Native-speakerism and the mother tongue

I have recently been doing some reading on the subject of native-speakerism in ELT. The term was coined in 2005 by academic Adrian Holliday and he himself defines it as follows:

“Native-speakerism is an ideology that upholds the idea that so-called ‘native speakers’ are the best models and teachers of English because they represent a ‘Western culture’ from which spring the ideals both of English and of the methodology for teaching it (Holliday 2005: 6). As an ideology, it is a system of ideas that represents a distorted world view that supports a particular vested interest. The vested interest in the case of native-speakerism is the promotion by the ELT industry of the so-called ‘native speaker’ brand. The realisation that this is an ideologically constructed brand derives from Phillipson’s (1992) linguistic imperialism thesis that the concept of the ‘native speaker’ as a superior model and teacher was explicitly constructed by American and British aid agencies in the 1960s to support their agenda of spreading English as a global product.” [Quoted from:…/01/nism-encyc16plain-submitted.pdf]

In a more recent article from 2016 entitled “Appropriate methodology: towards a cosmopolitan approach” (available here:, Holliday describes the ongoing clash between what he terms BANA and TESEP:

“On the one side was the largely private ELT sector originating in Britain, Australasia and North America (BANA). This was perceived to be an aggressive promoter of a particular and narrow interpretation of communicative teaching methodology through teacher training and education, international professional qualifications, curriculum projects and the prolific international publishing of textbooks […]. BANA also directly or indirectly promoted the so-called ‘native speaker’ teacher to be the best model both for teaching methodology and language […]. On the other side was the mainstream tertiary, secondary, primary state education across the world (TESEP), where the majority of ELT takes place. This is perhaps the largest market for BANA methodology; and the majority of teachers are so-called ‘non-native speakers’. The appropriate methodology quest was therefore to make BANA methodology appropriate to TESEP. A political dimension to this quest was the potential linguistic imperialism implicit in the domination of the BANA domain, which Phillipson (1992) describes as the West maintaining power over the rest of the world through the power of English and a false idea that the ‘native speaker’ is superior.”

As he points out, BANA employs a communicative teaching methodology conducted in English only (direct method), which is at odds with the predominantly Grammar-Translation methodology prevalent in TESEP. Holliday argues that, rather than BANA imposing its methodology on TESEP as it is trying to do, other more culturally diverse and inclusive approaches should be developed.

Given that the students’ mother tongue is at the very heart of their cultural identity, it is surprising that Holliday does not mention the fact that BANA’s insistence on teaching English in English only is arguably the most obvious and pernicious pillar of native-speakerism.

The direct method of language teaching, whereby teaching is conducted in the target (foreign) language only, was not originally devised for teaching English in particular, but had already established itself as a fundamental tenet of private language courses when ELT really started to take off worldwide after the Second World War. It has been overwhelmingly dominant ever since and shows no sign of being superseded any time soon. The direct method is the cornerstone of the multi-billion-dollar international ELT industry, which is mainly in the hands of British and American publishers and language school chains. It is clearly in their interest to promote and maintain the idea that “native speakers know best” as this protects their brand, but their insistence on the direct method also means that they can sell the same course books, dictionaries and language courses all over the world with no expensive differentiation needed. It also means they never have to address their own ignorance of foreign languages.

Brits and Americans are legendary for their inability to speak other languages and lack of interest in doing so. With the whole world learning English, there seems to be even less incentive for them to try, especially when the general perception is that learning a foreign language is just about being able to say what you want and understand the answer. Incredible though it may seem, I have worked on ELT dictionary projects where none of my (British) colleagues had ever studied a foreign language in depth. Apart from not having that awareness about languages and language that you can only gain from studying one that is different from your own, they had never experienced what it is like to be a language student, especially a direct method language student. This lack of insight, and indeed of interest, even among ELT authors and editors and native-speaker teachers, makes native-speakerism all the more monstrous as it simply ignores the student’s mother tongue completely.

Holliday talks about how native-speakerism devalues and disregards students’ cultural specificities, but does not actually mention their mother tongue, which is surely their most obvious cultural specificity. The students’ own language is accorded no value at all in the direct method teaching process. On the contrary, it is devalued as something to be avoided (“you should be thinking in English!”), banned from the classroom, regarded as a troublesome source of interference which does nothing but hamper the learning process, the implication being that it is somehow inferior to English. This must inevitably have a psychological impact on the student’s cultural self-esteem.

Apart from anything else, this disregard for the students’ mother tongue is pedagogically counterproductive. Instead of focusing on the specific differences between the two languages in order to diagnose and tackle areas of particular difficulty for those learners,  the native-speakerist ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach ploughs inexorably onward through its time-worn syllabus, explaining difficult points of grammar – in English to non-English speakers, please note – on the basis of native (English) speaker intuitions rather than in a way that non-English-thinking students might be able to relate to and in a language they can understand (i.e. their own). It is equally oblivious to similarities between the languages too, so aspects of English which are actually quite easy because the student’s mother tongue works in the same way are laboured unnecessarily.

More serious than this is the fact that the direct method disenfranchises students. It reduces teenagers and adults who are intelligent, articulate and witty in their own language to the level of toddlers who can barely express themselves. Anyone who has studied a foreign language will know what it’s like in the early stages, both inside and outside the classroom. You struggle to express yourself coherently, and waver between feeling incredibly frustrated that you can’t say what you want to say and show who you really are, and feeling incredibly childlike and ridiculous for not being able to string a complex sentence together or construct a nuanced utterance, in addition to having a tendency to repeat trite phrases like “it’s nice”, “I (don’t) like it” because that’s all you know how to say. Obviously, this is an inevitable stage in the language learning process, but in the classroom, it could (and should) be mitigated by allowing students to switch into their own language occasionally to ask questions about grammar and other aspects of English, and allowing teachers to do the same in order to provide explanations of complex grammar points and translations of ad hoc vocabulary items. These two vital elements in the learning process (students’ questions and the teacher’s explanations/answers) are effectively excluded in the direct method, especially at the crucial earlier levels, thereby denying the student any protagonism or initiative in the class. As it is, the teacher has to give oversimplified explanations in English which the students do not always fully understand anyway, reinforcing their feelings of frustration and disenfranchisement.

I also believe that the direct/communicative method patronizingly assumes that students cannot handle serious grammar content. But, of course, since you are explaining grammar in English to students who don’t know English, you can’t really go into a lot of detail anyway, which is a very handy get-out clause.

It would be naïve to assume that language learning methodologies come with no commercial or ideological strings attached. BANA has managed to “naturalize” the direct/communicative method in such a way that it is generally regarded as the best and most modern and scientific way to learn a language. One aspect of this naturalization strategy has been to discredit the Grammar Translation method, or any method involving use of the students’ mother tongue, as old-fashioned and “unnatural”. The heavy emphasis on oral communication in BANA’s methodology and assessment devalues methods which focus on reading and writing ability, even though for the vast majority of students who will probably never have the opportunity or need to actually speak English in a real-life communicative situation, being able to read and write it reasonably well could effectively enhance their professional and academic lives. Like the food industry, which funds academic research to come up with results that support its marketing strategies, the ELT industry has sponsored a vast amount of academic activity aimed at giving the direct method an air of scientific respectability. It would be interesting to know how many of those native-speaker experts and gurus have ever studied a foreign language, and if so, whether it was by the direct method. I suspect the answer might be a very small number, if any at all.

By way of a PS, I should say that, clearly, a more direct method approach has to be adopted in multilingual classrooms, i.e. in English language courses, usually in English-speaking countries, where students come from a variety of different countries and speak a variety of different languages. But in a case like Brazil (or China, or Japan, or Spain, or Italy …) where all the students have the same mother tongue which they usually share with their teacher, it is positively perverse not to incorporate it into the teaching of English and exploit the fact that both teacher and students are coming to English from the same starting point, which is their mother tongue, and not a blank canvas, as advocates of the direct method would have us believe.

6 thoughts on “Native-speakerism and the mother tongue”

  1. I am in Brazil and trying to learn the language from your books.
    I’m probably a bit dim but l still don’t understand when to use era and when to use estava.
    I do understand the other distinctions you make in Chapter 23.

    1. Hi Jeremy, thanks for using my book and I hope you’re finding it useful. The distinction between “ser” and “estar” is not easy to grasp at first for English speakers, and especially when talking about the past, but the distinction between “era” and “estava” is basically the same as that between “sou/é” and “estou/está” except that you’re talking about the past rather than the present. The imperfect tense of these two verbs is normally used to “set the scene”: to describe the background to actions and events in the past, with “era” describing the permanent characteristics, location or objective nature of people and things, and “estava” describing temporary conditions, location or subjective impressions of people and things. The verb “era” can also translate “used to be”. Pay close attention to the way Brazilians use these verbs and you will soon develop a feel for it.

  2. Hey, I just want to say, thank you. You know, I’ve been trying to figure out how to possibly teach English to Brazilians for a while and have found that comparing grammar in English to Portuguese with the help of your book “Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar” has helped me hone in on the similarities and disconnects between the two languages.

    I’m trying to create a dual language environment w/ immediate interpretation to display the variation of how phrases and tenses should be expressed. In my opinion, it’s giving students a base to truly internalize the language. Your book is actually really helping me with this process. If you EVER, I mean EVER, want to be on channel or if you’re ever in São Paulo let me know. I’d love to take you out for a coffee!

    1. Hi Shana, I’m glad to hear you’re using my book. Thanks! And it’s interesting to know that you’re using it “the other way around”, i.e. as a basis for teaching English to Brazilians. If you’ve read my other blog posts, you’ll know that I believe the starting point for teaching any foreign language should be the student’s mother tongue and that a comparative approach is the most efficient methodology. That’s the approach I adopted in the “Grammar” and is also the approach I use in my post-grad English Grammar teaching (to Brazilians), so I try to be very precise about equivalences and translations. I go to SP fairly regularly to teach, so would be very happy to take you up on your offer of coffee 🙂

  3. Thank you for another great commentary, John!

    Having taught English for more than 20 years, I am absolutely convinced that there is a time and place for Portuguese language in my lessons.

    A student’s first language is linguistic knowledge after all. It’s rich, well established and right there at the teacher’s disposal.

    I think teachers should use their discretion in deciding how often and to what extent first language should be used in class, if at all, according to the student’s goals and skills. But simply refusing to tap that wealth of knowledge is just not rational.

    It’s good to know that I’m definitely not alone in this game.

    1. “A student’s first language is linguistic knowledge after all. It’s rich, well established and right there at the teacher’s disposal.” I couldn’t have put it better myself, Eduardo! I suspect that those of us who think this way are actually in the silent majority.

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