Reader Response Journal

Unpacking the Native Speaker Knapsack: An Autoethnographic Account of Privilege in TESOL by Steve Iams

In this article, Iams begins by laying a foundation for auto ethnography as a valid form of inquiry within TESOL and situates himself in a position of privilege within the field. In the past, the majority of autoethnographic work has been done from the perspective of those with less privilege, so he is filling a gap by providing a personal account of a white, male native speaker. He begins his personal story by recounting how he got his first job in Japan, based on his native speaker status alone. He juxtaposes this with Philipson’s fallacies (monolingual, native speaker, early start, maximum exposure and subtractive fallacies) (1992, 185), but notes that none of this was part of his awareness at the time. He was also not considering himself as embarking on a career in TESOL. Next, he joined the Peace Corps, and was suddenly declared a teacher trainer. While the experience was personally fulfilling, he questioned the “unintended consequences of damaging the quality of English instruction and jeopardizing the professional identity of local non-native English-speaking teachers” (Wang & Lin, 2013, p. 5). He asked himself how does one become a TESOL professional and wound up enrolling at SIT. While there, his language and power project on NNEST issues, which he did with an older Korean woman, opened his eyes to some of these issues. For his project, they did a simulation where participants looked through job ads as if they were native or non-native speakers. In autoethnographic terms, this represented an epiphany for him. Searching for a job after graduation, he wound up training teachers in Korea, a situation where he was positioned as an “ideal language teacher” according to a study of Japanese students’ perspectives. The issues raised by his language and power project became more real when a qualified Korean colleague was not able to fill a real and immediate void in his institution, simply because he was not a native speaker. Despite the volume of research and advocacy devoted to disrupting the native/non-native dichotomy, the linguistic imperialism that Philipson wrote about is still present within the English teaching world. He ends without answering any questions, but expressing his discomfort with some of these tensions.

For me this article was really interesting, in part because I know Steve and I really respect the ways he uses his privilege to be an ally to others. It was also interesting to see how closely our careers paralleled each other, with one year of teaching in East Asia, four years of Peace Corps and then SIT, where the language and power project was a pivotal moment for me as well. Hearing the personal progression of his thinking is important, because issues of equity won’t change without the investment of people in privileged positions working alongside those who are being undervalued by the field. It makes me think of the Sister Scholars and their article Women Faculty of Color in TESOL: Theorizing Our Lived Experiences, where they presented personalized accounts of their positions within the academy. It’s noteworthy, because it’s 6 women of color alongside one white woman. The position of us white native speakers is also informed by race and native speaker status, so including our voices denormalizes white native experience as the assumed norm. From a critical perspective, disrupting the hegemony of privileged teachers is super important in creating a more just profession.

Iams, S. (2017). Unpacking the native speaker knapsack: An autoethnographic account of privilege in TESOL. Korea TESOL Journal, 12(2), 3-22.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wang, L. Y., & Lin, T. B. (2013). The representation of professionalism in native English-speaking teachers recruitment policies: A comparative study of Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 12(3), 5–22.

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