Can we just ditch the native speaker construct already?

Dahling, join me for a cup of tea in my ambiguous linguistic and cultural third space.

Today as I was surfing around internet rabbit holes – which I often fall into while daydreaming up fun lesson plans – I ran across some advice online by and for language teachers that explicitly suggested having native speakers make recordings for their students. I find this sort of thing all the time. It upsets me to watch my own profession propagate the native/non-native speaker construct. Let me explain.

Don’t get me wrong: I love native speakers. Heck, I am one (of English, a pretty tough language for a lot of people to master). I respect intuitive knowledge about language and culture, knowledge that students in language classes have to learn explicitly, through what can sometimes be arduous, tedious work.

But let me also say this: not being a native speaker doesn’t invalidate a person’s experiences, how they sound or what they know. This goes especially for language learners. My language students are sitting in class working hard. They can say what they need to say. Sure, they don’t sound like everyone else. Yet that is also kind of beautiful, if you think about it. They occupy what postcolonial thinker Homi Bhabha and applied linguist Claire Kramsch call the third space (or in some cases, third place or third culture). They occupy an ambiguous, smooshy, gray area in the middle. They have their own world experiences, their own languages, their own cultures. And here they are, sitting in my classroom, learning how to play another linguistic and cultural game. Learning to understand people who are not themselves. Isn’t that kind of a brave choice? In some ways, in this day and age, even a revolutionary choice? Doesn’t it deserve legitimacy and respect and acknowledgement? After all, non-native speakers have privileges too – of being outsiders, both linguistically and culturally.

The native-/non-native-speaker dichotomy is not helpful for students or teachers. Most people who learn a language never sound like a native speaker and still make mistakes. (Hey, even native speakers make mistakes sometimes. Just look at all the grammatical pet-peeve websites out there.) Yet in the end, mistakes don’t even really matter all that much unless they interfere with communication. Sometimes they’re even funny!

As language teachers, as language learners, and as members of a world that needs more empathy, I believe we need to start embracing diversity of linguistic and cultural knowledge. How hard is it to encourage teachers to have their students listen to all kinds of speakers, regardless of their level of intuitive knowledge or how native-like their pronunciation is? (Shout out to my favorite German textbook here, Deutsch im Blick, which does just that.) We have to ask ourselves, what’s really important: setting a virtually unachievable standard for students or helping them embrace being in a linguistic/cultural in-between space?

I’m not blaming anyone. First loves are hard to get over. I know that many of my colleagues know this and believe it. But many people, even some teachers, don’t, as my web-browsing sesh today demonstrated to me, and I think language teachers and applied linguists like myself have a lot of work to do to eradicating this dichotomy in our own profession. Of course, this means not only changing our beliefs but also our classroom practices, and also the general public’s perception of these ideas. What are language teachers here for if not to help our societies think differently about language and power?

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