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'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.

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thesecretalt
Guest

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… Read more »

thesecretalt
Guest

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… Read more »

Matthew
Guest
Matthew

Such a refreshing perspective..and spot on!

Anthony Ash
Guest

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,… Read more »

eltnick
Guest

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… Read more »

James Taylor
Member

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… Read more »

eltnick
Guest

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… Read more »

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[…] native speakers or near-native speakers” – you may often come across such a line in various advertisements promoting vacancies for language teachers. What does “being a native or near-native speaker” […]

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[…] in a way, the word native helps to cover up some discriminatory hiring policies. It is a lot easier to say “I just want native English speakers” than to say “I […]

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[…] same level of qualifications or experience. Most of them had a preference for native speakers (as I’ve written about here), but qualified teachers were not on their radar. As a result, the school where I worked normally […]

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