The local and the “foreigner”

A short while ago there’s been a discussion on the blogosphere related to the treatment given to foreign speakers in detriment to local teachers. I’ve read lots of blog posts in that area and chose not to say anything for myriad reasons. The most important reason is that I haven’t been to any of the conferences that people were talking about. As a matter of fact, it’s been a while since I last could attend a major ELT conference. The last big conference I attended was the national Braz-TESOL in 2006, when I was the Master of Ceremonies together with a very good friend of mine. We had to make sure all was ready for plenary speakers and even our workshop was cut short from a 90-minute hands-on workshop to a 45-minute hands-on (???) talk. But that was not an issue. In that conference, all were treated equally and all parties were open to all (as far as I know, at least). Needless to say, arrangements were made to host foreigners, but nothing particularly special. I had the chance to meet and take pictures with lots of people I’ve always admired in the profession and whose faces I used to replace with book covers, if you know what I mean. 🙂

However, I don’t want to discuss that here. What made me think about writing this post was a short period of time I spent with some former teachers of mine this afternoon. Just like I hold some of the people I met in very high esteem, like Scott Thornbury, Penny Ur, Luke Prodromou, and many others I had the chance to meet and briefly talk to, I’ve also always held my own teachers in very high esteem. This afternoon I was in the teachers room when two of these high-school teachers started discussing assessment. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay until the end of the discussion, but it was a lot of fun for me to be there listening to them. Actually, this was the highlight of the afternoon. I really haven’t got the chance to sit and talk to people like H.D. Brown, Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury, Ken Wilson, Luke Prodromou, Luke Meddings, Lindsay Clanfield, Penny Ur and others who are considered the big names of ELT. At least nowadays I have the chance to follow them on twitter and read their blogs, interact a little bit here and there, but because of all this media revolution, I’ve also got to know lots of other people I’d be dying to meet in person and sit and talk to. I could go on and on saying names, as they are the vast majority of my PLN and the ones I’ve learned a lot from whereas the names I mentioned above were the ones I knew (among others) before I joined social media. But what about the other people? What about the ones right next to you? Just like I’ve learned a lot from the people whose names I deliberately (as this truly illustrates the arguments I’ve put forth) chose not to mention, the same seems to happen outside web 2.0.

I’m fortunate enough to work very closely to my primary and secondary school teachers. These are people who have been working in the field for more than 25 years, and even though they haven’t written any methodology books in any of their area, they’ve still got so much to teach us. Many times I’ve sat down next to them on purpose to exchange ideas about teaching. If they had taught me a lot when they were my teachers, you can’t imagine how much more they teach me nowadays. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and the fact that nowadays it’s just so easy to get in touch with people overseas that some people end up overlooking those who are right next to them. There are many people who aren’t on the blogosphere due to lack of time or maybe because they simply don’t feel the need to be here, nor do they feel the need to join twitter. Some people may say they’re passing out on a great opportunity to learn more, but a 2-minute conversation with them will easily show they haven’t stopped in time and keep learning their own way. And the best thing: they’re right there. It’s very easy to talk to them over a cup of coffee.

I’ve already felt like one of those who are “taken for granted” for being a ‘local’. For instance, sometime we take our staff to workshops which take place in Brasília. And sometimes all the presenters do is repeat, to a much simpler extent, what had been discussed over the course of a week during our training sessions. However, this time teachers leave the lecture saying they were impressed and that what was said was particularly clever and that now they’d give it all a try. Well, to be perfectly honest, I guess it’s better that someone can instill this on them. If they need a foreigner to do so, fine by me. And this seems to be true of many different areas. For example, a friend of mine is a wonderful musician. He used to be invited to play in all sorts of festivals in Brasília and nearby cities when he lived in São Paulo. However, as he had lived in Brasília for a long time, he moved back to Brasília. Suddenly, all of those invitations disappeared. When I talked to him, he said he’d heard from music producers that now he was a local musician, and as such, it wasn’t that appealing to invite him. When he moved back to SP, all those invitations magically popped up. Weird, huh?! And this very afternoon, I had a talk with one of my former teachers whose wife is an artisan. She’d been advised to do something outside Brasília as this would help her work locally. Call me naïve, but I guess the idea of the available local versus the foreign expert is slightly more complicated than I thought.

Shall I do a Shelly here? I hope she doesn’t mind…

Challenge: Find a local #hiddengem and share some thoughts on education, teaching, learning and what have you. How much do you think you can learn?

7 thoughts on “The local and the “foreigner”

  1. Hi Henrick,

    Glad you wrote about this. Like yourself, I also refrained from writing my comments when the topic arose as I thought that it was far too complex. But yes, I would agree with you that a difference is made between local and international. But I actually think that we ourselves are sort of to blame for this…I think that some of my points might peeve some people, sorry. But this is where I stand (for the moment anyway).

    I’d like to highlight 4 main points to justify my line of thought:
    1) I think that on the whole Brazilians have an inferiority complex as regards their own command of the English language. We have this thing about being non-NESTs. I probably interview close to 100 teachers per year looking for a teaching position and you can’t imagine how many apologise for not speaking English with a “British accent” or something close to this. Who said there is such a standard? So, unless we demistify this ourselves, we will be continuously caught up in this vicious circle…
    2) So this sort of brings me to my second point: unless we demistify the first point, Brazilian non-NESTs will never get the plenary slots at a Conference. (Unless of course it is an Academic / University conference, where we have our own “National” gurus…very few of whom are known outside Brazil…but there we go….).
    3) And on the issue of becoming known outside Brazil, well, I actually think there is a longer path to tread, but we may be getting there. When you become involved in the publishing world, your work becomes known and you join the ranks of the “invited /guest speakers and presenters” backed by an international publishing house. Okay, how many Brazilians are book authors / writers for ELT materials? Not many. Those who are are simply superb, but there is very little visibility of this group in the ELT publishing world. Is it because publishing houses think these people won’t draw in the crowds? Hmm, I have a funny feeling this is indeed the case. However, I do think that with the advent of web 2.0 and this increased exposue we have on the web, this will indeed help change things considerably. Give it a few years…
    4) My final point (finally some of you may be thinking…) is that I actually really enjoy going to conferences and listening to all the ELT experts whose materials / books I devoured when I trained to become an ELT professional. But I love the fact that web 2.0 has broken down barriers and torn down walls which may have existed or not (or is it just a question of our own professional maturity which now allows us to share ideas with professionals we hold in high esteem?). The world has changed, and all these changes we so often discuss as educators are also affecting our own professional relations. So, if I go to a conference such as IATEFL (which I went to) or the Braz-Tesol National Convention (which I hope to go to), or the 9th ABCI 2010 Conference (which I am lucky enough to be organising this year), I love to watch the well know “international” speakers, but I must say that it is by watching the talks given by many “local” teachers that I get a good idea of how the ELT profession & market is growing / developing within our Brazilian context (obviously at a conference such as IATEFL you do get a fabulous window into the world, which is also fundamental for us) I understand the latest pedagogical tendencies and I get a great glimpse of state-of-the-art approaches and possibilities in the ELT classroom. So, for this purpose “local” is more important to me than “international” and I actually get angry if these presenters aren’t given the recognition and merit that is due to them.

    So, I will back your #hiddengem campaign 100% and will start tweeting about Brazilian #hiddengems – be they English language school teachers or state / municipal school teachers. Tell me how we go about it and I’m in!

    P.S. – My post is massive, sorry, got carried away!

    1. Hi Valeria,

      Phew! I finally had some time to get back to the online world after an extremely busy week! It was killing me that I didn’t get to reply to your thoughtful comment!

      I agree with pretty much all you said. So here are a couple of comments on your comments:

      1. I totally see your point there, and it seems to me that sometimes people don’t know the difference between accent and intelligibility. Last time I checked, very, really very few people can learn a foreign language and have no accent whatsoever. Having an accent is fine, as long as you do understand and is capable of using certain segmental and supra-segmental features of L2 in your speech. This doesn’t mean you’ll drop your accent altogether.

      2. Not only do conference organisers need to demystify this, but also conference goers. One of the posts (Jeremy Harmer’s one, if I’m not mistaken) said it nicely. There’s a tendency for us to check the names of speakers and guest speakers before we actually pay the price to participate in it. This is, obviously, the result of hard work and sound ideas which were given recognition. I myself am considering attending the Braz-TESOL or the ABCI, and I obviously take into account the big names who are going to be there. However, one thing I also do is check the other names who are going to be there. We can definitely find some local hidden gems if we take our minds out of the idea that only “big names” are worth seeing. I’ve seen plenaries and workshops I hated being presented by those “big names”. And I’ve already pretty much given up on certain names after attending their workshops four times and repeatedly seeing the same old things on stage. However, a funny thing happened to me once. I was presenting at the regional Braz-TESOL in Goiânia. Duirng the coffee breaks, I overheard people saying they’d be attending my workshop simply because of my name – not because I’m a big name, far from that. However, they though I was a foreigner because of “Henrick Oprea”, which is definitely not a Brazilian name. It worked well for me, but I just wonder how many times these conference goers miss out on wonderful opportunities by not even getting to read the abstract of the presentation based on the name of the speakers.

      3. Absolutely! The advent of web 2.0 does allow for the discovery of different people and ideas. Hopefully, a couple of these will join the big scene. It’s certainly a big asset, but, as you said, there’s a long path to tread. The funny thing, though, is that it seems to be a catch-22 situation. In order to become published and/or invited to speak at conferences, one needs to be published so that he or she will attract the crowds and allow for conferences to actually exist. On the other hand, one will hardly ever be published if one has not had the chance to expose his or her ideas to the public, which can be done by presenting in conferences, for instance. Going back to the beginning, the more involved I become in the blogosphere, the more “new” people I get the chance to meet and read. It’s the diversity and the “equality” that we get on blogs that thrills me. Obviously, it would take a very long time for me, for example, to get a readership as big as any of those blogs written by well-established and worthy authors. This was never the point in the first place. The point is the growing number of people I get to meet and interact with, which definitely broadens my horizons much more than if I kept reading the same people. The vast majority of my RSS feeds in my reader are made up of people whose names were totally unknown to me when I first joined the blogosphere, and these are the people I learn the most from these days. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the comments and the interaction that takes place in the comments.

      4. My previous comment did talk a bit about this. One final question I could make, though, is why are there so many international speakers praising local speakers? It seems to me they’ve already understood the value of sharing common cultural aspects and difficulties when learning a foreign language with the people you’re trying to teach. I mean, NESTs want to recognise the non-NESTs, but non-NESTs still feel they’ll never be as good as NESTs. The foreigners understand the importance of the context in the teaching/learning environment, I just hope non-NESTs will reach this point soon enough. So many good people out there who are afraid of speaking up…

      Gee, I don’t really know how we could go about and make it an online movement. The #hiddengems hashtag is taken by a lovely initiative put forth by Darren on this blog post. Perhaps we could find an alternative hashtag to use on twitter and share it with local teachers and see how far it goes. Any suggestion for a hashtag? #localgems, maybe?

      I guess I got carried away too! But that’s the whole point of commenting, right? 🙂


  2. I completely agree with you. Looking far, we sometimes overlook valuable things within our reach. There are many teachers with vast experience and wonderful ideas. The problem is they don’t feel like sharing, or if they share, it’s in their small circle of fellow teachers. What a shame. How can we discover a talent this way? How can we invite such person to be a plenary speaker?

    I believe that foreign speakers are not necessarily always considered better than the local ones. They are used as a marketing tool (no offense to foreign speakers) to attract attention. Apart from that, it’s always good to have an international view on some matters. Besides – don’t you like to listen to a beautiful foreign accent? I do. Specially a British one.
    Could you help me with some big names of ELT in Brazil?

    1. It’s always nice to have a chance to put one’s English to the test while having a conversation with a foreigner. No matter how long you’ve been doing this, it’s always a chance to pick up a new expression or work on pronunciation. And, yes, I agree with you on the marketing tool issue. After all, they’re the ones who attract the crowds. What shouldn’t happen, though, is people only attending workshops presented by foreigners or ‘big names’. Perhaps there’s much more chance of interaction and growth when you attend sessions of ‘local’ teachers as they’ll probably have more time to interact with others. What strikes me as odd is that usually it is the foreigners who keep telling us to pay more attention to the local teachers, but we insist on not doing so.

      And you raised a very good point there. There are people who hide or don’t feel like sharing. Well, I guess we can only try our best to talk them into doing a presentation or something like that. Tough, but we never know, right?!

      Well, your last question is really hard to answer. I know of a professor at Universidade de Brasília (UnB) who is considered to be quite big when it comes to CLT. If I remember correctly, his name is Almeida Filho. Even though there are lots of people I look up to in Brasília, I can’t think of any who can be considered a ‘big name’… and I don’t think they’re unwilling to share either. Perhaps good people are always snowed under with work and choose to prioritise other things. Or at least so I like to think. 🙂

      I’ll ask that question to other readers: any Brazilian ELT big name you’d like to share?

  3. What a thought-provoking post, Henrick and one I definitely had missed because it was from before I got to know you and your blog! Valeria’s very right in suggesting that the points-of-view you present on your blog, though Brazilian, appeal to a wider audience and resound in my ears, at least.

    I think this local vs international exists everywhere, likely. Somehow, a speaker traveling to town to present at a local conference seems prestigious, almost no matter who it is. You? Coming to our little conference? Fantastic! I’m sure we’re all subject to this. Thanks to lack of funds, however, we are also lucky to have conferences featuring only local teachers, and everyone realises that greatness exists here too.

    As for the Brazilian exposure, aside from students, it is through blogs and Twitter than I have come to know many great Brazilian educators, like yourself, and feel that Brazil must be bursting at the seams with some wonderful, insightful and knowledgable ELT teachers. I only look forward to getting to know more of you!

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