'The narrow funnel: geo-discrimination in ELT' by Richard Ellul

TEA: This post was originally written and published by Richard Ellul on his blog here. It’s reposted here with the consent of the author.

As the importance of the English language increased over the years, so too did the number of people travelling to other countries to learn this crucial language. English it seems is a key that unlocks a multitude of opportunities and can help achieve new heights in their professional career. That’s where English as a second language(ESL) teachers come in. A lucrative market exists for those with the skills and qualifications to teach English to those who need it.

As a result, supply has stepped up to meet the demand. Hordes of eager graduates see English teaching as an exciting way to save money while travelling the world and embracing other cultures. There is however an unfortunate obstacle that some, indeed many of these individuals encounter. Indeed, the deck has been stacked against them, for schools around the world have bought into the myth of the native speaker.

A native speaker is a person who speaks a language to a high degree of excellence, as it is his or her mother tongue. So far so good. The thing is however that while schools have for a long time advertised having native speakers as teachers, these teachers typically hail from a few majority Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon countries. The usual suspects are the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa. Other countries whose native language is English and who produce quality English teachers with clear accents, are simply ignored. Some companies even go as far as to state that this is due to “visa reasons” as though visas for other countries would be too much of a hassle to obtain.

As a native of Malta, I have suffered this indirect form of discrimination. I’ve had to send hundreds of CVs, in the full knowledge that I was fighting a losing battle. What use were my years of experience or indeed my qualifications? Why bother doing my DELTA or DipTesol when a large number of vacancies blatantly state that only nationals of the aforementioned countries need apply? My argument here is not simply that being native or non-native does not make you a good or bad teacher per se. Rather, it is that the EFL industry is being woefully shortsighted in refusing to acknowledge vast numbers of genuine native speakers merely because they’re either unaware of their existence, or more likely because they couldn’t be bothered. I won’t go into skin colour preferences and other considerations although some countries like South Korea in particular have been known to actively discriminate even against native speakers who don’t look “white enough.”

To be frank, my dear fellow non-recognized native speakers, I fear we find ourselves very much grasping the short end of the stick. We were not born in one of the key passport countries and thus are at a distinct disadvantage from the get go. While several equality issues regarding race or gender have been resolved in our time, the EFL industry remains actively discriminatory, seemingly concerned more about country of origin than it is of teacher quality or reliability. It’s like entering a ring or stadium to compete against someone who already has the referee’s favour.

pulling strings

In conclusion, I do understand that the tone of this argument is somewhat negative and indeed, I am quite upset that I have to send hundreds of CVs just to get the odd Skype interview, while others with perhaps a fraction of the ability or experience are asked when they can start working for the overseas company. There is perhaps one silver lining however. Adversity builds character, and while I wouldn’t blame you for turning away from EFL if you find fairer and more lucrative areas of employment, if you stick to your guns, sheer numbers mean you should be able to land a job eventually (see the Hall of Fame for schools and job boards with egalitarian hiring policies).

Perhaps if more people are made aware of the ways the EFL industry is shooting itself in the foot and closing its doors on thousands of excellent native speakers from all corners of the globe, things can be changed for the benefit of all parties concerned, and the myth of the caucasian only native speaker can be dismantled once and for all so people have the chance to compete not on the basis of where their mother gave birth to them, but of whether they can actually cut it as a teacher or not. Now wouldn’t that be something!

Rich Profile Pic [2848280]My name is Richard Ellul and I’m from Malta. I’ve been teaching on and off since 2003, while indulging in my passion of travelling around the world. The reason I am interested in TeflEquityAdvocates is that I feel that teachers should be judged on the basis of their abilities rather than on whichever country they happened to be born in. It is my hope that through the work carried out by said organisation, more awareness can be raised and changes can be made. It is absurd that in an age in which strides are being made to promote between the sexes and between races, we still have to endure discrimination on the basis of nationality.

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4 years ago

But why would anyone want to work for such crap companies?

4 years ago

I remember training in Malta many years ago. I had a trainee who needed to pass the IELTS exam to gain a place in a UK uni. She was a native speaker and had a CELTA, degree etc. I thought it was mad at the time .

EAPsteve (@EAPstephen)

Thanks for sharing this piece. It’s awful to hear about such discriminatory hiring practice. As someone born with the privilege of being considered a “native” speaker, I can only offer my sympathy. You are right that the TEFL industry is being short-sighted in this respect but I am not sure that simply widening the classification of native solves the problem. The problem, fundamentally, is (as you say), the native/non-native distinction – the idea that simply being born in a certain country makes you a better teacher (whether that country be Ireland, Malta or Poland) is deeply flawed and doesn’t reflect… Read more »

4 years ago

Thanks for your comments. I am optimistic that things will change for the better in the future. We just need to be patient and keep highlighting the issues and raising awareness until it becomes standard for schools to hire people based on teaching ability and other qualities rather than which passport they happen to possess.

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