Dispelling Myths

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  • Monday, 12 August 2013 09:45

Dispelling Myths

By Dr. David Nunan

ONE of the things that I enjoy doing is dispelling myths. My chosen field, TESOL, abounds with myths such as “You can only boast that you speak a language if you sound like a native speaker” or “You can never learn to speak a language to a high level of proficiency if you don’t start learning at an early age.”

The myth that I want to dispel here is common in Japan, and one that I come across time and time again. This is the notion that Japanese are somehow genetically predisposed not to be able to speak languages other than their own with any degree of proficiency. A related belief is that foreigners can’t learn Japanese.

I have two close friends, both born and bred in the United States to non-Japanese parents, who had no contact with the Japanese language until they were adults. Both studied the language – one initially in the United States, the other in Tokyo. When speaking on the phone, both can pass themselves off as native speakers of Japanese. It goes without saying that they are exceptional language learners, but they also debunk the myth that non-native speakers can’t learn Japanese to high levels of proficiency. I am not advocating that we should aspire to pass ourselves off as native speakers. I’m making the point that it is not an impossibility.

“I would not waste my money by taking language lessons from someone whose only qualification was the fact that they were a native speaker. Would you?”

Let me return to the main theme of this piece. Where does the myth come from that Japanese speakers can’t learn English?


To me it comes down to two factors: one has to do with the teacher and the other with the learner. The chances of successful language learning will be aximized
if the teacher is a professional. That is, he or she has been equipped through appropriate education and training to teach language. Chances of successful learning will be enhanced if the student has the right attitude. First of all, they must actually believe that they can succeed in learning English. If they believe
they can succeed, they will put to one side their fear of failure. What happens when we are struck with fear?


We either run away from the source of the fear or we freeze, unable to move or act. I had a conversation about this issue with my friend Emi Otsuji recently. mi is a linguist and professor of Japanese as a foreign language in Sydney. She argues that, correctly in my view, a large part of the problem has to do with the ‘myth of the ideal native speaker.’ “What,” she asks, “is English in the first place?” And when is it decided that one has learned a language?


Lurking behind these questions is the notion that out there somewhere is an ideal English spoken by a native speaker, and that until one has attained the proficiency of this mythical creature one cannot claim to be able to speak English. In fact, millions of Japanese use English every day for many reasons and with varying degrees of proficiency. Emi herself completed a doctorate in English, an achievement far beyond the capability of the average native speaker.


At the beginning of this column, I used the acronym TESOL. If you are not aware of it, the letters stand for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.


The term refers to the profession of a large group of individuals around the world who have the skills, knowledge and training to teach English. It also refers to the professional association to which many of these individuals belong, and which assists them to enhance their professionalism through seminars, ymposiums,training courses, a publication program and so on.

The TESOL International Association also acts as an advocacy body, arguing the need for language teachers with advanced education and training. It may seem odd that there is such a need. The widespread view is that all you need to teach English is to be a native speaker of English. There are many people teaching English around the world who, because they have a love or a gift for it, do so successfully without aformal qualification. But they are far exceeded by those who teach English without having much of a clue about what they are doing.

I would not risk my life by driving my car across a bridge designed by someone who was not an engineer. I would not submit myself to brain surgery at the hands of someone who was not a trained and skilled surgeon. And I would not waste my money by taking language lessons from someone whose only qualification was the fact that they were a native speaker. Would you? tj

The complete article is available in Issue #272. Click here to order from Amazon

Written By:

David Nunan

Tokyo Journal columnist Dr. David Nunan is a former president of the TESOL International Association, the world's largest language teaching organization and the world's leading textbook series author. Vice-President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Anaheim University Graduate School of Education, David is a world-renowned linguist and best- selling author of English language teaching textbooks for such publishers as Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Thomson Learning. His English language teaching textbook series Go For It is the largest selling textbook series in the world with total sales exceeding 2.5 billion books. David has been involved in teaching graduate programs for prestigious institutions like the University of Hong Kong, Columbia University, the University of Hawaii, the Monterey Institute for International Studies, and many more.



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