The demand for native-speaker teachers is high
There is no doubt that the demand for native-speaker teachers of English in Japan, Asia, and the rest of the world is high. In many cases, the only requirement for getting an English teaching job is to be a native speaker. The native-speaker teacher, however, is not necessarily the best role-model for the second language learner.
Aiming for native-speaker competence can be counter-productive
Native speakers speak, by definition, a native variety of their first language. It can be counter-productive for learners of the language to attempt to precisely replicate the native speaker’s version of the language. This is true not only for pronunciation (a ‘good’ accent is often the last thing a learner of a second language masters), but also vocabulary and grammatical constructions. Instead, a learner of a second language should aim to be a competent speaker of that language as someone who has learned it as a second language rather than someone who has acquired it as a first language.
Competent non-native speaker models
As English teachers in Japan, then, I believe we should be exposing our students to competent non-native speaker models of English. Furthermore, I think that we should be encouraging them to aim to be competent non-native speakers of English as their ultimate goal. A ‘competent non-native speaker’ is by no means meant as a condescending or patronizing term. On the contrary, it is to be viewed as a considerable achievement, and one which I will be trying to obtain for many years to come in relation to my Japanese ability.
Examples of competent non-native speakers
By way of example of what I consider to be a speaker approaching this level, I offer this video. Here we have a young Japanese male who obviously possesses expertise in his specialist area as well as competence in English as a second language. This is what most learners of English in Japan are aiming for, and I think we should appreciate what a considerable achievement it is, and refer to model English speakers such as this in preference to the generic and ubiquitous American or British English speaker featured in so many English learning resources.
For my own part, there have been several non-native speakers of Japanese over the last five years of learning the language who have inspired me to study harder and improve further. One among them is Patrick Harlan, AKA “pakkun”, who came to Japan in 1993 and over the next 15 or so years acquired a very high level of competence in both spoken and written Japanese.
Becoming a competent non-native speaker is a lifetime challenge
Now, while I may be intimidated by his level of Japanese (and possibly also his intellect, having graduated, as he did, from Harvard University), I still consider his level of Japanese a realistic and obtainable target for my own. However, the same cannot be said of the Japanese of any of the 130 million native inhabitants of Japan. A native-speaker level of Japanese is not my target. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on becoming a competent speaker of Japanese – it means I want to become a competent non-native speaker of the language; something which I regard as a considerable and lifetime challenge.
Finally, I just want to note that I am not intending to suggest that the native-speaker teacher has nothing to offer the language learner. In fact, native-speaker teachers have a lot to offer the language learner. I simply mean to suggest that perhaps they are not always the best role-models for language production, and needn’t be regarded as such.
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