaker of EFL. At the end of the day, teaching knowledge is the important thing, in a teaching context. Pillow talk and nursery rhymes are the most difficult things for “non-native speakers”, according to a Swedish friend of David’s. No corpus of it – an IATEFL potential project? Watch out for microphones appearing between you in bed…
Yes, this year at IATEFL, the discussion has indeed continued. Indeed, with Silvana Richardson’s immaculately delivered plenary, The Native Factor: Haves and havenots, a panel discussion chaired by TEFLEquity’s Marek Kiczkowiak, and talks such as Dita Phillips’s I am a Non-Native Speaker – hear me roar! and Damian William’s talk on Language development for teachers, not only has it continued, but it has grown in volume and impact. In the panel discussion and the post-plenary workshop, the issue of labels was discussed, as the issue of what terms to use instead was considered.
I’ve been thinking about this too. In Silvana’s plenary, she pointed out that
In this day and age, that is absolutely true. The monolingual speaker of English, unless they teach English and are aware of the need for accommodation and communication strategies in spoken encounters with multilingual users of English, is the real spanner in the works and the reason why communication fails. (When we teach our learners repair strategies, I think we ought to explain that it’s because they may find themselves faced with someone who doesn’t know how to communicate properly and may need this kind of prompting – being asked to slow down, repeat, paraphrase etc!) This being the case, surely the “ideal model” should be a multilingual user of English? I find it very strange that we have language schools inviting students to attend classes because learning a language is a fine thing to do and will give you such great advantages on one hand, and on the other hand, the same language schools only willing to hire what they call “native speakers” or teachers with “native level” English (which only counts if that English is British/American/Canadian etc and I didn’t see a category for my mongrel variety, I have to say!) Talk about thinking that is not at all joined up and extraordinarily mixed messages!
It’s time for SLA to catch up. It’s time for employers of teachers the world over to catch up. I’m glad that this year’s IATEFL has highlighted this. Let’s keep the discussion going. And let’s back it up with action. So far, I’ve blogged write-ups of key talks from IATEFL, written this blogpost and (very proudly) put the TEFLEquity supporter badge on my blog. It looks like this:
I strongly encourage everybody else in our profession, who blogs or has a website relevant to the profession, to do the same. Let’s be the majority, not the minority. We shake our heads at the unpleasant (often an understatement!) things our ancestors have done in the name of labels and arbitrary categories, but let’s remember that we also need to shake our heads and stand up against what’s happening now. This is the only way to rid our profession of discrimination and ensure that we have qualified teachers teaching English rather than people who have been hired because their first language is a particular variety of English and (in some cases) because they have white skin.
Thank you IATEFL for providing a platform for all those who spoke up in talks and panel discussions and workshops to speak. Silence and inaction are perhaps our biggest enemies, so these last few days must be a score in our favour against them! And finally, again, I welcome anyone who wishes to share their views on this, but doesn’t have a blog of their own, to write a guest blog post that I will happily share on my blog.
(PS: I understand that Christopher Graham, who was on the panel in the discussion on native speakerism that took place at IATEFL, received hate mail for supporting the TEFLEquity movement, along the lines of “You are betraying your tribe”, so I am prepared for similar. The truth is, I would be more worried if such people were agreeing with my opinions [unless they had suddenly decided to become open-minded, rational beings!] So, bring it on!)
Best wishes to all,
Lizzie. Multilingual user of (some varieties of) English.