Reading some recent Twitter threads on this issue has got me thinking that our continued focus on the native/non-native binary is unhelpful. Even if we accept this false dichotomy, it is dangerous insofar as it focuses the debate on teacher identity rather than teacher practice. In other words, we ought to be asking ourselves what effective language teachers do rather than who they are.
Our learners’ L1 often remains a silent partner, an almost uncomfortable presence we’d rather not acknowledge let alone welcome.
Given that we know that students with similar linguistic backgrounds will have similar interlanguages, why are the distinct patterns of these interlanguages not addressed in a systematic way in our coursebooks and in our classrooms? A significant proportion of learner errors is highly predictable and yet we tend to deal with them in an ad hoc way, as if they were idiosyncrasies specific to individual learners.
There’s also the obvious challenge in environments where learners don’t have the same L1 or where the teacher doesn’t share their students’ L1. Given the emergence of online coursebooks and the consequent disappearance of space constraints, there’s no reason why publishers couldn’t make coursebooks available with interlanguage activities for speakers of a wide range of different L1s. Indeed, with a bit of ingenuity we could be conducting classes in which learners have tailor-made tasks for their specific linguistic profile working side by side and even comparing similarities and differences between their respective L1s.
There’s also Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems by Bernard Smith and Michael Swan. This allows teachers with no knowledge of their learners’ L1 to nonetheless understand and anticipate the difficulties speakers of specific languages face when it comes to grammar and pronunciation.
It’s my hope that the concepts of interlanguage and multilingualism in the language classroom allow us to see the unique and valuable perspective of non-native English speakers as teachers of English. I also hope that we can use this as a chance to reflect on how coursebooks might evolve in future to incorporate corpus-based contrastive analysis activities to treat learners’ L1 as the asset it is. Arguably multilingual EFL teachers, many of whom are non-native speakers of English, are well-poised to design such materials and promote their use.