Teachers unite! A call to reclaim ‘bilingual/multilingual’ (by Lauren Godfrey-Smith)

I was recently teaching an ESL class of intermediate-level adults when the topic of being bilingual/multilingual came up; we’d been listening to a news story about how being bilingual boosts brainpower and decreases the chance of memory problems later in life. When I asked my students if they felt bilingual, I was sorry to see only a few of the two dozen students raise their hands. And yet, when I asked them to tell me whether they used English every day for communicative tasks like doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping and parent-teacher interviews, they all said yes.

They nodded when I pointed out that we had been speaking only English in class all day (all week!) and agreed that we had been communicating our ideas back and forth in a lively and engaged discussion. Nevertheless, only a few of my students identified with being bilingual or multilingual, and many of them were unsure if they could say they really spoke English. And while I wasn’t surprised to hear this (I’m sure that any language teacher will be able to recall similar conversations with their own students, who refuse to consider themselves bilingual until they have reached the holy grail of “native-like” proficiency), it did get me thinking about how problematic the goal of “native-like” proficiency is. Here are a few quick reasons why:

  1. First, the native-speaker goal language learning is basically a deficiency model that establishes an impossible standard for learners. It’s setting them up to fail because they will probably never speak their additional language the same way that a “native speaker” does. Instead, we should encourage our students to aim to become competent communicators, using the various communicative tools that they have at their disposal.
  2. Besides the fact that “native-like” proficiency is near impossible for most learners to attain, the concept itself is flawed. The very idea of the “native speaker” is all wrapped up in the concepts of first, second, third languages. This model is problematic because it reflects a perpetuated Western bias that ignores the majority of people in the world who grow up speaking multiple languages.
  3. This leads me to my third point. The native-speaker target tends to devalue learners’ multilingualism and the other languages they know. Speaking one’s additional language like a native-speaker means not sounding like a native-speaker of any other language, including the languages the learner grew up speaking. Not only does this have identity implications, but it also ignores the ways in which multilingualism can be an asset. Instead of viewing knowledge of other languages as a communicative resource, the “native-speaker” target sees evidence of knowledge of other languages (e.g. accents, errors, etc.) as something to hide. Instead, learners’ accents and errors – their “non-native speakerness” – should be considered badges of honour, proof of their multilingualism and multicompetencies.
  4. My fourth point relates mostly to learners of English as an additional language.The “native-like” proficiency model devalues users of English as lingua franca. For these individuals, of whom there are millions (billions?), the native-speaker model removes their legitimacy as users of the language with varying degrees of proficiency.
  5. Finally, the concept of “native-like” proficiency is a moving target, which isn’t fighting fair. What is a native speaker, really? It’s becoming more and more difficult to define. The fact is, people speak the language(s) they know lots of different ways. The ways that people speak the language(s) they know relates to more than just the order they learned them in, for example, their education, experiences, and more. And, as my BILD colleague, Sumanthra, pointed out to me when we were talking about this topic, there are so many different groups around the world who use English, begging the question, which group has “ownership” of native-like proficiency? In other words, whose “native-like” proficiency should be considered the model? It’s simply not possible to define or answer these questions.

There’s a lot more to say about this topic, but it’s getting late and I have papers to grade and lessons to prep. I leave you with a couple of questions: How can we empower our students to reclaim their bilingualism, and should we?

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