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The native-speaker teacher debate

April 04, 2006

I have noticed some forum posts on the topic of native-speaker teachers.

Hello again,

What's your view on this topic? Should English language schools employ only native-speaker teachers? My answer is that it is entirely a matter of selecting the best teacher from the available pool for the job. Evasive? Perhaps, but I don’t want to generalise about the background you need to be an effective English language teacher. The native speaker is probably perceived as having more credibility and authenticity. But not all native speakers have an equal depth of language awareness. And, given the nature of basic English teaching in British schools (I can't speak for other countries), many have scant knowledge of English grammar. A non-native speaker, on the other hand, can often bring the useful ability to compare two or more languages and thus help students understand how English differs in structure from their first language . . .

. . . In fact much depends on customer preferences and the learning context. For example, when students travel to the UK, to the USA, to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking countries they usually have the expectation that their teachers will be native speakers. Even so, I have met several non-native speakers working successfully in British schools, so clearly the situation is not clear-cut. When working in companies in Europe, I have usually been contracted because the company demanded a native-speaker trainer. However, I have worked with a French organization in which the majority of the English teachers were French and students often seemed intimidated by having to speak to a native speaker.

Another argument I have heard used against non-native speakers is that they might make errors in their own use of English. This really is a red herring, since native speakers make plenty of errors too, if by error you mean deviation from prescriptive rules. I really think everybody needs to loosen up about this. Teaching requires certain qualities to motivate, even inspire learners, to able to give clear explanations and clear instructions. These qualities have nothing to do our native language. No teacher in any discipline is perfect or knows it all.

So, as far as I'm concerned, the choice a school makes of teaching staff should depend on the school's needs and the qualities of the teacher. End of story. Letm know what you think.

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  1. Roberta Wedge Says:

    I've been thinking about this issue quite a bit lately. It seems to me that non-native speakers of English (NNSs) bring one additional quality to the classroom: they are realistic models for students in a way that native speakers are unlikely to be. That is, a (let us say) Vietnamese student can look at a Vietnamese teacher of English and think, "I could be like that! She learned English really well, and so can I!" Whereas the same student might regard a British teacher as an unreachable model. "It's all very well for him, but he doesn't realise how difficult his language is. I'll never be able to speak English as well as he does."

    In this way, the NNS teacher can provide a level of motivation to many students, because she is living proof that the mountain of English can be climbed.

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Hello, Roberta. I think this is a very important point. Furthermore the NNS understands some of the learner's hurdles in a way that the native-speaker may not.

  1. Sarath Says:

    From my point of view, opening up all the english teaching posts to native speakers is categorically unjustifiable and unethical. It doen't mean to say or judge that a native speaker is the one who could teach a foreigh language to other speakers. There have been instances where non-native speakers have shown better performancesin teaching a language like english. Even this shows that the mentality of some of our nations who wish to employ native speakers for teaching english all the time which is a very wrong notion.

  1. janusz69 Says:

    I am a Polish-born, now American citizen, who came to the U.S. at the age of 24. I have been teaching part-time ESOL in a college for several years now. I agree with most of what has been said. In my school, there seems to be no problem for non-native speakers to teach ESOL but I would argue that a full-time position will probably never be offered to them. Another thing to look at is to perhaps distinguish before the skills being taught. I would prefer a native speaker to teach me conversation/ listening or speaking but would not mind a non-native person teaching me grammar and writing.Also, can anybody suggest an employment/recruiting agency which hires both native and non-native ESOL teachers.

  1. alona Says:

    Hello Brenda,
    I have been in ESL Employment for quite a while and have been trying my luck in getting an ESL/EFL employment abroad. But everytime I do, the native speakers required phrase always dampen my spirit. It's ironic because in my country foreign students come to study English with Filipino teachers like me but we have difficulties in working as teachers in their countries. Nonetheless, your article was an eye opener. Thank you very much.Thanks also to those who posted their comments.Alona

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Alona, I can understand that this is very discouraging for you. Have a look at this website for helpful support:http://nnest.moussu.net/

  1. mikey Says:

    Hello Alona,

    I have been working in Shanghai, China since 2004 to present,teaching ESL to high school students in one of the prestigious key schools in shanghai . I am a fFilipino and it hasnt been easy for me either. In China, sad to say, ESL is a business! a business where the color of your skin matters A LOT. Blond hair and blue eyes are the preference. After that educational background, if any, is of no more importance.

    I have lived it and know what it's like to be ignored and looked down because im not "white"
    to the point where I just want to pack my stuff and
    go home. But at the end of the day, it's the students' who decides if the teacher stays or goes (at the end of the school term). We even had a "white"teacher from New Zealand sent back after 1 month by the students because they couldn't understand what he was saying the whole time.

    the bottom line is.... I guess they should change the word NATIVE to WHITE....hahahaha

    Its a cruel world out there and you just have to keep trying.

  1. Lana Says:

    I am a Croatian student of English language and literature in my home country,of course. I hope to obtain a degree by Christmas time this year. Our sytem of higher education has been harmonized with the rest of the EU,but I am still a part of the older generation who are obliged to study for 4 years at least to get a degree and the title(in my case) "teacher of English language and literature". I have studied it for 5 years now, had 54 exams all in all. I live in London at the moment and work as a nanny.
    As the majority of my collegues back home, I dream about being an ESOL teacher in England(preferably London) but,since being a non-native I think my hopes are futile and chances miserable. I don't think my English is perfect,but remembering all the exams I had to take, lectures and lessons I have listened or taken, books I had to read, and most of all, my experience in teacher practice in elementary or secondary schools,I just think IT ISN'T FAIR. Far from being impeccable, non-native teachers of English might be a good option because of the personal strain that is imposed on them,because believe me, they will try their best just because they are what they are. If someone is scrutinized and controlled,judged by his/her country of origin, that person will give his maximum. And as said, non-native teachers were forced to learn grammar and liguistics in detail(from my modest experience I can claim so:)
    Hope my comment is not pathetic:)
    I would really,really,like to receive a mail from a benevolent soul:D who can give me an advice,a recommendation,a suggestion as to how to try,what do do, where to apply etc. as a non-native teacher of English. Anyone? Please?
    Am really clueless when it comes to teacher recruitment agencies and the requirements I have to meet. So if there is someone who knows something about it and is willing to answer a tiresome Croatian student,please mail me,

  1. pbc Says:

    this is exactly my point. i am not a teacher by profession but i had long been wanting to go into ESL (i hope to teach and travel at the same time). in fact, i had been on the verge of enrolling in one of those TEFL courses offered in china several times these past few months.

    what's holding me back? the fact that i'm not a native english speaker and i'm not caucasian looking -- two major stumbling blocks if you wish to teach in places like china and south korea. it's ironic to think that we are facing such ridiculous forms of discrimination right in our own backyard. if this happened in the natives' turf (e.g., europe, us, canada, australia, etc.) i would uderstand it, but...

    another point i'd like to make is that being a non-native speaker would actually make the teacher more sympathetic and intuitive towards the student because (s)he knows what the student is going through. i'm not trying to say that one is necessarily better than the other. i just wish they would somehow level the field so that capable non-native english teachers can find their own place in the sun.

    in any case, i'm glad that you have allowed us to express our side on this page. have a nice day!

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