Ofra: I was born in Israel and Hebrew is my first language. English came in when I was a teenager temporarily residing in Canada. My resume includes high school teaching and lecturing and teacher training in language and EFL teacher education programs. I was also a supervisor for the Ministry of Education for the teaching of English and at present I coordinate an MA TESOL program for overseas students in the School of Education at Tel Aviv University. My research interests (in addition to N/NNESTs) are in the areas of language policy (national educational language policy, immigrant issues, the teaching of Arabic to Hebrew speakers); language assessment and curriculum design. An interesting research area that I am currently involved in (with Elana Shohamy) is the teaching of English at an early age (6-7 year olds) by home room teachers.
Amir: Can you tell us something about your teaching context?
Ofra: I teach in two different contexts. At the School of Education at Tel-Aviv University I currently teach mostly native speakers of English in an MA TESOL program for overseas students. The courses I give are in the areas of language assessment (theory and practice) and in language curriculum design and program evaluation. At Beit Berl, a College of Education situated east of Tel-Aviv, I teach mostly NNEST candidates, native speakers of Hebrew, Arabic and other languages (Russian, for example), who are studying to become EFL teachers in the Israeli school system. The courses I give there are in language policy, in curriculum design (an introductory course and critical approaches to curriculum design in multicultural societies), and in assessment (both a general course and a course specifically geared to assessing EFL learners).
Amir: How did your interest in NNEST issues begin?
Ofra: Similarly to probably many other researchers in the area, the impetus for pursuing native/non-native speaker teacher dilemmas can be traced to my personal background. Since I was exposed to English at a relatively young age I am often labeled a native speaker, contrary to my personal affiliation. The mistaken identity has led me to reflect on native or non-native identities of language teachers, their formation, self vs. public perception and the consequences with regard to the language and identity equation and identity choices. In my research I have looked at why EFL teachers in Israel perceive themselves as native or non-native speakers, and whether there is a difference between the two groups with regard to their perceptions. The findings show that teaching perceptions can be accounted for by personal and contextual variables, rather than the native/non-native linguistic background. Similar findings with regard to the importance of contextual variables to identity formation have emerged from the comparative research Antoinette Gagne and I have conducted on the proficiency of non-native speaking teacher candidates in Canada and Israel (sponsored by a grant from the TESOL International Research Foundation).
Situated as we are in the English teaching profession we often neglect to explore how such identity dilemmas relate to languages other than English, i.e., how the macro and micro language contexts affect the identity choices of language educators at large. The issues are fascinating and can be delved into from different angles in applied linguistics and education, thus allowing me to integrate the different facets of my work.
Amir: How would you describe the most important contributions of non-native speaker professionals to the L2 learning/teaching, and applied linguistics?
Ofra: I believe the initial Reves and Medgyes 1994 research followed by Peter Medgyes’ book, the 1996 TESOL colloquium and George Braine’s 1999 book, all served as catalysts for the interest and enormous research that we are witnessing today. It’s important to remember, however, that these developments occurred against the backdrop of a general (not just teacher-oriented) reconsideration and deconstruction of native speaker concepts discussed, for example, in the works of Alan Davies (1992; 2003) and Claire Kramsch. (1997; 1998).
Amir: Would you like to tell us a bit about your hobbies?
Ofra: Lots of reading and spending time with the family and friends and also music and cinema … And work – I consider myself lucky as I really enjoy my work and often work and leisure are intertwined.
Amir: How did you get to know about NNEST Caucus? What are the things (if any) you would like to see the Caucus and its members initiate/do?
Ofra: I have been following the surge of interest in the NNEST issues since 1996 and became more directly involved after a presentation at the 2000 TESOL conference in Vancouver. It was quite accidental – I was in the audience of a Colloquium run by George Braine. One of the speakers couldn't come and George, who knew about my research, asked if I could step in and fill the empty slot … I rushed to my hotel, got the transparencies (no power point at the time), and presented and have done so in many conferences since.
With regard to the future role of the caucus I think we have reached a crucial stage. Though there is still work to be done on discriminatory gate-keeping policies and prejudices, the position of the NNESTs has been asserted thanks to the outstanding pioneering work done by the caucus founders and leaders. Now it’s time to move on by building on the research findings to date, looking at the future research agenda and reaching outside our immediate circles.
With regard to implementing research findings, the caucus can focus for example on what we know about the relevant merits of NNESTs, considering ways of operationalizing them. For example, let’s look at the rich linguistic repertoire of the NNEST (who is knowledgeable in at least one more language in addition to English), and think about how this linguistic knowledge can best be utilized to promote language transfer and foster multiliteracies across languages. The caucus can turn to exploring these issues, specifically looking at the ‘how’ in terms of curricula, teaching methods, materials, assessment procedures and teacher education programs: How to take advantage of multilingualism in the classroom? How to support intra-lingual understanding and skills? How to encourage tolerance of others using yourself as a model?
In addition, as the research has shown that NNESTs’ identities and roles can not be accounted for merely by native or native background, there is a need to step out of the N/NN framework per se and see how the issues fit into and interact with particular settings, cultures, educational circumstances and of course individual variables.
And last but not least – it’s time to reach out to audiences outside the TESOL community in areas of language teaching and education and to the general public: parents, students, administrators and the media. There is still a huge gap between the insights we have gained over the years and the public’s perception of native and non-native speaker teachers. I believe it is our role inform and involve these different stakeholders on N/NNESTS concerns, and as a caucus focus our efforts in this direction.
Amir: Thanks, Ofra, for your time!