I want a native speaker

Yesterday, James Taylor wrote a post on the TEFL Equity Advocates blog entitled “Why I wish I was a Non-Native English Speaker“. It starts like this:

James Taylor
James Taylor

As someone from the UK who teaches English as a foreign language, the country of my birth is a huge advantage to me. As has been well documented on this blog, I am much more likely to get a job than someone from Japan, Algeria or Brazil, no matter how qualified or experienced they are. For some students, having a native speaker teacher has a certain cachet, as in most countries it is unusual and many of them think that it means they have a better teacher as a result. So both employers and students seem to think that because I’m English, I must be a better teacher, which has got to be good for me.

As a result, you can’t be blamed thinking that I am pleased about this situation. Without any effort on my part, I’m placed ahead of the vast majority of teachers around the world in the job market. But you’d be wrong, it offends me and I want to see it change. I’m also tallwhiteheterosexual and male and these are also a benefit to me (click on the links to find out more), but I have no desire to live in a world where nationality, size, race, sexuality and gender are the yardsticks by which our employability is measured. I would rather be judged by my ability, experience and qualifications equally against anyone else who wishes to apply for the same job. It’s not to my advantage, but that’s the world I want to live in. So if you’re a NNEST, this post is for you. There are many reasons why you have an advantage over NEST’s like me in the classroom.

I think everyone should read the whole article, along with the follow-up comments. In it James describes all of the advantages that non-native teachers have over natives. It’s a key issue in our profession, and one which frustrates me a lot. I’ve worked with many excellent non-native teachers, some of whom have had trouble getting particular jobs purely because they were unlucky enough to have the wrong passport. I’ve also shared my comment below, so you can see how I feel about the issue. If you’d like to comment too, please do it on the original article, rather than here, to try to keep the discussion in one place.

Despite being a lifelong language learner, I was never aware of the NEST/NNEST issue before I became an EFL teacher. Most of my teachers have been non-natives, and all of them have been able to speak English, so it is impossible for me to truly understand what it’s like for my students, particularly at lower levels, to be confronted by someone who has no idea how the language they are teaching compares to the students’ first language. My own language learning helps, and I can empathise, but it is impossible for me to ever know what it’s like to learn English as a Foreign Language, as James so clearly states here.

When working abroad, I’ve always worked with a mix of native and non-native teachers, and the non-natives are often the ones I’ve learnt the most from, because they can tell me where students are most likely to have problems, or what they’re most likely to be interested in. They can identify potential cultural problems too. That’s not to say that natives can’t do this, but non-natives can normally do it from day one, whereas natives need time to build up this knowledge.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the problem is principally from the teachers now – we’re preaching to the converted. The recruiters probably know deep down that experience is more important than the place on your passport too. The problem is in persuading students. As an example, we had a new student come to our school this week. She’d found us by searching for English schools with native speakers in Sevastopol, of which there are very few. When I gave her a level test, she is pre-intermediate. Why would a native speaker necessarily be any better for her? In fact, I’ve met some native speaker teachers who would actually cause her more problems at this level, especially when newly-qualified, because they don’t really understand what they’re teaching. I would have counted myself in that group too, although I hope I’ve improved since then! Yes, she would be getting exposure to a native speaker, but so what? She can do that on the internet, by watching films, and more, and she’s highly unlikely to need it much here. Instead, she’s much more likely to need to speak to other non-natives through English. She’s just heard that native speaker teachers are ‘better’ and has never really been told evidence to the contrary. I expect that if you try to pin students down on this, they might mention things like bad teachers at school, but that’s a question of training, experience, apathy, overload… rather than the mere fact of being a non-native. It’s a ‘grass is greener’ thing, especially if they’ve never had a native speaker teacher – the novelty might soon wear off.

What we need is a deep-seated culture change. Easy to say, very difficult to propagate. We’re at the start of it now. It will be a slow process, but I hope it keeps moving forward. Gradually, as a profession, we’re sharing more, we’re supporting each other more. As the generations pass, and people outside the EFL community, including students, really start to realise that English is not the property of native English speakers at all, I hope we see more of a balance. I hope we see it during our careers.

Thank you for writing this James. I’ve shared it, along with my comment, on my blog, as I think it deserves a wider audience.

8 thoughts on “I want a native speaker

  1. Thank you so much for sharing, Sandy. I absolutely agree with every single point made. But I believe the change should come not only from educators but from learners as well. I guess as educators we need to start pointing out to learners why the country of origin of their teacher is not a defining factor and predictor or their success as a learner, especially when it comes to beginning levels.When teaching a language is converted into a business, the schools are trying to get and sell what is in demand and what the learners are craving for. The result of this is the NEST craze that we have pretty much everywhere.


    1. Thanks for the comment Alina. I agree that we need to educate our learners about what makes a good teacher, but it’s not just them – they probably know that. It’s the parents and the potential learners, some of whom may decide that they won’t go to a school because the teachers are NNESTs. They’re a lot harder to spread the word to, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

      Do you mind posting your comment on the original post too, so that there is a single thread?


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