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Artículo 05

Volumen 16

Language Identity: Native vs Non-Native ELT Teachers in the Era of English as an International Language (EIL)


MA Alejandra Nuñez Asomoza

University of Southampton- Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas



Reflecting on the diversity of the world we live in, we are able to picture a variety of characteristics that distinguish individuals or groups making them unique, and giving them a particular identity. In this sense, the following article presents some concepts related to language and identity; Spanglish is considered and explored in relation to identity, and as a particular way to personalize language. This discussion will serve as a framework for looking at the roles of the native and non-native ELT Teacher figures in the new language-teaching context that sees English as an International Language.


Key words: Identity, Language, Spanglish, Native ELT Teachers, Non-native ELT teachers, English as an International Language.


One language, one identity

The term identity can be linked to several images that will certainly come to mind when we think of it, all of which have to do with how we perceive ourselves as individuals or as part of a group at different levels such as being members of a family, an urban tribe or a nation. In addition to those levels, the ideas and concepts related to our identity would probably reflect features of our personality, habits, personal experiences, education, the place we live in or the people we interact with, among many others including one in particular: the language or languages we speak.

Edwards (2009:19) points out that on a personal level, identity “is essentially the summary statement of all our individual traits, characteristics and dispositions: it defines the uniqueness of each human being”. Not far from this idea and linking it to other elements, Norton defines identity as referring “to how people understand their relationship to the world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how people understand their possibilities for the future” (Norton, 1997: 410). These definitions help draw a connection that goes from the particular individual features we all have, to those of a group not only intertwining within it but also with the element of time which gives us a sensation of continuity, evolution and change; meaning that our identity is something that will not remain static throughout our life time.

Even after reflecting on the previous, it would probably be hard to think of language as a fundamental element for our identity as individuals since it is something we cannot see or feel. However, as Edwards (2009:20) states, “since language is central to the human condition, and since many have argued that it is the most salient distinguishing characteristic of our species […]” we are obligated to consider its role in the continuous construction of our identity. Even if language is not physically available, its impact on the way we conceive who we are, who others are and how we use it to make statements about us is palpable. According to Joseph (2004) the majority of the interactions between individuals are done through language in any of its forms. In addition to this we shall consider the fact that, in an era of globalization the majority of people around the world have a voice in a second or foreign language. This attribute is also present in the shaping of one’s identity, and the particular features that individuals incorporate to their use of language in everyday interactions reflect who they are as one or as part of a group.

It was previously mentioned that some features that integrate our identity include those of our personality and the environment that surrounds us. Recent research on this area suggests specific factors that reveal people’s identity in relation to language. For instance, Cheshire (in Jenkins, 2009: 48) explains how “European English appears to be developing the scope to ‘express “emotional” aspects of young people’s social identities’ by means of phenomena such as code-switching and code mixing”. Morgan (in Norton, 1997: 414) points out the “relationship between identity and intonation”, which relates to Ladegaard & Sachdev’s (2006) assertion of the relation between language attitudes and preferred second language accents. All of these elements help us explain and understand the role that languages, especially English as a second or foreign language, have in this new era. New schemes and possibilities open up for the voices we have and what we can express with them. As Jenkins highlights referring to observations of other academics, the tendency is to defy the “hegemony of native speaker standards and appropriating English for […] local use” (Jenkins, 2006: 165).  Languages are in continuous change thanks to speakers and their creativity. We have the possibility to use language freely in order to describe the world around us, and no matter which language we speak we can make it our own and give it our personal touch to keep and express our identities.


Code-switching, code-mixing and the case of Spanglish as identity-related features

Reflection about identity and its inherent elements has led me to look closer into the concepts of code-switching and code-mixing, terms which, according to Jenkins (2006) are starting to be used as synonyms lately. This practice, mainly used by bilinguals, exposes important information about speakers’ identities. Lippi-Green defines code-switching (1997:43) as “a term reflecting the speaker’s ability to switch between languages or language varieties dependent on a large number of factors”. We could see it as a window to the speaker’s perception of the surrounding world, and how s/he uses certain linguistic abilities in combination with social skills to help him/herself fit into the immediate context and connect with others.

According to Holmes (2013: 35), there are various reasons for which bilingual speakers code-switch. She mentions for instance an “expression of solidarity” in a social encounter, a form of signaling the speaker belonging to a particular ethnic group hence his/her “ethnic identity”, or simply because “for many bilinguals certain kinds of referential content are more appropriately or more easily expressed in one language than the other”. All of these motivations to code-switch are in a lower or larger scale related to people’s identities, but more specifically to their social or group identity. It seems from the ideas above that people’s use of language in this way is more related to emphasizing their membership to a group than it is to reaffirming themselves as individuals per se. In relation to this observation Auer (2005: 404) points out the appreciations of Antaki and Widdicombe:

Social identity is clearly a useful mediating concept between language and social structure. On the one hand, it allows one to see interactants as being involved in linguistic ‘acts of identity’ though which they claim or ascribe group membership, or more precisely, through certain speaking styles […]. On the other hand, membership categories can be regarded as constituting members’ knowledge and perception of social structures. 


Considering these assertions we could say that if language is a social act that allows members of a community to communicate with each other, it seems valid to regard code-switching as an effective means to communicate at the different levels we move through in a given community. I have no doubt that opinions can differ from this point of view and see code-switching as something negative or as having other implications, however, my purpose in this article is to look at the possibilities that this type of language use can offer us in terms of understanding more about who we are as we define and redefine our identity. There are several studies that show examples of how code-switching works in certain situations and how it functions for people. This practice is not distinctive of particular groups; it is general to speakers of at least two languages and each case has interesting features to be analyzed. As a Mexican teacher who lives and works in a community with over a million immigrants living in the United States of America, I feel it is my call to look into those aspects that are meaningful to my context. Therefore I will now explore and explain some of the characteristics of Spanglish as a form of code-switching-mixing and its relation to identity for Mexicans living in the U.S.A.

Spanglish is common for most Mexicans, especially those who have crossed the border or for those who have family members or friends living in the U.S.A as immigrants. The term Spanglish has been defined by its users on both sides of the Mexican-American border and for each person depending on their specific context, it carries out particular meanings and is used in particular ways; all of which add to their identities. A definition provided by Otheguy & Stern (2010: 85-86) states that: “The term Spanglish, used to refer to popular forms of the language of many Hispanics in the USA”, by popular forms they mean “the term is generally reserved for speech in casual oral registers, especially, though not exclusively, when used by Latinos who seldom or never use Spanish for writing”. Stavans (in Chappell & Faltis 2007: 256) explains the term as “a hybrid form of Spanish that has been infused and combined with English at the lexical and syntactical levels of speech”. Franco & Solorio (2007: 2) recognize the difficulty to provide a clear-cut definition of Spanglish since it is a phenomenon that integrates characteristics of an interlanguage (for some linguists), a pidgin or a creole. Though, they point out that the linguistic characteristics of Spanglish “encompass code-mixing and code-switching […] that can be easily spotted by humans”. According to Franco & Solorio, these features can be identified because Spanglish users code-switch when they change from one language to the other in between sentences or when they start a new topic, and they code-mix when they change languages within the same sentence. This particular way in which Spanglish operates, follows a pattern that distinguishes it from other uses of language.

Besides the linguistic characteristics or the popular forms in the use of Spanglish described above, I strongly believe that what defines this phenomenon in its core is the relationship it has to the identity of a person or a group given their immigrant status not only in the foreign country but also in their country of origin. This assertion is based on ideas such as the one offered by Nilep (2006: 4), who mentions the work of Baker about Mexicans’ use of language in the south of the United States as one of the first to describe “language choice and code switching” in the field of anthropology. His proposal based on the findings of his work was that new generations (young people) of this ethnic group were able to “use multiple languages […] and that the use of multiple varieties was constitutive of a local […] identity” (Nilep 2006: 4). Also, Zentella (in Otheguy & Stern, 2010: 86) mentions Spanglish as perceived by prestigious Latino academics as a “badge of bicultural identity”. And, MacSwan (in Chappell & Faltis 2007: 256) when referring to children who use Spanglish, points out that “ [they] are capable of expressing complex ideas, of making use of social and historical contexts to construct meaning and of creating identities to express their cross-cultural experiences”. Taking into account the previous statements, we can see Spanglish as a genuine source of identity for its users consisting not only of linguistic aspects but also filled with emotional and ethnic elements that are given by people’s traditions, life-styles and languages caught in between two countries and two ways of perceiving the world.

The implications of using Spanglish in given communities are not only related to individual or group identities, they also impact the world of language teaching and learning on both sides of the border. In recent years, the concept of learning English as a Foreign or Second Language (EFL or ESL) around the world has evolved and a ‘new’ model in which English is seen as a lingua franca has been introduced. Seidlhofer (2011: 7) defines English as Lingua Franca (ELF) “as any use of English among speakers of different first languages for whom English is the communicative medium of choice, and often the only option”. She also points out that the majority of English speakers in the world are not natives of this language; therefore the main English interactions carried out in many parts of the globe will be done among non-native English speakers who give their ‘personal touch’ to the way they use language resulting in new language varieties. But, what does all of this have to do with Spanglish and its users? The answer has to do with both, the status or associations given to it and people who use it, as well as with its particular features. It is no surprise for most of us that Spanglish has historically had a negative connotation even within its users. It is most likely to been seen as a defect of a speaker (e.g. Otheguy & Stern 2010) than as creative way to speak.

However if we consider the new model of ELF in which, the idea of aiming for the native-like speaker has relaxed and non-native speaker interactions and forms are the most common, we can say that Spanglish could be seen as an alternative use of language and also as a representation of this model in many ways. To start, we can look at what is considered by some linguists, teachers or native speakers as errors, and see features of a type of language use that can serve local as well as international communication and is effective for the purposes of its speakers in a context that comprises, recognizes and accepts more variances than similarities among users of English or Spanish.


Language identity and ELT teachers

For those of us related to the world of ESL or EFL in any way, the figure of the English Teacher has always been haunted by the ghost of the native or non-native speaker. Debates trying to define each ‘type’ of teacher, their characteristics, their qualities and weaknesses have gone on for decades; and even when there have been attempts to provide a definition for each one, there are still no precise answers. However, many scholars have succeeded to describe teachers’ characteristics and this is what will certainly help us understand how the different types of teachers can fit into a new phase of language instruction that demands diversity and openness in the language classrooms.

In order to define teacher identity it is important to understand how teachers are generally classified in terms of native and non-native English speakers. According to Medgyes (1992: 343), the first step in trying to define a non-native English speaker teacher (non-NEST) is to compare them only to “their native counterparts, that is […] native-speaking English teachers [NEST]”. This will definitely not provide us with a clear-cut definition for each one, but it will indeed allow us to identify features of each one that can be considered later as elements of identity formation for each group. In 2001, Medgyes (2001: 433) defined a non-NESTs as a teacher: “for whom English is a second or foreign language; who works in an EFL environment; whose students are monolingual groups of learners; who speaks the same native language as his or her students.

It is emphasized though that the above definition or set of characteristics does not apply to the whole universe of non-NESTs, and that even if a NEST can be understood as having the opposite features that identify a non-NEST this is also not completely true for all of them either. Defining teacher identities is a very delicate and complex matter because it is linked not only to the personal dimension but to the professional level as well, we cannot define teacher identities only based on their classification as native or non-native English speakers since this issue certainly can start there but it goes far beyond those limits. In a study carried out by Varghese (et al. 2005: 22) it is revealed that “matters of race, gender, and sexual orientation” along with the teacher-student relationship and “the broader context in which the teacher was [is] situated” are crucial to the construction of teacher identities.

As a non-NEST myself, I look at the elements suggested as being somehow characteristic of non-NESTs; I think of my context and I realize that those are indeed not applicable to the different teaching situations I encounter every semester, which confirms Medgyes idea of a partial definition. For example, the students I teach come mostly from communities that have a long tradition of immigration into the U.S.A; because of this reason, all of them have a particular language story. Some of them are bilinguals (who use Spanglish very often), and others recognize English as their mother tongue and carry out tasks involving Spanish with great difficulty. Based on my teaching experience with these and many other groups I have had over the past eight years, I can say that particular contexts require special skills and attitudes on the part of the teacher in order to carry out his/her job and connect with learners. All of these skills and attitudes we develop as a response to our context’s needs add up to everything else we are as individuals. Therefore a definition of a teacher and his/her identity is constructed and re-constructed with every group and within every context.

Several scholars have addressed the issue of teacher identity (Jenkins 2005, Varghese et al. 2005, Medgyes 2001, Mawhinney and Xu 1997) because there is a major concern about teacher discrimination that has to do mainly with being considered as a non-NEST and ethnicity background. These practices of discrimination have been part of the TESOL profession for many years and they have reinforced the native speaker model claiming that students are the ones that demand native speakers in the classrooms because they provide them with correct pronunciation, authentic language, or a proper accent. These prevailing ideas foster the segregation of teachers and prevent them from defining and accepting their identities. If we consider the new trends on EIL it seems unfair to measure teachers according to standards that are not close to the reality we live and face nowadays. If we have started to regard English as a language that belongs to all its speakers and that can be adapted to people’s local uses, ecology and practices we also need to allow teacher identities to emerge and be part of this way of approaching English language education. Varghese et al (2005: 39), also state the complexity of working with teacher identities. They point out that:

Teacher identity is a profoundly individual and psychological matter because it concerns the self-image and other-image of particular teachers. It is a social matter because the formation, negotiation, and growth of teacher identity is a fundamentally social process taking place in institutional settings such as teacher education programs and schools.


Teacher identity is, as we can see, definitely conditioned by the context in which they are immersed as well as by the relation with all the agents participating and interacting in that circle. It is my belief from these reflections that if teachers are encouraged to 1) explore their identities and 2) define who they are in an individual and group level the world of TESOL will be ready to embrace EIL with a strong foundation of teachers who base their practice not only on the methodologies and theoretical knowledge they have, but also on an understanding of a personal, local and international context that allows the expression of individuals in a language that even when used by almost everyone around the globe can still be a meaningful means of communication in a deep sense for each speaker.



The main purpose of this work has been to take a closer look into the aspects that link language and identity in speakers of English as a second or foreign language. The idea behind this is to see how speakers’ identities expressed by their particular uses of language can impact the way we conceive language teaching in the rising of EIL; and how new concepts or models of language use, teachers or speakers can set the foundation for opening up opportunities to embrace languages in a more personalized way. All this in order to face the demands of the world we live in, with the confidence that our identity will not have to be hidden or questioned in relation to the way we use the English language; a language that has become the world’s lingua franca therefore belonging to all those who use it.



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