When this happened for the first
time, I thought it was pretty insignificant. I pondered for a while and then let go of
the thought immediately. When it happened for the second time, I realised it was worth a
mention here on my blog.
I'm sitting in the
classroom, cooperating with Margaret, a lady from the UK (a native speaker
of English). We’re working on a task Daniele, the presenter of the workshop
we are participating in, has just asked us to complete. We're looking at a list
of some vocabulary items when Margaret mentions that she's really enjoying
the day here at the conference. Later on I ask her about her background
and she briefly explains that she used to be a primary teacher in the UK. Now
she's retired and she's been travelling a bit around the world and she's
having a great time. She's come to the Czech Republic to visit her son - a teacher trainer based in Brno. Suddenly, Daniele, whose name and surname definitely
sound English to me, utters a Czech male name with such a perfect pronunciation
that it occurs to me that her L1 might actually be Czech. I've noticed that it
is particularly people’s names, as well as, say, names of Czech places that
reveal your true identity when you pronounce them in front of a Czech audience.
Anyway, I mention to Margaret in passing that Daniele is one of my
favourite presenters and I wonder whether she's a native speaker of
English. Margaret stops to think for a second and then she says:
"Well, I really don't know but she sounds English to me". And
then she adds: "And Paula, the presenter I saw before, sounded English to
me too." I'm a bit surprised because I know Paula is Czech and although
her English is flawless, it's definitely her L2.
I'm sitting in the
classroom listening to Nick, a very friendly-looking native speaker of English, who's giving a presentation on a brand new, bottom-up, approach to teaching listening and reading.
At some point he asks if there are any native speakers present in the
classroom. I think he wants to explain how difficult it is for NSs, let alone
NNSs, to understand spoken English and he wants somebody to confirm his
assertion. One guy puts up his hand – it’s James. Nick nods and then he looks
at David, a nice guy I saw presenting at conferences in the past too, and, a
little puzzled, asks: "And you? You are a native speaker, too, aren't
you?" David shakes his head - he's actually Dutch. "Really?? I
thought you were a native speaker", adds Nick a little doubtfully. His puzzlement doesn't surprise me because I heard David speak on many occasions before and he
sounded perfectly native-like. But I'm a NNEST, so you can trick me easily,
And that's the
point. Being a native speaker of Czech, I'm convinced that I can tell with an absolute certainty whether somebody's Czech is their L1 or L2, and I
was really surprised to see that native speakers of English can't. This is truly intriguing. Although
both Nick and Margaret came from totally different environments, they had
something in common; Nick probably works with teachers all around the
world, so he may have adjusted to all sorts of accents which he accepts as
fully-fledged varieties of English. Margaret loves travelling, so like
Nick, she may have stopped distinguishing between 'real' English and other
Englishes long ago.
So it made me
wonder why there's so much the fuss about NESTs and NNESTs because apparently,
even NESTs can't tell the difference between native and non-native Englishes.
It really makes no difference what Daniele's, Paula's or David's linguistic
backgrounds are - one of their parents may be a native speaker after all, or
they might have spent most of their lives in an English speaking country. Or
maybe they managed to acquire English in such a way that nobody can say if it's
actually their L1 or L2. Thus it's clear that it is the outcome, i.e. your
linguistic ability (plus teaching qualifications) that makes you a good teacher,
not your history, i.e. the place of your birth or the data recorded in your
Note: the storied above are real stories, both
of which happened quite recently, and the names of the people mentioned are
real too (even though I admit I might have played with the spelling a bit).