'Native speakerism as a form of racism' by Kirill Degtyarenko

This article was originally published on 24th November 2014 @ low-throughput blog here.

Racism, as well as native speakerism, only survive if they are constantly reinforced through daily discourses that make them seem natural, increasing their power through making them invisible and less likely to be challenged. Todd Ruecker

Six, no, wait, seven months after my CELTA course, the euphoria has all but evaporated. The reason? Job hunt.

According to the CELTA website, the certificate will “open the door to exciting teaching opportunities all over the world”. What it fails to mention is that even if the door is open, you have to be a native English speaker to go through it.

When you browse through jobs at tefl.com, you quickly notice that most positions on offer require not just EFL teachers but native English-speaking teachers (NESTs), also known as “native English teachers”. For entry-level positions in Europe, say Spain, the essential requirements are neither experience nor qualification but English “nativeness” and EU citizenship. (In plain English: British and Irish only need to apply.) Worse still, being a “native” is considered… a qualification [1].

Why? After all, there is no such thing as a native violin player, Java programmer, or surgeon. There is no question that violin, programming or surgery can be taught by the professionals in these respective areas. What is so special about language teaching? Neither the mere fact of having been born or grown up in an English-speaking country is a guarantee of proficiency in English, nor even having English as a mother tongue. I know people born in Ireland whose first language is Irish. I know much more people who lived all their lives in England and whose command of both written and spoken English is absolutely dismal. But here you are. Some advertisers go as far as to claim that it is against the law to hire non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) in their school. Uh-oh.  You also would be right to suspect that it is actually against the law to discriminate on the basis of one’s place of birth [2, 3].

I think at least one of the factors to blame is a proliferation of language “academies” (sorry but most of them don’t deserve the title of “academy” without quotes) whose main claim to existence is “profesorado nativo” [4]. They are (rightly) worrying that being “diluted” by NNESTs will rid them of that singular advantage. Mind you, they also excel at blame-shifting. One recruiter, bless him, confessed to me that he himself was OK with my candidature — he wouldn’t tell that I was not a native, um, American English speaker until I told him otherwise — but it is the parents  of the students who demand native English teachers. Yeah right .

Design: @Teflninja

Design: @Teflninja

There are other reasons behind the “nativeness” requirements though. A few days ago I came across the analysis by Todd Ruecker and Lindsey Ives whose findings “confirm the connection between White privilege and native speaker privilege” [5]. They suggest that

commercialization of the ELT <English language teaching> profession allows for stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals based on age and marginalizes NNESTs despite relevant qualifications, thus denigrating the level of professionalism in the field. In addition, by commercializing the ELT profession in this way, recruitment websites rhetorically reproduce power relations at the intersections of race and language background in a few different ways. First, they delimit who qualifies as a native speaker through the use of repeated images of White teachers and text demanding that teachers produce passports from a list of predominantly White, inner-circle countries . Second, they reinforce the White native speaker norm by positioning the target cultures as exoticized Others in opposition to whom the White, Western teacher is defined. Finally, they extend the possessive investment in Whiteness beyond U.S. borders by articulating the cash value that comes with White native speaker status in the ELT industry.

Apart from that, by perpetuating the myth of native speaker superiority, the ELT industry sends a signal to the EFL learners that they will never be able to have as good a command of English as “natives”. That must be demotivating, to say the least.

I have been contemplating writing a post on this topic for a while. I would procrastinate even longer if not for an email I got three weeks ago:

Many thanks for applying for the position of Freelance Medical Editor with Longdom Publishing <yes that’s their real name>. I am sorry to say that we are only hiring native English speakers for this position, and will therefore not be able to consider your application.

Normally, I never answer these emails, rather press “delete” and move on. But that day I couldn’t help it. In this particular case the requirement of “nativeness” it is even less defensible than for an EFL teacher (nobody was going to hear my accent anyway). It took me about three minutes to write and send a response.

Many thanks for your fast response. You may be interested to know that it is illegal under EU law to discriminate against non-Native English speakers, which is exactly what your company does.

There has been no reply so far. It matters not. From now on, I will treat similar emails like this, it costs me nothing and makes me feel good.

  1. Rebuffet-Broadus, C. Qualification required: Native English speaker, 2 March 2014.
  2. Kiczkowiak, M. (Non-)Nativity Scenes, March 2014.
  3. Kiczkowiak, M. ‘Native speakers only’ ads and EU law, 1 April 2014.
  4. Vidales, R. (2014) La ‘burbuja lingüística’ dispara el fraude en las academias de idiomas. El País, 12 June 2014.
  5. Ruecker, T. and Ives, L. White native English speakers needed: the rhetorical construction of privilege in online teacher recruitment spaces. TESOL Quarterly, 25 September 2014.

kirillBorn, raised and educated in USSR, Kirill obtained his Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 1992. He lived in Russia, Italy, England, Spain and Finland. He dedicated 20 years of his life to science and spent two years trying to earn his living as a dance fitness instructor before deciding that what Spain really needs is another EFL teacher. In 2014, he completed CELTA training. After a wonderful if underpaid academic year of teaching English in the north of Spain, he is back to full-time job hunt. He is the author of several blogs including sólo algunas palabras and Listen, Learn, Read.

0 thoughts on “'Native speakerism as a form of racism' by Kirill Degtyarenko

  1. Marc says:

    Good luck with the job hunt if it is still going on.

    Here in Japan, I’ve found that most jobs requiring native speakers are not worth applying for as the wages are horrendously low.

  2. Christine Buettner says:

    I am myself a trained CELTA-teacher and I hold a German teaching degree for secondary education (English/Geography/Social Studies). As I have luckily found a job as a teacher at a Sixth Form College here in Germany, I don’t really need to rely on my CELTA-qualification (which isn’t worth much, as I am not a native speaker). However, I actually had my fair share of NESTs and it was not pleasant!!! During a year working in England, I participated in an English course for the Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency (highest level of Cambridge exams!). We were a group of German, Swiss and Spanish students, training to be English teachers in our homecountries. We soon got the impression that our teacher wasn’t capable of teaching us anything new, as she hadn’t got the language insight (grammar and linguistics) we had. We were clearly disappointed. But when confronting her with our problem, she was only annoyed and told us off.
    If I had to hire second language teachers, I would go for qualification (especially teaching foreign language qualification) rather than nativeness, because I would NOT consider myself a good German teacher for German proficiency courses although I am native to the language!

    • soloalgunaspalabras says:

      According to the Cambridge Institute, CPE is the level of English when “learners are approaching a standard of English similar to that of an educated native speaker”. In reality, very few English native speakers, at least in Britain, can pass CPE.

  3. John says:

    I’m surprised that you would go for an ESL job. With a PhD I would have thought that it would be much more lucrative to be teaching/doing a biology related course. I’m an English teacher but often feel that it’s not a real job.

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