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…


8 thoughts on “Inauthentic authenticity”

  1. To partially play devil’s advocate, it is your NNNS status that has informed your selection of this halfway point between “ssssup” and “how are you”, is it not? I recognize that in principle this knowledge is available to anyone, but if I were placing bets, I’d say the folks from countries where those spectra of casual and formal language exist would be more likely to be able to pick a suitable register out to teach.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, you’re right.

      Maybe I didn’t pick good examples, I just wanted to point out that although I DO have authentic knowledge, it doesn’t necessarily help me in my teaching as most English taught in classrooms is a standardised form of English anyway.


      1. Well, I’d suggest that as long as we’re not handed every single language item by higher-ups, the same rule should apply to most cases of “inauthentic authenticity”, which is a phrase I like a lot. There may be some points where a trained NNS is a better judged of permissibility than an untrained NNNS, but of both are trainee a NNNS probably has a better grasp of where on the spectrum of generality a given item lies.


  2. Hmm…..I’m not so sure! I’ve met untrained NNNS that just blindly (and somewhat arrogantly) assume that their own particular, idiosyncratic form of English is the norm and give no thought to the needs of the students and the appropriateness of the language they are teaching. The result is usually badly taught lessons and confused students.


  3. I think you touch on an important issue in this post. The problem is that many schools have been hiring ‘native speakers’ almost exclusively for their ‘real’ English (and because they look ‘native’, e.g. white and Western-looking), to supposedly provide students with authentic input and a cultural experience. However, this reductionist logic leads to a situation where some ‘native speakers’ are only valued as sources of ‘real’ input, rather than as skilled teachers.
    As far as ‘authenticity’ is concerned, I think we really need to redefine it. If English is a global language, ‘native speaker’ English is as authentic as Polish or Chinese English, i.e. English influenced by Polish. I’d even go as far as to say that teaching students exclusively British or American English is actually doing them a disservice. It misrepresents the diversity of the language and of its speakers. It doesn’t prepare them for the ‘real’ English out there that they’re likely to hear, which in most cases is neither British or American English, but some form of ‘non-native speaker’ English.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agree wholeheartedly. That is one of the reasons why I actively decide not to teach the hyper-localised form of British English that I speak. As I said, students don’t want it and as you say, it may even restrict their ability to engage with the diversity of English speakers out there.

      I also think you’re right that all forms of English have equal value and should all be seen as ‘authentic’. Maybe if we were to re-position Polish-English, Japanese-English etc as dialects of English, akin to Estuary English, RP, Tazmanian English, SAE etc, rather than as a corruption of ‘real’ English (as they are currently viewed as), this would help to legitimise them in people’s minds.

      Liked by 1 person

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