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ELT Prejudice And The Politics Of ‘Passportism’

brexit cartoon
Melanie Butler explains how teachers face discrimination on many levels

Keep politics out of English language teaching? This was the plea of one native speaker teacher faced with a blistering polemic from Wiktor Kostrzewski in a piece on the Tefl Equity website, a forum which supports equal rights of non-native speakers of English. Kostrzewski’s blast starts with the premise that neither British English nor American English can any longer serve as a ‘reasonable model of English language use’ given the racism and the lies so evident in campaigns for Brexit and the election of Donald J Trump. Of course, the objection is that, if the ability to teach English is limited to the level of racism and lies in your national political discourse, the number of people able to teach English, or any other language, would be limited to, perhaps, the Canadians, the Irish and the odd Scandinavians.

But that does not mean that the use of English as a lingua franca (ELF) is not itself political. You do not have to agree with Robert Phillipson’s theory of ‘linguistic imperialism’ to believe that.  You merely need to know that, after the Second World War, the British and Americans signed the Ditchley Park agreement, dividing the sphere of influence for language teaching between the two biggest Anglophone countries. This alone did not cause English to overtake French as the language of diplomacy or German as the language of science, although it certainly helped. That was down to decline of the British empire and increase of US economic power. It does highlight, however, the importance given, particularly by the British, to the spread of the language. The promotion of English is, after all, a fundamental role of both the British Council and the BBC World Service, according to the Royal Charters under which they were established.

Wiktor is right in thinking that dramatic political change, such as we have seen recently in the US and the UK, may well affect the political positions of both variants of English and the employment chances of people who have them as their L1.

The political impact of Donald Trump’s election on the job prospects of US teachers working outside the EU remains to be seen, though any chance of it encouraging national governments to remove their ban on non-native speakers from outside their own nation states remains remote. China, as we reported last month, may well rule that Filipinos are native speakers for visa purposes but it is unlikely to extend that to Peruvians or Poles. Outside the EU, whatever the government says goes.

Inside the EU, the Treaty of Amsterdam makes it illegal to discriminate against any EU citizen when hiring for jobs for which they are ‘linguistically qualified’. So the most obvious and immediate impact comes from Brexit. Since Britain will no longer be a member of the EU, the use of British English as the standard variant may gradually change. The idea that the remaining member states will immediately replace it with Irish English, American or even ELF is, however, misplaced. English is currently a working language of the EU, and will probably remain so, but there is no official status for the variant, no official body that can declare that from a certain date EU documents will stop using the ‘u’ in colour or accept ‘amn’t’ as a tag ending. 

It wouldn’t work even if such a declaration were made. Language change is evolutionary – it is useless to try and hold it back, but it is equally useless to try to fast-track it. A variant form of English may emerge in Europe, indeed as ELF may well be emerging, just as a variant of Latin emerged here in the Medieval period, but it will not appear fully formed the minute the UK leaves the EU.

One thing will change immediately: unless the UK governments accept free movement of EU citizens, the free movement of British English speakers to the EU will be dramatically reduced. There will be fewer native speakers, trained or untrained to do jobs in EU private language school (PLS), where native speakers remain the norm. But it is only in the PLS that the difference will hit hard, for it is the only sector where ‘native-speakerism’ is dominant. Lack of native speakers will have no impact in state schools systems, and only cause a minor disruption in private education, vocational and adult training and the universities.

In some countries the PLS have spent over fifty years selling the benefits of native speakers. It is their unique selling point and they will have a hard time finding another business model. That means more jobs for the Irish and probably for the bilingual EU Nationals from Malta and Cyprus. It may even mean more jobs for Americans and Canadians, because visas for non-EU citizens may become easier.

But will more Polish or Romanian teachers get jobs teaching English in Spain or Italy, two of the largest PLS markets? That is unlikely. Given the high levels of unemployment in southern Europe, there will be plenty of unemployed Spanish and Italian teachers of English to fill the vacancies. After all, the argument will go, if you are going to have non-native teachers, why not privilege those who also speak the local language fluently?

In some countries this is already the case. In many countries native-speakerism doesn’t  cover all non-natives but only non-native non-nationals: good local teachers are in demand in Russia, much of central Europe, and in Greece – as are native speakers. But qualified proficient L2 teachers of English struggle to find work. Other countries will likely take the same route. Banners proclaiming ‘bilingual is best’ will appear in the windows of some language schools chains, and native-speaker teachers may well be required to have a C1 certificate in Spanish and Italian, as they already often have to in Germany and France. 

Native-speakerism is an ill-informed myth with no reputable research to support it. Is it illegal under EU law? Yes. Does that make any difference?  No.  Certainly not unless the teachers take legal action. Kostrzewski describes in his polemic being inadvertently copied into an email from a potential employer describing him as ‘Unsuccessful, Non-native, Odd use of language.’ Thirty minutes later he was rejected for the job. Was the employer, if they were in the EU, acting illegally? Yes. Did Wiktor sue them? Apparently not.

But native-speaking is not the only issue. ‘Passportism’, to coin a new phrase, is another. By passportism we mean the habit of EU countries to privilege their own nationals. It is as rife as nativespeaker-ism and is perhaps more pernicious and harder to shift because it is to the advantage of national governments. Most European state education systems discriminate against non-nationals, regardless of their L1.  The reason is simple – there is a massive over-supply. In Italy, for example, Italian-qualified state school teachers of English with Italian nationality might take up to seven years to get their first teaching job. Even if they could pass the competitive exams required for entry, what native English speaker, or indeed foreign national, would wait around that long?

In the EU there may be a few, usually state qualified, native speaker teachers in fee-paying primary and secondary, to keep the parents happy. In the state sector, apart from barely-paid teaching assistants, there are almost none.  Is this illegal? Of course. Have countries been sued? Yes. When a British teacher failed in his oral exam to teach in the French state system because the examiners couldn’t understand his accent, he went to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) and won. Very little has changed.

Things are a little better outside European school systems. State further education colleges and universities are often better at hiring on competence and not on L1 or passport. But this is certainly not always true, as the case of the Italian lettori shows. These native speaker language teachers have been to the CJEU six times demanding the same rights in Italian universities as their Italian peers. They have won six times. This has been going on for 25 years and they are still fighting.

Could a Polish or Norwegian English language specialist get a job as a lettore teaching English? No, only native speakers are allowed to take these illegal contracts. Could they get the same job as an Italian lecturer? It’s unlikely. Even if they did, the law introduced in 2011 to prevent the lettori claiming their rights means they would not be entitled to the same terms and conditions as an Italian national.

Isn’t that illegal under EU law? Of course. Can the EU stop it? Short of throwing Italy out of the Union, it appears not.

There is one exception to the no non-nationals rule. It’s the UK, where 13 per cent of language teachers and 30 per cent of language teaching assistants are foreign nationals, not always teaching their L1. Is that because the British are nice? No, it’s because we don’t have enough language graduates.

State qualified European teachers of English, and those with Celta or Trinity, also get jobs in UK language schools. They are very common indeed at the lower end of the market and teachers from Central Europe keep much of the residential summer school market going as experienced British teachers simply will not work for the low rates on offer. (British teachers might argue that this keeps pay artificially low, though we’ve never heard that complaint.)  Judging by the British Council reports, student complaints are low and, as Wiktor will be pleased to know, the inspectors often find that experienced Central European teachers outperform their recently trained British counterparts.

It is, in fact, probably easier for a white non-native speaker to get a job in British private language school than it is for a non-white British native speaker – another form of illegal discrimination.

So there is discrimination in the private language sector against any language teacher without the right L1. And there is discrimination in most European state sectors against any non-nationals, regardless of mother tongue, language level or level of language knowledge or qualifications. And remember, in most of Europe, the terms and conditions of state sector teachers are infinitely better than those on offer in most private language schools, especially when you consider paid holidays, salary increments and pension rights.

Does any of this make any sense in terms of getting your citizens to learn English? Not really, although the importance of your accent and language level may depend on the age of the student. The evidence from studies by Patricia Kuhl, reported in last month’s Gazette, suggests that, if you want to create bilingual infants you need teachers with a native-like  command of the target phonemic system because infants under three acquire language phonically. The evidence from ELLiE, a longitudinal study of language in primary schools in half a dozen or more European countries showed that children aged between seven and twelve learn very little from a teacher whose language level is under C1. Is that because they acquire it too? Do older learners also acquire it naturally? That’s still open to debate. Do they acquire it better from a person with no qualifications and no idea what a verb is who happens to have been born in the right country? To be honest, we doubt it.

But the brutal fact of the matter is that parents don’t doubt it. They believe it because it has been the ongoing myth since Charles Berlitz first came up with the idea at the beginning of the twentieth century. They believe it because the PLS have been marketing that message to them for over fifty years. They believe it because, after all, babies learn from mothers. They believe it because when they went to school their language teachers could often barely speak the target language, whatever that target language happened to be.

It is possible to create another foundation myth. It is possible to argue for bilingualism, for bilingual teachers, for bilingual schools. It is already happening. It is called Clil and it doesn’t require a teacher to ‘analyse, question or experiment with the medium’, as Wiktor puts it – it requires them to teach science in it. Is it possible that this bilingual project can take hold in private language schools? Certainly. Will it help skilled, experienced and trained multi-lingual non-native language teachers from another country to get a job? Almost certainly not.

Discrimination comes in many forms. But discrimination based on your passport may be the hardest of all to shift. 

HIDDEN CONSEQUENCES: Will Brexit give an unexpected boost to English as a lingua franca? Pic courtesy: Adapted from a illustration by Chris Duggan