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Native speakers?

May 05, 2005

Hello again. In a recent poll in my newsletter I asked readers if they thought English language teachers should be native speakers. The result was interesting, as the vote from those with an opinion was close with 48% believing they should be native speakers and 41% saying no. I don’t know what you think about this but I’ve always had mixed feelings.

The first question I would raise with those who believe being a native speaker is an essential prerequisite for an English language teacher is, which native speaker would you choose? My point is that native speakers are not by virtue of their birth language experts. I can think of many native speakers whose command of their own language is remarkably poor! Evidently being a native speaker is not in itself a guarantee of any linguistic understanding. Of course, native speakers have a certain instinctive feel for the language that probably cannot be acquired. But the non-native speaker, having gone through the process of really mastering English, is more likely to understand the learning process and the pitfalls that are peculiar to learning the language.

Students also have mixed feelings, I find. I have come across students who prefer to be taught by someone with their own linguistic background so that, if problems arise, discussion can take place in the language they are more familiar with. I have even been told that native English speakers’ pronunciation is too difficult to understand. On the other hand, some students feel cheated if they do not have a native speaker, believing that somehow they can’t trust somebody who has had to learn the language just as they are doing. Some students have said to me that they don’t trust the non-native speaker not to make mistakes. This argument is quite interesting because it depends what you mean by a mistake. Native speakers are not free from grammatical error, if that is what is meant. In this respect I would say that native speakers simply make different errors from non-native speakers.

So are there really any key differences between native and non-native speakers as teachers? Probably, yes. But does it matter? Each type of teacher will have specific strengths and weaknesses and, when push comes to shove, you’re either a good teacher or you’re not, regardless of your native tongue.

Back soon,

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  1. Robyn Wehner Says:

    I went out on a limb recently and employed a non-native speaker. The decision-making process was riddled with fears of antagonising the boss, to not living up to the expectations of the students, some of whom might up-anchor and leave us etc. The bottom line was however, that not only is her pronunciation almost accent-free and the grammar probably better than many locals', but she has a huge empathy with the students and has proven to be a great motivator - if she could achieve that level of proficiency, so could they!
    Currently, we have teachers from USA, Scotland, England, Australia and New Zealand, and our Romanian teacher is probably more RP than any of us! What is more, we're all happy, even the boss!

  1. Todd Says:

    I disagree and agree with you.

    Firstly, If we compare a brilliant British English teacher with university education and a tefl Cambridge/celta (or similar) certificate, with a brilliant non native teacher, we will probably find the native teacher is much better. The native will probably have much better pronunciation and will have a real insight into cultural aspects of the language. He / She will understand all the different dialects/accents (many non natives do not). The native will also have first hand experience on using the language in real situations.

    Secondly, on the other hand, I agree that a knowledge of the students own language can help when trying to explain to absolute beginners, but only as a last resort. However we must remember pronunciation is very important. It is also important that the student gets exposure to natural language and grasps a feel for it as early as possible. If the student knows the teacher speaks their language he/she will probably not try as much in English and end up relying on translation rather than contextual understanding.

    I have interviewed loads of non native teachers foreign to the country we teach in and I have always selected the native because of the above.


  1. Bert Says:

    The question is not just hiring a native speaker but hiring a qualified and good native speaker to teach a language, not just English but any language for that matter.

    As an Academic director, I have always selected the native speaker over the non native for more than one reason. Firstly, no matter how well a non native speaker learns a languiage he will never be able to understand and explain the intricacies of the language as a native speaker who has a natural feel for the language.

    Secondly, I have found that pronunciation is hardly ever on par with the native speaker for reasons that the etmymologists can probably better explain.

    The ability to play games and make learners happy may be fine for very early learners, but can hardly serve as a substitute for "knowing" the language. Under no circumstances will I want to learn French from a Chinese French teacher, for example.

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