As TESOL-trained teachers, we are also programmed to believe that it is not necessary to sound like a “native speaker” to be proficient in a second language (L2). What then does it mean to be orally “proficient” in a language, and what value does learning a language from a native speaker add? Who is a “native speaker” in this globalized age which has made human capital transfer so permeable? More importantly, do students necessarily want to model after their L2 teacher? Specifically, do you want to sound like your L2 teacher?
I have taught English in several cities in Asia and the US, and am widely considered a proficient user of the English language or even a “native speaker” because of my internationally intelligible English accent but for my oriental face. I am sought after as a result of my teaching qualifications and experience, especially when students want a familiar Asian face with an inimitable accent, in particular someone acquainted with their cultural norms and yet “western” enough in outlook and practices. I try to understand this phenomenon in the context of myself as a typical L2 learner.
The first foreign language I learned to a relatively high proficiency was German. I had wanted to learn German after knowing my German penpal at 15. When I finally took the plunge in 1997, I learned that my beginner German teacher was a Taiwanese who had studied in Germany for a number of years. She was my first non-native language teacher, and although somewhat surprised, I enjoyed learning with and from her and did very well. As a self-confessed perfectionist however, I wanted to sound like someone whose first language was German after several years of lessons.
I was “fortunate” that I had native German-speaking teachers after that because it still means a lot to me when a German compliments me on my “native-like” accent when I speak the language. Perhaps many institutes offering L2 are organized in close conformance with student demand so that they cannot help but hire native speakers, trained or untrained, to teach that language, and to look the part. In my experience, this is quite true of Asian learners of European languages. Why this is so is, regrettably, beyond the scope of this blog, and I invite readers to contribute their thoughts, after which I will respond to them.
I have gone on to learn a few other foreign languages, and remain partial when it comes to accents. I have my favorites and a so-called “native speaker’s” is not necessarily what I want to acquire eventually, so long as I think I sound mellifluous enough. That said, I would still prefer to be trained by a qualified teacher who speaks and uses my target language clearly and appropriately…and who sounds like music to my ears, native speaker or not…which brings to mind my first German teacher.
What about you? What are your own experiences with learning and/or teaching a second or foreign language? Have you experienced discrimination both positive and negative in teaching a language that you did not grow up with on your mother’s lap, like they say? Write to us and share!