One of my responsibilities where I work is the recruitment of oral examiners. In fact, in our case they are not exactly “oral examiners,” as they simply act as Interlocutors, i.e., they are not expected to assess the students they are examining, but simply to use the “interlocutor framework” that the examination body provides in order to manage the interaction and elicit as good a sample of spoken English from the candidates as they can. The spoken interviews are recorded and the recordings are then sent to a different group of people, the markers, whose job is to decide whether the language sample elicited by the interlocutors fulfills certain pre-defined criteria.
What was not clearly pre-defined when we started offering these exams in Greece was the Interlocutor selection criteria. The examination body suggested that the Interlocutors should be teachers with some experience teaching the level that the students were being examined at. That made sense, of course, but I felt that it would not be enough in a country where (1) English language teachers do not always have a good command of the language; (2) English language teachers do not necessarily have much methodology training; (3) most of the stakeholders expect, or even demand, that the people who “examine” candidates in a spoken test should be BANA* natives. So my colleagues and I came up with some minimum professional requirements (which include a very high level of spoken English, a minimum of five years of classroom experience, and some basic methodology training) as well as a structured selection, training and assessment procedure, which we have so far used quite successfully to recruit and train more than 200 Interlocutors in the space of two years.
There have, of course, been problems: unavoidably, perhaps, some of the Interlocutors prove not to be as good in practice as we thought they would be when we trained and assessed them, there have been occasional complaints about Interlocutors not being helpful enough or courteous enough to the candidates and we have also had Interlocutors who realise they do not want to continue doing this either because of the working conditions or because of the nature of the work itself. Having worked as an Oral Examiner for other examination bodies myself for a number of years, and having worked with other Oral Examiners for a number of years, I can’t say I wasn’t expecting these problems: I have been in examination rooms with oral examiners who may have been perfectly normal people otherwise but would openly smirk at the candidates, or be outright rude to them, or be offensively unhelpful; and I know from first-hand experience how taxing it can be to have to travel to far-away provinces to examine candidates for 6 to 8 hours and then travel back home only to face another long examining day the following morning!
What I wasn’t expecting is the kind of fierce reactions we have been getting from some of the teachers who apply to become Test Interlocutors and whose applications are turned down. I would like to look at one such reaction today, because I find it symptomatic of a number of attitudes which, surprisingly, are still with us, which is why I feel they should be exposed and discussed. One prospective Test Interlocutor, who clearly did not fulfill our minimum requirements as she had not trained to be a teacher and had only taught English for two years, but happened to be a BANA native, decided that she would not bother to call or write to us at all, but sent an email to our “parent” organization in the UK, obviously believing that they would put some sense into our depraved nonnative brains. I quote, changing only some of the details that might give away personal information about the complainant:
I recently had a student of mine sit the B2 level exam in English. While attending the oral exam, in the city of [large provincial city], Greece, I realised that there were no native speakers present at all! When requiring [SIC] about this, an examiner told me, Greek speakers of English were better as the students feel more ‘comfortable’ with a Greek examiner when participating in the oral exam! Subsequently, I have in fact sent my C.V. to the Greek office in Athens, and have never received recognition in any form, or indeed an answer in any form. I do know the importance of native speakers in the oral examinations, if the said students plan to study in Britain. However, I have to say that I will seriously consider not sending my future students for [SIC] your examinations in the near future. As I will be teaching this summer in England, at the [name of a university], during the months of July and August, please feel free to contact me. I am open to solutions and a better experience of your examinations in Greece.
Let’s have a look at exactly what this person is saying and doing before we look at why she might think she is justified in saying and doing the things she is saying and doing:
- She is suggesting, at first indirectly by means of the exclamation mark at the end of the second sentence, and then very directly and emphatically (“I do know the importance of native speakers in the oral examinations”), that it is necessary for an oral examiner to be a BANA native.
- She is suggesting, by virtue of applying despite the minimum professional requirements being clearly stated in the ad she was replying to and on our website, that BANA natives need no other qualifications nor experience: they are, by definition, the right people for the job. She even explains that the reason why she decided to apply was precisely because she noticed there were no other BANA native “examiners”!
- To make her case strong (which makes me suspect that at some level she must know it is difficult to justify her stance), she falsely claims that she was told non-BANA speakers are preferred for some ridiculous reason; she also claims her applications (both of which were sent to us two days before the complaint was sent to our UK partners) were not acknowledged or processed.
- To make her case even stronger, she threatens to stop “sending students for” our exams; in other words, she is saying that, if it were up to her, the commercial success of the exam is dependent upon the examination body’s compliance with her demands and acceptance of her views.
- To make herself sound more credible, without risking mentioning her qualifications and experience, she mentions a UK university where she will be teaching summer courses, confident that the mere fact that a BANA institution has offered her summer work proves her professional worth as a language teacher.
- In a final patronising move, she offers her services to the examination body so that a better examination service can be offered in Greece, since, evidently, these non-BANA speakers cannot do the job properly! This must also be the reason why she did not bother calling or emailing us, the incompetent Greeks, but went straight to her compatriots to seek a solution to what she believes is a grave problem.
To say that I am angry at this person’s reaction, her ideas and her attitude would be an understatement. However, let me clarify, it is not that I have personally or professionally suffered because of it in the narrow sense. It is because I find it sad and dangerous that, even in this day and age, more than ten years after the ideas about nativespeakerism, the ownership of English and linguistic imperialism were first articulated and widely discussed in academic circles, in practice, the ELT community in Greece and many other non-BANA countries is still structured in such a way that voices like the one I have been writing about are still heard and listened to.
What angers me is not what this person says in her email, but rather, the fact that she feels she can say these things, and, worse, that the majority of teachers in Greece would even agree with her! In my experience, most teachers would expect Oral Examiners to be BANA natives, if possible recently imported for the purpose of conducting oral exams; most language schools will employ BANA natives without even enquiring about their teaching qualifications and experience; most parents will demand that their children are taught, at least once a week, by a BANA native; and both the parents and the children themselves have learnt that in a Spoken English examination the examiner must have a perfect BANA accent, so that, even if they are not a BANA native, they can pass for one; and then, of course, teachers like myself are made to feel that they have to make an effort to pass for BANA natives in the same manner that many male to female transsexual people are made to feel, for very similar ideological reasons, that they have to make an effort to pass for biological women! Sad, sad, sad!
*BANA = Britain, Australia, North America … or “the inner circle” countries where the majority of monolingual speakers of English live