And you know what else, she’s a Carioca

I was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro. Now that’s something to be proud of: not only did I survive (mostly unscathed) one of the world’s most dangerous cities, but I also get beaming smiles and even hear some bossa nova tunes when I tell foreigners that’s where I’m from. So being from Rio is a good thing. Or maybe it’s neutral.

Or so it should be.

You see, I’m also an English language teacher. And here is where being from Rio starts to feel somewhat weird: my hometown screams *non-native speaker of English*. So I may be saying something positive/neutral about myself — put bluntly, just my mother’s whereabouts when I popped out — while in the back of people’s mind, there might be that negation prefix *non* indicating that something isn’t quite what it’s supposed to be. (If you haven’t yet, please watch Silvana Richardson’s IATEFL plenary on this topic!)

Indeed, I was a monolingual speaker of Brazilian Portuguese until the age of 10.5, when my parents enrolled me at a language school: I had 50-minute lessons 3 times a week, and later one hour and a half twice a week. Nothing fancy like those bilingual schools that seem to be everywhere nowadays… If you want to use Krashen’s terms, I learned the language, I didn’t actually acquire it.

Except I did acquire it. (Sorry, Krashen.)

On the other hand, maybe it’s only an impression; maybe nobody really thinks negatively of “non-native” when I say “I’m from Rio”; maybe it’s all in my head. You see, I was never discriminated against for being a non-native speaker of the language I chose to teach. When applying for jobs in Brazil, I always got them. Never was I not hired because they favored an unqualified native*. So I’ve faced no prejudice, right?
Or have I?

  • Come to think of it, in my first job, the unqualified natives** got to teach the higher levels and I did my fair share of teaching the verb “to be”. Why’s that?
  • Those native speaking colleagues of mine also tended to compliment me on my English, even though I never asked for feedback. I thanked them, of course. I knew they meant it in the nicest possible way, and in fact my insecure young self could use the encouragement. However, that used to bother me a little, mainly because they didn’t seem to compliment each other’s English. I couldn’t help but feel a bit condescended to, as if they were unconsciously putting themselves in a position of my examiners instead of the equals we were (in terms of job description at least).
  • I have noticed that, when native or non-natives admire a non-native’s English proficiency or accent, compliments are often followed or preceded by “You’ve lived abroad, right?” You know, because that’s apparently the only way you can learn a language well if you were born elsewhere… #not
  • I heard from many friends that I should have taken my British husband’s last name to make my career easier. It doesn’t matter that I had 15 years of experience under my maiden name. “Natalia Guerreiro” doesn’t roll off the English-speaking tongue. (And honestly? I think they might be onto something. “Natalia Kirkpatrick” would have probably been more marketable.)
  • I don’t remember if it was Simone de Beauvoir, Pierre Bourdieu, Paulo Freire, or maybe it was all three of them who said that any kind of prejudice or oppression is not complete until the dominated learn to oppress themselves. A discriminatory society needs the oppressed themselves to believe they’re less worthy and deserve the second-class treatment they get. And I must confess I used to believe it. For instance, when I did my M.A. abroad, many people suggested I apply for English language schools there, in an English-speaking country. I never did. Feelings of inadequacy and the fear of failure prevented me from experiencing something that could have possibly been great for my career. In fact, for years I was very insecure about my English. Because, you know, it’s not “my” language.

Except it is. I use it. It’s mine, too.


If you would like to read more about this subject, check out TEFL Equity Advocates.


*For the sake of brevity, here I do not problematize what makes a “native speaker” of the language. I understand society is much more complex nowadays and some people are hard to “label” as native or non-native, but the fact remains that such categories are used to discriminate. Plus, I quite gladly consider myself a native speaker of Portuguese, which does not mean, of course, that I know Portuguese better than people who have dedicated their lives to studying/teaching the language.

**Not all native speakers are unqualified for teaching the language, of course. It’s just that the ones I am referring to did in fact have no qualifications for the job. And of course I would not have construed as prejudice if a school hired a better qualified or more experienced native over me.

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Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

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