Why the emphasis on ‘native speakers?’

Michael Griffin
Written by Michael Griffin

In the recent Korea Observer article about English learning and the college entrance exam there seems to be a glaring and perhaps telling omission. Some might say there are quite a few issues with the piece and the video but for me the striking thing is what is missing.

No mention is made of Korean users of English communicating with the vast majority of English users in the world, who happen not to be “native speakers,” itself a particularly tricky word to define clearly. What of the English users who are neither Korean nor “native speakers” of English?

The piece seems to perpetrate the myths that the purpose of learning English should be to converse with “native speakers” and that speaking with and understanding “native speakers” is the appropriate measuring stick of English ability.

In this era of English as a lingua franca that is simply not the case. With estimates of more than 2 billion people worldwide studying English it is time to move beyond the assumption the purpose of learning English is to talk to the less than 400 million “native speakers” of English on the planet.

Rather than excoriate the Korean education system because Korean students don’t sound like they are from Iowa or Indiana perhaps we should be praising students for being able to communicate effectively with counterparts from Indonesia and Italy. Using the ability to understand colloquial speech from “native speakers” at full speed seems like a blunt, old-fashioned, and unrealistic measuring system based on assumptions unlikely apply to all students.

I am not suggesting for a moment that the Korean English education system is perfect. I am simply saying the (over) emphasis on conversing with, learning from, and trying to emulate only “native speakers” could be considered outdated and unrealistic.

This is undoubtedly an issue for Korean English education and Korean society to consider and confront. It would be nice to see more reports about English education in Korea take into account the realities of this changing and changed world.

About the author

Michael Griffin

Michael Griffin

Michael is a teacher and teacher trainer who teaches at a university in Seoul. He is interested in politics, sports, English education and English as a world language. He blogs at http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/

  • José María Areta

    So Koreans can’t communicate with you (native speaker) but can’t communicate with me (Spanish speaker). How did you get to this conclusion?
    You can be creative with your L2 (speaking, writing) or you can just understand (mostly).
    Koreans schools (in any level), tend to think that understanding is more important, basically because their teachers or professors (locals) can barely speak the language they teach.
    This is not a misunderstanding about what it is important; this has to do with the lack of ability of the teachers and the huge profit from preparing students to pass tests.
    This is just another business.
    If in any forum or newspaper you read any comment from a Korean after several years of paying and failing you’ll know what I am taking about.
    And no, in Indonesia, Korean don’t speak anything but Korean.
    Instead of questioning the system, some just defend it.
    It is an irresponsability.

    • Michael Griffin

      Thanks for the comments.
      My conclusion was not that, “Koreans can’t communicate with native speaker but can’t communicate with (for example) Spanish speakers.” It was simply that there is too much emphasis in Korea AND in the Korea Observer article I mentioned about native speakers and we should focus more on communicating with non-native speakers (which seems to address your claim about Koreans not speaking English in Indonesia).

      • José María Areta

        Thank you for your answer.
        People don’t communicate because they lack the skills or have some issue with socializing (besides having some kind of physical or mental disabilities).
        My opinion about Koreans not communicating is that their education system does not promote communication (they don’t even speak in English with each other). Foreign teachers or professors cannot do much because the educational system does not allow nor promote changes: it is a test based system which does not reward creativity.
        Koreans don’t feel comfortable speaking in foreign languages because they have not really studied any foreign language, besides being prepared for a test.

        • Michael Griffin

          I thank you for the response. I can see your point of view more clearly now and it seems that your perspective is not so far away. My view is that there is simply too much emphasis on native speakers (which might blend with your observation Korean people students don’t speak English to each other). Thanks again for responding.

  • Jake

    taught in Korea for many years I have to say this is wrong on many levels.
    The purpose of instruction there was never to make students speak like a
    native speaker, but to be able to understand a native speaker and be able to
    respond. If they can do that then they can converse with anyone in
    English. The issue is that to this day they cannot do that. If you
    have ever meet Korean’s on vacation they don’t want to speak English, they will
    go to Korean restaurants and speak Korean to their fellow vacationers.

    The use of native teachers is highly integral to any hopes that
    the Korean School system has to produce decent English speakers, but it is far and
    beyond below where it should be. While having the resource of a native
    English speaker is useful, most never take the opportunity to access if they
    can avoid it. Students continue to produce great test scores on written,
    but bomb oral exams.

    The Korean education system is far from perfect, while it does
    produce great test scores it does little to produce students who are ready for
    the world to be before them. Don’t get me wrong the American Education
    system is also lacking in many ways and I am not defending it. However,
    if you truly think that your average Korean is able to travel and speak in
    English to people from other south East Asian countries then you have another
    thing coming.

    • Michael Griffin

      Thanks for the response.

      I think perhaps my line, “Rather than excoriate the Korean education system because Korean students don’t sound like they are from Iowa or Indiana perhaps we should be praising students for being able to communicate effectively with counterparts from Indonesia and Italy” might have missed the mark or been misleading. I was not trying to say all Korean students are capable of communicating with others from around the world. I meant what we should praise those students who can communicate using English as a lingua franca and not judge them based on standards of being a “native speaker” (which, as I note, is not always a clear or easy or unproblematic term). I hope that makes a bit more sense. I am sorry if I gave the impression that I was over estimating the average Korean English user’s ability but there are of course plenty of Koreans who use English in their daily lives in Korea and abroad. My whole point was that the Korea Observer article I linked to only mentioned native speakers as the basis for judging Korean people’s English skills and I think that is not a good measure.

      You wrote, “The purpose of instruction there was never to make students speak like a
      native speaker, but to be able to understand a native speaker and be able to
      respond” and I am not so sure that I agree. It seems that trying to sound like native speakers is the goal of a good many Korean students. Do you disagree on this? I am not sure if it will offer much in the way of proof but in my previous job (in an intensive course at a “unigwon”) “Sound like a native speaker” was an extremely common stated goal for beginner level students on a 20 week course. We can also think about the choices of listening material in public schools and hogwons as well here as examples of pushing towards a native speaker model.

      In any case, I’d argue that “to be able to understand a native speaker” is also a goal perhaps not best suited to the current world in which there are so few native speakers around. I think of it is as something of a wasted effort and resources to try to understand all the idiosyncrasies of native speaker speech when most communication will not occur with native speakers.

      You write that if Korean students can understand and respond to native speakers “then they can converse with anyone in English” and I think there is an interesting point here but as above I think trying to focus too much on conversing with native speakers can be wasted effort if the need is to communicate with non-native speakers too. If an example helps, I have seen many Korean students use random idioms with Vietnamese students who had no idea what the Korean students were talking about and the Korean students lacked strategies to paraphrase or repair the lapse in communication. To my ears this was could have been the result of the problem of over emphasizing communicating with “native speakers” in the previous education of the Korean students.

      If you are arguing that Koreans will chose not to use English while abroad I think this is something I cannot argue with but I see this as perhaps another reason to de-emphasize “native speaker” interactions.

      Regarding English education in Korea you say that, “The use of native teachers is highly integral to any hopes that the Korean School system has to produce decent English speakers” but I cannot see the reason or logic here. Why is this? What is the key benefit of “native speaking” teachers that NNETS cannot provide? You might find the following link and web page as well as teh links provided as reference interesting: http://teflequityadvocates.com/2015/06/17/the-strengths-of-non-native-english-speaking-teachers-an-infographic-by-adam-simpson/ Thanks again for the comments and I hope I have made my points a bit clearer this time.

  • woonawoona

    The Korean education system has this weird fetish with native speakers. They market courses and programs with the mention of native speakers in such a cringe inducing manner. I hope in the future they learn to change their view on language learning, shifting towards more realistic learning objectives

    • Michael Griffin

      I share the same hopes. I think if these things were to happen it would be very helpful for the next generation of students.

  • Rhett Burton

    I advertise said statement at my school. Main reason is: I’m the only teacher and I just happen to be from Canada. I’m not always sure if Korean parents always want 100% native teacher classes because they do like having a Korean teacher teaching English too. And I have yet to see a million dollar grossing native English teacher teaching any of the college entrance exams. Those are all reserved by super star Korean teachers. Also, there are parents at my school who send their kids to non native speaking learning camps abroad because they are cheaper. I do think there is lot of evidence out there of Koreans using non native speakers but it isn’t always on the mediums we use.

    • lisales

      Agreed. as a Korean myself, I have been teaching English for many years and still running an English language institute in Korea. There are several teachers who are non native English speakers and I never get any complaint about that from the parents. The students in my school speak English most of the time with their peers and teachers as well on certain days. That is not for communicating with English native speakers but for communicating with international individuals from all over the world. Korea had been ethnically homogeneous for long period of the time but it has been changing a lot economically and culturally for the past decades. Yes, I admit that not many Koreans tried to speak English in Indonesia or any other countries but the young generations of Korea now are different, they readily accept the perspectives on interaction with English speaking people from different point of view which sees English as a means of communication. So I am assuming that they are ready to collaborate with any English speaking people across the globe. I think each of you are the source of the change for Korean people and the society that are ready to open up to the world if you live in Korea or engaged in any circumstances of Korean society. It just takes some time for making a change.

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