Mama Mia: Let the substance shine through the language [Opinion]

The use of English is embedded in most learning and teaching practices. Even in flexible learning contexts, where learners are given autonomy on how, what, when and where they learn, the use of English is the primary medium for a learner to demonstrate their understanding and, ultimately, achieve academic success. 

Learners must use English in New Zealand (unless one chooses to do so in te reo Māori). So, what difference does it make if one is not a native speaker of English? Is it a disadvantage if one is not a native speaker in a flexible learning context?      

Hinted in the title of this blog, the answer is a big NO. I believe non-native English speakers/writers are not necessarily at a disadvantage because Normal English can convey one’s message perfectly.


All of us are on a learning journey towards Better English. For example, 

Normal English : Keep it as a secret.

Better English : Keep it under wraps. 

Terms adopted from Difference Between Normal English & Better English | – YouTube)

Words are so innocent and powerless, standing in a dictionary, but how potent they become is in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. This is the core of a writing/speaking component within education, especially when thoughts are mainly conveyed by words. As shown in the example above, there is nothing wrong with using Normal English when the focus of education is on more than the writing/speaking, at least not when the students or even the staff are in the learning process to be a better writer/speaker. After all, the core of flexible learning is never stop learning; the rate of change will never stop and neither should the learners.

As an academic developer for years and now an associate dean of learning and teaching, it seems like being a native speaker or not is always highlighted in daily learning and teaching circumstances/conversations, especially when using Normal English.

There is nothing right or wrong with focusing on the language aspect – good writing skills are necessary, but it has nothing to do with being a native speaker or not. Native speakers may know intuitively whether a sentence is grammatical or not, but they usually cannot specify exactly what is wrong and very possibly they make the same mistakes in their own speech or writing. In other words, Better English writing/speaking evolves from practices and perhaps experiences, especially when there are different sets of skills for different types of writing (e.g., a blog post is written differently from a journal article) or speaking (e.g., a daily conversation is quite different from a speech). This aligns with the notion of ‘being adaptable’ in flexible learning. This is particularly when learning is creation not consumption and knowledge is not something a learner absorbs but creates as time passes. Perhaps Normal English is the starting point for Better English.

So, whenever one doubts another person’s English writing/speaking abilities as a non-native speaker or when you receive comments because you are not a native speaker, do take it as a compliment (especially the latter) because:

  1. you clearly possess one or more than one other language and the people who comment may not;
  2. it seems like the only recommendation for your English is that you are not a native speaker.

Again, good writing/speaking skills are essential as they capture your thinking but do not let the notion of being a non-native put you down. Just like ABBA, they are Swedish, but their most famous songs are all in English, and their accents and the way they wrote their lyrics are not a detraction. Similarly, your writing/speaking will shine if you have brilliant ideas and scholarly contributions, even in Normal English. Better English is a bonus, but it is still meaningless without the substance.

A/P Kwong Nui Sim

Associate Dean Learning & Teaching

Sydney International School of Technology and Commerce