In praise of non-native speaker teachers part Two: localising lexis

Here’s the second of what I’m hoping will be five short posts in praise of non-native speaker teachers. Following on from some of the comments on the first post I did here, I should make it clear that in a sense I’m talking about the IDEAL of a non-native speaker teacher here in many ways. What I’m interested in trying to capture is what I think NNSTs are capable of, what it is they can do in monolingual contexts that natives would find nigh-on impossible, and what best practice might involve in a predominantly L1-oriented situation.

Today I’d like to suggest that non-natives working in their own countries of origin teaching students they share a nationality with have a definite advantage when it comes to explaining and exemplifying new language as they will now far more about both the macro-culture of the country in which they work as a whole as well as about the many micro-cultural worlds their students reside in. This knowledge can – and should – be used to hang new language onto. Just as knowing about Japan helps me explain what right-wing means to a student from Nagasaki through reference to the ultra-right uyoku groups there and knowing about Hikikomori – Japanese kids who become bedroom recluses in their teens – helps me explain what a recluse means, so NNSTs can refer to local cultural phenomenon, characters, events, TV shows, musicians and trends to help their students find English more memorable. What this does is filter the classroom material – whether it be a local or global coursebook or some other kind of material brought into the class – through a local perspective, thus making the language more real to the learners and rooting it in realities closer to their own.

I’ll give you a more concrete example of how I have rooted my own classroom practice in my students’ shared reality of London to show you what I mean.

I was recently teaching an Advanced class and in the midst of a listening (from Innovations Advanced, as it happens) about tourism in Estonia was the sentence:

The food still leaves a bit to be desired – it tended to be quite stodgy and there wasn’t a huge amount of choice, but otherwise, I certainly had nothing to complain about.

Students asked about desired. I explained that if something leaves a bit to be desired, it’s a polite, mildly humorous way of saying it could be better, it’s not as good as you’d like it to be or as it should be. Given that we were in the middle of the worst and wettest April in living memory, I then added that the English weather leaves a bitor leaves somethingto be desired – a locally pertinent example!

The previous day we’d looked at the word bully, and two of my students had given me written homeworks to correct overnight, which I hadn’t yet given them back, so I then – in a mock dramatic way – explained that if I was a bit of a bully, I’d throw the essays back at the students saying Their writing left a lot to be desired – an example connected to the micro-culture of the class itself.

Once the explanations have been given, and the meanings have hopefully been grasped, the next way in which we can facilitate some kind of connection with the language is through our boardwork. I wrote up on the board the following examples:

The food there                                        a bit     

The weather here             leaves         something          to be desired.

Your writing                                          a lot

Once the explanation and the examples have been given, the way to encourage personalization is to ask students to think of other things that maybe leave a bit to be desired. For this group, multi-lingual students studying in England, I asked them to think of things about London / England and also things about their hometown / their own countries that fit the pattern above.  I gave the group a minute or two thinking time on their own and then asked them to compare and explain their ideas in small groups. As they talked, I walked around and picked up on things they were trying to say, but didn’t quite have the language to do so – and used this as further input.

After two or three minutes, I stopped the group and drew their attention to the board, where we had the following:

Public transport here leaves a lot to be desired. The trains are a……….! Half of them are falling to ………… . Plus, it’s a r…..-…..! The cheapest tube ……… is four pounds!

 The media back home leaves a bit to be desired. We like to pretend it’s free and ob…………., but we all know there’s still a lot of c………… and certain things are t………. / off-l……… .

 To elicit the missing words, I basically re-told the stories I had heard students telling, paraphrasing their words and explaining the words in the gaps as I did so.

You might be thinking that this all seems a bit long-winded and will result in a lot of boardwork and a lot of time spent waiting for students to write things down. Well, obviously this WILL be slightly more time-consuming than simply writing up to leave s/thg to be desired on the board, but I’d argue that it’s time well spent. The longer examples make the meaning clearer, they allow interaction with the class – and this means recycling of grammar and vocab comes built-in to each and every class – and crucially they mean that what students then go away with written in their notebooks becomes a kind of record of the way the class manage to negotiate the content of the coursebook. As such, these examples are hopefully more relevant – and thus potentially more memorable – to students than the language found in the coursebooks themselves.

This way of rooting vocabulary in the realities of the class and local cultures also makes it easier when students forget things. Should anyone in the class, on later encountering this piece of lexis again, have forgotten it and need to ask what it means, I can simply say “You remember what we were saying about London transport? Or about Aziz’s writing last week?” Job done.

Now, if I can do this using my students’ generally fairly shaky knowledge and understanding of London and the UK, how much more effectively might a non-native speaker teacher steeped in the world of their students be able to manage this in a non-English speaking country?







6 responses

  1. Hi Hugh,
    Thanks a lot for all the great comments about us. It’s very reassuring to read that I am doing the right thing, especially since the school I’m working for has a new policy: hire English speaking people with no experience in teaching!
    Am looking forward to the next one.

  2. Hi Corinne –
    Great to see you here – and many many thanks for taking the time to read and to post a response. Appreciated.

    Very sorry to hear about your new school policy.
    Madness, it really is!
    Is the idea that some kind of osmosis will occur whereby the native holds out their hands and touches the heads of the kids or something?
    It’s a stupid way of looking at learning and entirely disrespectful to the many many highly skilled and fluent non-natives out there. Shame on them.

    Next post before the weekend, anyway.

  3. I liked both posts and agree with many points made, thank you. Tatiana

    1. Hi Tatiana –
      Thanks for finding me here and for taking the time to read my posts.
      Really glad you found some common ground and glad you enjoyed them!

  4. Hello Hugh, and thank you so much for the post celebrating your blog’s one year anniversary simply because it led me to these posts here 🙂 I have been thinking a lot about this topic, about being a non-native teacher, about being up to it, and not letting the students down. I am an Estonian 😉 teaching English to French speaking Swiss learners. So in a way I don’t fit into any comfortable categories. I am in a way foreign to this country and foreign to the language I’m teaching … scary? confusing? I don’t know. I think I have been able to turn this whole mind-boggling situation to my advantage. The harder it is the harder you try to prove yourself, your worth, your place. Coming to live here from another country, another rhythm, another mentality, has allowed me to notice things that might go unnoticed if I were a native here. This initial advantage becomes a habit and when you talk about meaningful, culture and country related associations in the classroom, I see exactly what you mean. I guess I do it ALL the time. And when I sometimes do them in a funny or unusual or outright wrong way, it makes students laugh and nothing helps them remember some vocabulary better than laughter 🙂

    The fact that I am Estonian who has succeeded in learning their mother tongue, plus English probably gives them some sort of motivation. I hope so! And what’s more, when I tell them that I learnt English at university in Estonia and not in England, they all stop and wonder … as if thinking … so it is possible…

    I am really glad to have found these posts.

    Sunny greetings from the Alps

    1. Hi there –
      Firstly, thanks for finding me here and taking the time to both read and post.

      Appreciate it – and it’s contacts like these that make the whole process of blogging worth it!

      Glad the posts on the (many) advantages of being a non-native speaker teacher rang chords with you, even if you are – as you said – slightly different to your ‘average’ non-native in that you’re working out of your own country of origin.

      That said, I think you’re actually part of a growing group – I know plenty of Greek and polish teachers of English, for instance, who either have worked or are currently working overseas; some have even worked – and worked well – here in London! In the end, good teaching is good teaching, irrespective of where you’re from.

      The other thing to bear in mind is that if you hadn’t mentioned you were Estonian, there’d have been absolutely nothing in your post above to suggest you were non-native! That’s how little difference it all makes, in many ways!

      Anyway, look forward to seeing you around here and talking further.

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