native-speakerism

Why I know Open English is not worth it

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The facts

I had never heard of Open English. Never. Having been in the business for over 13 years, worked for various schools and given training courses to and studied with teachers from an even wider variety of institutions, I believe that that in itself probably says a lot about this company (I won’t call it a school).

It must’ve been about two weeks ago when I finally heard of them, and if you’re a teacher with an Internet connection in Brazil you certainly know why. Their repulsive TV commercial which, in a nutshell, derided non-native speaking teachers as being somewhat inferior, plain stupid and downright ridiculous was so stark, absurd and offensive that at first I believed it to be a joke. Coupled with the fact I’d never heard of them, the allegations that teachers who’d “learned English in Buenos Aires” just couldn’t be taken seriously made me doubt the video could really be real. But it was real.

What Open English doesn’t know

– English is the first language in history to have ever been more spoken as a second (third, fourth, fifth…) language than as a first language (to the tune of 1:2 or even 1:3). Publicizing your “school” by trumpeting the fact that you clearly don’t know that goes a long way to showing how clueless you are about the status of the language you claim to teach. This is, of course, understandable when a student says s/he wants or prefers to have classes with a “native teacher”. They’re not experts, and we can all certainly see where a layperson would think a native speaker of a language would probably be better suited to teach it. Students are not expected to have read Jeremy Harmer (and many others) when he says, “…the value of a teacher depends not just on their ability to use a language, but also on their knowledge about that language and their understanding of how to facilitate both that ability and that knowledge in the minds of their students”. But a so-called school?

– English is the true lingua franca of the 21st century, the language of business, of commerce, of tourism, of entertainment. You’re more likely to need to speak English nowadays with Italian, Chinese, French and Brazilian speakers of English than you are with Americans, Australians and Brits. For Open English, however, all you need is, as their website suggests, “unlimited live-sessions anytime of the day with our American teachers”. Not with our teachers, but with our American teachers. At a time when we (serious teachers of English, native-speaking or not) have been discussing topics such as teaching English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), world Englishes, international English, what standard to adopt as a model for teaching pronunciation, for instance, and the like, it is unnerving at best to see a pseudo-school advertise a preference for American English and American teachers, although perhaps understandable from a marketing perspective. What is absolutely unacceptable, however, is to have quacks mock non-native speaking teachers the way Open English did. It’s unethical, disrespectful and not to be tolerated.

Conclusion

The outcry the abusive TV commercial provoked among ELT practitioners in Brazil – be they Brazilians, Americans, Australians or else – was, the way I see it, evidence that Open English is alone in their belief that there is an obvious inferiority in, as far as teaching English is concerned, having been born in a country where English is not the first language (or in the United States specifically, as was the case). That was a big relief.

I personally don’t agree, at least not yet, with Jennifer Jenkins when she says there is nowadays “the need to abandon the native speaker as the yardstick”. I personally try to, as much as possible, use English based on a model that is undeniably a “native” one, albeit not necessarily American or British or Australian. I teach International English, meaning I don’t teach either American or British English concerning accent or lexis, for example; nevertheless, I still do my best to use – and have my students use – /ɒ/ and /ɑ:/, /i:/ and /ɪ/, third person singular when appropriate, past regular endings “correctly” and the like. I believe idioms and phrasal verbs make English the incredibly sensuous language that it is, and I own up to cringing when I think of not teaching idioms and phrasal verbs anymore, or of not correcting my students, as ELF suggests, when they say “she like” or “I go to the cinema tomorrow”. Obviously, thus, I have nothing against native speakers! I would never mock them! I just don’t think they’re inherently better (or worse) than non-native speakers at teaching solely based on where they’re from.

And you know what? Even though it is a fact, as I said above, that I try to use and teach a variety which is undoubtedly “native”, the funny thing is that I learned it all from Brazilian teachers! As a student of English in Brazil, from A1 to CPE preparation, all my teachers were Brazilians, and the vast majority of them had themselves only studied in Brazil, having Brazilians for teachers. That doesn’t mean at all, of course, that we Brazilians (Argentinians, Kenyans, Koreans) are better than native speakers when it comes to teaching, it just means that your nationality in itself doesn’t make any difference whatsoever. What matters is how much you know about the language, how committed you are to studying it and becoming better at it, the investments you make in your career by doing courses such as the the TKT, CELTA and the DELTA, your interpersonal skills and ability to build rapport with your students, and much more. It’s very difficult to define what makes a good teacher, as it certainly involves a very wide array of abilities and traits, but it’s much easier to define what it’s not, at least not necessarily: A good English teacher does not have to be a native speaker, and he certainly does not need to be American.

I’d appreciate your comments on the topic(s) here discussed, and take the opportunity to suggest the reading of chapter one from Jeremy Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching (The Changing World of English) and Scott Thornbury’s post on native-speakerism by clicking here. I also recommend you forget the name Open English once and for all.

Thanks for reading!

PS: I have not added a link to the Open English TV commercial here because they have taken it off the air, or so it seems. You might still be able to find it by googling it, though.

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