Empathy and the non-native perspective

Some time ago, I wrote a post in Portuguese entitled Em busca do sotaque perfeito about pronunciation and accents and how I feel it is important to work on pronunciation and expose students to different accents, native and non-native, especially in cases where the teacher has the same accent as the students. This is because it’s always easier to understand someone who has the same accent as you, but the whole point of learning a foreign language is to be able to understand and make yourself understood with people who don’t have the same accent as you.

When that post was published, some people accused me of ‘native-speakerism’, which surprised me, as nowhere in the post had I advocated that learners of English should try to emulate native speakers, much less held up any particular variety of English as being a desirable standard to imitate. I also felt slightly aggrieved as I am actually a passionate believer in the idea that the teacher should at the very least have a knowledge of the students’ mother tongue, and the more profound that knowledge the better, because then he/she can identify, comprehend and empathize with the particular difficulties the students encounter and why they make certain mistakes in the foreign language. What better way to ensure this than to be coming to the foreign language from the same place as the students, i.e. from the same mother tongue?

Non-natives look at a language in a completely different way from native speakers. Actually, most native speakers don’t stop to look at their own language at all, they just use it without thinking about it, and if they intend to teach it to others in a competent way, they first have to learn to look at it themselves, and to try to see it at least to a certain extent as a non-native might. But when we learn a foreign language, we think about it consciously: how it works, which aspects of it are relatively easy and which more difficult, how sentences are to be constructed, how words have to change their form according to the rules we are instructed to memorize etc. We’re looking at the language objectively, as something which is not yet part of ourselves, as something different, new and, well, foreign to us. If you combine this objective viewpoint with the empathy of understanding and taking into account the student’s point of departure (their mother tongue) as well as an ability to explain and entertain, you have all the ingredients for a great language teacher.

I personally don’t think you can generalize about whether it’s better to be taught by a native or non-native. There are plenty of terrible native-speaker teachers out there (who only get work by virtue of being native speakers) just as there are many outstanding non-native teachers, and vice-versa, and I’m not talking only about teachers of English. When it comes down to it, there are simply good teachers and not so good teachers; a profound knowledge of the subject you are teaching is a prerequisite for any teacher, and just being a native speaker is no guarantee of that. I may have been accused of native-speakerism within the context of English teaching in Brazil, but I also ‘teach’ Portuguese as a foreign language through the books I have written, and though my Portuguese grammar is used as a recommended textbook in some of the most prestigious universities in the English-speaking world, they would never employ me to teach Portuguese … because I’m not a native speaker.

Thinking about my own experience as a language student and the many teachers of various languages I’ve had in the past, I can definitely say that a native speaker teacher is not automatically an advantage. But what I’m more interested in, looking back, is the methods and grammars I have used. In general, it makes a huge difference if the author is a native speaker or not because it’s the difference between struggling to put their normally unconscious native-speaker intuitions into words, or looking at and describing the language as something “foreign”. In terms of effectiveness, it’s a bit like the difference between trying to describe to someone the scene you’re in while being photographed and showing them the finished picture.

It’s not a general rule, but some of the most useful language-teaching books I have come across and used are those written by natives of my own language and not of the foreign language in question. Even if the book aspires to adopt a communicative approach, with minimal grammar explanation, it will still be coming from the same starting point as me (i.e. English) in terms of how it views and presents the foreign language. That helps me enormously. For one thing, the English translations of words, expressions and examples will be reliable and natural. Translation is important in language textbooks because, if well done, the translation of words and examples can convey more information than whole pages of explanation.

To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to take an extreme example. I spent many years studying Japanese, which generally ranks as one of the most difficult languages to learn and is certainly the most difficult I have ever tackled, by a long way. Japanese grammar is deceptively simple, but the way of expressing things and constructing sentences is completely different to that of European languages, and that’s where the difficulty lies. Of course, there’s the added complication of the writing system, which requires much dedicated study in itself, although it’s actually not as daunting as it may first appear.

Japanese grammars and teaching books are mostly written by Japanese native speakers, a few with an English native co-author. A good many of them are written in English though, which is, of course, a big help if you can’t yet read Japanese very well. But they still explain Japanese grammar from a Japanese perspective, which is a very different perspective from the English one. Indeed, the whole arrangement of the book, the progression of the course, is based on the Japanese way of thinking about the language. We learn the different forms and what they mean, but it all seems very disorganized and haphazard from an English standpoint. Also, the English translations given are not reliable and often misleading.

To give a concrete example of what I mean, Japanese has a range of so-called conjectural expressions: darō, rashii, sōda and yōda. These are basically used for reporting hearsay and your own impressions, and there are small but important differences between them in terms of usage and meaning. Very confusingly, they are nearly always presented together in the same lesson in Japanese textbooks. One grammar I have explains the difference as follows:

darō expresses the speaker’s conjecture, but it is not necessarily based on any information. In other words, darō can be used when the speaker is merely guessing. Rashii usually expresses the speaker’s conjecture based on what the speaker has heard or read. That is, the information his conjecture is based on is not firsthand. Sōda expresses the speaker’s conjecture about what is going to happen or the current state of someone or something. Although this expression is based on what the speaker sees or feels, it is merely his guess and the degree of certainty in his statement is fairly low (…). Yōda is also an expression which is usually based on what the speaker sees or saw. However, unlike sōda, this expression involves the speaker’s reasoning process based on firsthand, reliable information and his knowledge. Thus, the degree of certainty in yōda is the highest of the four expressions compared here.”

from A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar, by Seiichi Makino and Michio Tsutsui, publ. The Japan Times, Tokyo 1986

I find this kind of explanation very abstract and confusing, and it doesn’t really help me to differentiate the usage and meaning in practical terms. The same book then goes on to compare some examples:

Kono hon wa takai darō.  This book is probably expensive.

Kono hon wa takai rashii.  (From what I heard and/or read,) this book seems expensive.

Kono hon wa taka sōda.  This book looks expensive.

Kono hon wa takai yōda. (Considering the prices of similar books,) this book seems expensive.

Now, contrasting the same example with the four different options is normally a very good way of illustrating the differences because there are no other variables in the example sentences which could affect the translation. Yet what really makes the meaning and usage clear for an English speaker are the translations themselves. But while “This book is probably expensive” and “This book looks expensive” make it pretty clear what those forms mean and how they should be used, the other two translations are less successful and the additional information given in parentheses is distracting. Indeed, I would say that the translation for the rashii sentence is incorrect and misleading. The following translations would make the difference in meaning clearer and dispense with the need for the long-winded explanation:

Kono hon wa takai darō.               This book is expensive, I guess.

Kono hon wa takai rashii.             This book is expensive, apparently.

Kono hon wa taka sōda.               This book looks expensive.

Kono hon wa takai yōda.              This book seems expensive.

Looking at these translations, an English learner might wonder why four such apparently different meanings had been introduced in the same lesson. Granted, “look” and “seem” are fairly similar in their function and, in fact, if we attempt to differentiate them by comparing the meanings and usage of the two, we arrive at a conclusion very similar to the explanation given by the authors of the Japanese grammar above. Indeed, we could replace the Japanese words with the English ones: “seem is also an expression which is usually based on what the speaker sees or saw. However, unlike look, this expression involves the speaker’s reasoning process based on firsthand, reliable information and his knowledge”. So why not simplify from the start and just say that sōda means ‘look’ and yōda ‘seem’? Probably because (and this is certainly not intended as a criticism) the authors’ knowledge of English is not refined enough to arrive at this conclusion.

Even now, after obtaining a master’s degree in Japanese and working with the language for a number of years, when it comes to producing Japanese, I’m constantly asking myself “now, how do I express this in Japanese?”, not because I don’t know the vocabulary or the grammar, but because I’ve never come across a Japanese-teaching book that tells me e.g. how to express the present perfect in Japanese, how to translate an infinitive etc. According to the proponents of the direct method, I shouldn’t even be asking myself these questions because I should be thinking in Japanese and the Japanese I know should be my starting point, not English. OK, but I challenge anyone out there to try it for themselves.

I should say that, having studied Japanese, I have immense admiration for Japanese people who learn English. Not only are the languages very different, the way of thinking, of expressing things, is so different. Working from English to Japanese is a little easier as you basically have to learn to leave a lot out (pronouns, articles etc.) and simplify, whereas the poor Japanese have to learn when and where to put all that stuff in! That’s quite apart from the sounds of English, which are really hard for the Japanese to produce, while Japanese pronunciation is relatively straightforward for English speakers. I always tell my Brazilian students to count themselves lucky that English and Portuguese are so similar!

But another thing I learnt from my experience with Japanese is that it’s remarkable how you can express the same idea in a completely different way. As a speaker of English, when you first start learning Japanese, you wonder how anyone can possibly communicate effectively in a language which doesn’t have articles, doesn’t normally use personal pronouns, doesn’t differentiate between singular and plural, only has one verb form for all persons, and only really has two tenses. But eventually you discover that you can, perfectly well, and that some of these details which seem so important to us, like the difference between singular and plural, can actually be pretty irrelevant and fussy a lot of the time. This is an important life lesson too: that our own language (and culture) is relative not absolute, that different people think in different ways, and that those ways are not inferior or superior, just different. If I was president of the world, I would make it compulsory for school students to study a very different language from their own, because, ultimately, it teaches you empathy, a quality which is in regrettably short supply nowadays.

5 thoughts on “Empathy and the non-native perspective”

  1. I could not agree more. Even though my Japanese remains rudimentary in vocabulary I have more or less mastered the grammar and the ‘way of expression’. In many ways it is more expressive than English. I defy anyone to learn a language that is very different from their native one and not have their perception of reality changed.

    1. Absolutely, Keith. One of my great frustrations with Japanese is that I have never spent long enough in Japan to “get to the next level” with my spoken Japanese and particularly aural comprehension of everyday speech. I think with “very different” languages like Japanese, a period living in the country is essential to reach fluency. Apart from the language-learning benefits that normally accrue from spending time interacting with native speakers on a daily basis, a period of immersion is indispensable when the culture that underpins the language is so different from your own. On a different, but very much related subject, I couldn’t help musing what a furore it would cause (but what benefits it might bring) if European and American kids were obliged to study Arabic in school.

  2. “Non-natives look at a language in a completely different way from native speakers. Actually, most native speakers don’t stop to look at their own language at all, they just use it without thinking about it, and if they intend to teach it to others in a competent way, they first have to learn to look at it themselves, and to try to see it at least to a certain extent as a non-native might.”
    I really loved this part, is exactly what I always think about, because I really do that, is very difficult to speak english or any other language without to compare with your own language… Like a constant translate, sad but true!
    Thank you for this, John!

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