On 20th May James Taylor published a post on this blog entitled: Why I wish I was a non-native speaker of English, which caused quite a stir and a very enthusiastic response. I really encourage you to read both James’ post and the comments below it, before (or after) reading this post by Michael Griffin.
In a nutshell, James exposed the problem of discrimination against NNESTs in TEFL and showed that it is based on illogical prejudices:
“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.”
In the post he argued that NNESTs are not worse teachers than NESTs, but that they actually have many strengths which the latter could never have, e.g. NNESTs can better advise students on language learning strategies. As many of us, James hopes these strengths are finally acknowledged by all recruiters and students, so that both NESTs and NNESTs are given equal opportunities of employment:
“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.”
While Michael Griffin shares James’ opinion that native speakers are unjustly favoured within TEFL, and that we need to start treating all teachers equally, he proposes a different approach to fight against the discrimination, which hopes to deal away with some prevalent myths and stereotypes.
Michael Griffin: “As a fan of this blog I was thrilled and honored when Marek Kiczkowiak asked me if I might be interested in contributing something here. I was even more honored and pleased when I saw one of the first pieces on the blog was an interview with Peter Medgyes which is well worth reading. Back in 2012 I wrote about some of my thoughts on what Medgyes listed as advantages of “NNEST” Teachers.
In this current post I’d like to share a more concise and maybe even more balanced view of my thoughts on the advantages Medgyes listed. I do this with full respect for Dr. Medgyes and full knowledge that his list comes from a long time ago and was a useful addition to the conversations of that time. I am also aware what I am saying is not exactly groundbreaking and has been covered by others in much greater depth and with greater lucidity.
My excitement about writing a guest post on this blog turned into a bit of trepidation when I saw the excellent post from James Taylor last week because my post (which incidentally I wrote before seeing his) might seem to go against many of the points in his, especially at first glance. Something we surely agree on is that native speakers are often unjustly advantaged in the field and this is something that needs to change.
The final caveats before I truly start is to say I am not sure how helpful it is to continue talking in these binary terms nor I am sure exactly what terms like native speaker and non-native speaker really mean, but I will use them here for the purpose of discussion.
In “The Non-native Teacher” Medgyes shares some advantages of non-native teachers over native speaking teachers. They are as follows:
a) Only non-NESTS can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English…
b) Non-NESTS can teach learning strategies more effectively…
c) Non-NESTS can provide learners with more information about the English language…
d) Non-NESTs are more able to anticipate language difficulties…
e) Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners…
f) Only non-NESTS can benefit from sharing the learners’ mother tongue…
One key theme that emerged from the discussion on my aforementioned blog post was that Dr. Medgyes’s list might be more applicable to monolingual native speakers without training. If that is the case then perhaps the list is a bit more palatable and understandable for me.
The original list doesn’t seem to allow for native speakers who have learned another language, let alone the students’ L1, which seems both confusing and problematic. Surely an L1 user of English can be a nice model for her (as an example) Czech speaking students if she uses Czech to a high level. In this case, she is admittedly not an imitable model of a successful learner of English but is perhaps a good (and imitable) model of a language learner. The teacher I just described would, of course, also benefit from the ability to use the students’ mother tongue, albeit not as a mother tongue. By simply believing native speakers are capable of learning other languages and even the students’ L1 I think we have called points F and A into question.
Anticipating language difficulties, as in point D, is not something only NNESTs can do, is it? I can see how knowing the students’ L1 could be helpful here but I don’t think it is the only factor. What about training? What about thorough planning? What about experience and reflecting on experience? What about a knowledge of language and second language acquisition? What about knowing our students and having strategies and techniques to know them and their abilities? I think these are key factors in teachers anticipating language difficulties and more important than the simple fact of the teacher’s L1. On a personal level I’d like to think that all those hours I spent in pain with “About Language” were not in vain. I’d like think that this experience and knowledge can be and has been helpful for my students.
Point E reads, ”Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners.” Sure they can be. So can men. And women. And physics teachers. And math teachers. And teachers born on Tuesdays. Or left-handed teachers. Or not. I don’t think this category makes much sense and I don’t think NNESTs have a monopoly on empathy. Could we agree that this comes down to more individual and personal factors?
Just like empathy, I don’t think NNESTs inherently have a greater ability to teach learning strategies or information about the English language. Nor do I think NESTS do. There are variations about the degree of knowledge in these areas that vary widely and wildly and are not necessarily based on the teacher’s L1. I have personally met many native speakers armed with a thorough knowledge of learning strategies and way for effectively highlighting and teaching these. I have met NNESTs with very limited knowledge in these areas. I have also met NNESTs who were convinced their way of learning English was the only way and I have watched as they forcibly and to my mind unsuccessfully pushed these ways on students. I am not indicting all NNESTS for this, because that would be silly. It is just something I have seen. I have met NNESTS with wide knowledge of learning strategies. I have also met NNESTS with an incredibly deep knowledge on the English language and NESTS without. And vice versa. And all points between.
I don’t mean to disregard or disrespect the work that English teachers around the world (the vast majority of them NNESTs) do and I surely don’t want to ignore the efforts many have made to become successful users of English. From my view, the idea that native speakers are automatically better teachers is equally as wrong as the idea they are automatically worse in the areas listed above. Likewise, I don’t think NESTS are inherently better or worse at teaching speaking or listening nor do I think NNESTS are inherently better or worse at teaching grammar or learning strategies. I don’t think anyone is a better or worse teacher based only on their mother tongue. I hope I provided at least some food for thought here without sounding like someone who is whining and defending the reputations of a group that probably doesn’t need much defending. I thank you very much for reading and I thank Marek for offering me the chance to share some thoughts here. I am looking forward to continuing the discussion in the comments.”
Michael Griffin, currently working in the Graduate School of International Studies at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, has been in the ELT field for nearly 15 years. In that time he has held a wide variety of positions and titles including cover instructor, curriculum designer, teacher-trainer, trainer-trainer, general layabout, English camp instructor, and Assistant Director. He is actively involved in #KELTchat and is an #iTDi mentor. You can read his blog here and is @michaelegriffin on Twitter.