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Construing Native Speakerism In ELT: An Interview with Professor Adrian Holliday

M. Faruq Ubaidillah

Adrian Holliday;is a Professor of;Applied Linguistics and Intercultural Education at;Canterbury Christ Church University. His teaching and research include intercultural communication and ideology, discourses of culture, the politics of international English language education, English in the world, cultural imperialism, and qualitative research methods. Holliday defines native-speakerism as “a pervasive ideology within ELT, characterized by the belief that ‘native-speaker’ teachers represent a ‘Western culture’ from which spring the ideals both of the English language and English language teaching methodology.”

  1. Prof. Adrian, could you share with me your educational background and how you become interested in English language teaching?

I began teaching English at the British Council in Tehran, Iran, in 1973. They employed a number of excellent Iranian teachers when I first arrived. These were then downgraded in favor of teachers from Britain whose so-labeled ‘native speaker’ status was their only claim to seniority. The British teachers even wrote all the materials which the demoted Iranian teachers were told to use. This was neoliberal, i.e., false ‘modernization,’ on the part of the British Council – giving the impression of quality that was not founded on actuality. 

At the same time, without being at that time aware of the neo-racist ideological consequences, I was led to believe that teaching English involved teaching a superior culture of learning. Because of this, I was falsely conscious of my enthusiasm for ignoring the existing communicative and learning competence that my Iranian students brought with them. I write about this in detail in my 2005 book, The struggle to teach English as an international language, Oxford.

  1. In 2006, you wrote an article published in ELT Journal entitled “Native-speakerism.” In the article, you mentioned that native-speakerism is an ideology that glorifies Western cultures and the people as ideal both in English language teaching methodology. Could you explain to me about this claim?

The article was taken from the bigger argument in the 2005 book. It was also influenced by Phillipson’s account, in Linguistic imperialism, of how the concept of the ‘native speaker’ teacher had been manufactured as a commercial ideal to continue the spread of British and American influence. This helped me to understand the neoliberal motive of what I had experienced in Tehran with the demotion of Iranian teachers as described above. I also began to note that being a so-labeled ‘native speaker’ would get you a job as a teacher even if you had had no training. This false ‘native speaker’ status was also clearly attached to race as evidenced by ‘white’-looking people were also able to get jobs as so-labeled ‘native speakers’ even if they did not have English as a first language, whereas there were ‘non-white’-looking people who could not even if they had English from childhood.

  1. Following native-speakerism issue in ELT, what problems do you encounter when advocating this issue in scholarly activities?

One problem is people who continue to argue that ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ are harmless, non-racist terms. This is like racists not realizing or admitting that they are racist. 

A second problem is research that tries to compare so-labeled ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers.’ This is invalid research because these labels are ideological constructions that do not represent real groups of people. I now refuse to review any research which uses the labels unless they are critiqued as ideological constructs. I feel that researchers who continue to try and compare these entities are buying into native-speakerism and supporting it. Trying to compare so-labeled ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’ is rather like trying to compare the attributes of so-called races or genders. 

A third problem is the use of acronyms such as ‘NESTs’ and ‘NNESTs’ because they serve to normalize and freeze the concepts as though they are real things. I am pleased that a number of scholars are now not using the acronyms and instead of putting ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ in inverted commas. Even this, though, is not enough. We need to make it more difficult rather than easier to include these false terms in our writing. For this reason, I now try to use ‘so-labeled’ whenever I use the terms,

A fourth problem is claiming that the native-non-native speaker issue is solved by legislating against discrimination against ‘non-native speakers.’ This will only serve to push the issue underground and between-the-lines as long as the ‘non-native speaker’ and ‘native speaker’ labels continue to be used.

A fifth problem is thinking that learning English involves learning a separate or a new culture. This is a false idea because the relationship between language and culture is fluid and multiple, and it also encourages the equally false notions of so-labelled ‘“native speaker” English’ and a separate culture of learning.

  1. As a scholar with a lot of experience in native and non-native speaker research in ELT, so far, have you witnessed the presence of equality between NESTs and NNESTs in hiring practices and scholarly publications?

See my comment above about the use of these acronyms.

Following my reply to the last question, any workplace or academic setting that makes any reference of any kind to the native-non-native speaker distinction, even to say that so-labeled ‘non-native speakers’ are equal to so-labeled ‘native speakers,’ is implicitly and falsely acknowledging that the distinction exists. Some discrimination will, therefore, run from this. I have so far not seen evidence of successful removal of the terms and, therefore, of no discrimination. I need to emphasize again that this is not discrimination against a real group of people, but against people who, for complex reasons, are imagined to be so-labeled ‘non-native speakers.’ 

However, I do fully support the aims of the “NonNative” English Speakers in TESOL (NNEST) Interest Section as a political movement against discrimination. I would hope that such an organization uses the labels and acronyms as a form of ‘strategic essentialism’ (following perhaps Gayatree Spivak) in which essentialist labels are cited within a discourse of political resistance. I would have thought that there would be no room within such a political agenda to compare so-labeled ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’ – but instead simply to assert that so-labeled ‘non-native speakers’ can be and do whatever anyone else can – thus dissolving speakerhood as any form of a basis for comparison.

  1. What specific issues in native-speakerism research would you suggest to scholars who are interested in this field? What major preparations do they have to conduct when researching the issue?

Such research must always, in every case, begin by acknowledging that native-speakerism is a false and neo-racist ideology. It would, therefore, be concerned with critical analysis of the nature of the ideology and how it operates. It would be rather like how race and feminist research looks at the nature of the discourses of racism and sexism. As with racism and sexism in everyday life, native-speakerism pervades every aspect of the language education profession and has indeed become domesticated – i.e., disappearing beneath the surface of apparently innocent professional practice. Research is needed to investigate this. Looking into institutional native-speakerism would be rather like looking into institutional racism or sexism. As preparation, such researchers need to be versed in, e.g., race theory, postcolonial sociology, and critical discourse analysis.

  1. You have presented and attended a number of conferences worldwide as a keynote speaker, what motivates you to advocate the issue of native-speakerism in ELT research?

My main concern these days is what I have termed a West as steward discourse in how we think of the intercultural. This is a powerful discourse of apparent well-wishing and ‘helping’ the word which hides deep neo-racist patronage in which the non-West is falsely defined as culturally deficient. Native-speakerism as an example of this, where the teaching of English is conceived falsely as a well-wishing educating of the falsely conceived culturally deficient. Native-speakerism is thus part and parcel of hidden racism.

  1. Professionally, we are impressed by your works on native-speakerism research. Have you ever encountered resistance or debates from other scholars about this issue? If so, how do you cope with it?

Yes, I have encountered resistance from those who continue to believe that there really are ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’ who can be described and compared. Also from linguists who believe that ‘native speaker’ is a valid standard for measuring language. Just because many positivist scholars have always used these terms as some sort of scientific measure is no excuse for continuing to do so. If the term ‘native’ was never again used, I think there would be a leap forward in linguistic sciences.

  1. Understanding the importance of investigating the native-speakerism issue in ELT, teachers in EFL countries are sometimes undervalued. Do you have any advice for them so that they can develop professionally with their strong identity?

Continue to resist, and, in all cases, do not allow anyone to label them as ‘non-native speakers.’

  1. Thank you for your availability in this interview. I highly appreciate your answers and ideas


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