Native-speakerism, race, and representation at ELT conferences

Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development: Vol 38, No 6

My latest paper, co-authored with Marek Kiczkowiak, has just been published in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. In the paper we analysed ten of the largest ELT conferences in Europe over a ten year period, and examined the balance of ‘native’/’non native speaker’ representation among their plenary speakers. We also interviewed a number of conference organisers to understand the reasoning behind their selection of speakers. Key takeaways from the study are:

– 75% of all plenary speakers at ELT conferences we analysed were ‘native speakers.’
– 94% of all plenary speakers were white.
– ‘Colour-blind’ attitudes among conference organisers led to highly slanted representation in favour of white ‘native speakers,’ whereas more critically-aware attitudes led to greater balance in representation.

The results of this study make clear the impact of native-speakerism and related prejudices such as racism on ELT. As a field which is populated by a huge diversity of teachers from a variety of linguistic, national, cultural, and racial backgrounds, it is important that a similar plurality of voices is present in the public spaces where we discuss our work, our goals, and our methods. This is not only a problem in Europe – racial disparity is also an issue in the conferences of organisations such as AAAL, as shown in this paper, which inspired our study:

Bhattacharya, Usree, Lei Jiang, and Suresh Canagarajah. 2019. “Race, Representation, and Diversity in the American Association for Applied Linguistics.” Applied Linguistics, 1–7. doi:10.1093/applin/amz003

Taking a liberal, ‘colour blind’ approach, in which issues of representation are not considered, everyone is treated as an individual, and in which each speaker is invited based on a supposedly objective evaluation of their contributions to the field, does not seem to be an effective way to address this issue. Such an approach does not seem to guard against the biases which are rampant in ELT, and has instead led to a situation in which white ‘native speaker’ voices are by far the loudest. A more critical approach, in which conscious effort is made to include those currently excluded, therefore seems necessary. We hope that this message is taken to heart by conference organisers.

This is the first of what we hope will be a series of studies looking at conference speaker representation in different parts of the world. More to come!

Here’s the abstract for the paper:

The ideology of native speakerism and its effects on the professional lives of ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ in English language teaching (ELT) have been widely documented. Nevertheless, little is known about the impact native speakerism might have on the selection of plenary speakers for ELT conferences. Hence, through the analysis of plenary line-ups of seven conferences in the EU and interviews with their organisers, this study aimed to explore whether ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ were represented equally as plenary speakers. The results show that overall only 25 per cent of the 416 analysed plenary speaker line-ups were given by ‘non-native speakers’. At some conferences, over 80 per cent of all plenary speakers were ‘native speakers’. Apart from one conference organiser who highlighted that steps had been taken to ensure a more equal balance of speakers, the other organisers seemed not to place much importance on equal balance of ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ when inviting plenary speakers, preferring a ‘colourblind’ approach. This study suggests native-speakerism impacts the choice of plenary speakers at certain ELT conferences, and that conscious efforts must be made to alter this balance.

Check out the full paper at this link:

Here is the reference data:

Marek Kiczkowiak & Robert J. Lowe (2021) Native-speakerism in English language teaching: ‘native speakers’ more likely to be invited as conference plenary speakers, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, DOI: 10.1080/01434632.2021.1974464

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