Carmen T. Chacón
Dr. Chacón: I was born in Táchira, a western state in Venezuela, today Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in South America. I have lived in San Cristóbal, the capital of Táchira, for my whole life, except the two times that I have gone to study in the U.S. I got my B.A in education with a major in English. I remember that since I first studied English in high school, I felt in love with the language and its culture. Not surprisingly, English was my favorite subject, and I always did an outstanding job in my class.
It was not a burden for me to learn by heart textbook dialogues and grammar rules because I was curious to learn vocabulary and be able to read about the U.S. culture. I used to teach grammar to my friends in the high school, and soon I realized that I wanted to be an English teacher. So, I enrolled in a teacher education program in my home town to become an EFL teacher.
I still have vivid memories of some of my professors who were very concerned in teaching us “Standard” English and did the best they could so that we would acquire native-like pronunciation. I particularly remember one of them who used to say, “be careful,” just before we would talk or say something in English, so we wouldn’t make any mistakes.
After I graduated, I felt I didn’t speak native-like; that was frustrating for me. So, I applied for a government scholarship that was granted to me in 1980 to get my MA degree at Eastern Washington University in Washington State.
When I finished my M. A, I came back home and worked at a high school for about 13 years. Teaching at the high school was a highly demanding task because of the heavy teaching load and large classes, as well as the lack of resources and institutional support EFL teachers face in Venezuela.
Despite the context barriers, I never lost my passion to teach. In 1989, I applied for an opening at the University of Los Andes and won a position as a teacher educator. Later, in 1998, I got a scholarship to pursue my doctoral studies at the Ohio State University (OSU). Again, as I finished my doctoral studies, I returned to my hometown university where I am currently a tenured professor at the Modern Languages Department.
Being a teacher educator has been a great undertaking for me. When I looked back into my past as an NNEST, I realized I have rethought my teaching practice and changed my views about ELT, especially over the last years. Throughout my lived experiences as an English learner, an EFL teacher-researcher, and an educator, I am convinced that learning to teach is a never-ending process. I am committed to work hard to help NNES student teachers’ empowerment so that they are confident as English speakers.
Ana Wu: In your book chapter “My Journey into Racial Awareness” (2006), you said that during your master degree program, as a newcomer in the USA, you first perceived your race to be bound to nationality, and that later, your experience of being perceived as an NNES professional of color opened up your awareness of the role of race in the United States (p. 49).
As a teacher trainer, how does this awareness influence your sense of self and instructional practices?
Dr. Chacón: Being perceived as an NNES professional of color during my second journey into the U.S., has definitively made an impact on my identity as well as on my teaching practice. The construction and reconstruction of my subjectivity was a wake-up call that began since 1998, when I was involved for the first time in my life with topics related to language, power, and race during my doctoral studies. I wrestled myself with multiples identities and started to question my racial affiliation trying to figure out my racial ethnicity among U.S labels such as White, Jewish American, Asian American, Hispanic, Latino, etc. This struggle influenced both my sense of self and my teaching.
I came to have an interest and then became an advocate of NNESTs after I took a Seminar for Nonnative Speaker Professionals offered by Dr. Keiko Samimy in the spring of 2000. Sharing common issues faced by EFL teachers from different parts of the world was a comforting experience that in light of the readings (e.g., Braine, 1999; Lippi-Green, 1997; Pennycook, 2001 among others) made me reflect upon the "political" side of TESOL. Back home, in the fall of 2003, for the first time in our program, I offered a similar seminar for EFL teachers inspired by my own experiences as an NNEST.
The following year, I incorporated NNEST issues into the syllabus of the Seminar entitled Psycholinguistics (See Chacón, 2009a, “Transforming the Curriculum of NNESTs: Introducing Critical Language Awareness (CLA) in a teacher education program ”) that I have been teaching since 2004, as a regular class for fifth-year prospective teachers. I have students read, discuss, and debate articles from the NNEST CAUCUS as well as from selected readings by scholars (Amin, 1997; Braine, 1999; Lippi-Green, 1997, among others). The course goal is to help them open up their awareness of the relationship between language, race, and power.
Over the last years, I have shifted the focus of my teaching from a purely linguistic perspective to what Pennycook (2001), describes as a critical applied linguistics. As an EFL teacher, I am not only concerned about language acquisition but also about the interconnectedness of language, race, and power as present in discursive practices.
I keep myself questioning my cultural assumptions and how they influence my teaching.
My self representation as a TESOL professional made me reflect upon the fact that, in my role as an EFL teacher, I can unconsciously reproduce social inequity through discursive practices that have helped perpetuate conceptions such as “Standard” English and the native-nonnative speaker dichotomy. Now, I position myself as an NNEST who, rather than searching for native-like pronunciation, have changed her focus of teaching to intelligibility and to raise students’ awareness of language as ideology, as a marker of discrimination to label the “other” as inferior.
I have been fortunate to have Professors Keiko Samimy and Shelley Wong as my instructors and mentors at OSU. They inspired me to become an advocate of social equity and justice in TESOL.
Ana Wu: Why do you think the issue of race is relevant to English language acquisition?
Dr. Chacón: Let me start by saying that race was not an issue for me until my second experience as a Ph. D student in the U.S. Then, I started to realize that language is not only about acquiring communicative competence; a purely linguistic activity, but a way to express ideology, i.e., to express who we are and where we come from.
For many years, I believed in the neutrality of ELT. I was educated under the applied linguistics paradigm, considering the native speaker as the “norm” and regarding English language acquisition isolated from the sociopolitical and historical reasons that ground the expansion of English in the world. Disempowering discourses such as the superiority of an “idealized” native speaker, usually represented as the model from the Center, and the acquisition of “Standard” English are unconsciously bound to race. That is why most students would rather prefer Caucasian English teachers if they are asked to choose.
In Venezuela, the focus of ELT is the acquisition of communicative competence. English is generally taught from a descriptive perspective. Besides, racism is not openly recognized in my country; however, the majority of Venezuelans hold prejudices against Blacks and dark-skinned people. Western Eurocentric views are present in daily discourse, but most people are unaware of, or do not want to recognize the fact that we practice what Kubota & Lin (2006) describe as epistemological racism.
English from the Center is the most prestigious. When I ask my students to rank different English dialects, not surprisingly, they mention “Standard” American and British accents in the first and second place while African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is ranked last. They do not mention other varieties—e.g., Pakistani, Indian, Nigerian, Singaporean Englishes—because they are not aware of their existence.
The issue of race is relevant to ELT because the construct of race is socially and historically built through language, and through language we construct our identities. From my own experience, I would say that pervasive practices used to discriminate against NNESTs are rooted in colonial view of EIL. For this reason, it is crucial to develop a critical language awareness among NNESTs and empower them to contest social inequity in TESOL.
Ana Wu: We know that there aren’t many international graduate students from Central and South America in applied linguistics and TESOL programs in the USA. In your article “Empowering NNESTs” (2000), you wrote that you tried hard to be accepted into the academic community during your graduate program. As a Latin American, what were your challenges and how did you overcome them?
Dr. Chacón: A major challenge I faced as an International graduate student was a feeling of loneliness and exclusion in mainstream clases where my White classmates usually dominated the discourse. Class discussions were mainly centered on the U.S. It seemed to me that my experience as a Latina did not count, or may have not been interesting enough to be listened to. At first, I dealt with feelings of frustration and a sense of disempowerment for not being part of the “culture” of mainstream classes.
Another challenge was my accent. I got used to hearing comments about my accent and to seeing people staring at me as if they did not understand what I was saying. Later on, I realized that many people disliked or were not used to listen to an accent other than their own. As Lippi-Green (1997) points out, accents are bound to geographical places and represent privilege and social status. It is not only about the accent one may have, but how that accent is perceived in terms of race and power. In my experience, my accent was a marker of race and did not have the same status or prestige than the accent of someone coming from Australia or Canada.
Let me tell you an experience to illustrate what I am saying. It happened to me during the last quarter of my doctoral studies, while I was in charge of supervising a group of White teachers enrolled in a TESOL Endorsement Program. My first contact with the teachers was via email so we could set up an appointment to meet. I was very surprised that one of them did not respond to my emails. Concerned about the situation, I went to see the Program Coordinator. To my astonishment, she explained to me that that teacher who did not respond to my emails did not want me as her supervisor. She had asked the Coordinator to reassign her to the other supervisor, an African American lady. The reason, according to the Coordinator, was that the teacher was afraid she may not understand me.
I came to the realization that in TESOL language is connected to race and social status. That awareness empowered me and made reflect about my identity as an NNEST.
Ana Wu: What advice would you give to people with similar background as yours who are considering getting professional development in the USA?
Dr. Chacón: An NNEST coming to pursue professional development in the U.S. should keep in mind that as a newcomer he or she will face cultural and linguistic challenges. First, as an international student one needs to fit into the academic community and be ready to deal with feelings of loneliness and exclusion that make the adjustment harder. As foreigners, we are generally perceived as the “Other. So, we need to struggle with negative perceptions and stereotypes that affect our sense of self and undermine our confidence as English speakers.
NNEST needs to be conscious that language constructs identity and that as a result of biases and prejudices present in discursive practices, NNESTs’ credibility is not always judged in terms of proficiency. That is why it is very important to trust our strengths and work hard on our weaknesses to succeed in the academia and gain recognition as qualified NNESTs.
In addition, NNESTs need to raise their awareness of disempowering discourses that undermine their legitimacy and credibility as English speakers. Conscious awareness is critical for empowerment and building a sense of agency to transform NNESTs’ particular contexts and adapt their teaching to their students’ needs.
Ana Wu: As an EFL instructor in Venezuela with 26 years of experience, former department coordinator, and now as a teacher trainer, Do you think that local teachers have a second-class status when working with native speaking teachers (qualified or less qualified)? If yes, what kind of support do you think these instructors need and what can they do to promote more equality in the teaching profession? What do you think TESOL, Inc. and the NNEST IS can do?
Dr. Chacón: Well in fact, the native speaker dichotomy is not an issue that directly affects hiring practices for Venezuelan teachers, but it does influence their perceptions and beliefs as non-native speakers of English. When compared with native speakers, teachers generally express lack of confidence in their oral proficiency and judge themselves inferior when it comes to “nativeness,” accent, and cultural knowledge (Chacón, 2009b).
To promote more equality in the profession, TESOL can increase opportunities for NNESTs professional development, dissemination of research, and mentorship. NNESTs need a major support for visibility in the field through publications in the Journals sponsored by TESOL. Also, TESOL should encourage the incorporation of Seminars that address the needs of NNESTs who attend U.S. universities.
The NNEST Caucus, now NNEST IS, has undoubtedly been a powerful source of empowerment for NNESTs since its creation in 1998. I would like to see online communities of practice where teachers can come together and learn from each other.
In sum, I think that TESOL, Inc. and the NNEST IS should join efforts and keep working to increase opportunities for professional development, visibility, recognition, and credibility of NNESTs.
Ana Wu: Thank you for this inspiring interview!
Amin, N. (1997). Race and identity of the nonnative ESL teacher. TESOL Quarterly, 31, 80-583.
Braine, G. (Ed.) (1999). Non-native educators in English language teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Chacón, C. (2000). Empowering NNESTs. NNEST Newsletter. 2 (2).
Chacón, C. (2006). My Journey into Racial Awareness. Color, Race, and English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning. In Curtis, A. & Romney, M. (Eds.), Color, Race, and English Teaching Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Chacón, C. (2009a). Transforming the Curriculum of NNESTs: Introducing Critical Language Awareness (CLA) in a teacher education program. In R. Kubota & A. Lin, (Eds.), Race, culture, and identities in second language education. Exploring critically engaged practice (pp. 215-233). New York: Routledge.
Chacón, C. (2009b). Acento y competencia lingüística: creencias de los educadores de inglés en formación. [Accent and linguistic competence: Beliefs of prospective English teachers]. Entre Lenguas, 14, 44-61.
Kubota, R., & Lin, A. (Eds.). (2006). Race, culture, and identities in second language education. Exploring critically engaged practice. New York: Routledge.
Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical Applied linguistics. A critical introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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