Native and Non-native Speaker Teachers: Prejudice, Privilege, and a Call to ActionPosted: May 10, 2016
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.
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.
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.