'It's what the students want' by James Taylor

One of the most common counter arguments you’ll hear if you get into an argument about the qualities of native vs non-native teachers is “Well, it doesn’t really matter as this is what the students want anyway. I’m just meeting their expectations.” I really don’t buy this point of view, not for any research based reason, but based on my experience teaching in four different continents. I’ve never heard a student say to me “James, it’s so good to have a teacher from England, it’s much better than having a local teacher.” I’ve also never heard of a school failing because of their lack of native teachers. In fact, the only prejudice I’ve ever heard has come from school owners.

But even if we accept that this is true, which I categorically don’t, it’s still a weak and flawed argument. The students must be getting this idea from somewhere, as they are unlikely to be experts in language learning or education. I would like to suggest that if you think that students want a native teacher, perhaps the idea comes from how they are sold English courses.

Let’s take a look at some examples. Perhaps the most popular online learning platform for English is the Open English website. This is what you’ll see when you open their site, right at the top of the page:

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Scroll down a bit, and you’ll find this:

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This one sentence is so flawed and problematic, it needs its own blog post. Open English have a history of insulting, prejudiced advertising so this shouldn’t be a surprise.

Here’s a new app that recently appeared in my Facebook feed:

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It’s even called Native! Here’s how it works:

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There you go – who knew language learning could be so easy! But seriously, the only mention of teaching is “your personal language tutor”, whoever that may be. The entire promotion of this app is a continuation of the fallacy of native superiority, although I would add that it is an insult to anyone who teaches English with it’s assumption that all you have to do to learn a language is ‘speak’.

And if I do a cursory search for English courses where I live in Costa Rica, here’s what I find:

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The teachers are North American and English

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About us: All of our English and Portuguese teachers are foreigners, natives that speak English or Portuguese to a professional capacity, certified and with experience.”

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Other strengths of this programme: The large majority of our teachers are natives of the USA or Canada, they have studied education and are highly specialised.

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… with teachers that have English as a native language.


So perhaps the problem here is not that the students automatically think that a native teacher is better, but rather this is what they learn from what they are being sold by marketing people and school owners who probably, at best, have a fleeting idea of how to learn a language. If you think this is what students want, then you might be better off speaking to the person who markets your school and ask them why they are relying on this outdated and outmoded method of promotion.

48942-jamestaylorheadshotOriginally from Brighton, UK, James has taught English as a foreign language to adults in Brazil, South Korea, Belgium and Costa Rica. He is the current President and a co-founder of BELTA, the Belgian English Language Teachers Association. You can also find him moderating #ELTchat, a weekly discussion on Twitter with teachers from around the world, presenting the #ELTchat podcast, mentoring teachers for iTDi, blogging and taking photographs. You can read his blog here.

0 thoughts on “'It's what the students want' by James Taylor”

  1. Or theyre selling it as the antedote to poor public school classes. Ive met very few people who were genuinely satisfied with their English education back at school and teaching in the UK was told we were the remedy needed to put those poor memories to bed.

    This isnt fair on people. It cuts both ways as well, NS can be bracketed as airhead backpackers and boxed into the ‘fun with the blond American’ class.

    So we all suffer!

    Ultimately though, you can understand that after many years of public school that they are sick to death of ‘studying’ English and want to finally practice it.

    1. Sure. I think the point then is to have a pedagogically trained teacher who will provide practice with the language. The L1 of the teacher has absolutely no effect on how well or badly they can teach. It’s much more to do with what teacher training you have gone through.
      I also agree that the constant comparisons between NS and NNS lead to more stereotypes. I think that’s why it’s high time we started judging all teachers based on their qualifications, experience, demonstrable language proficiency, etc. rather than a mere accident of birth.

  2. This belief usually IS what they want, in the sense that they want it to be as far away from high school English as is possible.

    A Japanese student looking for Speaking practice will usually not want to risk Mr Saito 3rd grade teacher Pt2. It reminds them of failure, boredom and extreme pressure. A “native speaker” class SOUNDS like the perfect antedote.

    It cuts both ways, NS can often be boxed into the “chat about films with the blond airhead” class where you can be banned from talking about anything linguistic.

    I think stidents dont mind who is teaching them in the end, as long as theyre definitely not going to turn out to be the authoritarian from when they were 15.

  3. Hi James! Thanks for this post. It is clear – and I hope most would agree – that the rhetoric of those big language companies are encouraging/feeding into the non-native discrimination, which they shouldn’t be.

    The school I work at not only doesn’t discriminate against non-natives but encourages employing them and giving them the levels that they are usually not associated with, such as Proficiency, if they feel they want to teach such levels (no one is forced to teach a level they aren’t comfortable with). Unfortunately, even with this positive attitude from the school, many students still say “hey, I pay good money to come here to get a native teacher, especially at this level – not some Argentine.” I’ve heard so many clients say that not only in Argentina but in other countries I have worked in, including the UK and Poland.

    This is something schools have to combat. It must be hard for them though: on the one hand, they want to keep their clients happy; on the other hand, they want to be the beacon of change that is so desperately needed in this industry.

    So, while you’ve never heard a learner say to you “I’m glad I have a native and not a local teacher”, I’m afraid that won’t universally apply, as I’ve heard that very statements more than once or twice in my short teaching career so far.

    1. Hi Anthony,
      I definitely agree that there are learners who want classes with NS. However, for the market demand argument to be sound, they would have to be the majority, which no research shows to be the case. Also, we’d have to assume that such students would immediately leave the school unless they were given their NS, something for which I’ve also seen no evidence in literature. While having a NS teacher might be important for certain clients, we should also ask ourselves how important it is in comparison to numerous other factors that influence students’ choice of school, such as qualifications if the teachers, reputation of the school, price, schedule, location, etc. There’s absolutely no reason to believe in my opinion that the majority of students make their choice based only on whether the school employs only NS. Finally, we’re not arguing that the school should stop employing NS. That would be crazy. But having a mixture of both is surely not going to scare the clients away, especially if you start emphasising the quality of the employed teachers.
      I definitely agree with you that it’s a difficult matter to handle for any DoS, but as you said, unless we try to educate our clients out of their prejudices, things are unlikely to change.

      1. Thanks Anthony. I think two more factors that we have to take into account when considering this idea of whether it’s true if students want a native speaker or not. The first is the lack of evidence. I’m not aware of any literature on what students actually say about this, so I have to rely on my experience which I’ll be the first to admit is a very unreliable source.

        The second is what you could call the ‘local fallacy’. It’s very common on comment threads on Facebook below TEFL Equity Advocates articles to see people use their own environment as proof of how good or bad the situation is. This doesn’t denigrate people’s experiences, they are perfectly valid in sculpting your point of view, but to use it as representative of the whole debate can create a false impression.

        As a result, our experiences could be very different and equally unrepresentative of a wider problem, which makes it even harder to come up with a one size fits all solution.

  4. This is a very interesting post. James has done an excellent job collecting these ads. ‘Pictures speak louder than words!’ There is no doubt at all that (as both James and Anthony say) a certain section of the ELT industry has a marketing policy which clearly reinforces the ‘NEST is best’ stereotype.
    Re the other issue, I am afraid I will have to side with Anthony. Just because people do not go up NESTs to say that they are grateful they do not have a local EL teacher does not mean that they are not pleased about the fact. And whereas I have heard of many incidents of parents / students expressing a preference for NESTs, not once have I heard the opposite.
    There is a real risk among people who would like to change the world for the better (feminists / socialists / liberals / civil rights activists / teflequityadvocates etc.) to fall for what is known as the ‘moralistic fallacy’ (e.g. ‘Racism is immoral, ergo it cannot have a basis in human nature – it is all socialisation’). In my opinion, this sometimes happens in our camp as well. I believe that many students do prefer NESTs and some in the ELT industry try to capitalize on this, thereby reinforcing this preference.
    I think it would be helpful if we looked at the notion of ‘NEST’ as a brand. At present, it enjoys premium status. Barden (in ‘Decoded’ – p. 22) gives an excellent example which for me perfectly captures the difference between NESTs and NNESTs in the market today: “The VW Sharan and the Ford Galaxy are identical cars – both produced in the same factories – but consumers have been willing to spend a premium of € 2,000 for the frame that the VW brand added” (more on the ‘NEST brand’ in another post).
    The big question for us is how to change this (and James is IMO right in suggesting we need to target school owners – among others). Changing things is not going to be easy, but it is feasible. NS accents are a good case in point. In the past, American accents were looked down on while certain accents in the UK could automatically relegate someone to the British equivalent of dalit status (see Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’). This has all but disappeared today. Change is possible. It is up to us.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Nick, and for pointing out that particular fallacy. As you can see from my comment above, I’m a big fan of fallacies (if that makes sense!) and I’m acutely aware that they are something that affect us all, including me. That said, while I recognise that there may be a touch of ‘moralistic fallacy’ about my article, I think the bigger problem is that I have to rely on anecdotal evidence. The problem is, what choice do I have?

      The local environment is another factor in creating expectations. I’ve just moved to Brasilia, where there are very few NESTs I’ve heard (anecdotal, I know). It would be interesting to find out if students here would be as demanding as the ones described above when there is no realistic chance of the need being met.

      The branding of NESTs is a great point and that comes from both the schools and the teachers themselves (ever seen those posters on lampposts in big cities that advertise English teachers? What’s the first thing they say? Native speaker, American or British.) As we’ve always said, changing this is possible but it won’t happen overnight.

      1. I just wanted to add that there is absolutely no evidence in literature to support the view that the majority of students prefer any NS to any NNS. Also, the question is too simplistic and doesn’t take into account the skills, experience and qualifications each individual teacher might have. As a result, it misleads the students into thinking that one is always better than the other.

        1. Well Marek, I am prepared to take your word for it. I know that you would never say something as commital as that if you hadn’t checked your facts/figures first. I also agree that the question itself (‘Who would you rather be taught by – a NEST or a NNEST?’) is misleading. I wonder though whether we have chosen the right place for the ‘battle’. What if it somehow turns out that students have been influenced by all the hype around NESTs etc. etc. that many of them do think NESTs are better? This still doesn’t make it right. I think it would be easier for us to argue that it is stereotyping that it is wrong; the automatic assumption that NESTs are better (by default) without taking into account what you say – qualifications, skills and experience. Regardless of student perceptions. (I know that the reason you insist on this is that this is the excuse given by some in the field for continuing their discriminatory practices, but this is just an excuse – it is like saying ‘We employ white waiters because people prefer that’; even if such a thing were true it is still racist and unacceptable).

          1. You’ve got a point there. It’s certainly morally wrong, but perhaps many haven’t realised it yet. I guess half a century ago some wouldn’t have been offended by ads excluding women, or black people, while now almost everyone would (and rightly so). I think you should write a post about it for the blog 🙂

      2. There is nothing wrong with anecdotal evidence – esp if it helps highlight something that we all know is true. When we see short video clips about police violence against blacks in the US, this is anecdotal evidence. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions perhaps, but I think they are useful in highlighting a persistent problem, namely institutional racism. Anyway, to come back to the main issue, I thought that your article was hugely effective precisely because it offered concrete examples (with pictures too!). If you had offered statistics and figures people might have questioned them, but nobody can argue with pictures… 🙂

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