Q&A following webinar on 'International English and its implications for teaching and learning' by Elizabeth Bekes and Marcela Carrasco

19th May 2019

On 3rd February 2018 Elizabeth Bekes and Marcela Carrasco presented the following IATEFL webinar:

International English and its Implications for Teaching and Learning

English is the world’s second language: for many teachers it is their native tongue, for a lot more it is an additional language. The global nature of English requires new approaches. Instead of the elusive “native speaker”, the norm is increasingly the “fully proficient speaker” using an intelligible version of English spoken by interlocutors for whom English is the chosen means of communication.

In the webinar, we will look at what the spread of International English implies for teachers in several key areas, e.g. pronunciation, language proficiency and classroom methodology. The challenges may be different for native and non-native English teachers, but there is a paradigm shift that is worth reflecting on in order to align our teaching and learning with the new priorities.

If you would like to watch the recording, you need to be a member of IATEFL, but even if you’re not a member, you can read Elizabeth and Marcela’s answers to some of the questions and comments from those who attended the webinar.

Elizabeth and Marcela: Thank you for coming to our webinar. It was a first for both of us, so our management of the technology involved was wobbly at times (our moderator, Ania, did her best to help us though). Also, the children were playing outside Elizabeth’s house and not in Marcela’s. Thank you for bearing with us – hopefully you were able to listen again (if you wanted to) and had the gaps filled in.

We are sorry if we couldn’t answer all your questions. If you look at the references, you might find some answers there, and our book is also available (see end of post for details).

Questions and comments from the webinar

Q: The fact that the number of non-native speakers outnumbers native speakers of the English Language means that English does not belong to its owners any longer. If this is the case, how is it possible to integrate such an approach into our daily teaching practices without having to deal with political issues?

A (E): We believe that English as an International Language belongs to everybody, a little bit like Latin used to belong to everybody who spoke it in the Middle Ages. “Outnumbered by far” would be the correct expression as the ratio between NS/NNS is 1:4.

Your question is very important, because we need to decide how we treat English: is it a killer of other languages, or is it an enabler that brings people closer together. We think that our task is to teach English in the best manner we can (and, specifically, for international communication) and use this language to break down barriers, sensitising our students to global issues and giving them the tools to share their culture with people who come from other parts of the world.

Q: Can you enlarge on the concept of ‘glocal’?

A (E): In our understanding, it is a combination of ‘global’ and ‘local’. It means that you are rooted in your own, local context and learning English helps you to explain that experience to outsiders. My Achuar students did not need the image of the red phone booths or the black cabs in London. They needed to be able to talk about how they have large families (having 8-10 siblings is not uncommon), how they hunt and fish and what customs and traditions they have. Global means sensitivity that there is a world out there, one that starts with a flight for the Achuar, as you cannot walk out of the jungle or get out by boat. Global also means the tourists who come and visit and talk about other lands where it snows and there are houses with running water and electricity. And the beauty of it is that these two worlds can talk to each other, there is an acceptance and responsiveness on both sides.

Q: What about the textbooks when you consider English as Lingua Franca?

A (E): The fact of the matter is that, as Penny Ur says, you need a “standard” from which you can deviate. English as a Lingua Franca has some specific features, but it is so fluid that any attempt to describe it would inevitably fail. We think that it is probably a good idea to stick with the two major variants (AmE and BrE), especially in the written form, which is more prescriptive, and is required for written communication of any sort and academic writing especially. There are also situations where there can be no margin of error (air traffic control and medicine, just to mention two). English as an International Language does not imply that anything goes, randomly… It is more of an effort to come to an understanding and not insist on just one variant of English. Textbooks should be written following standard American and/or British English, but also presenting non-native speakers as possible models / interlocutors.

A (M): The content has to include other cultures from the expanding circle.

Q: Why is it that people who have completed their education from native English-speaking countries get better jobs and more respect than non-native?

A (E): There can be a number of reasons: people still believe that native speakers or near-native speakers are by definition better teachers than non-native speakers. To be honest, both Marcela and I think that as regards pronunciation (so long as it is intelligible) non-native speakers are the best models. However, we have always maintained that a decent level of proficiency (minimum B1, preferably B2) is required. That level of linguistic proficiency and good methodology can do wonders, especially if the teacher continues to be a lifelong learner. Here are some ideas from Robin Walker: https://youtu.be/497emkwf_fM

Q: If you wanted to study Japanese, would you rather study from an educated native-speaking Japanese teacher, or from a Swedish person who learned Japanese after the age of 16?

A (E): This webinar may go some way towards answering that question: https://youtu.be/wsBe3gCzJQI

During our webinar, Laura Patsko said this: I think this point about learners wanting to learn Japanese from a native Japanese speaker is an unrealistic/unfair analogy. This presupposes that a native speaker is the best representative of that language’s use. That may be true for Japanese, which isn’t widely spoken outside Japan, so one Japanese speaker might be reasonably claimed to be representative of the language use within that one homogeneous group, but English can’t be described the same way. It’s not spoken by only one relatively homogeneous group in one fairly small geographical location. So the logic being followed by a learner who wants an “educated native-speaking teacher” is faulty if the L2 in question is English.

Q: Do you feel there is any advantage to native-speaking teachers?

A (E): It depends what English is being used for. If your student wants to speak a version of English that is spoken by 2% of native speakers in the British Isles (Queen’s English), that would probably require a native speaker, but that native speaker would also need to be an excellent teacher. Even then your student won’t ever be able to speak like a native speaker, because she/he was not born and educated in that language community. High levels of proficiency are achievable, but that you can learn from a highly proficient and motivated non-native speaker as well. The issue is that for international communication, native speaker skills are not only not achievable, they are redundant and, on occasion, unhelpful. Marcela and I are happy with being proficient and proud of our multilingual backgrounds. Would a Director of Studies rather employ a native speaker with a Delta? Perhaps. But they would be missing out on the first-hand experience of learning English that a non-native speaker can offer…

Q:/Comment: Perhaps I’m biased, growing up and being educated in England, but I think native speakers have the advantage of a lifetime of absorbing and assimilating the subtleties and nuances of the English language in a way that is almost impossible for a non-native speaker to be able to understand and convey to learners.

A (E): Agreed. However, those subtleties and nuances are not only not required for international communication, they often actually get in the way. Since life is short, there is never enough time, especially in an EFL context, to get to those fine points. We must prioritise and teach the basics, strategies to overcome linguistic deficiencies, accommodate, listen out for key information, adjust and use any means possible in order to make yourself understood.

Q: /Comment: I agree also (with the previous comment), though I think it depends why someone is learning English. If it’s to live and work in the UK, the USA or another Anglophone country, an NS teacher is going to be a plus. If they plan to function in an international business environment with other non-native speakers, it may be that it doesn’t matter whether their teachers are NS or NNS.

A (E): We believe that even in the US or Canada, there are so many different kinds of accent that any that satisfies the intelligibility criterion should be perfectly workable.

Q:/Comment: I think it’s much, much easier for children to acquire reliable usage patterns of articles and noun forms than it is for adults because of the years of exposure to thousands of patterns. Many non-native speakers of English acquire these patterns quite readily, but this process usually begins at a very early age. Reliable usage of articles and noun forms in generalizations are notoriously difficult to acquire, so I believe that the age of the learner is very important.

A (E): Agreed. The issue is really that we do not need perfect use of articles and noun forms for English as an International Language. We are comfortable with ‘informations’ and ‘homeworks’. We know exactly where our interlocutor is coming from. She/He comes from a place where these nouns (in their first language) are countable. And nobody dies.

Q/Comments: Some adults do achieve native-like accents in a new language; it is possible.

A (E): Indeed. However, they are, by far, the exception. And, again, which native accent are we talking about? That native accent might be limited to a region or a certain social stratum. If reaching native level is such an impossible and demotivating goal, why don’t we spend our time on expanding vocabulary and giving our students tools to communicate without native-like “perfection”?

Q/ Comment: I think word stress is important, for example present (here) and present (a gift).

A (E): Agreed. Where stress is a marker of two different meanings, it is undoubtedly important. But when the word can be stressed in different ways without the loss of meaning (e. g., “satisfactory”), it is not a mortal sin. We would need to focus on something that is really important.

Q: Surely stress timing is essential for understanding natural spoken English?

A (E): Agreed. Students need to comprehend stress-timed English, but they may not be able to produce it easily. Instead of stress timing, I often teach chunks and insist that my students should hold those multi-word units together.

Q:/Comment : I disagree about word stress; my German-speaking students sometimes are hard to understand because of an incorrect syllable stressed. This is very confusing for listeners.

A (E): The fact of the matter is that the listener needs to be trained as well. It takes two to tango. Your students need to be good speakers AND good listeners.

Q: Phonetics transcriptions are very common in my context in Initial Teacher Education (for future EFL teachers) Do you think transcriptions are still a valuable task?

A (E ): I am absolutely fanatical about phonetic transcription (given the idiosyncratic spelling in English). Students can pronounce words without you! This does not imply that they will pronounce each and every sound correctly, but they will aim at approximation. You can find Adrian Underhill’s introduction to the phonemic chart below if it’s something you have trouble with: https://youtu.be/1kAPHyHd7Lo

Q/Comment: Chinese pronounce “Thanks” as “Sansique”

A(E): And once you understand that “thanks” is “distorted” in this manner, you have no problem.

Q: Intonation is not important?!

A(E ) : I would refer you back to Robin Walker’s session (see above). As per Jennifer Jenkins, differences like rising / falling and falling / rising are not important when using English as an International Language.

Q: I think perhaps this forum is about the many charlatan unqualified native speakers who masquerade as English teachers, but as the speaker said, today there are very qualified native speaker teachers who are very useful for students who want an authentic learning experience.

A (E ): Agreed. Silvana Richardson has a brilliant webinar on this: https://youtu.be/p3JN_ghpQfY

Q: Native English speakers with experience working in other cultural and language situations are just as capable, since they will also have been involved in learning other languages.

A (E): Agreed, but we mustn’t forget that non-native speakers have an unquestionable advantage over native speakers: native speakers have never ever learnt English as a second / foreign language!

Q: What is the difference between cultural awareness and intercultural awareness?

A(E ): I would say that cultural awareness implies that you are aware of the unspoken social and behavioural rules of your own community, while intercultural awareness means being sensitised to cultures other than yours. The problem with cultural awareness is that because it is ingrained, sometimes we are not consciously aware of the “rules”. They are “blind spots”, as it were, and we also believe them to be “universal”. This is where intercultural awareness comes into the picture: learning that there are other ways of showing respect, expressing gratitude or complaining, for example. Body language, physical distance, the concept of time and how time is managed are aspects of such an intercultural approach and understanding.

Q: What is the role of international proficiency tests in the context of English as a global language?

A (E): We think that this aspect is not fully reflected in the international proficiency tests that are being used now. Here’s an article that might give you some more info: Reimagining Language Competence: On professionalism by Ahmar Mahboob, University of Sydney.

Q: I’d like to know what should we focus on when teaching English in a village.

A (E): Well, all we would say is that focus on the local context. What would your students like to share if they ever met a foreigner? Do those village kids watch TV and have access to Internet? The latter could be a game changer.

Q: But I think non-culturally rooted language is almost impossible?

A (E): Agreed. This is why you need to teach students how they can become multicultural: responsive and accepting as well as ready to share their own culture. Kids, under natural circumstances, do this kind of sharing all the time.

Q: Were all students you mentioned adults?

A (E): No, my students’ age ranged from 13 to 18. They were Grade 7, 8, 9 of elementary and Year 1, 2, 3 of Bachillerato (secondary school education is 3 years in Ecuador). But I did teach about 20 adults at the eco-lodge in small groups.

Q: Did these students learn from textbooks?

A (E): In actual fact, I created most of my materials, but at some point I got hold of a book that was commissioned by the Pachamama Alliance. I had some copies made: the book was created based on the Achuar experience, even the names were those of the people around us (this, of course, changed later). The units in the books spoke about the Achuar communities, their lives, the way they received foreigners, etc. Not perfect, but very good material.

Q: Talking about language and communication as its first aim, how did you manage to teach them the very first words and idiomatic sentences so that they could express what they wanted to say?

A (E): If you were asking about the indigenous students, we started with very simple things, like: My name is …. I live in …. community. My father is a …. My mother is a … I have … brothers and sisters. I love my family and my community.

The Achuar students knew a little bit of the above, since I was not the first volunteer teacher there; we used Spanish, realia and images/pictures/drawings for the rest.

Q:/Comment: A very important pre-condition for learning is the student’s literacy in her own first language.

A (E): Indeed. I had further problems with my Achuar students, because their mother tongue was not the language of instruction, which was Spanish.

Q:/Comment: This webinar was usefully thought-provoking and I love the combination of both groups in your school, Marcela – both linguistically and cross-culturally. And Medgyes’ book ‘The Non-Native Teacher’ echoes a lot of what you say (I’m prejudiced as the publisher!)

A (M): First of all, I believe that the idea of proficiency is important. NNESTs have to have continuous professional development, which should include language training and language improvement. Both NESTs and NNESTs must have intercultural training and understand the background that the students have and the difficulties that they might encounter.

Q: What is your view about teaching English from birth and at the latest from preschool so that all children can be bilingual before they reach their teenage years?

A (E): I wish it was possible. However, it would require immense resources, because teaching English to very young learners is not very effective unless it’s full immersion. And if it’s full immersion, you’re probably talking about bilingualism. Even then you usually have one language that is slightly stronger than the other. Learning International English is not rocket science in a world where billions of people are multilingual and are very used to negotiating meaning by hook or by crook.

Q: Intercultural awareness & engagement are essential. What does that mean? How do we extract the components of those definitions that can become part of teacher training, and how do teachers actualize / operationalize them?

A (E): An example can be found in ‘The A-Z of Intercultural Communication’ by Rudi Camerer & Judith Mader, published by Academic Study Kit in 2016, which contains twenty-six photocopiable activities to raise intercultural awareness.

Q: As a teacher for an online school, I was wondering about the role of online learning in Ecuador. Is it growing and do you see this is a solution to some issues?

A(M): Online learning is growing everywhere, and Ecuador is no exception. Nevertheless, language teaching/learning is still difficult through this medium, especially at the beginning. Based on my experience, I still believe that human contact in language acquisition is more effective.

Q/ Comment: Thank you so much, for this inspiring and very relevant webinar. All of us teach not only mixed-ability groups but also groups composed of students coming from different cultures so we need guidance. What’s more, all of the groups which I teach are mixed-ability and 90% of them are composed of students coming from various cultural backgrounds. Thank you, again, and I will be looking forward to some more webinars in this area.

Elizabeth and Marcela: Thank you! What a pleasure and a privilege to have you all in our cyber space classroom! Take the time to research the students’ backgrounds. It will help you adjust to their needs and it will enrich your own knowledge.

Elizabeth Bekes is a Hungarian English teacher and teacher trainer currently based in Ecuador. She worked for the BBC’s Hungarian Section, spent three years in Ethiopia setting up English Language Improvement Centres, taught English in the Amazonian jungle and worked with refugee children in Greece. She writes regularly for EFL Magazine.


Marcela Carrasco is an Ecuadorian English teacher, who grew up in diverse places and cultures like Ecuador, Iran and the United States. She ran a highly successful language school, and is currently setting up a language unit at the Catholic University of Cuenca. Among her professional interests are identity, International English and multiculturalism.

Elizabeth Bekes and Marcela Carrasco’s book Why NNESTs? International English and the implications for teacher development (2017) is available as an e-book: www.intrinsicbooks.co.uk/title_by_title/nnests.html or as a physical book from Cambridge International Book Centre.

Thank you to all who attended the webinar and special thanks to those who provided questions and comments. Thank you to Elizabeth and Marcela for answering these questions for the IATEFL blog.