Dr. Nero: I was born and raised in Guyana, the only officially English-speaking country in South America. Most people may know very little or nothing at all about Guyana (except maybe for the Jonestown tragedy), so let me try to give the “Cliff Notes” summary of Guyana. Guyana is located on the northern coast of South America, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Venezuela to the west, Suriname to the east, and Brazil to the South. It is 83,000 square miles in size, and has tropical weather year round. It is a small nation – approx. 750, 000 people, many of whom have migrated to the US, Canada, and England. Guyana is a cultural and linguistic melting pot, as we have six different racial groups (the two largest groups being the East Indians – 52% of the population -- who are a descendants of indentured laborers brought from India by the British to work on the sugar plantations; and the Blacks – 40% of the population -- who are descendants of slaves from Africa). We also have Amerindians (the indigenous people – about 6% of the population), as well as small populations of Chinese, Portuguese, and Europeans.
In Guyana, we have what linguists call a “Creole Continuum” where everyday language use ranges from the most Creole forms (called “Creolese” by local people) to standardized Guyanese English. Typically, you’ll here more Creolese spoken among rural folk or those from lower socioeconomic classes with less formal education, and conversely more standardized English among urban, middle class, educated folk, but that is not an absolute. Most Guyanese move back and forth along the continuum depending on the context, topic, and purpose of communication, and often people speak Creolese as a marker of “true” Guyanese identity, or to show ethnic solidarity or difference. Creolese is often used for humor or in informal situations.
In my household, my parents were very different linguistically. Even though my parents were both from a rural village, my mother’s speech was much more Creolized than my father’s. My father is a truly British colonial man, and his speech and writing reflects that. So I was exposed to the full spectrum of language in my household.
I went to a very good high school – actually the top high school in the country. So, while getting very colorful Creole language from my mother at home, I was also getting a dose of British grammar school language and education as well. My generation was the first post-independence generation in Guyana. Guyana got independence in 1966 from the British (I was in high school during the 1970s). So, while there was an early attempt to introduce more Caribbean content into the curriculum during my time, we were still largely experiencing an entirely British curriculum – British textbooks, British exams, etc.
I developed an early interest in language at high school. I starting learning French at age 10, and immediately fell in love with it. The following year, I picked up Spanish. So, I chose the foreign language track in high school, and vigorously pursued language study at both “O” level and “A” levels (Note: These are British exams. There were two levels of British exams – the “O” level, meaning “Ordinary” level, taken at the end of your fifth year in high school. Then, if you passed O levels with a high grade, you could then apply to take “A” levels, meaning “Advanced” level exams a year or two later. Typically, you needed to pass at least five subjects at O levels to be eligible to take A levels). After graduating from high school, I worked for one year at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Guyana. I wanted that experience, as my first career choice was to become a diplomat in the Guyanese Foreign Service. However, during that year, I quickly realized the politics and economic problems in the Guyanese foreign service, so I thought maybe I can use my language skills in other diplomatic organizations such as the United Nations. With that in mind, I applied to college overseas, and I was accepted to Concordia University in Montréal, Canada to major in French and Spanish. So, I left Guyana in 1981 and moved to Montréal for college. I loved Montréal, except for the weather! You can imagine that I experienced my first winter at 19 years old! What a shock that was. Anyway, I graduated from college in 1984, then moved to New York to accept a job at Air Canada’s New York reservations office to be a customer service agent at the “French Desk”, obviously because of my French-speaking skills. However, I quickly realized that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life talking to passengers on the phone, and prospects for working at the UN seemed bleak, so I decided I needed to find a way to use my language skills, but in a multicultural setting, as I always loved language and cultural diversity. Also, I always enjoyed school, as I had a very positive high school experience. So, I decided that teaching immigrant children might be interesting since I’ll have a multicultural classroom.
So, this is how I came to be an educator. I decided to go back to school and pursue a Masters degree in TESOL, while I was working at Air Canada. I went to Teachers College (TC), Columbia University part-time for my MA in TESOL. I graduated from TC with my MA in TESOL in 1990, and immediately got my first teaching job at a high school in East Harlem, New York. I taught ESL – beginner, immediate, and advanced. I also taught two sections of French.
After teaching one year in high school, an opportunity came up to teach ESL writing in the English department at Long Island University (LIU), Brooklyn Campus. I was lucky enough to get the position. During my time at LIU, I became more committed to a career in academia, so I went back to TC and pursued a doctorate in Applied Linguistics. My dissertation focused on the acquisition of standard English by speakers of Caribbean Creole English (CCE). The interest in CCE came about because there were a growing number of students from the “English-speaking” Caribbean such as Jamaica and Guyana (Guyana is considered culturally Caribbean, even though it’s in South America) at LIU who were being placed in ESL classes, and I wanted to understand this phenomenon. It raised a number of interesting linguistic questions such as who is a “native” speaker of English? On what basis are placement decisions made for ESL classes? Is Creole English a separate language or a dialect of English? What are the appropriate pedagogical approaches for speakers of nonstandard varieties of English? These questions have fueled my research over the past 20 years, and I continue to wrestle with these questions and write about them.
After I left LIU, I taught at St. John’s University in their graduate program in TESOL/Bilingual Education from 1998 – 2007. Then I left St. John’s and joined the faculty at New York University (NYU) in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development in September 2007. I’m currently director of our unit in Multilingual/Multicultural Studies, which encompasses graduate and undegraduate programs in TESOL, Bilingual Education, and Foreign Language Education. It’s a challenging but wonderful position. We have a large program, approximately 200 students, about half of whom are international students, mostly from Asia. I teach graduate courses in Second Language Theory and Research, and Doctoral Seminars in Educational Linguistics, and World Englishes and Dialects in Education. So far, I’m enjoying being at NYU.
Ana Wu: Despite the fact that you were born and raised in Guyana, the only officially English-speaking country in South America, you wrote in "An Exceptional Voice: Working as a TESOL Professional of Color" that the combination of being immigrant and Black tends to create an assumption of nonnativeness, specially among White peers (Nero, 2006).
a. As an educator, how has this assumption affected your pedagogical practices?
Dr. Nero: One of the things I always do in my classes is to ask students to think about the idea of the “native speaker” and what that means. In my SLA class, I bring in readings about World Englishes, along with my own work, to show students that there are many types of Englishes and many types of native speakers. I ask students to imagine and write down what they think a “native” speaker “looks like” or “sounds like,” and you’ll be amazed at the responses I get, which reflect deeply held beliefs and attitudes. We have vigorous debate in class about the native/nonnative paradigm on which the entire field of TESOL is premised, and this helps students to see that “nativeness” and its corollary “nonnativeness” are constructs. I share my own linguistic background with students on the very first day of class so they can immediately think of these ideas in new ways, and my hope is that they will bring to their own practice a questioning stance, challenging assumptions in our field.
b. In the same chapter, you wrote about being an "exception" in the professional context, meaning attending to and living with a host of ambivalent (often contradictory) attitudes and expectations from students and colleagues alike (p. 25). What advice would you give to teachers who see themselves as being "exceptions" in their workplace?
Dr. Nero: First, be yourself. You can’t get into the rat race of trying to be the best at everything every time, simply because you’re trying to disprove the negative stereotypes associated with people of color. That’s a losing proposition. The best way to get respect is to be “normal” and “competent” at what you do. By “normal” I mean that sometimes you’ll do well, and sometimes you’ll screw up, and that’s okay. That’s what happens in the real world. The problem with having so few faculty (or professionals) of color, is that one person (the exception) is made to carry the burden of the group (for better or worse). So, you feel that if you screw up, it reflects badly on your entire group. That’s insane! At the same time, there is a reality out there that judges non-white groups differently, something that people of color are always aware of, but my attitude is…Do the best job you can, and stop worrying about being the exception. That’s what I do.
Ana Wu: You have done extensive research about language and identity, second dialect speakers and Standard English as a Second Dialect (SESD). We know that a variety of Englishes have emerged worldwide, yet current educational practices generally do not allow students' creole or vernacular varieties of English in the classroom.
a. What do you think about this practice?
Dr. Nero: This is something that I’ve addressed in my research. There’s no question that current educational practice still looks at anything outside of the standard language as unacceptable in the classroom. But that is a presentist view of language. If you look at what we call Standard English today, you’ll see that its spoken and written forms are changing as we speak. Language always changes, so we need to take a more diachronic view of language, and engage with its changes in the classroom. The changes to English didn’t happen by magic. It’s real people that change the language, and those “people” are in our classrooms. No matter how much we deny or discourage the existence of students’ vernaculars in the classroom, they are there. They don’t go away; they are part of students’ identities. Paul K. Matsuda calls this stubborn faith in “standardized English only” the “myth of linguistic homogeneity.” We can dispel this myth by engaging linguistic diversity head-on in the classroom – using students’ vernaculars and various World Englishes as springboards for literacy development; giving students opportunities to research linguistic diversity in their own communities; and using contrastive approaches to help students distinguish vernacular and standardized language features in helpful ways. Students know fully well the benefits of proficiency in standardized English. They don’t need any convincing of that. What they need are productive avenues to engage the rich linguistic repertoire that many of them bring to school. The classroom is the perfect place for that.
b. You have researched and documented cases of speakers of varieties of English being (mis) placed in ESL classes (Nero 2000 and 2001). How do you think we can better prepare prospective language instructors in teaching training programs to understand the nature of World Englishes and question stereotypes?
Dr. Nero: I think we must offer courses on World Englishes and linguistic diversity in all teacher training programs, not just TESOL or applied linguistics programs. The reality is linguistic diversity IS the norm in 21st century classroom, certainly in North America, and in many parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. To pretend otherwise would be to bury our heads in the sand. So, even the so-called “mainstream” teacher will have a number of students in her class who speak languages other than English at home. That’s already the case in New York City, and in many other cities AND increasingly in rural areas across the US. We should also encourage teachers to use literature by World English writers in their classrooms. Another thing we can do is to include study abroad components in teacher training programs where teachers study and live in the countries of their prospective students. This builds linguistic and cultural sensitivity to immigrant students, and gets teachers to see beyond stereotypes. I already direct such a program at NYU. We take teachers to the Dominican Republic (DR) for study abroad during the January intersession. This makes sense, given that New York City is home to the largest population of Dominicans outside of the DR. But teacher training on linguistic and cultural diversity cannot stop in graduate school. We need ongoing professional development workshops for teachers AND administrators (principals, superintendents, policymakers, etc.), and even parents on these issues. It has to be a comprehensive and sustained effort to do this right.
Ana Wu: You majored in French and Spanish, and taught ESL and French at a public high school. What were your strengths as a French instructor? What did you enjoy the most as an ESL instructor and as a French teacher? How different were your students' expectations?
Dr. Nero: Well, I guess you’ll have to ask my French students! In a way, the fact that I am not a native speaker of French was an asset. I could empathize with my students’ struggles learning French just as I did initially. Second, I love French as a language, so I always brought my passion for the language when I taught it. Also, because I studied in Canada, I was able to show students the differences between Canadian French and French from France. So, I exposed them to different varieties of French.
As far as being an ESL instructor in high school, most of my students at that time were Dominican. I had known very little about the DR back then, so one of the things I enjoyed was learning about the DR from them. They loved their country, and every opportunity they got to speak or write about it, they would do take advantage of it. I also really enjoyed the students’ optimism – they were new immigrants, and they had an abiding faith in America. They all said that once they mastered English, they felt they could accomplish anything in America. My husband, who’s American, always says that immigration by definition is an optimistic idea. The immigrant always believes s/he can do better in the new country. When I looked at my ESL students, I saw that. Many of my ESL students were from poor families, and had low levels of literacy in Spanish, but still had high expectations for themselves and for me. They felt that their ESL teacher could best help them to overcome the language barrier, so they were highly motivated. I hope that I was able to help them in some small way achieve their dream.
Ana Wu: Thank you for your time and for this insightful interview!
Nero, S. (2000). The changing faces of English: A Caribbean perspective. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 483-510.
Nero, S. (2001). Englishes in contact: Anglophone Caribbean students in an urban college. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.
Nero, S. (2006). An Exceptional Voice: Working as a TESOL Professional of Color. Curtis, A., & Romney, M. (Eds.). Color, race and English language teaching: Shades of meaning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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