Reader Response Journal

“I May Be a Native Speaker, But I’m Not Monolingual”: Reimagining All Teachers’ Linguistic Identities in TESOL by Elizabeth M. Ellis

In this article, Ellis explores teachers’ linguistic identities, beyond the NEST/NNEST dichotomy, which she argues simplifies teachers’ experiences of language, since it focuses exclusively on English. In the NEST v. NNEST mindset, NESTs are presumed to be monolingual and NNESTs are presumed to be bilingual, deficient in English and often speakers of the same language of their students and the dominant model of teaching English in English hides teachers’ other language skills. Ellis elicited personal linguistic narratives from 29 English teachers in 7 countries that contradict these constructs. She found that many of the so-called NESTs were in fact multilingual, with varied language learning experiences that sometimes included being able to speak the same language as their students to a high degree of proficiency. In addition, teachers who were perceived as NNESTS not only had broad linguistic repertoires and varied language learning experiences, they also often considered themselves to be native speakers (sometimes with a caveat about their accents). Ellis draws on traditions such as bilingual life-writing (memoirs such as Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation), plurilingualism (a European approach that takes a broader view of linguistic repertoires than multilingualism, by acknowledging various levels of competence, attrition and relearning across the languages an individual knows), and the move towards recognizing the learner’s L1 as both a learning tool and an important aspect of their identity, to establish a place for teacher’s multilingual learning experiences as an important aspect of their teaching and teacher identity. She envisions a world where teachers will regularly be asked “how rich is your linguistic repertoire and how can this be deployed as a pedagogical resource?” instead of whether they are a native or nonnative speaker or which variety of English they speak (606).

For me, this article was particularly relevant, because I am a multilingual native English speaker, and I often feel like the rest of my linguistic repertoire gets erased or is invisible to my students. I’ve been using much more of a plurilingual approach to teaching here in Ecuador, where my classes are of necessity a hybrid of Spanish and English. But it was only last week that one group of my students thought to ask me if I speak anything else (which I do, to varying levels of competence). I really think that for students to see their teachers as language learning role models is really powerful, and I wish more teachers would include their language histories when they introduce themselves to new classes. For example, I don’t know how any of my previous language teachers learned their languages and I don’t know if any of them spoke languages beyond English and what we were learning. I think that standardizing the “what is your linguistic repertoire” question as part of the hiring process would be really beneficial. I remember when I first arrived here how frustrating it was that my principal just saw me as a deficient Spanish speaker, rather than a multicompetent user of many languages. As a native English speaker, my L1 is valued, but this experience gave me a sense of the frustrations that I hear my NNEST friends talk about, where they are defined by what they aren’t, rather than recognized for the skills and abilities they do have. I really hope Ellis’ ways of conceptualizing language repertoires catch on within the field, and that differentiating childhood home languages from current dominant languages and accounting for both circumstantial and elective language learning experience becomes more common. I know that they languages I speak benefit me hugely as a teacher, and I think that these experiences should be valued throughout the field. By doing this, we can move away from valuing nativeness as the most important factor in a teacher’s linguistic identity, and start creating more accurate and less biased ways of talking about teachers’ language backgrounds. This would also open the way for more plurilingual classroom pedagogy and structured reflection on past language learning experiences as part of teacher training programs, which would better serve our students.

Ellis, E. M. (2016.) “I may be a native speaker, but I’m not monolingual”: Reimagining all teachers’ linguistic identities in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 50(3), 597-630.

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