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# President's Message: October/November 1999
David C. Nunan, President of TESOL, 1999-2000, takes a critical look at the four criteria for a profession discussed in his previous column.

TESOL Matters Vol. 9 No. 6 (December 1999/January 2000)

David C. Nunan, President of TESOL, 1999-2000

English has always been characterized by diversity -- diversity of usage, accent, terminology, and even grammaticality. This diversity hasn't always been seen as a strength. In 1965, Porter, speaking about my own regional variety, had this to say: "Wealth cannot taint it nor education undo it/It is an ineradicable and perverse accent, signal at once of the possible strengths and certifiable weaknesses of the Australian character." Other regional and national varieties have also been subjected to criticisms of one kind or another. This diversity reflects the global spread of English as the language of trade and commerce over several hundred years -- a trend that has been accelerated by globalization, the growth of technology, and the place of English at the heart of popular culture.

Despite an explosion in the growth of English as a global language, and the increasing fragmentation and differentiation of regional and international varieties of the language, some basic distinctions remain -- English as a first language (L1) is clearly different from English as a second language (L2). Or is it?

In his opening plenary at the 1999 TESOL Convention in New York, David Crystal gave an illustration of the growing uncertainty surrounding the terms first language and second language. Imagine a couple who meet and marry in Singapore, the male from a German and the woman from a Malaysian L1 background. The couple subsequently move to France for employment purposes. Eventually, they have children and raise them through the medium of English. In which contexts and for whom is English an L1, an L2, or a foreign language? What or who is a native speaker, and whose English do they use? This situation is neither fanciful nor unusual. In becoming the medium for global communication, English has detached itself from its historical roots. In the course of doing so, it has also become increasingly diversified to the point where it is possible to question the term English. World Englishes has been used for quite a few years now, and it is conceivable that the plural form Englishes will soon replace the singular English.

Another widely accepted distinction in our field is between English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL). The term ESL is used to refer to situations in which English is being taught and learned in countries, contexts, and cultures where English is the predominant language of communication. The teaching of English to immigrants in countries such as Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand typifies ESL. In these countries, individuals from non-English-speaking backgrounds may speak their L1 at home, but will be required to use English for communicating at work, in school, and in the community in general. The term is also current in countries where English is widely used as a lingua franca. These include the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong (where its usage reflects the region's recent past as a colony of Great Britain), Singapore, and India (where the populations speak a range of other languages and where English is a therefore a conveniently "neutral" communicative, political, and social medium).

EFL is used in contexts where English is neither widely used for communication nor used as the medium of instruction. Brazil, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Mexico are all countries where English is taught as a foreign language, either as part of the elementary and high school curriculum, or in private school or other educational settings.

The ESL/EFL distinction has been an important one in language pedagogy for many years because in each case the context in which the teaching takes place is very different, requiring different materials, syllabuses, and pedagogy. In most EFL settings, there is limited exposure to the language outside of the classroom and very limited opportunities to use it. The syllabus therefore needs to be carefully structured, and there needs to be extensive recycling of key target language items. In addition, the burden for providing the cultural dimension to the curriculum very much rests with the teacher. Teaching is also complicated by the fact that the teachers are usually nonnative speakers of English, and many lack opportunities to use the language or lack confidence in using it. In such situations, it is important for the materials to provide the sort of rich and diverse linguistic input that ESL learners encounter in the world beyond the classroom.

For many years, the ESL/EFL distinction has been widely used and generally accepted, and, as I have indicated above, it has provided a useful conceptual framework (although, in some contexts the term English as an additional language [EAL] is preferred). Nonetheless, I find the distinction increasingly problematic, for a number of reasons. In the first place, the contexts in which L2s are taught and used differ considerably, as do EFL settings. Teaching English in Japan, for instance, is a very different experience from teaching it in Brazil. Also impinging on the distinction is the growth of English as a world language (EWL). In fact, with globalization and the rapid expansion of information technologies has come an explosion in the demand for English worldwide. This has led to greater diversification in the contexts and situations in which it is learned and used as well as in the nature of the language itself. It has also provided many more opportunities for learners to use the language for authentic communication. English no longer belongs to Britain or to the United States. It is an increasingly diverse and diversified resource for global communication.

The foregoing may suggest that the uses of English in different contexts and for different purposes are neutral. However, the reality of day-to-day teaching and learning of English brings with it a series of interrelated social and political questions.

The teaching of standard varieties of a language cannot be divorced either from the role of the teacher or from the relationship between the teacher and the learner in this process. For example, is the language best taught by native speakers of one of the standard national varieties? Is their knowledge of their native language superior to that of nonnative speaker teachers? Will they also necessarily possess an insider's understanding of the culture of the target language that renders them superior to nonnative speaker teachers in helping learners toward such understanding? Alternatively, are nonnative speakers better positioned because of their insider's knowledge of the language of the learners and because, given the monolingual background of many native speakers of English, nonnative speakers have understood firsthand the processes involved in the acquisition and uses of English? Additionally, do native speakers bring cultural assumptions about pedagogy that do not fit locally and that nonnative teachers may again be better positioned to mediate? And, as far as language is concerned, is an authentic version of the language preferable to one that is pedagogically judged to be in the interests of learners (many of whom are likely in any case only to interact with other nonnative speakers).

In this piece, I have raised some significant questions that flow from the growth and diversification of English as a medium for global communication. I haven't offered answers, because I don't have any. My purpose is to frame some questions that continue to puzzle and challenge me in the contexts and situations in which I teach. What variety or varieties of English should I present to my students? What standard or standards of performance should I insist upon? In evaluating their performance, whose standards should I invoke? As the English language continues to diversity, these questions become more difficult to answer, and the task of identifying appropriate pedagogies, more challenging.


I am indebted to my coauthor, Ron Carter, for allowing me to use in this piece some of the material from a jointly authored chapter in our forthcoming book, The TESOL Handbook (Cambridge University Press).


Porter, H. (1965). The watcher on the cast-iron balcony. Brisbane, Australia: University of Queensland Press.

David C. Nunan, President of TESOL, 1999-2000