Native vs Non-Native English Teachers: The intense debate in the hiring of English teachers

12 June, 2023

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Non-native English teachers are no strangers to teaching job applications that very clearly state their preference for natives. This unsubtle form of discrimination has been perpetuated for many years; however, more and more people are starting to question the true advantages of native vs non-native English teachers.

Let’s take a closer look at this controversy by discussing the advantages and disadvantages of native and non-native english-speaking teachers, why this myth still endures, and what can be done about it.

Native vs Non-Native English Teachers: An arbitrary division?

To begin with, classifying teachers into “native english teacher” and “non-native english teacher” implies a major disregard for any speaker who doesn’t belong to what has been called the ‘Inner Circle’ (Kachru, 1981) of the English language; i.e., the Anglo-speaking countries. Another unpleasant implication is that of the English teacher’s ethnicity, as Nuzhat Amin narrates in her articles (Amin 1997, 2001).

Broadly speaking, through various preconceived biases the “ideal” English teacher has come to be perceived as a white male who comes from the UK, the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

In reality, this could not be further from the truth; taking into account the widespread use of English (which can be considered a lingua franca by now), it comes as no surprise that it is estimated that 80% of the 15 million English teachers worldwide are not native speakers (Floris & Renandya, 2020.) 

Leaving aside linguistic imperialism, the concept itself of “native speaker” is slowly becoming obsolete, as more and more people are bilingual or multilingual. With more varieties of English developing on account of the enormous number of ESL speakers, it is essential not to teach students just one single accent or model, so ESL students can choose which one is most appropriate for their background (Moussu & Llurda, 2008).

Another aspect to consider is the context in which students are learning English. Traditionally, these contexts have been divided into English as a Second Language (studying English while living in an English-speaking country) and English as a Foreign Language (studying English in a non-English-speaking country).

It has been suggested (ibid, p. 322) that native speakers will work better in EFL contexts, because they have a unique cultural knowledge, whereas non-natives will be better teachers in ESL contexts, because they have plenty of multicultural experience. 

Leaving these controversial labels behind, there are advantages and disadvantages when studying with native and non-native teachers of English, and each version of the language might be more appropriate in different contexts. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of studying with each kind of teacher. 

Native vs Non-native english teachers: an arbitrary division?

The native speaker (NS) English teacher

Students can potentially expect the following benefits from classes with a NS: plenty of speaking and listening practice; the chance to learn up-to-date vocabulary and grammar; loads of new words, collocations and idiomatic expressions; and interesting, dynamic lessons with a person from a very different cultural background. So, it’s no wonder many people choose foreigners as their English teachers, especially if they want to work on their accent as well as on their listening skills.

Yet, there are some potential downsides to taking lessons with a native speaker, in particular if they haven’t studied to become a teacher. It is common for a NS to teach abroad by virtue of having an unrelated degree from a top university, or to only take a short teaching course. However, is this really sufficient?

Secondly, if the NS is monolingual, the language barrier might make it more difficult for the teacher and the student to bond. This could be even worse when the student does not have a good grasp of the English language. Therefore, neither the teacher nor the student will be able to develop good rapport, resulting in a potentially frustrating experience for both parties.

The biggest issue is that just because you can intuitively speak a language, it does not mean you can adequately explain it. Personally speaking, when I was asked to teach my first language (Spanish) in Germany, I did not feel at ease. I have some technical knowledge of Spanish, but I have spent far longer honing my teaching strategies for English. 

Finally, the NS may not understand the struggle that learning a second language implies. As Seidlhofer says (cited by Moussu & Llurda, 2008): “Native speakers know the destination, but not the terrain that has to be crossed to get there; they themselves have not travelled the same route.”

Native speakers did not go through the process of second language acquisition, so they might be less able to empathise with the obstacles their students face. Therefore, even though a NS might have an innate feel for the language, they usually have to brush up on their grammar before thinking of becoming a teacher.

When I took the CELTA course in 2019, there were ten NNS and two NS candidates; the NS had a harder time with the theoretical lessons about topics that, for us non-natives, were almost second-nature, such as modal verbs or phonetics. 

The non-native English teacher (NNS)

On the other hand, despite the prejudices against people whose first language is not English, there are many upsides to studying with a non-native english teacher. First, they also had to go through the process of learning English, so they understand their students’ feelings, needs, motivations and insecurities. What’s more, since they had to learn English in depth, they might have a better grasp of its rules than a NS so they are more able to explain the mechanisms behind them. 

In fact, in many countries English is taught at schools from an early age, so they might be perfectly able to teach it even though they were not born in an English-speaking country. Despite not having an innate knowledge of English, in many countries English is taught from a very young age. This comes with the added benefit of knowing what students struggle with.

Equally, to ensure that their graduates will rise to the challenge of teaching English, TESOL degrees must provide future teachers with plenty of up-to-date vocabulary, grammar and phonetics. One more thing an NNS can do to ensure the quality of their English is immersion, i.e., spending some time in a place where only English is spoken.

Going back to the topic of context, if non-native english teachers work in EFL contexts and speak the same L1 as their students, they can use it as scaffolding to provide more support. Even though this used to be frowned upon, resorting to translation or comparing the students’ mother language to English is a valid strategy, especially for lower levels. 

The future ahead

It is clear that the label of a “non-native english teacher” includes people from very different parts of the world, with their unique idiosyncrasies, cultural backgrounds and levels of English proficiency. 

More research about the prejudices against NNS teachers, and the advantages and disadvantages that studying with them simply should be conducted in order to distinguish more clearly between this myriad of NNS teachers and their potential in the EFL classroom–and increasingly in the ESL classroom, as they relocate to English-speaking countries to work. 

Another interesting point to be made is related to qualifications. Some people (Lexical Lab, 2016) have questioned the validity of the CELTA course, which was originally thought of a one-month crash course for NS who wanted to change careers, but now it is usually taken by NNS as either an initial TEFL qualification, or a more internationally recognised one than their local degree, as was my case. 

Even worse, despite many NNS having a TEFL degree and (perhaps) a CELTA, they are still discriminated in favour of NS with only a CELTA. Higher standards should be upheld in order to take teaching English more seriously.

“ONLY native speakers should apply”: Why?

Even though employers claim students prefer NS as teachers, research shows that students feel that professionalism and experience is more important than the teacher’s place of birth or native language (Moussu & Llurda, p. 328, 2008). As such, NNS teachers must fight against this prejudice, perhaps by applying regardless if the position is interesting, writing a cover letter that addresses this injustice, or simply by refusing to apply and reporting the unfair job advertisement.

Likewise, NS teachers might help out by referring NNS colleagues, and job posting websites should refuse to accept ads that only want NS. Although it might seem that native speakers are always at an advantage over non-natives, it is undeniable that the demand for teachers makes us an invaluable asset.

The international community of English teachers must make an effort to uphold standards so that our profession is taken seriously, and fight back against the bias against non-native english teachers. Otherwise, there will be a lot of wasted, potentially amazing English teachers just because they happened to be born in the “wrong” country, something which we can’t afford to allow.

References

  • Amin, N. (1997). Race and the identity of the nonnative ESL teacher. TESOL quarterly31(3), 580-583. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2307/3587841
  • Amin, N. (2001). Nativism, the native speaker construct, and minority immigrant women teachers of English as a second language. CATESOL Journal13(1), 89-107.
    http://www.catesoljournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/CJ13_amin.pdf
  • CIS International School. (March 12th, 2021.)  Learning English with a native speaker: pros and cons. Retrieved on April 25th, 2023. https://cisedu.com/en-gb/world-of-cis/articles-education/english-native-speaker/
  • Floris, F. D., & Renandya, W. A. (2020). Promoting the value of non-native English-speaking teachers. PASAA: Journal of Language Teaching and Learning in Thailand59, 1-19.
  • Kelly, C. (n.d.) Non-Native Discrimination – The Stain on Our Profession? International House 40th Journal. Retrieved on April 25th, 2023. https://ihworld.com/ih-journal/issues/issue-40/non-native-discrimination-the-stain-on-our-profession/
  • Lexical Lab. (April, 2016) CELTA, the native-speaker bias and possible paths forward. Retrieved on April 25th, 2023. https://www.lexicallab.com/2016/04/celta-the-native-speaker-bias-and-possible-paths-forward/
  • Moussu, L., & Llurda, E. (2008). Non-native English-speaking English language teachers: History and research. Language teaching41(3), 315-348.
  • The TEFL Academy. (December 5th, 2017.) The Advantages of Being a Non-native English Teacher. Retrieved on April 25th, 2023. https://www.theteflacademy.com/blog/the-advantages-of-being-a-non-native-english-teacher/

Contributed by Victoria Martínez Mutri

Victoria is a CELTA-certified English as a Foreign Language teacher, with a background in Translation, from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fascinated by language since an early age, she’s particularly interested in the fields of Applied Linguistics and Sociolinguistics. She’s been researching and writing about gender-inclusive language since 2018. After graduating, she would like to obtain a Master’s Degree in Linguistics at a foreign university.

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