Should we talk about non-native speakers? | Stillman Translations
Should we talk about non-native speakers?

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “non-native speaker”?

Many say it’s a mistake, and they have a point. Here’s why. 

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “non-native speaker”?  

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the meaning of non-native speaker is someone who has learned a particular language as a child or adult rather than as a baby.  

Yet, there is a certain bias. Apologies for not being a native speaker are much more common in English than in other languages. The term “non-native speaker” is used to describe people who learnt English later on in life. And for some reason, for many, not being impeccable at it or having an accent makes them feel apologetic. As if at fault, somehow. 

From a linguistic point of view, this makes sense: calling somebody non-anything is invalidating. Imagine divisions being white and non-White? Local and non-local. The prefix ‘non’ states deviance from the “norm”. 

It’s for this reason that the US Department of Education is now using “English Language Learners” or “English Learners” to identify kindergarten through high school students whose native language is not English but who are actively trying to learn it. Other terms like “multilingual speakers” are also being proposed. Terms that could shift public attitudes to be more welcoming towards other languages. 

This is not a minor issue in a country of 1.18 million immigrants, according to data from the US Department of Homeland Security. A country where only 17% of immigrant households speak English.  

Source: Pew Research Center

The thing is, we are very comfortable with English being the norm. So much, it has become an expectation for people to know it, understand it, spread it. Director Steven Spielberg deliberately omitted subtitles for scenes in Spanish in his remake of the film “West Side Story”. His reason why is strongly related to the subject in discussion. “If I subtitled the Spanish I’d simply be doubling down on the English and giving English the power over the Spanish. This was not going to happen in this film, I needed to respect the language enough not to subtitle it,” he said.  

You can read more about this in our previous article America’s Language Gap.

How the term ‘non-native’ has had a huge impact on teaching 

Meri Maroutian is a Delta-qualified teacher based in Parma and was born in Armenia. She is an example of the social injustices reserved for those perceived as foreigners or “non-native”. This is why she named her blog the non-native speaker

To what concerns teaching, enrolling in a class whose teacher is a native speaker is perceived as better. By contrast, non-native teachers are one step below in quality. But being a native speaker makes you a better speaker, not a better teacher.  

She even has a video on the topic where she states: “Imagine that all the studying and certifications that you hold don’t matter. They matter only if you were born in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, or in some cases if you were born in the States”.  

So there is yet another universe where the use of the term ‘non-native’ perpetuates stereotyping of TESOL professionals. And that makes teachers feel inadequate. 

TESOL teacher Sulaiman Jenkins proposes the framework should address the following features: 

Mother tongue of a TESOL professional, where such identification has some academic, pedagogical, or professional relevance 

– Usage and ability to manipulate the language and not simply “speaking” it. How they teach it, write it, read it, etc. 

Competency and fluency in the English language, which can be translated to if they understand the language, can articulate its rules, can accurately utilize a wealth of vocabulary, etc. 

Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash 

Should English be taught in the US? 

The answer to “should we teach English” is yes. Not by us, but by the U. S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Civil Rights Act in Lau v. Nichols (1974). Local school districts and states must provide appropriate services to limited-English-proficient students. But the up-and-coming question is, for how long? 

On average, it takes four years to achieve English language proficiency. And academic English proficiency can take four to seven years. The clear conclusion emerging from diverse data sets is that even in the two California districts that are considered the most successful in teaching English to LEP students, oral proficiency takes 3 to 5 years to develop, and academic English proficiency can take 4 to 7 years.  

But this right is a right so people can feel the most comfortable in the country they choose as home. By no means does it mean they should “sound native” nor be confronted by stereotypes like those previously mentioned.  

With measures like these, small gestures like Spielbergs, and vocabulary swaps like the U.S Department of Education’s, we slowly approach a more safe and friendly social environment.