Friday, July 01, 2011

What's to be done about 'native speaker' bias?

A few weeks ago in the Korea Times, an opinion piece criticized Korea's idealization of native speakers:
It is evident that Seoul's policy to draw upon English language use in a communication is from what we could call a "native speaker-ism" mindset. This promotes the hegemony of only English-speaking countries. It assumes that knowledge of the forms and functions of English must be oriented to the usage in these countries.

It also reinforces the perception that all second-language speakers are incomplete or deficient in their communicative competence while striving for the target competence of idealized "native speakers." Consequently, billions of bilingual speakers of English, including Korean-English speakers, are always measured against the standard of a native English speaker and found to be "incomplete" and "deficient.”
Some fair enough points there, especially since most of the people Koreans are likely to speak English with would be non-native speakers.

Benjamin Wagner's response to this piece, titled "
What's to be done about 'native speaker' bias?" was published in the Korea Times today:
In her recent Korea Times article, "I am an English speaker, too," Ms. Ahn Hye-jeong, a Monash University English instructor and a doctoral candidate, presents a compelling argument against the idealization of "native speaker" teachers of English.

She argues that the "chauvinistic views" and "native speaker-ism mindset" of Korean policymakers has resulted in the promulgation of a dubious criterion whereby "Korean English speakers, are always measured against the standard of a native English speaker and found to be "incomplete" and "deficient."
Expanding on ideas he put forward in his presentation at the Canadian Embassy a few months ago, he points out the ways in which Korean ideas about race affect both Korean and non-Korean English teachers:
In a society where race serves as an indicator of linguistic competence, opportunities for Korean English teachers only tend to open up where their race acts as a guarantor of their ethical competence since the same racial bias that accords non-Koreans special status as native speakers also marks them as morally suspect.
Be sure to read the entire piece.


Turner said...

Wagner makes some really solid points. When I met up with a non-Korean speaking Korean-American in Seoul recently, I just kind of assumed he would chuckle to himself every time someone assumed he could speak Korean, but in actuality, I'm sure it must hurt him in the English teaching industry.

jinrok said...

Nice letter overall, but in the crucial last paragraph is there any reason to refer to a "racial worldview" rather than use the well-established term "racist"?

Anonymous said...


That's a fair question.

One reading of the term "racist" allows for the meaning I intended with "racial worldview," namely the belief in an essential connection between "race" (whatever that is) and certain qualities (e.g. moral) and abilities (e.g. linguistic) in individuals.

Yet, I think the term "racist" as it's commonly used (and as I think it would have been perceived in the context of a KT article) suggests in a sweeping sense that a particular "race" is "superior" while other "races" are "inferior".

So, looking at the issues I was dealing with in the article where both Koreans and non-Koreans are seen as "inferior" and "superior" with regard to different qualities and abilities because of their "race," I think that using the term "racist" (again, because of its popular connotation) would have detracted from the main point I was trying to make.

All that said, my choice of words and indeed the entire article is open to challenge. While I appreciate compliments on the piece, I'd rather hear from people explaining why they think I've got the whole thing wrong.

My perspective is that Korea's "racial worldview," whatever its perceived benefits (and here's an issue that deserves more discussion), results in cases of invidious racial discrimination for both Koreans and non-Koreans; and, as I believe was the point of Ms. Ahn's article, also works against the stated goals of the Republic, in this case its "globalisation through English" campaign. I tend to take more of an "appropriateness" perspective in finding racial discrimination wrong in itself, but there are numerous "consequentialist" arguments where Korea's racial worldview, including the ROK's promotion of "blood nationalism," can be shown to work directly against the legitimate goals of the Republic.

crossmr said...

I'd argue that since English teachers serve the function of being both teacher and marketing device, a business should be allowed to reward someone they consider more valuable. If having a white teacher at the head of the class brings in 20% more students, and they want to pay more for that, so be it.

That may be wrong, but wouldn't we have teachers complaining if it were the other way around?

If teachers received the same, and the boss was basically using the white guy as free PR,we'd have a ton of teachers complaining about how they're more valuable to the business and yet they get the same pay as the other guy. The commission can't change a nation's mind.

If the hagwons wanted to continue to do this, all they'd have to do is snap a picture of the guy and pay him the same as they were before and claim the difference is "marketing"