Overcoming the Myth of Neutrality

Like anyone else, a teacher is in part a product of his or her environment. Ellis (2016) emphasizes the “languaged lives” of teachers, in which their own experiences with language education “inform their identities and positioning as teachers of English” (p. 599). Van Herk (2012) writes that “each person’s sense of… identity at any time results from a combination of our own background and experiences and the way we relate to social expectations” (p. 96). In other words, the community, race, and class we are born, coupled with our experiences of culture and language, create certain predispositions in the way we look at language and the world. Van Herk points out that we may choose to conform to or challenge social expectations, but even our selection of linguistic forms (such as word choice and tone) can indicate our attitudes toward different ways of using language or toward our audience (pp. 96, 148). It would be impossible to strip off these things completely when we enter the language classroom.

Because educators cannot be emptied of biases and attitudes that make us who we are, it is important to engage in critical self-reflection (see Brookfield, 1995, 2009, 2014). As summarized by Miller (2010), Brookfield (1995) suggests four lenses which teachers should examine in their reflections: their personal teaching and learning experience, the perspectives of students (through evaluations or journals), feedback and advice from peers, and scholarly research. Each of these areas can help to reveal areas of practice that need to be adjusted to create safe and open spaces for the exchange of knowledge (Miller, 2010).

What do these things look like in practice? In my teaching, I frequently draw from my past experiences as a learner. I use teaching strategies that I liked and avoid ones that did not seem to foster growth. Of course, my students are not the same as me, so I watch for their responses and sometimes ask for their input in constructing course materials and activities. It is a work in progress, and feedback from my colleagues has been indispensable, particularly when I am questioning the most appropriate way to talk about a sensitive topic.

Beyond the four lenses, Brookfield (2009) also emphasizes the need for “ideology critique,” a process in which people seek to recognize ways that capitalism has shaped many of the beliefs, practices, and assumptions we unquestioningly accept, even though they endorse a system that promotes inequalities. Furthermore, Brookfield suggests that all people (even the most anti-racist) have been socialized to accept elements of racism, and so it is important to learn to recognize and challenge our own racism. He suggests doing this as a dialogical process with students, which requires willingness to show vulnerability on the part of the teacher.

There have been many times when I have stood in front of my class and questioned whether the examples I am using are neutral or progressive enough. One challenge is that many of my ESL students rely on stereotypes and terms that are considered inappropriate for comprehension. On one occasion, I explained that indigenous people are people who lived in North America before people came from Europe. Seeing blank stares, I expanded to talk about some of the points of indigenous cultures that they might be familiar with, trying not to draw on stereotypes; nevertheless, it was not until one student shouted out “Indians” that the others finally understood. It is a bit deflating when I carefully construct the most racially neutral examples I can, only to have students jump straight to stereotypes; however, it still opens the way for dialogue. In that instance, I took some time to tease apart the fact that members of indigenous communities are not from India; they represent many different groups, and the only reason they were ever called Indians is that European colonists made a mistake and decided it was okay. These are conversations that we as teachers need to have in our language classrooms.

The above example begins to show that it is not just teachers who aren’t neutral; it is the language itself. Seemingly factual statements like, “That’s not good English” or “You need to work on your grammar/accent” carry implications. They are actually reflective of a particular set of beliefs about language that value what is considered to be standard English—spoken by educated white people who have access to positions of power—over non-standard dialects or varieties, which are considered to be “primitive” or “degenerated” (Van Herk, 2012, pp. 79, 153). The preferential treatment of standard English continues to privilege educated white speakers and traps “non-native” or “dialect” speakers of English on outside (see Van Herk, 2012; Pavlenko, 2009). Existing ways of thinking about language that favour standard varieties serve to preserve a very specific balance of power.

In my next post, I will continue to explore the relation of language and power and where teachers come in, but for now, I will leave you some questions for reflection. How have issues of race and class been handled in your classrooms? What approaches have you seen that you found effective or ineffective, and why? I would love to hear from you!


Please note that the Ramblings of a Linguaphile site is currently being used for thesis research. Between June 14, 2017, and December 31, 2017, any comments made on posts to this site may be used for research purposes. The identity of the person who posted the comment will be kept anonymous. For more information about the study, please see the About page. By commenting, you consent to participate.




Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. (2009). The concept of critical reflection: promises and contradictions. European Journal of Social Work, 12(3), 293-304.

Brookfield, S. (2014). Teaching our own racism: Incorporating personal narratives ofwhiteness into anti-racist practice. Adult Learning, 25(3), 89-95.

Ellis, E. M. (2016). “I may be a native speaker, but I’m not monolingual”: Reimagining all teachers’ linguistic identities in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 50(3), 587-630.

Miller, B. (2010). Brookfield’s four lenses: becoming a critically reflective teacher. Retrieved from: sydney.edu.au/arts/teaching_learning/academic_support/Brookfield_summary.pdf.

Pavlenko, A. (2009). “I never knew I was a bilingual”: Reimagining teacher identities in TESOL. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 2(4), 251-268.

VanHerk, G. (2012). What is sociolinguistics? Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.


Palairet, J. (1755). Carte de l’Amérique septentrionale, 1754. [Londres] [Map]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/73695115/.

5 thoughts on “Overcoming the Myth of Neutrality

  1. Pingback: What’s the Standard? | Ramblings of a Linguaphile

  2. Mela Sarkar

    Yesterday I was given a new and, for me, illuminating way to think about what it means to be Indigenous. It may be helpful to others. Indigenous people are “the first humans to name the land”. Thanks to now-retired, much-missed McGill colleague Lise Winer for this! As she points out, it allows us to look for evidence in language of who first lived in a place, as well as in the usual archaeological sorts of places. And it applies everywhere on the globe where our species has lived.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Language is Messy (Concluding Thoughts on Translanguaging) | Ramblings of a Linguaphile

  4. Pingback: Multilingual Language Awareness | Ramblings of a Linguaphile

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