In my very first language teaching class I was asked to write a personal philosophy on language acquisition and its impact on my teaching English as a foreign language. I remember back in the days I was rather clueless as to where I should even begin my research. I was in my third semester then and hadn’t had any real experience in teaching a foreign language, at all. Frankly, at the time I had no idea what material would assist me to make a statement in this specific area. However, after some time of desperate research it occurred to me that no one had ever told me what the cornerstone for language teachers should be. Neither did I know what the guidelines were nor did I know where to find them. Although, I eventually wrote that statement in my third semester it took me much longer to find out that there are no guidelines. Constructing our teaching philosophy is a personal and highly individual process. As I come to think of it now, back then I couldn’t really ask anyone but myself.
Now, are we really on our own when it comes to creating our own language teaching theory? Not completely, I dare say. In fact, there are helpful ways and means to dig up our deepest and most hidden beliefs about language teaching. Stern (1983) argues that there are various “background events” which are likely to shape our view on language education. Such as our informal language learning at home, the way we were taught languages in school or university and also any language teaching training we may have ever had. However, Stern (1983) points out that it is not only our teaching and learning experiences that help us to create our language theory, but rather the things that we read. Reading on language education and pedagogy is indeed crucial to any language philosophy we may ever produce (cf. Stern 75). You see that how we teach is closely connected to numerous different factors revolving around our own learning and teaching history. Although, I feel that all points listed by Stern (1983) are equally interesting for further exploration, I want to look closer into the last one. Reading on language pedagogy also means getting familiar with the history of language teaching in general. It seems pretty reasonable that we get to know different approaches, ideas and ways of thinking before we decide what works best for us as teachers or what statements we agree with the most. Accordingly, this paper is going to deal with one particular approach on language teaching, namely the Native Speaker Ideal.
Oftentimes it becomes the number one goal for S/FL learners to reach a native-like level in the target language. Teachers are even likely to initiate competitive challenges creating anxiety among the students that will make anything less than native level appear like failure. In fact, language learners nowadays are under great pressure to fulfil native standardized expectations that are simply unattainable. The goal of this paper is therefore to discuss the role of the native speaker approach in foreign language instruction and to present its implications on my very own teaching philosophy.
1. The Native Speaker Approach
1.1 Classification of the term
1.1.1 A first definition
Dealing with the idea of a native speaker we have to briefly think about how this obsession with a native-like language mastery level came about. Well, the answer is actually quite straightforward. In a global world monolingual societies can hardly exist anymore. Andreou and Galantomos (2009) refer to several different studies pointing out that second language acquisition has become exceedingly significant in the recent years (cf. Andreou p.201). In fact, our postmodern society does not allow monolingualism as it hinders people from keeping up with the constant changes. I still remember vividly when the German Rail came under fire for using too many anglicisms so that people had trouble finding their way to the bathroom. You see, that second language acquisition is indeed sensible for obvious reasons, but why should we aim directly for a native standard of the language. Again, I have to make reference to Andreou and Galantomos (2009), who on their part refer to Coleman (1996). Coleman carried out a survey to indentify reasons that motivated people to acquire a second language. Unsurprisingly, his findings differed greatly in terms of content because logically every second language learner has diverse purposes and ideas about the target language (cf. Andreou p.201). Already, it becomes explicit that S/FL learning can be highly specific and shaped to fulfil only particular purposes. I argue that this exactly is the point where the demand for a native speaker ideal in S/FL teaching becomes obscure. As a teacher I instruct different people, with different abilities, who pursue different purposes and still I want to turn them into the same idealized speaker. Is that even possible?
Well, let’s turn towards that question later on and initially try to come up with an appropriate definition of the term as it my help us to dissolve the confusion. During my research for this paper I have figured out that the native speaker concept is not as straightforward as I initially thought it was. In fact, linguists differ greatly in their understanding of the actual term. The first definition I came across was presented in Andreou and Galantomos (2009). According to one of their sources, Peter Medgyes (1999), a native speaker of English is someone who is amongst other things “capable of producing fluent, spontaneous speech in English that is characterized by creativity, and has the intuition to distinguish correct or wrong forms in English“(Andreou pp.201, 202) So, basically a native speaker of English is someone who has perfected all linguistic aspects of the target language and is able to use it fluently and freely. I was actually quite satisfied with the definition, until I came across Vivian Cook (1999), who on her part argues “that a person is a native speaker of the language learnt first” (Cook p.187). If we go with Cooks definition, later learners of a second language can never assume a native-like standard, no matter how hard they try. Well, I have to admit that trying to come up with a definition caused more confusion than certainty and eventually I decided that both definitions could possibly be right. However, let’s assume Medgyes (1999) is right and the definition of a native speaker is concerned only with a speaker’s linguistic abilities. How do we determine what linguistic challenges speakers must meet to be labeled “native speaker”? Linguists have argued that this particular problem is what causes the ambiguity of the concept. As pointed out in Andreou and Galantomos (2009), within the same speech community there can be many various registers and styles in routine use (cf. Andreou p.202). Let’s take the Germans as an example here. Regional varieties within the German language are widespread and familiar to most speakers of the language. Germans can sprechen, schnacken, schwatzen, plaudern and all pursue the activity of speaking. If we broaden our view even further to look at the entire German-speaking community differences in register and style become even more distinct. Against this background the concept of a native speaker does not seem too clear anymore. Who can be considered the ideal native speaker of German? Is a Swiss less of a native German speaker, than an Austrian or a German?