Native and Non-native Speaker Teachers: Prejudice, Privilege, and a Call to Action

When I worked in a private language school in London, I had a colleague – let’s call her Paulina – who stayed late every evening. I would see Paulina preparing lessons and grading papers as if her life depended on it. She was always the last to leave the school and often the first to arrive the next morning.

One day I asked her about this. Her reply broke my heart. She said, “My students found out I’m from Poland. They aren’t happy about being taught by a non-native speaker in England. I’m scared they’ll complain to the Director if my lessons aren’t perfect.”

Paulina spoke such good English that I’d thought she was British. She was dedicated, hardworking and very well-qualified. But, for some, it still wasn’t enough.

The world is full of Paulinas: brilliant non-native speaker teachers who, for no reason other than prejudice, are seen by some as second-class citizens in the world of English Language Teaching.

The Death of “Non-Native English Speaker Teacher”?

Maybe it’s time the term ‘non-native English speaker teacher’ (or NNEST) disappeared. Why?

*Because the term impacts negatively on these teachers’ confidence and self-esteem. It also unjustly privileges native speakers, whether they’re qualified or not, whether they know what they’re doing or not.

*Because the term breeds discrimination in hiring practices.

*Because the language learning industry has shifted from an attempt to produce native speaker clones to an attempt to produce competent bilinguals. NNESTs are often the best model of the latter.

In a plenary talk that was met with a standing ovation at the 2016 IATEFL conference in the UK, Silvana Richardson spoke about each of these points in detail. This post is designed to reflect on and reinforce her ideas.

Silvana Richardson, IATEFL 2016: photo from teflequityadvocates.com

Silvana Richardson, IATEFL 2016: photo from teflequityadvocates.com

 

The Deficit View of L1

There’s a tradition in ELT of seeing L1 (the student’s first language) in negative terms – sometimes called a deficit view. For decades, teachers were told not to allow students to speak L1 in the language classroom, and student errors were commonly assumed to result from L1 interference.

Teachers would also hammer away at pronunciation in order to ‘eradicate’ L2 features. One thinks of endless drilling of r and l sounds to Japanese students or attempts to get Europeans to produce th sounds in line with those in English. Many teachers now see this as a waste of time. If the problem area doesn’t hinder communication, it’s better to spend class time working on other things – new vocabulary or fluency.

Monolingual Teaching: Why?

The monolingual approach that precluded use of L1 was conceived and popularized in London, specifically at International House. It was regarded as effective and was then exported via teacher training all over the world. The question is whether this way of teaching actually suits other countries and cultures or whether it’s just more convenient for monolingual English speakers to teach like this.

Most classes around the world are linguistically homogeneous: the students all speak the same L1, whether it be Arabic, Chinese, German, etc. It’s hard to see how a knowledge of the students’ L1 can hinder the teacher, as long as she doesn’t conduct most of the lesson in this language.

Privileging Native Speakers

There’s an assumption in many quarters that it’s better to have a native speaker teacher. The argument goes: they have a stronger grasp of vocabulary, including tricky areas such as idioms and slang. They also provide a better model in terms of fluency and pronunciation. Finally, they have fewer difficulties with cultural understanding.

However, NNESTs have advantages, too. Having learned the language, rather than acquiring it naturally, they can identify potential areas of difficulty. They can make cross-linguistic comparisons, pointing out cognates and false friends. They have declarative knowledge: they actually know grammar rules because they had to learn them. Finally, NNESTs are in a better position to suggest effective learning strategies than those who never needed consciously to learn the language.

Hiring discrimination

When it comes to privilege, we also need to look at hiring practices. Even in 2016, there are advertisements for teaching jobs that specify a native speaker is required. (Some even say “white native speaker.”) This specification entirely disregards the notions of professionalism, qualifications and experience, and amounts to discrimination.

School owners excuse it by saying that students prefer native speakers. They say it’s purely a commercial, market-driven issue: without native speaker teachers, a school cannot compete. As with my colleague Paulina, it’s true that students in the UK and elsewhere occasionally say things like, “I didn’t come all this way to be taught by a non-native speaker.” But any decent school chooses its teachers by their professionalism and experience, not their L1, and any decent school director will defend her NNESTs as long as they are good teachers. A good language teacher, by definition, will be proficient in the language they are teaching.

On top of this, it’s something of a myth that students prefer native speakers. Richardson quotes research that tells us students value professional and personal qualities over the idea of “native-ness.” Students aren’t stupid. They can tell the difference between an unqualified native speaker backpacker and a real teacher.

A Call to Action

The issues outlined above should be considered by everyone involved in ELT.

*School owners need to rethink their hiring practices;

*NNESTs need to be aware of the tremendous benefits they bring to the classroom;

*native speakers working abroad should keep learning more about how their students’ L1 and culture influence their English;

*conference organizers should give more say to NNESTs by offering them the big stage: plenaries and keynote talks;

*students need to see their NNESTs as models of bilingualism and to value what they bring as experienced professionals.


20 Comments on “Native and Non-native Speaker Teachers: Prejudice, Privilege, and a Call to Action”

  1. I’ve met a lot of native English speakers who have never learned a second language and don’t understand the frustrations and challenges of learning one. I’ve also met a lot of non-native English speakers who were–not only had more empathy for the student–but also had lots of tricks and sticky explanations for fine grammatical points because they had to climb the same mountain that their students were climbing. In fact, the best ESL teacher I ever saw was non-native from China. I’m proud that our school employs quite a few very talented and wonderful non-native instructors.

  2. Claudio Mattos says:

    This is a new trend in our global society. English is not a product of the Center countries anymore as Phillipson (1992) says. The ELT enterprise has to adapt itself to today´s new paradigms.

  3. Sihem Ben Youssef says:

    Medgyes(1994) talked about inferiority complex caused by glaring defects in our knowledge of English; NN teachers can not be members of the native speaker community no matter how hard they try and no matter how long they study. I recently discussed the issue of “errors” from the Lingua Franca perspective in the ELT Algeria conference; one of the questions I wanted the participants to answer was: is native English the desired goal for you? The answer was amazingly yes for almost 40 NN teachers! (mainly from North Africa).This leads me to say that we,NN teachers are still struggling to accept our “own English” and are not yet prepared to move away from the codified languageand from the native speakerist ties.

    • JJ Wilson says:

      Really interesting, Sihem. I wish I’d been at your session! The conversations must have been fascinating! I think, where possible, we should reinforce the idea that the goal of language education is to produce bilinguals, not imitation native speakers.

  4. Schools should hire the best candidate; the one that has the best qualifications and experience and is the best “fit” for that school.

    But there’s a a risk of simplification here; all black sheep are sheep but not all sheep are black sheep. It is obvious that a good NNEST is far better than an inexperienced and incompetent native speaker, but this does not mean all NNEST are highly skilled and talented teachers and that native speakers are fundamentally less highly skilled or less talented.

    Quotas and positive discrimination are bad ideas, full stop. They lower standards of teaching overall in an industry where standards are already low in many private schools.

    Rather than lowering the bar to allow NNESTs to be as mediocre as native speakers, why not heighten the bar? Why not insist that all teachers, NNEST or native, hold a CPE or equivalent measure of their language ability?

    • JJ Wilson says:

      Thanks for posting. I agree with most of your points, but not with insisting on the CPE or an equivalent. “Lowering the bar to allow NNESTs to be as mediocre as native speakers” sounds very negative! I know loads of great native speaker teachers – far from mediocre.

      • Ania Kolbuszewska says:

        Why not go the other way, and require NESTs to hold a degree – precisely the requirement to become a language teacher in many countries. I’ve said again and again in quite a few discussions on or around the issue of NNESTs vs NESTS that as a profession we have quite a long way to go if we accept the fact that a CELTA is considered a qualification to teach – as great a course as it is. Btw, the use of the term “native” shows our helplessness – in the globalised world of today, how do you define a native speaker in the first place??

  5. Stuart Morris says:

    I agree completely with this article, I work in France and sadly for some friends of mine (excellent teachers by the way), French students, especially adults want a native speaker. I know for certain that some of my NNEST friends have a much better level of English than my friends back home in the UK, and are better teachers than some NESTs I’ve met while working here. In fact have in the past put NNESTs into the classroom and not said anything to the students, no-one noticed and even praised the teacher afterwards. On a selfish note though, as we all need to work, It does mean that I get offered jobs in university level schools because they want native speakers for the advanced students, and the reasoning is exactly as you mentioned, better pronunciation, a greater understanding of idiomatic expressions and more cultural knowledge.

    I also personally find that as my understanding of French improves I become a better teacher and as a french student of sorts myself, I understand and sympathise with the students more than those NESTs who do not wish to learn French.

    • JJ Wilson says:

      Great points, Stuart. Thanks for commenting. For very advanced students, I think a native speaker teacher has certain advantages, as you mention.

  6. Kat says:

    You are demanding changes in the ESL industry that will take more than ‘changing labels.” If it is “discrimination” then some will have to file lawsuits. Who is willing to do that?

    • JJ Wilson says:

      We’ll see. It only takes one. Change can come quickly and unexpectedly. As Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

      • Alexandra Villamizar says:

        I am ready to do so. My supervisor was asked to remove me from my teaching assignment because I am a non native speaker. Very disappointing. I cannot work in a place that offers programs of study such as Master of Arts in TESOL to student to whom English is not their first language, but at the same time the President and Owner of this University would not consider them for a teaching position because Non Native should not teach ESL in his institution. I am trying to collect as much information I can to take this situation to another level. It is pure discrimination !!

      • JJ Wilson says:

        Good luck with this. Yes, it sounds like discrimination.

  7. Robert says:

    I know how you feel. I’ve meet many a teacher from Poland who had literally no accent. If students were intelligent that would want these teacher to find out how they manged that for it is not an easy thing to do.

    • JJ Wilson says:

      Thanks for commenting, Robert. It’s not easy at all to become so proficient in pronunciation. And for most students it isn’t necessary (or possible!), as long as they can be clearly understood.

  8. Hossam Merghani says:

    Thank u Mr. Wilson! I really like to read ur writings that always are so beneficial to a lot of teachers. This article is so important since it touches very critical points. We, as non native teachers, face a lot of problems to be hired , and after being hired , we suffer from that damn discrimination in salaries , accommodation , the way of treatment, etc. I really thank u to arise this issue.

  9. JJ Wilson says:

    Readers, for more information on this issue, go to teflequityadvocates.com. This excellent website promotes equal opportunities for NNESTs and NESTs and has a wealth of resources and ideas.


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