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Debunking native-speaker supremacy

June 06, 2009

Hello again,

The native English speaker seems to have all the advantages when it comes to finding teaching posts. A native speaker with few or even no qualifications to teach English often has greater credibility with employers than a highly qualified non-native speaker. To understand ...

...this situation we have to know what students’ expectations are. Many students have had poor teaching in their earlier schooling by ill-prepared non-native speakers. They want the chance to learn from a “real” English speaker and may reject any other type of teacher. To be honest, I don’t see attitudes like this changing.

However, we need to ask a few questions about the native English speaker. If employers believe that all native speakers use a uniform and highly educated pronunciation that are very much mistaken. The range of accents is enormous and I am not simply referring to American, British, South African etc. Within the various English-speaking countries accents vary tremendously. So is a Manchester or a Kentucky or a Canberra accent really superior to a non-native accent?

Perhaps employers and students believe that native speakers have an innate understanding of how their own language works. Consider this comment in a recent article: “A report in the UK criticises the lack of basic literacy and numeracy skills among school leavers. The report was based on a survey of 140 companies with a total of more than 900,000 full-time employees. The report shows that one in three businesses has to send staff for remedial lessons in basic literacy and numeracy skills.” The truth is that unless a native speaker has studied English grammar, he or she is unlikely even to know the basic grammatical terms, let alone understand how the language works.

Is it believed that native speakers make no errors? Perhaps native-speaker errors are different from those of L2 learners but I hear and read errors in grammar, pronunciation and meaning all the time. A common native-speaker grammatical error is to use the verb form for third-person singular with plural pronouns. Thus I frequently hear “we/you/they was”. Or people often use a past participle instead of a simple past form: “she done it”. You may say that such errors are made by uneducated people who would not try to teach. But less obvious errors are made even by the educated. I read in a newspaper the other day that somebody was wearing a “broach”. I heard a BBC broadcaster say that somebody was “partially naked”. Presumably he meant “partially clothed” since you can no more be “partially naked” than “partially pregnant.”

In truth, the native English speaker is by no means infallible and a non-native speaker with the right qualifications is likely to be a much more reliable teacher than an untrained native English speaker. But still the prejudice remains. So what should schools do? I suggest one way forward is to have a mixed teaching staff. Well-qualified teachers should be given their opportunity, no matter what their mother tongue. But schools could employ unqualified native speakers as teaching assistants, giving students practice in conversation.

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  1. A non-native teacher Says:

    I am a non-native English teacher and I could not agree more with this article! I face this prejudice each day because of my nationality. Sometimes I wish I were born somewhere else.

  1. Morf Says:

    My premise (though not always true) is that native speakers have a better sense of the nuances in meaning that one only learns by years of exposure and experience with a language.

    On the other hand, my observation is that ESL students sometimes have a far better grasp of grammar than many native speakers of English.

    I agree that a mix of teacher is optimal - at least then the teachers will make different mistakes and the student will get a real-world feel for language variances.

    While teaching English in China,I did some combined teaching with a Canadian and an Australian teacher. The shifts in accents, tone, style and vocabulary were puzzling yet inspiring to all of us.

  1. huber Says:

    Actually the impact of being a native speaker is quite impressing in some countries, but only when we really live the real thing is when we can tell the difference. With all due respect for english native speakers, your truly and most valuable tool is your accent...without it, stay in your country and try to be useful to those of your own kind

  1. Midwestaccent Says:

    I find the non-native English speaking teachers use a teaching style that is very formal and different from the ones I have used or experienced in school. They often teach English as they have learned their native language which may not be a good model. In addition, there are many errors in speech that are never corrected by directors who are too busy or colleagues who do not want to offend. So, as a consumer or parent, I would still pick a native speaker over a non-native one. Parents tell me they like that their children are learning the correct pronuciation and that their children don't have their parent's accent for English. As for the trained or not trained issue I think much of the training may not be of value if it does not include teaching with small groups, hands on activities, role playing, games for reinforcement of learned ideas. None of my non-native speaking colleagues ever want to use any of the above as they are not comfortable with it and it takes more work. They will follow the book and if it has a game try to skip it. It is a sorry state of reality and I am optimistic it could change with the new teachers if they keep an open mind.

  1. ElenaLisvato Says:

    Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so! really nice post.

  1. Bob Toomey Says:

    Brenda, and the others. Good posts. What amazes me is that when in an English speaking country only native speakers who have teaching qualifications get jobs at real schools. Non-native speakers of English may get jobs, but it is usually a job in which they do not teach spoken English. What is going on in most of Asia, Korea and China for sure, is that most in-country education directors couldn't tell a teacher from a backpacker, and they really don't care. They just want a white boy/girl to stand in front of the class and entertain the students, and above all else, keep the students happy. Learning is not a priority for most education directors at most schools in Asia. All of these comments I have been hearing for 16 years of being in Asia comes from some pretty foolish thinking. A native speaker who is a trained teacher is going to be better than any untrained person, or poorly trained person, and they are inherantly better than non-native speakers (which is a no-brainer). If one is going to teach grammar, in my mind it doesn't matter who teaches. Teaching grammar is pretty useless as an end in itself. Grammar is simply easy to teach, but not necessarily easy to learn.
    People who teach grammar are not teaching people to speak correctly. I dare to say that most educated native speakers of English from any country can easily understand any native speaker of English from any other English speaking country. At least, I have never misunderstood any educated person from any English speaking country, and I go on to say that they have all understood me.

  1. Shaundom Says:

    I see some confusion between accent/dialect and correct English. In every country in the World you will find groups of people who speak their language correctly and majority groups who do not. The current British Prime Minister, Mr. Gordon Brown, has a Scottish accent but he speaks very good English. I was born and educated in England then lived in South Africa, Australia,The West Indies and Canada. I have mixed dialects but I speak English correctly, nevertheless.
    My own view is that well educated non-native English speakers tend to develop far more grammatical errors than well educated native English speaker, primarily because native English speakers are born into the English language, therefore as long as they are in tune with good English on a daily basis they should not go too wrong- regardless of accent/dialect.

  1. TEFL Renaissance Says:

    It was high time somebody said/wrote about that, especially when it comes from a native speaker. Well-said, thanks a million!

    I was even 'lucky' enough to train native speakers to teach and to see jobs offered to them, not to me.

  1. larry Says:

    Huber, your comment makes no sense. Apart from misusing "impressing," you suggest staying with your "own kind." What does that mean, exactly?

  1. larry Says:

    I work with many native and non-native speakers. I think the point above that non-natives are often as good at grammar as I am is a good one. For nuance, vocabulary and conversation, they can't compare, nor should they be expected to. Part of the responsibility that administrators should take upon themselves is to place teachers in slots that play to their strengths.

  1. Johan Says:

    Very good article. As a non-native teacher of English in China, I come across this problem all the time. Is it really that native speakers are better teachers just because we don't get every idiom, synonym of the English language? Is it really such a good thing having Koreans speak English with a Scottish accent, Indonesians with an Australian accent, Chinese with an Irish accent etc.? By the way, midwestaccent, I and all of my non-native colleagues do use all of the classroom activities that you mentioned, as we have been taught during our TEFL course. Conclusion: A mix of natives + non-natives is definitely good, ESL students around the world will (hopefully) communicate with a range of foreigners, who do not all come from Native English speaking countries, therefore they will need to be able to understand a range of accents, including (or perhaps even especially) the non-native accents.

  1. saor Says:

    Grammar is not language and that is why native speakers are preferred. Accents, speech cadence and cultural knowledge are important considerations too.
    Partially naked is a reasonable expression as we expect certain parts of the body to be clothed and if not then that part of the body is naked.

  1. Mike Says:

    This reminds me of 'Pygmalion' and the motion picture - 'My Fair Lady.' I wish the native speakers teaching English abroad would modestly accept that the collocations whose structures are being undermined on the alter of 'Contemporary English' today only confuses their non-native colleagues.

    Our teachers were native speakers who taught us well enough to know that it is not 'different to,' 'stickler to' or 'prefer than.' The Cockney and Jamaican accents are ever becoming popular even among the teachers of English in England so I hear 'Biker Street' from some colleagues who mean to say 'Baker Street'

    It seems the modern discreet method of teaching grammar to the English is somewhat counterproductive - we should all work towards keeping common sense and discipline alive in our schools.

  1. Mike Hoffman Says:

    Being a native speaker of English, currently teaching ESL classes in an adult education environment, I would pick a native speaker every time for teaching conversational English or any other language.

    However, my experience has been with people who need to use the language in everyday life. If I were teaching students who were studying for the GED or a national proficiency examination, I am sure my emphasis would be different. I am certain my students would want to learn from someone who could teach them what they needed to know, native speaker or not.

  1. Bob Deaver Says:

    Okay, I get it. I see your point but it is now time for you to see the picture. Why do you think the Chinese government has started to teach English to the children at the primary level? Why do you think they are asking for native english speakers? Why do you think most colleges do not even have a book for the Oral English Classes? You shouldn't be so full of yourself as a teacher.

    You are offerred teaching jobs in China as Native English speakers because of just that. They have plenty of chinese teachers that can teach grammer but the exposure to the native english speaker is what is needed in this country. They are not out to bring a nation to the type of people who get all excited about someone using incorrect English. The well trained teachers in America are turning out students who can't speak proper english year after year.

    China is moving into the world of English for International Trade. Teachers here don't have to be teachers and a degree isn't really that important though new laws do require proof of some sort of degree. I am a native english teacher without many skills in grammer. I am from Texas with a pretty strong accent and never have been trained in education.

    But I am creative!! I find ways to inspire my students to get up and speak. I do not stop them in mid sentence to correct a mispronunciation and tell them what is wrong with every thing they do as the trained english teachers here do. I build confindence first and then work on pronunciation while constantly realizing that the goal is to help them with their ability to communicate by listening and speaking and that is why native speakers are important.

    You can argue the point all day because ESL training is a business and you will still never get at the purpose of the foreign teacher program here in China.

    They just want their children to be able to communicate as businessmen and women, not to go to Oxford to study.

    Just a comment from someone who has been there....done that.

  1. Andy Says:

    I have a lot of experience TEFL teaching around the world. I remember a 'native speaker' starting his first job in Bratislava. He was Welsh and I could hardly understand him! He didn't last long. I think native speakers do, however, make better TEFL teachers providing they can modify their accents. Non-native speakers are often usefully used to teach basic grammar (and they do it very well) but the number of times I've had to try and 'mop up' the 'fossilised errors' in pronunciation doesn't bear thinking about.

  1. Ben Says:

    Several years ago I was reviewing a report from one of my native-speaker subordinates. She is a college graduate (read: well educated?). I was very amused when I found that she had written "should of" where she meant to say "should have" and I knew it was not a typo because I found the same errors repeated in many different places throughout the report!

  1. Patricia Says:

    I agree totally with the whole article. As a non native speaker of English, trained English teacher, with an MA in Applied Linguistics from UK, I would still find myself slightly disadvantaged compared to a native speaker, I assume mainly because its their language. However, I am still able to find teaching jobs because of my MA which is the advantage. I don't have an accent at all and am proud of what I have achieved so far as a non native English speaker.

  1. Flaze Says:

    The reason native speakers are hired over qualified non-native English teachers is that native speakers are embedded in the language in a way that non-natives can never be.

    Those grammatical mistakes mentioned may eventually become standard 'irregularities' in English, as they are made by native English speakers. The language does not exist independently from its speakers on some meta-plane; it is an organic thing constantly being modified by its native speakers, hence the OED's multiple definitions.

    Of course that doesn't mean professional non-native EFL teachers shouldn't be hired: they may be better at explaining things than an English speaker! It's just that native Engl. speakers can bring more 'Englishness' to students than a non-native can.

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