ELT – A history of (symbolic) violence?

Apologies for the long hiatus. As the new academic year starts over here in Japan I’ll hopefully be able to start posting regularly again. I think I may be a bit intellectually out of my depth on this one, but, hey, it’s not as though anyone actually reads these things to pull me up on anything, right?! OK, here goes:

I was dipping into Bourdieu and Passeron’s 1977 treatise “Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture” the other day for a juicy quote that I could use in a literature review and ended up reading through most of Book 1 (“Foundations of a Theory of Symbolic Violence”), coming perilously close to half understanding it at one point! At the beginning they state that: “All pedagogic action (PA), objectively, is symbolic violence”. I suppose they were being deliberately provocative, but I have to admit that I was a little taken aback and shocked by the use of the word “violence” in this context. Less than 48 hours after reading this I clicked on a link in my Twitter feed and found myself reading Paul Walsh’s much shared blog post about inequality and power in ELT, “Stop the Violence!”. There was that word again: “violence”. Hmmm….

Although Bourdieu and Passeron are largely referring to state education and wider society, and Walsh very specifically targets the ELT industry (largely in the UK), there seems to be a number of parallels to be made.

In Walsh’s thought-provoking post he singles out textbooks/coursebooks, job security and competition as interlinked examples of “violence” in the ELT sphere. For Walsh (as far as I understand it, at least), the textbook/coursebook takes power away from the teachers and learners and puts it into the hands of the publishers and ELT gatekeepers. This is referred to by Bourdieu and Passeron when they state that: “the dominant system of education tends to secure a monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence” (p. 6) and that “PA can produce its own specifically symbolic effect only to the extent that it is exerted within a relation of pedagogic communication” (p. 7), in this case the almighty textbook or coursebook.

The second strand of Walsh’s argument is that this hegemony is perpetuated because of the precarious nature of most ELT teachers’ employment conditions, which constrains their ability to refuse and resist, and by the institutional authority of the Cambridge and Trinity qualifications. This lack of control and enforced uncertainty is again reflected in Bourdieu and Passeron’s assertion that “the laws of the market which fixes the economic or symbolic value… are one of the mechanisms…through which social reproduction, defined as the reproduction of the structure of the relations of force between the classes, is accomplished” (p. 11) and their identification of an “academic docility which is expressed in, among other things, their particular sensitivity to the symbolic affect of punishments or rewards and more precisely to the social-certification effect of academic qualifications” (p. 28).

The third, and interrelated part to Walsh’s concept of violence in ELT is the competition inherent in SIGs and Teacher Associations that play groups off against one another and ensure that the largest and most powerful ones are the ones that set the agenda and marginalise the dissenters. Inevitably, Bourdieu and Passeron have something to say about this as well: “the pedagogic transmitters are from the outset designated as fit to transmit, hence entitled to impose its reception and test its inculcation by means of socially approved or guaranteed sanctions” (p. 20).

So, while I agree with Walsh on all points, I’d like to emphasise the “symbolic” nature of this “violence” and extend it out to cover wider issues in ELT. What about the symbolic violence of discriminatory hiring practices that ‘non-native speaker’ teachers endure? Or the symbolic violence of reducing certain ‘native speaker’ teachers to the role of exotic curiosity and entertainer? Or the symbolic violence of heteronormative content in ELT materials against LGBTQ teachers?

As Walsh states and as Bourdieu and Passeron confirm, the level of dominance and the degree of symbolic violence is historically variable and depends upon “(1) the degree to which the state of the balance of power hinders the dominant classes from invoking the brute fact of domination as the principle legitimating their domination; and (2) the degree of unification of the market on which the symbolic and economic value of the product of the different PAs is constituted” (p. 14). In this 21st Century world of hyper-connected blogging and social media that gives voice and an international platform to anyone with an Internet connection, there has never been a better time to upset the balance of power and to unite in disengaging from and splintering the mainstream institutions and dominant discourse that has held back so much innovation and progress in ELT and perpetuated symbolic violence against so many for so long.


Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J-C. (1977). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Sage: London

Read Paul Walsh’s article here: http://decentralisedteachingandlearning.com/stop-the-violence/

NNS English and authenticity in popular culture

With an increasing amount of English interactions around the world taking place between non-native speakers (I tried to find some stats on this, but couldn’t get a credibly concrete answer – Crystal’s figures are well out of date by now), it’s surprising how little this is depicted in the media and popular culture we (well, at least I) consume.

I’ve just finished watching the film “Victoria” and apart from the brilliant acting and incredible artistry by German director Sebastian Schipper (the whole 138 minute movie was filmed in one single take), the most striking thing (for me as an English teacher!) was the dialogue. The film is set in Berlin with a lot of the dialogue happening in German, but the titular character is a Spanish cafe worker (played by Spanish actress Laia Costa) who doesn’t speak German. This means that the bulk of the film takes place in English spoken between a native Spanish speaker and native German speakers (the central German character is played by German actor Frederick Lau). The dialogue is littered with glaringly obvious, but inconsequential grammar and lexical mistakes that would make many a proscriptive language teacher wince (“I’m scaring”, “the car won’t go on”), that for me only enhance the movie and serve to make it as realistic and believable as possible.

The interesting point about the film is that it was completely unscripted, which not only emphasises the realistic manner of the speech between the actors (I couldn’t find any footage of Frederick Lau speaking English in real life to see how much of it was ‘acting’, but judging from Laia Costa’s answers at the press conference for the film launch, the English she speaks in the film seems to be exactly how she speaks English in real life), but raises all kinds of questions about authenticity in the representations of English in the media that we consume.

Pinner and Lowe (2016) (hello!) astutely make the connection between authenticity and native-speakerism in the ELT industry, highlighting the issues of authority, culturism and cultural capital as the main strands that perpetuate the negative myth of the native-speaker teacher as the only true authentic model of English. I would argue that the same issues that affect NNS teachers can be extrapolated out into wider society and the representation of non-standard varieties of English in art and culture. I like to think that we’ve moved on at least a bit from grotesque caricatures of NNS English in the vein of Manuel in Fawlty Towers and films like “Victoria” are a good sign that we are moving away from non-standard English in art and media as a fetished exotic other (culturism) as exemplified by the highly objectified and inevitably ‘foreign’ Bond girl.

The encouraging thing for me about a film like “Victoria” is that it that it turns the notions of authority, culturism and cultural capital on their head, showing that the less standard the English, the more authentic it becomes. If the two main characters had spoken with perfectly polished California accents it would have been just another cheesy Hollywood movie. Or, if they had displayed an exaggerated non-standard accent, but had magically obtained perfect grammar, fluent diction and a command of idiomatic English, I think that would also have reduced the credibility of the film for the audience (not to say that NNS can not or should not have these qualities of course!). By allowing the actors to be themselves and to uninhibitedly show off their own (completely valid) dialect of English they give authority to world Englishes, resist culturism and make a mockery of the idea that only art produced by Inner Circle countries can have cultural capital.

In terms of the usefulness of this for the classroom, I know I’ll be using this film in the future to provide a positive role model for students (not that I actively want them to make grammar mistakes of course!) to hopefully give them confidence and to show that the standard US/UK model of English is not the only authentic voice. I hope that future screenwriters and textbook publishers will take inspiration from this kind of positive example so that in the future it will be possible to have scripted movies and learning aids that are able to be this authentic without mocking or ‘othering’ the NNS English interactions that make up the vast majority of the English that is spoken around the world every day.


Lowe, R.J. & Pinner, R. (2016). Finding the Connections Between Native-Speakerism and Authenticity. Applied Linguistics Review 7 (1), 27-52 (Link)


English-only policies and teacher identity

For the past few months I’ve been attempting some research into the effects of English-only policies on the identity of non-native speaker teachers. I’ve got a couple of interviews to go and haven’t got any clear conclusions yet, but I thought I’d share my thoughts on it anyway.

English-only policies in EFL/ESL classrooms can be seen as a direct by-product of the CLT revolution and the ‘natural’ and ‘direct’ approaches that took hold of language teaching in the 1970s and 80s and haven’t let go since. In fact, in places like Japan, where I teach, it is only now just being officially implemented. The Japanese government requires all high school (aged 15-18) English lessons to be taught “principally” in English and from 2020 all middle school (aged12-15) classes too. This belief (and that’s just what it is, a ‘belief’) in the superiority of English-only has become firmly entrenched and enthusiastically taken up in a wide variety of linguistic and cultural settings with absolutely no empirical evidence that it is effective. In fact, a number of recent studies have found that use of the L1 in class can improve comprehension and production of the L2 and more importantly that allowing access to the L1 has positive effects in terms of cognition and social interaction.

For non-non-native speaker (NNNS – yes, I know the joke should have worn off by now – sorry!) teachers working in an EFL environment, until around the mid-1980s it was expected that they have some knowledge of the L1 where they were teaching. This was reflected in training programmes at the time and in methodological approaches such as Community Language Learning (CLL), which presumed that language teachers had some knowledge of their students L1. By the 1990s, this language knowledge was no longer required, and by the 2000s it was not only not desirable, but explicitly forbidden. I remember one incident when I was teaching a class at Lehman Brothers, Tokyo in 2008 just before the crash, (I don’t think there was any correlation between my teaching there and the biggest collapse of global markets in almost a century, but I can’t be sure!), which was being monitored by the HR rep. as it was the first class of the course. About halfway through the class it was unbearably hot in the room as there were about 8 or 9 of us stuffed into a small conference room more suitable for 4 people, so I turned to the HR person and asked, in Japanese (I had no reason to presume that she could speak English, so I thought I would play it safe and be polite), whether there were any other rooms available. She was extremely angry and requested that I don’t use Japanese in the presence of the students again – the NNNS bubble had been broken and I was forced back into pretending that I didn’t possess this very valuable skill that I had studied hard to acquire. In any other sphere of work, having an additional language would be seen as a useful skill that might even give the employee higher pay or a promotion, but in in the ELT world, where you would think it would be even more important, this additional skill is being repressed and denied. In many workplaces, such as universities, this is true not only inside the classroom, but outside of it too.

For non-native English speaker (NNS) teachers, it is often cited that one of the reasons why they may be seen as more suitable teachers when teaching students that share their L1 is precisely because they are guaranteed to have this shared linguistic knowledge and can thus better understand, empathise and communicate with their students. But when forced to adopt an English-only policy in their professional life, I would argue that this not only deprives them of a valuable skill and teaching tool, as it also does with NNNS, but in the case of NNS it deprives them of their identity too.

Our own language is so bound up with our sense of who we are as a person, that to deny someone access to it is almost akin to taking away a basic human right. That may sound a bit over-dramatic and it probably is, but the principal of restricting the cultural identity of a teacher in order to create a fictitious atmosphere of monolingualism and advance an outdated and unempirical ideology just seems to me to be unnecessary, misguided and yet another way to deliver the message to NNS teachers that their own culture and identity are worthless and that they should surrender themselves to the NNNS norm.

Hopefully, emerging movements like the Bi/Multilingual Turn will start to overturn these kinds of policies and allow NNS teachers to reclaim their own languages and identities.

Culture by proxy

This is a follow-up to my last post about inauthentic authenticity in language.

As well as prioritising NNNS (Non-non-native speaker – yep, I might as well stick with it, I can’t think up any better alternatives for now!) teachers for their alleged ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ language, another related aspect that was mentioned in the comments to my last post is that NNNS teachers are also seen as having cultural capital.

But, what do we mean by having knowledge of a target language culture and is it really so exclusive in our 21st century hyper-connected world?

The idea that teaching language is so intertwined with teaching culture is inescapable for some of us. On the surface, English teachers are just supposed to be ‘language’ teachers, but for NNNS, at least, this seems impossible because of who they are. Maybe NNS are allowed to be just ‘language’ teachers and maybe some of them are, but as a NNNS I am made to feel that I have this extra dimension that I am expected to provide and that seems difficult to get away from. It might be interesting to try, but I think that my cultural background and NNNS status are so synonymous (in the minds of students) of who I am and what I do, that it would be difficult to do without being rude or dismissive.

I don’t actively (or at least consciously) put that much cultural input into my lessons when I’m preparing worksheets etc, but students DO ask a lot of questions and I also offer (voluntarily) cultural information and asides during the natural course of a lesson. If it helps with student motivation and makes the language more meaningful and ‘real’ or ‘alive’ for the students I suppose it’s a good thing, but I’m not sure that my students realise that my cultural perspective is only ONE cultural perspective that is becoming more and more distant and less authentic the longer that I am away from that culture.

As an EFL teacher, I have been living outside of my home culture since 2002 (all of it in Japan), which in our fast-moving, digital age might as well be 1902! The last time I was in the UK, absorbing the culture and unknowingly filling up my well of cultural capital (which after 14 years has pretty much run dry!) there was no Facebook or Twitter, no Skype (I used to charge up a phonecard to call home), Youtube didn’t exist until 2005 and internet blogs were just getting started (WordPress started in 2003). No Netflix or iPlayer and online presence for most newspapers and media outlets was restricted and still very much one-way. Tony Blair was the UK Prime Minister, same-sex marriage was illegal in Britain, England had a nearly half-decent football team (this is debatable of course!) and you could smoke in restaurants and pubs!

Over the last 14 years television, music, art, politics, literature, food, values, customs, social mores and even language itself have all changed immeasurably. My pre-millennial cultural knowledge is anachronistic and irrelevant to my first year university students who were barely out of nappies when I was last a genuinely culturally and linguistically pure authentic NNNS.

I do try to keep up with what’s happening in the UK of course, but my consumption and understanding of contemporary British culture comes solely from the Internet these days, which anyone in the world can also access! So, either I am a fake/proxy British culture expert or anyone with an Internet connection can be an equally valid culture expert or cultural commentator, which makes a nonsense of the supposed cultural capital of the NNNS.

Not only that, but as with forcing our own narrow version of ‘authentic’ language on our students, by doing the same with culture we may be doing them a dis-service. By presenting one (most probably outdated) specific set of cultural norms as ‘English/target language culture’ we may be narrowing their scope of references and making it more difficult for learners to communicate effectively with the people they meet in English, who will inevitably inhabit a diverse range of cultural backgrounds. At the same time, by adopting some imagined sense of target language cultural norms, students run the risk of divesting themselves of their own unique cultural (and linguistic) background, which is a part of who they are.

Inauthentic authenticity

I often ask students if they prefer so-called native-speaker… ahh….I’m already doing what I complained about in my last post, sorry, let’s try: non-non-native speaker (NNNS!) teachers to non-native speaker (NNS) teachers. Some say that they don’t mind either way, but, rather sadly, the majority claim to prefer NNNS (yes, I’m going to run with it!) because they want to know about ‘real’, ‘natural’, ‘authentic’ English.

Similarly, universities and especially private language schools seem to prioritise the NNNS teacher in most EFL contexts around the world. A lot has been written about how this discriminates against NNS teachers who have the requisite language knowledge and teaching ability but not that all-elusive authenticity factor (the A-factor?!).

But do students really want true authenticity and do NNNS really provide them?

In my own position as a British English speaking teacher in a public university in Japan teaching mainly low-level compulsory English classes to undergraduates, I’m pretty sure that they don’t want it and I don’t give it!

I’ll teach: “How’s it going?” “Pretty good, yourself?” as a ‘natural’ alternative to the time-honoured textbook classic: “How are you?” “I’m fine thank you, and you?”. But I DON’T teach them “Geezer!, “Allright, mate”, or any number of British colloquialisms that are common to those of my age, gender, class and part of England and would be far more authentic (for me at least) than the standardised and universal “How’s it going?” that can be and is taught by NNNS and NNS teachers alike around the globe.

I DO help students with intonation patterns and work on eliminating those intrusive extra vowel sounds that is a natural product of the Japanese katakana system, but I DON’T teach them glottal stops and change their mid-word “th” to a “v” sound (“bruvva”), which is how I really speak – or, at least how I used to speak before I was an English teacher in Japan!

I suppose I could (and maybe I would if I was teaching in an ESL context to more advanced learners), but something in me feels that it is not quite appropriate. In one respect I feel I would be ramming my own particular British version of English down their throats when they haven’t asked for it, they are just studying ‘English’ (I’d be interested to know whether American English speaking NNNS teachers have any qualms about teaching phrases like “What’s up?”, which are just as culturally specific as “allright, mate” in my view). And the other reason is that my students don’t seem to want or need this type of authentically authentic English (I’ll dedicate a whole future post to the target language/culture myth). It might just be me, but I suspect that NNNS around the world are teaching exactly the same things as NNS, it’s just the fact that they are a NNNS there in the flesh that fools the students and employers into thinking they are getting something different and more authentic.

So, if I, as a supposedly highly-coveted NNNS teacher, teach a standardised version of English and am not providing an authentic language experience for my students and if my students don’t actually want or need this authentic experience that they think they want and need, what is my value as a NNNS teacher working in Japan? What is the return on investment for my employer and the thousands of employers around the world that are using their NNNS teachers as a mark of distinction and authenticity?

…well, I do LOOK the part, I suppose…


Re-naming the ‘native speaker’

Over the last few years there has been a growing clamour in the ELT world against not only the concept and definition of who is and isn’t a ‘native speaker’ of English, but also the very term itself is now starting to be questioned – quite rightly, in my view.


Etymologically, ‘native’ comes from the Latin ‘nativus’, meaning ‘born’ that gave us ‘natal’ and ‘innate’. This implies that the English that a ‘native speaker’ has is somehow, something deep inside of them that they are born with, rather than as the product of cultural exposure, environmental factors or as a product of their own conscious learning. The meaning has shifted to refer more to the place where someone is from, but that underlying etymological hangover is still very much implicitly understood. There are also the uncomfortable Prince Phillip-isms that the word ‘native’ conjures up in these post-Colonial, trans-global times and the spectre of the ideology of natural superiority that goes along with it.


Then there is the problem of which nationalities qualify as ‘native’. If we only include Kachru’s Inner Circle lot (USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – yes, in that order, with the USA first and New Zealand a poor fifth!) then we are excluding the Expanding Circle countries (Singapore, India etc) and the Outer Cirle ones too. Who gets to decide who can join the club? And if we have new members, do we then need a new term to encompass and reflect this?

And even if we go all traditional and accept that only people from the Inner Circle can be truly ‘native’ speakers, can we really put American English, British English, Canadian English, Australian English and New Zealand English all under the same umbrella? How can such a diverse range of pronunciations, spelling, lexis and even grammatical structure all come under one moniker? It’s like referring to the incredible of array of genres, styles, languages, instruments, techniques, melody and history of music in Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Faso, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia as ‘African’ music (I’m not sure it was worth typing all those out to make my point, but it seemed like a good idea when I started!). It’s meaningless and potentially offensive to lump this breathtaking diversity into one reductionist word.


This is all before we tackle the complex issues that today’s globalised, fragmented world brings. Can you be a ‘native speaker’ of more than one language? I recently asked a friend whether he considered his daughter, who is bilingual in Japanese and English, but was born and raised in Japan, to be a native English speaker. He asserted that she wasn’t because her level of English was not as good as her Japanese and would be seen as slightly below the level of someone who had grown up in England. I definitely don’t agree with this. My own 4-year-old son is in exactly the same position, but I would argue that he is a ‘native’ speaker of both English AND Japanese, he doesn’t have to be physically from or in a certain country to claim ‘nativeness’. Or how about his classmates at the international pre-school that he attends once a week, most of whom were born in Japan to American parents serving in the US navy? They are ‘from’ Japan, as in that is where they were born and are growing up, but have limited Japanese skills and near-perfect (but probably different from their peers that are actually in the US) English skills. Most people would argue that they are certainly ‘native’ English speakers, but still my friend doesn’t recognise his own daughter as a ‘native’ English speaker because she happens to speak another language better.


There have been a few recent (excellent!) publications that have expressed their dissatisfaction with the ‘native speaker’ term at the beginning of the paper or book, but have then conceded that for ease of reference they will use the term anyway. Or others have taken to putting it in inverted commas (as I have done in this post) or adding the prefix ‘so-called’ before the word.

Although I understand this and these are all admirable ways to draw attention to the issue, I think it’s time to for researchers and publishers to have the courage to move beyond it and introduce some new terminology free of the divisive connotations that the term ‘native’ implies.


So, what can we use instead? I don’t know! I’ve tried out Local British English Speaker (Local Australian English Speaker, Local Indian English Speaker etc.) and it kind of works when talking about a specific person or isolated group, but breaks down when we try to make it a catch-all phrase. But maybe that’s the point, maybe we need to get away from having a catch-all phrase and start distinguishing as we would any other trait. Maybe we need a new set of phrases, in the plural.


I don’t know what it/they will be, but I sincerely hope that soon a new term/some new terms will be latched onto in the literature and we can start to change our concepts of who and what has a right to the English language.



Welcome to the first post (of hopefully many) of this new blog. The intention of the blog is just to act as an outlet for all the TEFL-related musings that go on in my head on a daily basis. My main TEFL interests are in aspects of culture and identity and the role of teachers and so-called native speaker teachers in the EFL world. Although I know very little about it, I’m also fascinated by the social-psychological aspect of language learning and teaching, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a little of that creeps into the blog too.

I’m going to try to keep it as casual as possible and most posts will probably be half-developed musings and semi-thought out ideas that pose many more questions than they offer answers.

All feedback and discussion is warmly welcomed, but if it just ends up with me venting my thoughts into the digital ether, that’s OK too.