Students Know What They Are Told to Want: The Non-Native Teacher Debate

“The mind knows not what the tongue wants.” That was bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell during a 2004 TED Talk, quoting famed American market researcher and psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz. The talk, entitled “Choice, happiness, and spaghetti sauce,” detailed Moskowitz’s revolutionary research which profoundly altered the food industry.

Most famous for his research into people’s tastes for spaghetti sauce in the early 1980s, Moskowitz fundamentally changed the way food companies thought about making clients happy. Two of the most famous spaghetti sauce companies, Prego and Ragu, both hired Moskowitz to fix their brands, both of which had grown financially stagnate.

At the time, the two dominant types of sauce were plain and spicy. However, after creating and offering 45 different variations of hand-made sauces he prepared for the American population, Moskowitz determined that there was a third sauce type that was deeply desired: extra-chunky. The mystery was that neither Prego nor Ragu offered an extra-chunky option.

Up to that point, both companies had operated based on the assumption that the only way to find out what people wanted was to ask them. Over a three decade span, not one person — either through a focus group, survey, data research, etc. — had ever said they preferred extra-chunky spaghetti sauce even though, as the research showed, a significant number of them actually did.

What Howard Moskowitz discovered, and what can be extrapolated across a myriad of other mediums, is that a big part of human nature is not being able to explain what we really want; rather, given an option, we statistically go with the known entity.

When I was asked by my good friend Marek Kiczkowiak to contribute to this terrific cause, Moskowitz’s analogy was the first thing to come to mind as that line of reasoning remains one of the greatest barriers still preventing equality among native and non-native language instructors. As a former Director of Studies of a language institute in Latin America, I can say with conviction that one of the largest, if not the largest, barriers still hindering non-native English speakers as teachers is that students don’t want them. Rather, students think they don’t want them.

Allow me to elaborate. Current and prospective English learners are continually told by the industry that native instruction is superior. On the surface this makes sense as who better to instruct a language than those who speak it natively? That is, until you peel back the kimono of English language instruction. What students often don’t consider, even though it may be the most obvious point of the entire discussion, is that ESL is a business. And, in my experience, the business aspect has continually fueled the circular argument that has increasingly made non-native instructors unemployable.

Schools promote native instruction because it brings in business. Students enroll at schools that offer native teachers because that same school claims native speakers are better teachers. And on goes the cycle until it becomes accepted rhetoric.

When negotiating with clients in Latin America, one of the first questions I was asked was about where our teachers were from. If it didn’t come up in the first few minutes, we would always make a point to emphasize it. Not because we were proud of the fact, but because it was a selling point. We did employ non-native instructors, but we were always forced to schedule them with caution. At a new client, a non-native teacher meant a bad first impression; for some high-profile clients, requests for native speakers would frequently flood my inbox; passports were always checked before resumes.

In the Asian market it’s even worse. English teaching jobs in South Korea are almost entirely for native speakers, and even they experience intra-cultural discrimination. If a native speaker is anything but fair skinned, their ability is also deemed inadequate because they don’t meet the physical profile (read Michael Griffin’s post about it here).

Which brings us full circle to the main point: the industry has disguised what students actually want with what they think they want.

…[native teachers] shouldn’t be hired simply for being native speakers just as non-native speakers with ample experience ought not be brushed aside because they aren’t.

The irony in all of this is that most, if not all, ESL learners who have experience with a non-native instructor will tell you that they had absolutely no issue with how the class was delivered. The non-native teachers that I employed experienced tremendous success not because they were personable, international, or carried good senses of humor but because they were good teachers. The other traits are no doubt also important, but students, first and foremost, inherently want a qualified teacher; any student will tell you their first priority is to learn and where their teacher is from is not of great importance.

Which helps perpetuate the incredibly important notion that nativism is certainly not synonymous with qualified — an idea that is increasingly gaining more traction globally. If students or corporate language clients had a greater awareness of how many native ESL instructors gain certification — generally in a four week crash course with little to no practical experience — they may not be so eager to take their classes. That’s not to say that inexperienced teachers shouldn’t be considered, but they shouldn’t be hired simply for being native speakers just as non-native speakers with ample experience ought not be brushed aside because they aren’t.

The answer lies in a two-pronged solution that combines heightened client awareness of what constitutes a valued learning process as well in a responsibility on the part of schools or educational institutes not to succumb to ill-founded client demands; just as no responsible doctor would allow patients to self-diagnose themselves, language institutions cannot let their clientele gauge the quality of instructors.

“That is the final, and I think most beautiful, lesson of Howard Moskowitz: that in embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness.” This is how Gladwell closed his talk, and how I will as well. Optimism remains that a true embracement of human diversity will soon trickle into the current impasse in the language instructor debate. I’m confident that with increased exposure the quality of teachers, not the origin of their passports, will ultimately prevail.

Andrew Woodbury

From Toronto, Canada, Andrew was formerly the Director of Studies of Inlingua, Costa Rica, where he lived for over three years. Now living in Toronto, he is an English language instructor at the International Language Academy of Canada, where he delivers university preparation courses. As a writer, Andrew is a Young Voices Advocate and regular contributor with the PanAm Post. Follow him on Twitter, or read his blog.



0 thoughts on “Students Know What They Are Told to Want: The Non-Native Teacher Debate”

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      1. yeah…I’m not so sure in other countries, but here in Thailand, an American high school drop out hired as a teacher receives a salary two times higher than a Filipino professional teacher (with a Teacher’s Licence issued by the Thai Ministry of Education)…just because the white guy has got blue eyes and blond hair 😛

        1. I don’t doubt it, and that is the case in many other countries as well. This is the physical profile that must be extinguished as it has no bearing on teaching ability – it doesn’t determine positive or negative qualities. Many thanks for reading!

        2. Ajarnral – you should put together an article for this website about it. If the case gets enough exposure, and if enough people start condemning such practices, there might be a small chance they will go away in the future.

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  4. Julia Villamizar

    Excellent. Your sentence ‘nativism is certainly not synonymous with qualified’ explains it all. Sometimes a non-native teacher better understands many students’ problems, s/he can even predict them and detect the reason of many difficulties. S/he could be able share his/her experiences about solving those problems. Many native English teachers have never learnt a second language.

    1. Thanks for the kind words and for reading, Julia. Much appreciated. The discussion isn’t about which is better – there are certainly arguments on both sides – but about giving equal chance to qualified teachers, regardless of origin. I know many poor teachers who are both non-native and native just as I know many fantastic ones on both sides, which simply proves it doesn’t matter. Over the course of a student’s academic life, in the context of language, they should be exposed to both in order to fully take advantage of all the positives and benefit from everything those teachers offer. Thanks so much again for reading. Look forward to seeing you back here!

  5. We are on the look-out for interesting turns of phrase, and your “peel back the kimono of English language instruction” was a nice one.

    We are also on the look-out for parts of the argument that don’t quite gel, and we wonder if there is one in your comparison between chunky spaghetti sauce and the non-native speaker teacher in English language education. The story of the sauce highlights the very real phenomenon of people thinking they want one thing but really wanting something else. But the applicability of that story is limited by the fact that in the case of the sauce there was no question of prejudice. People were not discriminating against chunks; they just didn’t realise how tasty they would be in a spaghetti sauce. In ELT the problem is not simply one of ignorance, but of prejudice.

    And isn’t it a prejudice that goes way, way beyond the narrow sphere of ELT? Don’t the ideas about NNESTs rest on other more questionable ideas about the local culture still being in the past while the the great white American leads the way into the future aided by his quaint British side-kick who reminds him how to keep up the highest possible standards of civilised behaviour so that he does not lose himself in the heart of a plutocratic darkness? Certainly things could improve if it were possible to get the message out about the excellence to be found among the NNESTs, but there is a limit to what can be achieved here because the prejudice goes way deeper than those relatively narrow misconceptions about the mythical skills of the NEST.

    A second problem with the analogy is that the chunky sauce sits quite happily as another product on the supermarket shelves, but ELT does not. You say yourself that the business aspect of ELT is part of the problem. Schools have to sell their wares, and in a market full of shoppers who have accepted their cultural humiliation, it is easier to sell the proud white native speaker than the humiliated non-native.

    In that market situation how can shop-schools “not succumb to ill-founded client demands”? You switch to the analogy with the doctor, but don’t the private schools function more like shops than neighbourhood doctors? If so, we see a second limit to the optimism you mention in the last paragraph: the commodification of education.

    To recover that lost optimism we would (arguably) have to see signs of a move beyond that commodification, with people demanding a more meaningful approach to education generally (not just in ELT) – a shift in culture which would open up a space for a broader dialogue about things like the local cultural humiliation and the prejudice against local teachers that belongs to it.

    1. Hi Torn,
      Thanks for this thoughtful comment.
      I agree that Andrew’s analogy has some flaws and it’s not perfect (as probably most analogies). You rightly point out that people didn’t discriminate against chunks. They simply didn’t know they wanted them. While I agree with what you say next, i.e. the problem is that of prejudice, not ignorance, I would add that ignorance forms a very important part of that problem indeed.
      There is a large group of students who do not really know whether they would like to be taught by a NEST or a NNEST. They might not even be sure what their ideal teacher would be like, let alone what characteristics make a good teacher. As a result, they are likely to be swayed by marketing strategies, such as Learn English with native speakers. Schools and recruiters use this ignorance to attract customers instead of making them aware of what they should really be looking for in a teacher, i.e. qualifications, experience, good command of the language, etc.
      I can also see your point when you say that it is easier to sell a native speaker, and that language schools are businesses. I think one of our main tasks is then to develop a willingness among these businesses to adopt a more logical and egalitarian hiring approach. Of course, there might be initial costs and difficulties for the schools, such as persuading the sts that NNESTs are actually good teachers too, but I don’t think they are impossible to overcome.
      I think there are also potential benefits for a school of taking this more egalitarian approach. Firstly, the quality of teaching is very likely to go up (and tehrefore the customer satisfaction) since there will be a vast new pool of prospective teachers to choose from. Secondly, the school would be joining the more progressive schools (it seems that more and more schools are actually going down the egalitarian path) and avoid staying behind. I also think that the newly added multiculturality would also have a positive effect. All this could be used in the advertising campaigns, i.e. the best teachers, progressive approach to teaching, multicultural staff.
      Finally, I agree to some extent that there might be a deeper problem with achieveing equality as you outlined above and in your post; that is, the dominance of American/British culture, media and economy. However, I wonder whether it is necessary to tackle this issue, which presents itself as very complex and difficult to deal with, right at the very start, or whether it is possible to achieve positive results through other means.
      What do you think?

  6. While I agree completely that it is grotesquely unfair for NNESTS to be overlooked in favour of entirely unskilled and barely qualified NESTS, I have to admit a deep sense of frustration bordering on sadness with the fact that whenever this question is raised, there is an utterly predictable rush to blame the usual suspects of ‘prejudice’ and ‘big business’. To be frank, the depiction of learners as helpless victims of machiavellian American businessmen, unwittingly being manoeuvred into wanting something they don’t really want is itself a condescending, prejudiced and one-dimensional view of those same learners. I’d also argue that you’re completely missing one of the main ‘culprits’ for the growth of apparent anti-NNESTS viewpoint, which is the Communicative Approach revolution. One of the main arguments in favour of NNEST teachers is that having learned the language themselves, and having (usually) gone through university-level courses to become qualified as teachers of the language they have expert knowledge of the language, and how to transmit this knowledge to their learners, unlike a NEST straight off a CELTA course, who may speak the language fluently but have almost no ‘knowledge’ of it at all. However, with the advent of the CLT, the role of the teacher as dispenser of knowledge has, in theory at least, been completely undermined. A CLT teacher is a ‘facilitator’, who is supposed to merely create opportunities for ‘real communication’, and then ‘get the students talking’. I would argue that the growth of this idea – that all you need to do to learn a language is take part in ‘meaningful communication’ with people who speak it, has also had a significant impact on the shift towards the “NESTS are best” attitude. To reiterate, I agree totally with the aims of this blog, and share the view that the treatment of NNESTS is an injustice – but reducing the argument to yet another anti-business, anti-prejudice moral crusade doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the situation.

    1. I agree.
      In university I studied Spanish and French. I was pleased that my Spanish teacher came from Spain and I was disappointed that my French teacher wasn’t actually French and no amount of credentials could shake my opinion that somehow she wasn’t as qualified or teach me something incorrect.

      Now, knowing what I know, I admit these sentiments were prejudicial, but I may have not understood why if I hadn’t later become involved with teaching as a profession.

      Most learners, I’m sure, follow a similar train of thought. It is probably natural for those who don’t understand what it means to teach a language. Furthermore, if you’re a beginner, you might have no way of knowing whether your teacher is legit unless you can be sure he is a native speaker. Maybe he is unqualified but a NNEST could also be unqualified and speak English poorly. There are plenty of NNEST in Asia who are absolutely terrible and teach phrases completely out of date.

      1. Thanks for commenting, Todd.
        I think you hit the nail on the head. While many students might want or expect to have classes with NESTs, it is because this seems like the obvious answer, especially if they haven’t had any good NNESTs, or if the schools in their country market NESTs as the only solution to all your language problems. In a nutshell, most students are NOT informed clients, and many schools live off that ignorance.
        Secondly, I’d say that the vast majority of the sts who expect classes with NESTs are quite open to persuasion. In a recent interview, the Academic Director of IH London, Varinedr Unlu, told me that in 4 years she’s had 4 sts who refused to have classes with NNESTs and would not change their minds. 4 sts! In a school that has well over a thousand. That’s far less than 1%.
        Of course, this figure might differ from country to country, but I firmly believe that the percentage of sts who will never want to have a class with a NNEST (regardless of their experience, teaching skills, etc.) is very low.
        Your comment could make quite an interesting post. If you’d like to expand it into an article, contact me through the Contact section. I do think that this misconception needs to be dealt with.

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  8. Good point. I couldnt agree more. Of course. Here in spain you have to have min a degree, tefl cert/dip and experience. In my experience native mother tongue speakers, with the previously mentioned, have a better understading of the more subtle ambiguitied of the language. Plus, ive never met a non native teacher who speaks better than a native…

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  11. I had some trouble logging into WordPress and don’t see my comment, so my apologies if this posts twice.

    Basically, I almost 100% agree and especially in the country where I teach, I think opening up the industry beyond “she’s a (white) foreigner, she can teach” would be immensely beneficial. It would force employers and students to ruminate more on qualification and ability and less on skin tone, language and nation of origin and that can only be a good thing.

    But I’d like to take a bit of an issue with the end of this piece: the baseline qualification for NESTs entering the industry is not a CELTA or “four week crash course”, it’s nothing at all. You can show up and have the right skin tone and passport (the passport may not even matter if you’re white) and get a job with no training or experience at all in many countries. The school may give you some cursory training, or not, and it might be of some quality, or not.

    So those “four week crash course” teachers, honestly, are doing *better* than the typical NEST English teacher – it’s by no means a complete training, but it’s enough to get them started on a new teacher training regimen as they begin their career. Those courses, including CELTA, were never meant to replace a teaching degree – a lot of people lose sight of that.

    Second, “little to no practical training” implies that other training provides more practica. That is not actually true: someone on a PGCE or doing an American public school teaching license would have to go through a great deal of such experience but Master’s programs generally do not offer it. Next year I will embark on an MEd TESOL and while I’ll be happy to shore up the practical training I received on CELTA and Delta with theoretical and background knowledge, the program doesn’t offer much, if any, practical training (I think it’s included in one elective). So, in fact, those certification and diploma programs probably represent the most practical training an ESL teacher who isn’t a schoolteacher is going to get. That’s not nothing. Experience is great too, but it has to be fortified with observation, assessment and feedback to really provide the same benefits, and in most schools that doesn’t happen.

    Of course none of this is to say that we should still hire NESTs over NNESTs, just that in my opinion, your view of popular NEST training routes is, well, not in line with my experience.

    In Taiwan, the country where I live, and possibly many other countries too (certainly most in Asia), local/NNES teachers often go through a foreign language teaching program (like an MA TESOL, though they often have different names), though in many language schools once a gain no qualification is required which means the level of teaching quality is rather low. The issue is that these programs tend to be heavy on the AppLing and light on pedagogy, if they include it at all. So you get graduates who know a lot about English and almost nothing about how to teach it. They generally come with very little practical experience, if any. Those that do offer pedagogical training often deliver those courses through professors who haven’t kept up-to-date in the field, with outdated core learning points. For many of the professors training new language teachers, a simple communicative approach would seem revolutionary!

    I have had NNEST friends ask me what they should to improve their teaching practice – people with Master’s degrees in teaching English, Chinese, Linguistics or Applied Linguistics – and I tell them straight: get a CELTA, then a Delta. You have the background knowledge but your Master’s program never trained you in how to teach it.

    So, please, don’t assume that the certification courses are always inferior, or that the “four week crash course” is the baseline (it’s really not), or that a teaching degree is always superior.

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