The NNEST Caucus
Antonia: I’m most interested in the teaching and learning of academic writing at both school and college level, including research that has implications for developing academic writing competence in NNES students. Arising from this interest in how academic writing competence is learnt is an interest in academic discourse analysis, which has led me to pursue questions like these: How do novice and experienced writers differ in their choice and organization of rhetorical moves in the discussion section of a research paper? How does comparison play a role in the construction of thesis support in argumentative/expository writing? I believe that answers obtained from research to questions like these will lead to more effective teaching methods and instructional materials in writing classrooms.
I’m also interested in functional grammar, again for its potential in the teaching/learning of academic writing. I work in a teacher education institute. In my courses for in-service teachers and student teachers, whenever the opportunity presents itself, I advocate the noticing of the link between discourse and grammatical form. I think students will pay more attention to grammar if they are made aware of the form-function link, which should be the subject of more research.
Amir: And your extracurricular hobbies and interests?
Antonia: I haven’t much time to pursue extracurricular hobbies. At the end of a busy day, I try to find a little time to read. I tend to gravitate to books on religion, psychology, and culture, though I enjoy the occasional novel that’s well crafted. Lately I’ve started taking drawing lessons. My dream is to master water colour painting.
Amir: What are your most vivid memories (positive/negative) of being an NNEST in your academic and/or professional practices?
Antonia: One memory that has stayed with me over the years is talking to a postgraduate student in an Australian university about her problems in thesis writing and discovering that I made a difference to how she viewed the organization of her thesis. I was an ESL lecturer at Murdoch University in Perth at the time. The student, from Eastern Europe, was a tutor in English literature at the university and doing her PhD at the same time. She sought my help because she was struggling with conceptualizing the structure of her thesis. As I was unfamiliar with the topic – something to do with postmodernism and some aspect of literature – she had to explain to me her research question and intended argument. As we talked I tried to help her see her research question as the reference point for organization decisions at the chapter level and the level of the whole thesis. Days later she said that talking to me had clarified for her the organization plan for her thesis. Since then, other postgraduate students at Murdoch and at the National Institute of Education (Singapore), where I now teach, have given me similar feedback, that they see things more clearly after consulting me.
Amir: Do you have contacts with NNESTs (students or professionals) in your present job?
Antonia: Three quarters of my colleagues at NIE (National Institute of Education, Singapore) would fall under the NNEST label, if you define NNEST as one who was not born in a country like the US or Britain and did not speak English in the very first year of life. Many of us, however, are native speakers of English in the sense that English was the language through which we received all our schooling and is the only language we function in at work, at home, and in social life. Many of my colleagues and I grew up in Singapore and Malaysia when English was the language of education from primary school to university, and also the language of social interaction in a multi-racial society. (In Singapore, English is still the language of education in mainstream schools and the language of social interaction among a significant proportion of the population.)
Amir: How would you describe the most important contributions of non-native speaker professionals the L2 learning/teaching, and applied linguistics?
Antonia: Our most important contributions spring from our having one foot in the culture of a native language and the other in Anglophone culture. Language and culture are so interwoven one can’t effectively learn a language without an appreciation of the world view of its native speakers. The NNEST probably understands better the L2 student’s difficulty with transiting from a familiar set of discourse practices to a different, unfamiliar set of practices. I think it is because I’m Asian that I empathize with my students’ difficulty with explicitly stating their position or thesis at the beginning of an expository essay; Asian languages tend to value the indirect suggestion of a position. Or to take an example from the area of vocabulary and grammar, I appreciate the Asian student’s feeling that one can’t be polite enough unless one juxtaposes ‘please’ and ‘kindly’ in a request (Kindly please read the attached a postgraduate student once wrote in an email to me). Such awareness of culture bound differences can inform decisions about what to teach and how to teach a grammatical structure or discourse practice.
As for research in applied linguistics, NNESTs who are proficient in their native language have an advantage in studies on contrastive rhetoric, discourse analysis, and other areas calling for knowledge of two languages. NNEST researchers would be better placed to investigate questions that would yield answers applicable to language teaching, e.g. whether sentence Theme (the starting point of the sentence) plays a role in creating focus and coherence in texts in non-English languages.
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?
Antonia: From TESOL emails; I’m a member of TESOL. The Caucus should continue with what it is currently doing – being a platform for sharing ideas on topics relevant to language teaching/learning, for networking, and for obtaining advice/assistance from the NNEST community on language teaching and research issues.