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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Looking for a Native Speaker

Another problem we have with hiring for this teaching position is that I’m convinced we need a native speaker. What students need to succeed in language and culture courses is wild enthusiasm and love for the language and the culture. Our beginner-level students mostly don’t want to be in the language classes at all. They are there to complete a requirement. And these are students who probably have never even seen a native speaker of Spanish. And I believe that letting them interact with an actual representative of the culture in the classroom will bring excitement to the process that they don’t have otherwise.

My first (and only) Spanish instructor was from El Salvador. Had he been called Jack Smith from Ontario, I wouldn’t have even wanted to be in the class, irrespective of how amazing Jack might have been as a teacher. 

Non-native teachers and professors of a language, literature or a culture always need to compensate for not belonging to the culture they are teaching. The standard line is “I’m a good teacher precisely because I’m not a native speaker, and if I learned how to speak well, I can teach you.” And I just died of boredom writing this because this is an argument that can only inspire love and enthusiasm in the most cerebral, robotic person ever. And if you think that love can be inspired by rational considerations, please check the news headlines for November 9, 2016.

I know that students feel a letdown when they first enroll in my courses and learn my name. “Professor Bulochkina” doesn’t inspire much interest as a professor of Spanish. And that’s fair, so I’m not upset. But I compensate for not being part of the culture I teach by having an interesting life and being a fascinating person. (Would you be wasting years of your life on reading my blog if I weren’t?) So this is my selling point. People want to be enthusiastic over whatever I’m enthusiastic about because they are drawn to my personality. But these are students who have already chosen Spanish as their area of interest. To beginners I can’t even begin to give what a native speaker gives just by the fact of existing.

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28 thoughts on “Looking for a Native Speaker

  1. Back in the dark ages (1959 – 1963) when I was an undergrad at Yale, I took German for two years because (a) there was a language requirement and (b) I had planned to be a scientist and thought that German language proficiency would be useful.

    As I recall, we had five sessions per week. One was a lecture by a native German (generally in English — he sounded like a BBC announcer) and the other four were sessions with native speakers from different regions in Germany. During those sessions, we tried to understand and to speak German. The theory was that German is spoken a bit differently in different regions and that we would be better able to understand and speak the language if we heard (and perhaps might even notice) the regional differences.

    We were also given various reading assignments, both fiction and non-fiction, to provide a bit of cultural familiarity.

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  2. TomW on said:

    I agree that this motivational effect is a huge advantage of native speakers, especially with lower level students.

    I think a non-native instructor can achieve something similar, though not exactly the same, if he/she is well traveled in the target language country/countries and is willing to share lots of personal stories and experiences. But that requires the travel/living experience and also a conscious effort to find a way to work in a personal story whenever possible.

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    • I suck because I haven’t traveled that much and I’ve never even done a study abroad program. I can only rely on vast amounts of personal charm. :-))))))))))))))))

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  3. I disagree (shocking, I know :-)). Yes, NS teachers have the exotic factor going for them, but:

    1) So do you (as a Ukranian teaching Spanish, I think you might be underestimating how exotic this seems to U.S. monolingual students)
    2) Don’t you have assignments that have them interacting with NS in 101 regardless of who the teacher is (like interviewing Spanish speakers, ordering food, chatting online,etc.)?
    3) The standard response from NNS shouldn’t be “I’m a good teacher precisely because I’m not a native speaker, and if I learned how to speak well, I can teach you” but rather “Yeah, I didn’t have to study this language at all but it was so amazing I just had to continue, don’t you want to find out why?”

    To be clear, I’m not saying that NNS teachers are preferable to NS, just that you can fascinate students either way.

    PS. I changed my WordPress name (from shedding khawatir)–I’m not sure if you can see this or not, but I didn’t want you to think there were multiple people disagreeing with you on language teaching posts!

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    • “So do you (as a Ukranian teaching Spanish, I think you might be underestimating how exotic this seems to U.S. monolingual students)”

      • It’s exotic all right but not in a nice way. 🙂 There is exotic like in “he’s such an exotic beauty, he looks like Antonio Banderas” (like a colleague of mine) and there is exotic like in “she’s so exotic, she always blows her nose on my curtains.”

      “Don’t you have assignments that have them interacting with NS in 101 regardless of who the teacher is (like interviewing Spanish speakers, ordering food, chatting online,etc.)?”

      • We don’t have any native speakers in the area. We really don’t. I busted my ass to get a native speaker as one of the tutors for the conversation hour but he fails to show up. If only there were places here to order food in Spanish, gosh! I’d be a happy, happy person. But it’s literally like, “Here is a picture of a guy from Mexico. He’s the closes you’ll ever get to a Spanish-speaker.”

      “I changed my WordPress name (from shedding khawatir)–I’m not sure if you can see this or not, but I didn’t want you to think there were multiple people disagreeing with you on language teaching posts!”

      • This is definitely a relief. 🙂 🙂

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      • Haven’t you posted before about having NS in your classes? What about other parts of your university? Do you have an English language learning program? Exchange programs? If not, there is always online, although that brings it’s own set of difficulties.

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      • Shakti on said:

        We don’t have any native speakers in the area. We really don’t. I busted my ass to get a native speaker as one of the tutors for the conversation hour but he fails to show up. If only there were places here to order food in Spanish, gosh! I’d be a happy, happy person. But it’s literally like, “Here is a picture of a guy from Mexico. He’s the closes you’ll ever get to a Spanish-speaker.”

        Don’t drive to West Frankfort, IL
        So many hypocritical wankers shedding crocodile tears.

        Is the tutor doing this for work study or a volunteer job?

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    • 2) Don’t you have assignments that have them interacting with NS in 101 regardless of who the teacher is (like interviewing Spanish speakers, ordering food, chatting online, etc.)?

      That would involve either choosing a textbook that has such things, or adding them to the textbook. We are 9 faculty plus a chair, and we must all do the same thing. Only I favor doing this. So, no.

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      • “That would involve either choosing a textbook that has such things, or adding them to the textbook. We are 9 faculty plus a chair, and we must all do the same thing. Only I favor doing this. So, no.”

        • Same here. It’s got to be the same textbook. And WWI-type hostilities are waged around the textbook, so I don’t engage at all. Whenever a colleague says, “So, do you have minute to talk about the textbook?”, I fake an attack of acute gastroenteritis and run away. It’s easier to stay out of it.

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      • We add them (among other things), and use the textbook in a non-traditional manner, but luckily there’s only 3 of us and we agree on our method!

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        • Also, the textbook obsession, which appears common to all languages, drives me crazy–it’s just a book, it can’t do everything, and it’s not a real curriculum however much anyone pretends it is!

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          • Exactly! The textbook is not even that important because nobody can just use the exercises as is without tailoring them to each specific group and adding one’s own activities. The textbook in these courses is just a guide.

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          • TomW on said:

            I agree that the book doesn’t matter too much as long as it isn’t actively bad. I have had the misfortune of teaching from a really bad textbook and that was not a good experience.

            But people do get really worked up comparing the relative virtues and sins of perfectly fine books that would all work just fine.

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        • I try, but it drives my evaluations down as it is “confusing”

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          • Good teaching is supposed to confuse because if you tell people what they already know and don’t “confuse” them by offering anything new, that’s not teaching.

            Liked by 1 person

          • We actually go over our method explicitly at the beginning and at times throughout the semester, which helps a lot in preventing the “it’s confusing” complaints.

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            • My students protest A LOT when they see that I’m not using any English in class. But eventually they start enjoying the process and then they are actually very thankful. I’ve had students who were shocked that I was only speaking Spanish in higher-level literature classes. This means that at every stage before that they never had an instructor who’d do that. I find this pretty shocking. What are we supposed to do, sit there talking in English about how to speak Spanish?

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            • I do that, but if my method is different from the others’ it is “insubordination”

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            • (It does work, though, in courses I have more control over)

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  4. People want to be enthusiastic over whatever I’m enthusiastic about because they are drawn to my personality.

    That’s how I am able to cram unbelievable amounts of vector calculus down students’ throats — I prance and joke around and draw fun stuff for them on the board to illustrate the physics, and I love the material so much, that they can’t help but be cheerful about it. (Show-off alert: I teach all these large required courses where several of my colleagues get creamed in evaluations, while I always get very high ones, all the while kicking the student butts quite hard. They huff and they puff and they do massive amounts of homework because (and some have told me this) I make this material look magical and enticing and something that they absolutely have to master.)

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    • Hey, you do great cartoons. That must be super helpful.

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      • Thank you! Being able to draw helps quite a bit. Not only with hand-drawing various geometric shapes and schematics, but also for lightening the mood. Spongebob Squarepants, dragons, hungry snakes, and horses make an occasional appearance, as do some famous scientists as caricatures. There are also some mild-mannered vector calculus superheros! (I love teaching undergrads.)

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  5. In general I think language programs are best served by a combination of native and non-native speakers as they both have contributions to make.

    For absolute beginners, I think the native-speaker as primary teacher is less important than someone who can convey and kindle enthusiasm. The line about “I learned you can to” isn’t a great come on, but it is a good message to be hanging around in the background (though it shouldn’t be necessary to actually put that in words for students).

    Also, the kind of things that have to be done in an intro class can be really tedious for even very good native speaking teachers (imagine how much fun you would have doing grammar drills in Russian) and it can be easier for non-natives to keep up the enthusiasm.

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