By Hinako Takeuchi
Let me begin this blog post by telling you a little about myself: I was born in Japan to two Japanese citizens, but my English proficiency level is close to that of a native-speaker. I attended an international school in Japan until 7th grade, where an American curriculum was used and a strict English-only policy was in place. In 8th grade, concerned about my declining Japanese proficiency, my parents transferred me to a public Japanese school until I graduated high school. Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees were done in English, the former at a liberal arts university in Japan where English was the normal medium of instruction, and the latter in Canada. Japanese is my mother tongue, but English is my dominant language.
Last December, I applied for an English teaching position at quite a prestigious international university in Japan. The only requirement was a Master’s degree or above and the rest, such as research and teaching experiences, were only preferred. I met their requirements and also their preferences, so I thought I had a pretty good chance of at least getting through to the first round of interviews.
It was during the process of submitting the paper application when someone told me, “Now, don’t worry if you don’t get the job. They might be looking for native speakers. If that’s the case, they’ll look at your name and photo and the application will go straight into the trash. So even if you don’t get it, it’s not your fault.”
Excuse me? What did you say?
The statement came as a shock to me. I’d just never considered that my name and appearance could hinder me from getting an English teaching job in my own country. Of course, I’d known that it was a definite possibility in another country like Canada, where I’d be competing with locals who were just as, or more qualified, than I was, but my own? I sat there trying to wrap my mind around this sudden, new possibility; another realization that life wasn’t fair. But I’m qualified, aren’t I? I’ve met the requirements? This is 2017… and they might not accept me because of my name and what I look like?! That was when I realized – none of my linguistic or educational background mattered. My name and face were enough for employers to assume that I would be a non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST). As Holliday (2013) maintains, in the English teaching market, “non-White teachers are taken for ‘non-native speakers’ even if they were born and brought up with English as a first or only language; and White teachers who do not have this background can pass easily as ‘native speakers’” (p. 20). What an unfair and disheartening system. And unfortunately, it doesn’t just happen in Japan – this is a common occurrence, especially in East Asia!
I began to think through the definition of a native speaker. Stern (1983, as cited by Cook, 1999) reports that there are five characteristics of native speakers: “a) a subconscious knowledge of rules, b) an intuitive grasp of meanings, c) the ability to communicate within social settings, d) a range of language skills, and e) creativity of language use” (p. 186). Check, check, check, check, and check. However, if we define a native speaker the way Bloomfield (1933, p. 43 as cited by Cook, 1999, p. 186) does, in that a native language is the first language someone learned to speak, unfortunately, I do not fit the definition. My first language was Japanese – English just overtook it along the way, to the point that I feel quite limited in my first language. So what am I? Who am I? I found myself thinking through the same questions as posed by another blogger, Amy.
I am a hybrid of sorts –I learned English both through the immersive method (in elementary school) and the grammar-translation method (in junior high/high school). There must be other people who are like me, native speakers, but have lived outside of the U.S., Canada, UK, or Australia. As English maintains its place as the hyper-central language (see De Swaan, 2001, as cited by Piller, 2013, p. 15), the line between Native English-Speaking Teachers (NESTs) and Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs) is getting blurrier and more outdated by the day. It’s high time for hiring practices to change in the English teaching industry.
Cook, V. (1999). Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2), 185-209. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3587717
Holliday, A. (2013). ‘Native speaker’ teachers and cultural belief. In S. A. Houghton & D. J. Rivers (Eds.), Native-Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup dynamics in foreign language education (pp. 17-26). doi:10.1111/weng.12234