The majority of my blog posts focus on the experiences of being a PhD student, but less so on the actual topic. This week’s post is on the development of my thesis topic, beginning with a question that I get asked every now and then. I was inspired to finally write this entry by Chia Suan Chong’s post on the very same question. While we have different starting points, the “Where are you from?” question is a complicated one to unpack, considering the emotional response that it invokes. In my version of the question, I’ve bracketed ‘really’ because it’s often the intention behind the initial question. ”Where are you from?” followed by a look of confusion caused by my answer (e.g. “I’m from Canada.”) is usually followed up by the actual question they wanted to ask: ”What is your background?” / “Where were you born?” or, sometimes, the straight up “Where are you really from?”.
Now, I’m a Canadian-Filipino living in the UK. I was born and raised in Canada and moved to the UK in 2006. So when someone asks “Where are you from?” I usually answer “Canada” because that is where I’m from. While the person asking the question usually means well, I do find it frustrating when “Canada” isn’t the answer they were expecting and so often I prepare myself for the inevitable follow up questions. Over time, I’ve come to expect that my answer doesn’t often fit with other people’s idea of “Canadian” though, ironically, I supposedly sound like one.
Studying the concept of the English language ‘native speaker’
This PhD that I’m undertaking is a personal journey that explores the role of race and ethnicity in TESOL. As stated in my bio, I explore the status and identity of visible ethnic minorities who consider themselves native English speaking teachers (or VEM-NESTs for short). I’m a VEM-NEST, and in the past I’ve experienced discrimination based on my race, from having job offers revoked once I sent my photo to being paid less than other teaching staff because, as the owner of one school put it, “The students don’t think you’re a real native speaker, so they don’t want to pay more.” Yet, I’ve been hired as a English language teacher because of my North American accent.
As a full-time English language teacher I was angry. Not that explosive type of anger but that slow, simmering type that eats away at you in the background. I was angry because I was paid less than the rest of the teaching staff who were white-native speakers. I was angry for feeling the need to be on the defensive, and became fed up of having to explain my background to each and every class I taught. In many ways, I felt that my professional ‘self’ was being de-valued because of perceptions regarding my ethnic identity, and as a new teacher, it was at times overwhelming.
Let me be frank in my position and state that I do not believe that language ability equates teaching ability. In the English language teaching industry (ELT), being a native-speaker (NS) does not and should not equal being a qualified / good / best / better teacher. Ever. Moreover the definition of what it means to be a native speaker of English isn’t as straightforward. From a teacher’s point of view there are several excellent blog posts addressing the issue of native speakers and ELT, one of which is Josette LeBlanc’s great blog post exploring how to re-defining the NS label as well as an interesting discussion thread on The British Council website on the value of NS teachers. There isn’t enough space here for me to argue persuasively against the hierarchical nature of NS/NNS in the TESOL industry – there are many authors out there who have written extensively on the subject. However, the very fact that this is still being debated today is a reminder that there is still a long way to go before these views are put to rest.
The relationship between race identities and NS/NNS labels, however, is a relatively new and limited discussion in TESOL. I’m well aware that are some who equate my North American accent / Canadian passport with teaching ability and through my experiences (past and present) I’ve also been made aware that my ethnicity challenges expectations associated with the label ‘Canadian English native speaker’. So for me, “Where are you from?” is loaded question. In some ways, I’m still haunted by feelings of being under pressure to prove I’m as good a teacher as my students expected from a ‘real native speaker’ (a.k.a. ‘real Canadian’). On a different level, I continue to be frustrated when my answer “I’m from Canada” is not a sufficient enough reply. I feel I shouldn’t have to explain my Canadian identity or why I speak English so well.
There’s more I could say on this but I’d like to leave it here for now and invite you post your reactions and thoughts in the comments below. Please keep your comments respectful and civil. Thank you for reading this post!