My dear readers, this is the last post of a series pertaining to an Academic Paper whose author is Professor Dr Barbara Seidlhofer, Head of English at the University of Vienna, Austria. She admits that the English language is gradually becoming a real Lingua Franca in Europe, detached from specific nationalities and cultures and what really prevails is communication. We can think then that English does not belong only to America and UK, from which already Oscar Wilde said that they were two sister countries separated by one same language; but belongs to all speakers who use it as First and Second language and to the ones that use it for communivation purposes. In the same way that Spanish does not belong to Spain alone anymore. We only have to check the multiple possibilities offered by the Google spell checker for English or Spanish.
English is spoken as the main language in Canada, Puerto Rico, New Guinea, New Zeeland, South Africa, Nigeria, India, Guyana, Jamaica, Belize, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, the Philippines… In some other countries it is also the main language but not the official one; these include old British and North American colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific Area: Anguilla, Antigua y Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Caiman Islands, Dominica, Micronesia Federation, Granada, Guam, Guantánamo Bay, Johnston, Montserrat, the Northern Marianas Islands, Palaos, Puerto Rico, San Cristobel Island, Nieves Island, Santa Lucia, San Vicente and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkish Islands and Caicos, Virgin Islands from USA.
A number of countries use English as an official language as a unifying force, despite the influence of the main native languages; this would be the case of Bangladesh, Botswana, Fiji, India, Lesotho, Liberia, Malaui, Malasya, Malta, Mauricius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leona, Samoa, Singapore, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tonga, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Now I leave you with the end-piece of the paper.
“5. Teacher education
This, of course, requires first of all that teachers should be well informed about developments which are potentially relevant for the profession. By definition, they are concerned with both language and teaching, and the trick is to get the balance right between the two. As people interested in and knowledgeable about their subject matter, language, they can reasonably be expected to keep up to date with developments in linguistic description, such as the fascinating findings about patterns of use revealed by the corpus-based scrutiny of English. It would indeed be unprofessional to dismiss these new insights out of hand and simply to stick to comfortable, tried-and-tested routines, “to avoid facing new information on the subject being taught” and “to take for granted what it is that is to be taught” (Sinclair 1991:490). But the subject is not ‘English’ but ‘English as a foreign language’. So as people concerned with, and paid for, inducing learning in their students, it would be equally unprofessional to get carried away by whatever findings the community of linguists makes available, and to assume that there is an immediate transferability of relevance from the domain of research to that of pedagogy: “We are concerned here not primarily with what language users know but with what language learners need to know” (Widdowson 1991:20). And what learners need to know can only be determined (or at least guessed at) through a careful process of appraisal and mediation. To what extent different and competing claims are reconcilable will depend on specific circumstances, and only the teacher concerned will be in a position to take local decisions. The crucial criterion for how informed these local decisions can be will be the quality of teacher education. EFL teachers who have a good idea as to what options are in principle available to them, and who have learnt to evaluate these critically, skeptically and confidently are unlikely to be taken in by the absolute claims and exaggerated promises often made by any one educational philosophy, linguistic theory, teaching method, or textbook. This seems an obvious enough statement to make, but many teacher training courses do not actually encourage trainees to stand back and think hard about not only the choices that have to be made, but also about the choices that can be made, especially when those are far removed from current concerns and fashions in the Inner Circle. For instance, when contexts of instruction are designed in reference to primary cultures and a shared primary language, this will create an opportunity to re-assess certain activities which have been disfavored and frowned upon in native speaker contexts, such as overt contrastive analysis and translation. Translation has hardly figured in Inner Circle discussions of language pedagogy, and this is not surprising since a great deal of the currently fashionable repertoire of EFL teaching techniques has developed in native speaker contexts like Britain, often in private language schools teaching heterogeneous classes without linguistic and cultural common ground. But there are quite a number of good reasons for using translation in different contexts. One of them is that it would be consistent with the general educational precept that learning is the extension of what is new from what is familiar. Translation relates the language to be learnt to the linguistic experience that people have already had, and this of course can reduce a good deal of the threat of the new subject, and help the learner to appropriate the new language. It is entirely natural to seek to make new experience meaningful by referring it to conceptual categories drawn from previous experience, and so translation is, in this respect, the reflex of natural learning. One might try to put a stop to it, as generations of English teachers were enjoined to do, but it has always been carried out covertly; students translate constantly, whether teachers acknowledge it or not. Further ‘unfashionable techniques’ which might be amenable to the same kind of reconsideration include copying (as used by Holmes (1996) with his students in Eritrea), and repetition and learning by heart. Cook (1994) argues that these two ‘currently outlawed’ activities are, partly due to Western cultural bias, neglected and undervalued aspects of ‘intimate discourse’ which should again form a substantial part of the language learning process.
6. Double lives
What all these considerations have in common is that they require a firm assertion on the part of the teacher that what she is concerned with is not primarily the phenomenon English as a native language, but the subject English, with its situation-specific requirements. Widdowson goes straight to the heart of the matter when he says: It has generally been the case, I think, that teachers of EFL have been considered (or consider themselves) as teachers of English which happens incidentally to be a foreign language. In this definition of the subject, English is paramount and its speakers privileged. But we can also conceive of EFL as the teaching of a foreign language which happens to be English. Now the focus of attention is on the foreignness and not the nativeness of the language, on what makes it foreign, and how, as a foreign language, it might be most effectively taught. (Widdowson 1994b:1.11, emphasis added) So we are concerned here not primarily with E (FL): ‘E’ as a ‘FL’ (foreign language), but with FL (E), or LF (E): a ‘FL’ – and a ‘LF’ (lingua franca)! – making use of English. It seems to me that the notion of foreignness is absolutely crucial for FL (E) teachers’ self-image, and it is a pity that this important element of their professional identity has tended to be played down, swept under the carpet for so long.8 The significance of teacher self image is suggested by a small-scale empirical study which I conducted this year with teachers of English in Austria (and which I referred to at the beginning of this paper). A questionnaire was devised to gain insights into how teachers evaluated their preparation for the profession with hindsight, from the vantage point of their daily practice. This questionnaire was sent out to about 700 (mostly secondary) teachers throughout Austria and exactly 100 were returned.9 Among the nine questions asked there were two which are of particular relevance here. One elicited whether respondents felt that during their studies the main emphasis was more on becoming an effective communicator in the language, i.e. as near-native as possible, or more on becoming an effective foreign language teacher, with a conscious recognition and discussion of the problems and advantages of being a non-native speaker teacher in their particular local conditions. Only just over one third (37 %) went for the second option, i.e. that the main emphasis had been on becoming an effective teacher, while 60% said that language proficiency had been in the foreground.10 The other question elicited whether being a nonnative teacher of English tended to be a source of confidence or insecurity for respondents. A clear majority (57 %) indicated that being a non-native speaker made them feel insecure rather than confident and only 27 % said the reverse was true. Some respondents did not tick either option, but gave a verbal response such as ‘neither-nor’, ‘neither and both’ or ‘it depends’, giving various reasons and explanations. Given the fact that the vast majority of teachers of English in Austrian schools are non-native speakers, rather than lament this state of affairs it might be eminently more useful to have a closer look at those respondents who draw confidence from their non-native status. Here are some comments from teachers who feel that their being Austrians rather than Americans, Britons, Australians, etc. can (also) be a source of confidence for them: Most see as the main advantage that they share their students’ L1. They gain confidence from ‘the knowledge that I can help pupils with problems because I know them’ 11, ‘I can understand why students make mistakes’ . Some respondents describe in what respects the shared L1 is a strength: ‘specific problems to German speaking learners can be pointed out more easily’ , and several make reference to grammar and translation: ‘I can explain grammar better and understand typical Germaniums!’ ; ‘It [i.e. being a German native speaker] has advantages too (e.g. when teaching grammar, false friends, etc.)’ . What is striking, however, is how often this confidence based on the shared language and culture is coupled with an insecurity teachers have about themselves as speakers of English. Many respondents express this feeling of ambivalence quite directly: ‘it depends; on the one hand confidence, because I know a German/Austrian learner’s problems from first-hand experience; on the other hand, a native speaker will be more competent in certain situations’ ; ‘confidence, in the knowledge that I can help pupils with problems because I know them; insecurity, in language competence’ ; ‘confidence: I can (?)track problems of German-speaking learners of English better; insecurity: what is definitely not acceptable in English? (Structure)’ ; ‘Both: confidence Æ to understand my students better; insecurity Æ fluency, range of vocabulary’ ; ‘Confidence – when I explain grammar, do translations: English Æ German; insecurity: speaking, vocabulary’ . In the answer expressing the ‘undulating feeling’ quoted in the title of this paper, confidence is only mentioned indirectly, and the main question for this teacher seems to be how to come to terms with her own expectations . One response that puts this ambivalence into a nutshell is: ‘confidence: as a teacher – insecurity: as a speaker’ . But there are more assertive voices, too: ‘I don’t aspire to native speaker’s proficiency’ , even to the point of sarcasm about the attempt to gauge teachers’ feelings of confidence and/or insecurity: ‘This is a very inappropriate question. Why do you teach English? Ha ha, to feel insecure?’ Other factors in gaining self-assurance are experience (‘The more language teaching practice – the more confidence has developed’ ) and what I would describe as the ability to capitalize on the fact that non-native teachers are distanced from the language they teach because they had to learn it themselves, which gives them ‘confidence in explaining certain aspects and explaining concepts’ . Concepts is the operative word here, which I shall return to below.
7. Significant distance
These few selected responses underline an important strength of non-native teachers, which is that because of their own language learning experience, they have usually developed a high degree of conscious, or declarative, knowledge of the internal organization of the code itself – unlike native-speaker teachers, whose access to the code is usually firmly anchored in context and who may therefore find it more difficult to abstract from specific instances. This distancing from the context can be an important advantage since all learning involves abstracting from context, via a conceptual rather than a contextual apprehension of meaning. Non-native teachers of a foreign language are already at a remove from the language, quite naturally distanced. And this vantage point is an advantage. It is particularly appropriate, in the context of a greater awareness of the ethnographic reality of actual classrooms, to relate this notion of distancing to more general concepts developed in psychoanalysis and cultural anthropology.
Clifford Geertz quotes the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut’s distinction between ‘experience-near’ and ‘experience-distant’ concepts and explains it thus: An experience-near concept is, roughly, one that someone – a patient, a subject, in our case an informant [or a native speaker!] – might himself naturally and effortlessly use to define what he or his fellows see, feel, think, imagine, and so on, and which he would readily understand when similarly applied by others. An experience-distant concept is one that specialists of one sort or another – an analyst, an experimenter, an ethnographer, even a priest or an ideologist [or a teacher!] employ to forward their scientific, philosophical, or practical [or pedagogical!] aims. (Geertz 1983:57) [Remarks in square brackets added] This distinction is one of degree, not either-or, but the main point is that one is not intrinsically better, or more helpful, than the other, or, as Geertz says, Confinement to experience-near concepts leaves an ethnographer awash in immediacies, as well as entangled in vernacular. Confinement to experience-distant ones leaves him stranded in abstractions and smothered in jargon. (p. 57) The parallel I see between anthropological analysis and foreign language teaching is that, in the case of studying ‘natives’, you don’t have to be one to know one, and in the case of teaching a language, you don’t have to be a native speaker to know how best to do it – or rather, it is likely to be an advantage: non-native teachers have, in general, learnt the language they teach via the same concepts (grammatical, semantic, pragmatic, cultural, etc.) that they employ to induce learning in their students, and this seems to be what respondent  in the above extract from the questionnaire study is getting at. Geertz elaborates on this idea: To grasp concepts that, for another people, are experience-near, and to do so well enough to place them in illuminating connection with experience-distant concepts theorists have fashioned to capture the general features of social life, is clearly a task at least as delicate, if a bit less magical, as putting oneself into someone else’s skin. The trick is not to get yourself into some kind of inner correspondence of spirit with your informants. … The trick is to figure out what the devil they think they are up to. … People use experience-near concepts spontaneously, un-self-consciously, as it were colloquially; they do not, except fleetingly and on occasion, recognize that there are any ‘concepts’ involved at all. (Geertz 1983: 58) In terms of language teaching, or the teaching of anything else for that matter, the lack of distance from experience can create problems because teaching and learning are dependent precisely on the extension of familiar concepts, and for this the mere experience of being a native speaker is neither necessary nor sufficient. As Geertz puts it, …accounts of other peoples’ subjectivities can be built up without recourse to pretensions to more-than-normal capacities for ego-effacement and fellow feeling … Whatever accurate or half-accurate sense one gets of what one’s informants are, as the phrase goes, really like does not come from experience … as such. It comes from the ability to construe their modes of expression, what I would call their symbol systems… (Geertz 1983:70) More important, therefore, than the ability to ‘get into the skin of the native speaker’ is the ability to ‘get into the skin of the foreign learner’ – and, seen from the perspective of the learners’ primary culture, non-native FL(E) teachers may well be better equipped to do this than native ones. The double capacity to be at the same time familiar with the target language and distanced from it enables these teachers to lead a double life in the best sense of the word. It also allows us to reinterpret the notion of double think and double life in a way in which the word double has entirely positive connotations not of duplicity, but of value and strength, namely ‘something that is twice the size, quantity, value, or strength of something else’ or, if you like to see it poetically, ‘(of a flower) having more than the usual number of petals’12. And the process of cultivating these petals is serious teacher education”.