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The Voice of a Native Speaker in the Land of

Nonnative English Speakers


KEIKO K. SAMIMY
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio, United States

Marginalization of nonnative-English-speaking (NNES) professionals


and students has been well documented and is receiving increased attention in the eld of TESOL. Braine (1999), for example, noted that
NNES professionals have reported experiencing discrimination in their
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employment, student evaluation of their teaching, and lack of visibility


and voice in the profession. In addition, NNES students have experienced feelings of marginalization or nonparticipation (Leki, 2001; Norton, 2001; Morita, 2004), in part because some TESOL practices may
unconsciously reinforce Western cultural hegemony (Norton, 1997) by
unwittingly undermining or silencing the voices of nonnative speakers of
English (NNESs). Furthermore, Norton (2001) asserts that learners
nonparticipation might be understood to constitute a disjuncture between their imagined communities and the teachers vision, which in
turn can have a negative impact on their learning.
Thus far, several studies have dealt with imagined communities available to NNESs (Leki, 2001; Morita, 2004). Few studies, however, have
examined imagined communities available to both native and nonnative
speakers of English or to native speakers only. Pavlenko (2003), for
example, examined what kind of imagined linguistic and professional
communities are available to 44 pre- and in-service English language
teachers (24 American students and 20 international students) in an
MATESOL program. The participants linguistics autobiographies revealed that they belonged to three imagined communities: (a) a native
speaker community that portrays standard English as the only legitimate
form of the language and monolingual native speakerswho are also
implicitly white and middle classas its only legitimate speakers and
owners (p. 257); (b) a nonnative/second language (L2) learner community that portrays L2 learning as a never-ending quest for an elusive
NS competence (p. 259), and (c) a multilingual/L2 user community that
provides alternative discourse to the rst two communities and focuses
on learners multilingual competence and legitimacy as L2 users rather
than L2 learners. Pavlenko reported that some students continued to
work within the framework of the native speaker community or L2 learners community, and some students decided to reposition themselves to
join the multilingual/L2 user community.
The ratio between American students and international students in
Pavlenko (2003) was almost evenly distributed. What would happen,
however, if one American student was placed amid primarily international students? What kind of imagined professional communities would
she or he choose to identify with? What factors might contribute to her
or his choice of community? The current study explores the trajectory of
one native speakers identity development in a land of nonnative speakers by exploring the following research questions: How does a native
English speaker (NES) situate herself in a community of nonnative
speakers? How does her identity as a native speaker evolve? What kind of
imagined linguistic and professional communities are available to her?
Because NES students are rarely a minority among NNES graduate students in a TESOL graduate program, this study provides an unusual
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opportunity to explore the power dynamics between a native speaker


and nonnative speakers in that particular context. Another signicant
contribution is the emic perspective made available through the native
speakers experience in terms of her identity trajectory. Such insights
could inform both NESs and NNESs to reimagine together more collaborative and mutually empowering English language teaching (ELT)
professional communities.

METHOD
Context and Participants
As a way of providing different ways of communicating (Ellsworth,
1992) that nonnative speakers can use to address their experiences with
discrimination, marginalization, or oppression without offending or embarrassing native speakers in their classes, a graduate seminar for NNES
professionals was established in 1997 at a large midwestern U.S. university. It aimed to raise both NES and NNES professionals collective consciousness concerning the status of NNES in ELT practice, and to empower NNESs as ELT professionals through their participation in critical
dialogue. The seminar was titled Seminar for Nonnative-EnglishSpeaking Teachers, and it attracted mainly NNES students who were
enrolled in either a masters or doctoral TESOL program. In spring of
2002, however, an NES student, Olivia (pseudonym), decided to join the
seminar.
The seminar was an elective, and met for two and a half hours each
week for 10 weeks. The class comprised 23 graduate students: one NES
and 22 NNESs. The NNES students academic backgrounds were varied,
and included TESOL (M.A. and Ph.D.), drama (Ph.D.), and global education (Ph.D.). I, the researcher and the instructor of the seminar, am a
Japanese female who was interested in issues related to NNES professionals. We used two main texts: Non-Native Educators in English Language
Teaching (Braine, 1999) and The Other Tongue (Kachru, 1992), as well as
selected journal articles (e.g., Cook, 1999) and online materials (e.g.,
Kamhi-Stein, Lee, & Lee, 1999; Matsuda, 1999/2000).
The current study is a single case study of a White American female
student who had 2 years of ESL teaching experience with K12 students,
and who was teaching ESL for adult refugees in a midwestern U.S. city at
the time of the study.

Sources of Data
I chose to use a case study approach to provide holistic and context
sensitive descriptions of a case (Patton, 2001, p. 447; see also Stake,
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125

2000). The study aimed to describe the world of a native speaker as she
saw it in the context of an NNES seminar. Data for the study were
collected from two sources, which included the instructor and the NES
student, Olivia. The instructor kept a reective journal throughout the
seminar as a participant-observer; and with her permission, a second data
set came from Olivias responses to online interactive dialogues, her nal
class project, and online interviews with the instructor.

Analysis of Data
I analyzed the data using two methods in tandem. One method, which
is based on data reduction and interpretation (Marshall & Rossman,
1989, p. 114), seeks to identify emergent patterns, or themes, which are
then compared with patterns or themes outlined in the extant literature.
The other method entails looking for causal links and/or explanations
(Yin, 1989). To ensure the trustworthiness of the study, I used member
checks, which led me to exchange several e-mail messages with Olivia to
elicit her feedback regarding my analysis and interpretation of the data.

FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION


Olivias Initial Struggle to Gain Entry to the
NNES Community
When I rst met her, Olivia struck me as a very friendly and sensitive
person who was eager to learn. Although the seminar was initially designed to deal with issues specically related to NNES professionals, I saw
the opportunity to have a native speaker in the seminar as a welcome
change. However, contrary to my initial nave enthusiasm, Olivia reported experiencing feelings of exclusion and bias from her classmates,
a fact she attributed to her status as a native speaker of English. In her
journal she wrote:
On the rst day of the course when I introduced myself and conrmed
the groups assumption that I was the only native English speaker in the
room, I asked them not to hold it against me. What was my purpose in
saying that? Just minutes before making that self-introduction I had entered the classroom and was confronted by a NNES classmate who
seemed confused or upset about my being there. She questioned why I
was there and declared that the course was for nonnative professionals
and clearly I am not a nonnative. I replied that I hadnt heard being a
nonnative was a requirement for the course and that my advisor had
suggested the course to me. (Olivias Journal, April 5, 2002)
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During her self-introduction, feeling self-conscious about being the


only native speaker in the room, Olivia informed the class that she
wanted to take the seminar because she felt that she could learn a great
deal from her classmates, all of whom were NNES professionals, especially in terms of ESL learners strategies and their cultural backgrounds.
At the end of the rst class meeting, Olivia noted that, as it turned
out, . . . a different classmate responded that he wished there were more
Olivias here. Others came to me after class to welcome me and voice
their interest in hearing my thoughts throughout the course (Olivias
Journal, April 5, 2002).
Despite her somewhat rough initiation to the land of NNESs, Olivia
felt comfortable enough to stay in the seminar. In fact, a few weeks later,
she noted that she felt accepted and perhaps even a little bit overly
self-assured that I would nd my place easily in the scheme of the course
(Olivias Journal, April 19, 2002). However, her self-assurance soon became shaky:
One classmate posted an email that mentioned a student conding in her
that she understood exactly what [the students] dont understand, but
that the NS teachers did not. Braine (1999) supports this claim, stating
that . . . as [students] become better acquainted with qualied, competent, non-native teachers, students often clamor to be in their classes,
knowing that the non-native teachers better understand their language
problems. Reading these comments put me in a place that had previously been foreign to me: I stood alone questioning what strengths can I
offer and what connections to my future students will I be able to foster
if I dont understand them? I felt defeated. I realized that I would never
be able to truly possess the empathy of knowing the struggle that comes
with learning English as a second language. The trait I had long given
myself, as being sensitive and empathetic to the needs of my ESL learners,
seemed fake and pretentious.
As I heard the comments of my classmates, who happily discussed their
strengths as NNESs, I felt absorbed by a cloud that swallowed me as I
dissolved within my diminishing condence. My voice silenced and my
thoughts drifted elsewhere, while my hopes to be a role model for my students were
shattered. (Olivias Journal, April 26, 2002, emphasis added)

The quote reveals Olivias disillusionment as an NES professional vis-vis her NNES classmates. Her positive self-image as an ESL teacher was
gravely challenged by what she heard and read in the class. Until she
participated in the NNES seminar, she perceived herself as a sensitive
and empathetic ESL teacher. However, after reading articles that suggested nonnative English teachers could be better role models than
native speakers in some contexts (e.g., EFL contexts), she felt that her
chances to be a good role model for her ESL students were almost
nonexistent.
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Olivias Feeling of Displacement and Nonbelonging


Unfortunately, as time went on, Olivias sense of isolation in the seminar became so painful that she approached me about dropping the
seminar. She wrote in her journal,
What truth do I behold as a native speaker, that yes, you too can learn
English, when I only happened to learn it because I was fortunate enough
to be born to English speaking parents in an English speaking country?
For a few weeks I felt like a shadow, a phantom that eavesdropped on
discussions that I could not relate to other than to feel as a guilty member
of the group that has long marginalized nonnative speakers. . . . I belong
to the Center nations, which claim ownership over English. How am I to
contend with that label? (Olivias Journal, May 1, 2002)

Olivia continued to struggle with her role and identity as a NES in


relation to the NNES professional community. She detested the NES
label, which was associated with marginalization and disempowerment of
NNES professionals, but at the same time, she thought that she could
not be an advocate for NNESs because she was not a member of the
NNES community. She noted in her journal, My concern now is how
can I stand up for the rights of NNES when I am not one myself? (May
17, 2002). Her inner struggle is well depicted by the following quote
from Britzman (1992), who draws on Bakhtin to discuss teachers multiple and conicting identities:
Two types of conicting views on what it means to take up the identity of
a teacher: the centripetal, or normative voice which denes what a
teacher is and does in relation to the kind of authority and power teachers
are expected to deploy; and, the centrifugal, or resisting voice, that speaks
to ones deep convictions, investments, and desires. These two moments are
in constant tension, positioning multiple identities. (p. 33, emphasis added)

In Olivias case, she was caught between the centripetal voice that endorses the native speaker myth and the centrifugal voice that challenges
her role and identity as an NES teacher vis--vis NNES teachers and
encourages her to take action.

Olivias Newly Claimed Identity as a Role Model for Other


NES TESOL Professionals
Olivia continued to view herself as a peripheral or marginalized participant in the land of NNES. However, through assigned readings that
focused on collaborations between native speakers and nonnative speakers (Kamhi-Stein et al., 1999; Matsuda, 1999/2000), she gradually repo128

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sitioned herself as a role model for other NES professionals and became
an ally of NNESs. She explained:
What can I do as a native speaker to raise awareness among my native
speaker colleagues that nonnative speakers are qualied professionals
and that we should ALL work together. . . . Once I decided to focus on this
question I was in a better position to feel that I merit an important position as an
English language teacher, regardless of my native tongue. I can be a role model by
taking a stand and advocating for the rights of NNESs as deserving respect and
being valued as well-qualied ELT professionals. A good starting point might
be to point out that native English speakers are actually the minority in
the world. (Olivias Final Paper, May 15, 2002, emphasis added)
As this passage shows, Olivia nally seemed to have resolved her inner
conict not only by accepting her NES identity but also by extending
herself to help other NES professionals increase their understandings of
their NNES colleagues.
She further elaborated:
Prior to attending this course, respecting differences seemed to be the
only requirement for establishing impartiality between groups of English
language teachers who have been segregated based on when they learned
Englishas their rst or as an additional language. While it is important
that we respect our differences, staying within the comfort zone that
distinguishes us from them and remaining contentas long as the other
doesnt get in the way of oneselfperpetuates the false notion that our
differences are not mutually benecial. The truth, Ive learned, is that
when both groups collaborate and work together for a common purpose,
the TESOL profession makes strides in terms of promoting strengths on
both sides and begins to see the other as a resource rather than as a
decit model or representation of an unattainable standard. . . . Even as
a native-English-speaking teacher, I will be a role model by advocating for
the rights of all nonnative speaker professionals as an important, vital
and very credible force in the TESOL profession (Thomas, 1999, p. 12).
(Olivias Final Paper, May 15, 2002, emphasis added)

Olivia repositioned herself not by changing her identity as an NES but


by redening or expanding the traditional denition of native speaker.
She happened to speak English as her rst language, but that did not
mean that she had to endorse the native speaker myth. Instead, Olivia
chose to break away from it by choosing to be an ally for NNES professionals by advocating collaborations between NES and NNES communities.

CONCLUSION
By focusing on Olivias experience and her voice in the land of NNES,
the current study explored the trajectory of her identity to better underBRIEF REPORTS AND SUMMARIES

129

stand the identity of an NES professional in relation to her NNES counterparts. The guiding questions were the following: How does a native
speaker situate herself in the community of nonnative speakers? How
does her identity as a native speaker evolve? What kind of imagined
linguistic and professional communities are available to her?
As is often the case for NNES students and professionals, Olivia was
led to question her legitimacy as a community member, lost selfcondence as an ESL professional, and experienced feelings of isolation
and marginalization as a result of being the only native speaker in the
class. However, toward the end of the NNES seminar, she felt that she
could establish her professional legitimacy by being an NES professional
who is also a role model for other NESs who may not understand NNESs
and by being an ally for NNES professionals to bridge the gap between
the two communities. Through classroom readings and discussions,
Olivias identity options expanded. That is, instead of staying within the
framework of the NES/NNES dichotomy, through her personal experience in the NNES seminar, classroom readings, and discussions, Olivia
was able to see herself as well as her NNES classmates as legitimate ELT
professionals. Furthermore, she saw herself as someone who could help
other NES professionals to do the same in order to establish mutually
empowering working relationships between NES and NNES professionals.
Olivias negotiated identity needs to be interpreted within the context
in which she bravely chose to step, one that positioned her as the sole
native speaker surrounded by nonnative speakers. Had she chosen not to
stay in the NNES seminar after the rst class, Olivia might have imagined
her identity differently. With her determination and investment in staying in the land of NNESs, although it was very painful at times, she was
able to gain new insights into the native speaker myth and negotiate her
new identity. One might argue that Olivia is still within the boundaries of
the NS community; however, her discourse at the end of the NNES
seminar clearly indicates
a point of departure of the process of self-consciousness, a process by
which one begins to know that and how the person is political, that [and]
how the subject is specically and materially engendered in its social
conditions and possibilities of existence. (deLauretis, 1986, p. 9)

PEDAGOGICAL IMPLICATIONS
Several pedagogical implications can be drawn from this study. First,
NESs in TESOL programs need to have opportunities to experience
ideological and identity conict both theoretically and personally, much
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like Olivia did. This experience will allow them to imagine themselves
and others as legitimate members of professional communities (Pavlenko, 2003, p. 253). Second, to help both NES and NNES students
venture out of their comfortable communities of practice and imagine
alternative communities, TESOL programs need to incorporate pedagogical interventions such as cross-cultural training and/or cross-lingual
activities (see Cook, 1999) where instructors become the emancipatory
authority (Giroux, 1988, cited by Norton, 2000, p. 145) to facilitate
students transitions into uncharted lands.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I would like to acknowledge Olivia, the participant in my study, for her willingness to
share her story, as well as the two anonymous reviewers, and Soonhyang Kim, Alan
Hirvela, and Karen Newman for their helpful comments and suggestions.

THE AUTHOR
Keiko Samimy is associate professor in foreign and second language education at the
Ohio State University. Her research interests include empowerment of NNES professionals and advanced language learners of less commonly taught languages. Her
publications have appeared in TESOL Quarterly, Modern Language Journal, Language
Learning, and JALT Journal.

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