“THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING A NONNATIVE TEACHER OF ENGLISH” (2)

Especially in the public sector, the vast majority of EFL1 teachers in Austria, and indeed worldwide, are non-native speakers of English. Although this state of affairs is well-known, teacher education courses often fail to address it explicitly, let alone exploit it constructively as a resource in foreign language teaching. On the contrary, EFL teaching methods and materials are still largely based on approaches and techniques developed by native speaker teachers, and often for quite different circumstances, such as English being taught not as a foreign but as a second language, or in an English-speaking country to classes of foreign students from a variety of first language backgrounds. Obviously I would not wish to deny that a great deal of valuable expertise has evolved in this way. Rather, my argument here is that it needs to be recognized that EFL being taught by teachers who learnt English as a foreign language themselves, and who teach it to classes whose culture and first language they often share to a considerable extent, is quite a different matter. It would seem to me, then, that there is an urgent need to reconsider EFL teacher education in a way that
gives this difference its due. As a first step, I wanted to investigate how practitioners see their role as
foreign language teachers, and how their self-perceptions square with my own observations and reflections as a teacher educator in this country. In a questionnaire I recently sent out to teachers of English throughout Austria (and which I shall discuss in more detail below), the first question was whether being a non-native teacher of English tends to be a source of confidence or a source of insecurity, and one respondent’s answer provided me with the title for this paper: It was never a source of confidence and at different times a question of ability. It is an undulating feeling – insecurity “My English is not good enough- I have improved
it- I feel able, capable … I must do something about my fluency and range of vocab…” But it is not so much a question of insecurity than it is my own expectations. It was precisely these feelings of confidence and insecurity, and teachers’ thoughts about their own abilities and expectations that I wanted to explore
with my questionnaire. The concern for these issues arose from many years of observation (and self-observation) during which it struck me that many nonnative teachers of English (and, presumably, of other foreign languages) are highly insecure and self-critical in comparison with teachers of other subjects
such as, say, physics or geography. Countless times have I heard remarks expressing dissatisfaction with their own knowledge of English. Countless EFL teachers tend to think, at least at times, that they are somehow deficient in comparison with native speakers, who are often regarded as role models, aspired to but never reached. Peter Medgyes, the director of the Centre of English Teacher Training in Budapest, conducted surveys on the native/non-native teacher question in ten countries and concluded that
we suffer from an inferiority complex caused by glaring defects in our knowledge of English. We are in constant distress as we realize how little we know about the language we are supposed to teach. (Medgyes 1994:40).

In this paper, then, I shall explore what it means to be a non-native teacher of a foreign language, a learner of the language one teaches, and consider some implications for teacher education for English as a foreign (as opposed to second) language. I want to do so by giving a thumbnail sketch of the situation as I see it at present, highlighting some crucial issues and suggesting a way forward.

by Barbara Seidlhofer

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