Reframing the native-speaker debate: we need to give interlanguage its due

The assumption that being a native speaker of English makes you better able to teach it is becoming increasingly untenable. While this shift in attitude is a welcome one, it has yet to lead to a level playing field in the job market. Even in the EU, where the very phrase “native speaker” has been deemed discriminatory and therefore illegal in job postings, the preferential treatment given to native speakers continues largely unchecked.


Reading some recent Twitter threads on this issue has got me thinking that our continued focus on the native/non-native binary is unhelpful. Even if we accept this false dichotomy, it is dangerous insofar as it focuses the debate on teacher identity rather than teacher practice. In other words, we ought to be asking ourselves what effective language teachers do rather than who they are.


As EFL/EAL teachers we are not so much teaching English as such but rather interlanguage. This term, coined by Larry Selinker in the early 1970s, treats learner language as an emerging system that operates between two poles, namely learners’ L1 (assuming they have only one) and English. When I first encountered this concept it struck me as profoundly insightful in that it acknowledges that learner English is a system in which two languages are enmeshed. What’s more, rather than being a mess to clean up this is a system to understand and engage with.

Our learners’ L1 often remains a silent partner, an almost uncomfortable presence we’d rather not acknowledge let alone welcome.

English teachers who speak their learners’ L1 are better able to engage in explicit contrastive analysis as well as translation and translanguaging. Still, such bilingual/multilingual teachers may be just as likely to be prejudiced against the use of learners’ L1 in class, even if it’s their L1 too. Indeed, they may be more likely to curtail L1 use precisely to avoid being perceived as non-native and thereby lowering their own status. In other words, while these teachers may be better equipped to engage with learners’ interlanguage there may be unconscious biases that keep them from taking advantage of these skills.


Given that we know that students with similar linguistic backgrounds will have similar interlanguages, why are the distinct patterns of these interlanguages not addressed in a systematic way in our coursebooks and in our classrooms? A significant proportion of learner errors is highly predictable and yet we tend to deal with them in an ad hoc way, as if they were idiosyncrasies specific to individual learners.


There are in fact course materials devised to address learner error in a more principled way; they just haven’t had an impact on mainstream coursebook design. A good example is the collection Guided Error Correction: Exercises for Spanish-speaking students of English by Michael Kennedy-Scanlon, Juli Cebrian and John Bradbury. In its current format it’s too extensive to be integrated into a general coursebook, but I think an updated, corpus-based version of these exercises would allow for a narrower and more usable selection of exercises.


There’s also the obvious challenge in environments where learners don’t have the same L1 or where the teacher doesn’t share their students’ L1. Given the emergence of online coursebooks and the consequent disappearance of space constraints, there’s no reason why publishers couldn’t make coursebooks available with interlanguage activities for speakers of a wide range of different L1s. Indeed, with a bit of ingenuity we could be conducting classes in which learners have tailor-made tasks for their specific linguistic profile working side by side and even comparing similarities and differences between their respective L1s.




There’s also Learner English: A Teacher's Guide to Interference and Other Problems by Bernard Smith and Michael Swan. This allows teachers with no knowledge of their learners’ L1 to nonetheless understand and anticipate the difficulties speakers of specific languages face when it comes to grammar and pronunciation.


It’s my hope that the concepts of interlanguage and multilingualism in the language classroom allow us to see the unique and valuable perspective of non-native English speakers as teachers of English. I also hope that we can use this as a chance to reflect on how coursebooks might evolve in future to incorporate corpus-based contrastive analysis activities to treat learners’ L1 as the asset it is. Arguably multilingual EFL teachers, many of whom are non-native speakers of English, are well-poised to design such materials and promote their use.




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