Students prefer ‘native speakers’

Whenever I get into discussions with people in ELT about job ads for ‘native speakers’ only, one of the most common replies I get is that it’s all driven by market demand, so until we change students’ perceptions, there’s little that we can do to persuade schools to hire teachers based on merit rather than passport or mother tongue.

This argument has been repeated so often by so many that it’s become one of these ELT unquestionable ‘truths’ (such as catering to learning styles enhances learning, vocabulary is best learnt through lexical sets, etc.) which we accept as given.

So in this post I want to look at the market demand argument to see whether it stands up to scrutiny.

I will argue that students don’t necessarily prefer ‘native speakers’, but that they prefer good teachers.

Students prefer ‘native speakers’

On the face of it, this assumption is pretty solid. However, when you start looking at research evidence, you’ll see that there is little to support it.

And there has been plenty of research done on the topic all over the world. It’s not possible for me to look at all the studies in detail (this would probably take a whole book), but I’ve selected as many as was feasible for this post.

To make it easier to digest, I’ve divided the research findings into several bigger groups:

  • students appreciate ‘non-native speaker’ teachers
  • students value skills an characteristics unrelated to teacher’s L1
  • students’ find teaching effectiveness far more important than ‘nativeness’
  • students would like to be taught both by ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’
  • the preference for ‘native speakers’ (or lack thereof) is not fixed
  • the labels themselves might be part of the problem

I’ve also reviewed some of the findings in this video. Below the video is a more detailed summary.

Students Appreciate ‘non-native Speaker’ Teachers

  • Mahboob (2004), who analysed students’ essays on the topic of who is a better teacher: ‘native’ or ‘non-native’, found that ‘native speakers’ received 29 positive comments and 12 negative ones; in contrast with ‘non-native speakers’ who received 69 positive comments and only 6 negative ones
  • In a survey of 643 ESL students of ten different L1s, Moussu (2006) found that 87% thought the ‘non-native speaker’ teacher teaching them was a good teacher, while 79% would recommend having classes with a ‘non-native speaker’ to their friends
  • University students in Hong Kong reported that they enjoyed studying with ‘non-native speaker’ teachers and overall had favourable attitudes towards them (Cheung and Braine, 2007)
  • In Korea, 64.8% of students disagreed that English should only be taught by ‘native speakers’ (Chun, 2014)

This suggests that ‘non-native speakers’ should not be dismissed out of hand because many students do seem to value what these teachers can bring to the table.

students value skills and characteristics unrelated to teacher’s l1

  • Chinese students have been found to prefer teachers who were knowledgeable, patient and empathetic (Cortazzi and Jin, 1996)
  • In Thailand, Mullock (2010) reports that students valued highly teachers who were knowledgeable about the language, proficient and able to maintain good rapport
  • In my own PhD study involving students in Poland, the four characteristics that participants found to be the most important in a good English teacher were: proficiency, ability to convey knowledge effectively, ability to motivate students and having good rapport with students.

This probably means that if as a director of studies you really want to cater to your students needs and preferences, you might first survey them to find out exactly what they value highly in English teachers and then hire teachers which exhibit these traits or skills.

Students find Teaching effectiveness far more important than ‘nativeness’

  • Walkinshaw and Duong (2012), who studied 50 learners in Vietnam, asked participants to decide whether they found ‘nativeness’ or a particular teaching skill or characteristic (e.g. qualifications, friendly personality, teaching experience, etc.) to be more important. Interestingly, in ALL cases (apart from pronunciation) students valued the teaching skill or characteristic more highly than ‘nativeness’.
  • In my own unpublished PhD I asked Polish EFL learners to list 7 most important skills and characteristic of an effective English teacher. Not a single one listed ‘nativeness’. When I then surveyed students, ‘nativeness’ turned out to be the least important characteristic of an effective English teacher on a list of 10.
  • Similar results were obtained by Ali (2009), who studied EFL students in the Gulf Countries. One of the participants emphasised that:

“teachers should be selected because of their skills, qualification, and dedication, not the (…) English country they lived in” (Eiman, email interview quoted in Ali, 2009, p. 49).

Students Would like to be taught by both ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers

  • In Spain, 70.2% of university students expressed a preference for being taught by both groups (Lasagabaster and Sierra, 2005)
  • In Hungary, 82% percent preferred such a mix (Benke and Medgyes, 2005)
  • In Polish high schools, 95% would ideally like to be taught by both ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers‘ (Kula, 2011)

This suggests that hiring a mix of ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers would better reflect the preferences of the students than hiring ‘native speakers’ only.

The preference for ‘native speakers’ (or lack thereof) is not fixed

  • Pacek (2005), who analysed ESL students in the UK, showed that while at the beginning of the course over 30% were concerned that their teacher was a ‘non-native speaker’, a mere 2% expressed any concerns near the end of the course
  • The more students knew about the lingua franca nature of the English language, the more positive they were towards ‘non-native speaker’ teachers (Jin, 2005)
  • Students who had used English in English as a Lingua Franca contexts (i.e. in multilingual, international contexts where many speakers are other ‘non-natives’) were less likely to see ‘native speakers’ as the only sources of correct English or linguistic authority ( Wang and Jenkins, 2016)
  • Pressure from parents can also cause a preference for ‘native speaker’ teachers (Subtirelu, 2013)

This shows that educating students about the global spread of the English language, as well as exposing them to successful ‘non-native’ users of the language and good ‘non-native speaker’ teachers might contribute towards diminishing the preference for ‘native speakers’.

The labels themselves might be part of the problem

  • Aslan and Thompson (2016) asked ESL learners to rate different qualities (e.g. ability to motivate them) of the teachers that were currently teaching them. In order to avoid possible unconscious bias against ‘non-native speakers’, the researchers did not use the labels ‘native’ or ‘non-native’, so the students simply had to rate how good their teacher was without associating this rating with one of the labels. When results were analysed, it turned out that statistically there was no significant difference between how high (or low) the participants rated ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers on the different skills and qualities. In other words, in the eyes of the students the ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers were equal.
  • McKenzie (2008) highlights that only the recordings of ‘native speakers’ who participants correctly identified as ‘native speakers’ were rated highly. In other words, when students KNOW we’re listening to a ‘native speaker’, they’re more likely to respond to their pronunciation more positively than they would otherwise
  • Watson-Todd and Pojanapunya (2009), and Kramadibrata (2016) show that there is a discrepancy between the explicit and implicit attitudes students exhibit towards the two groups. In both studies they also show that non-White teachers are rated less favourably on their pronunciation and teaching skills

This suggests that a profound unconscious bias might be in play, possibly influenced by the ideology of native speakerism.

Conclusions and practical implications

The research reviewed here shows that there is little evidence to suggests that the vast majority of students prefers ‘native speakers’ regardless of everything else.

It is clear that many students appreciate ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. It is also clear that quite a few would like to be taught by both groups.

There is also little doubt that there are numerous other skills and qualities which students value more highly in English teachers. In other words, it seems to me that deep down what students want are good English teachers.

If you are a school director, I completely understand that you might be worried about hiring ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. I hope that this post might reassure you that students’ preferences are much more complex than an unequivocal preference for ‘native speakers’.

I would also suggest that asking the students who they prefer: a ‘native speaker’ or a ‘non-native’ is the wrong question to ask. What it’s likely to elicit is a response based on prejudices, myths and biases caused by native speakerism.

What is vital to do as a result is to talk to our students and discuss this issue with them. Rather than immediately succumb to pressure from students or their parents, I think it is important to first talk to them. To reassure them about the quality and professionalism of ALL your teaching staff. To strongly support the ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. To ask students to give the ‘non-native speaker’ teacher a chance.

I’ve talked to numerous school directors who do these and much more and who do not give in to parents’ or students’ demands.

And it seems to work very well for them. Their schools are doing well. The vast majority of students are happy. The students who initially complained and then continued having classes with the ‘non-native speaker’ teacher are still at the school and are happy.

So I completely understand that customer satisfaction is fundamental for a director of studies.

But if we really want to respond to our students’ preferences, we need to go much deeper than simply asking them if they want a ‘native’ or a ‘non-native’.

We need to ask the students what personal qualities they find important in an English teacher. What skills do they value highly. What are their specific learning needs and goals.

And then choose (or recruit) the teacher that best fits this profile.

References

Ali, S. (2009). Teaching English as an International Language (EIL) in the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) Countries: The Brown Man’s Burden. In F. Sharifian (Ed.), English as an International Language: Perspectives and Pedagogical Issues (pp. 34–57). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Aslan, E., & Thompson, A. S. (2016). Are They Really “Two Different Species”? Implicitly Elicited Student Perceptions About NESTs and NNESTs. TESOL Journal, n/a-n/a. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.268

Benke, E., & Medgyes, P. (2005). Differences in Teaching Behaviour between Native and Non-Native Speaker Teachers: As seen by the Learners. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-Native Language Teachers (pp. 195–215). New York: Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-24565-0_11

Cheung, L. Y., & Braine, G. (2007). The Attitudes of University Students towards Non-native Speakers English Teachers in Hong Kong. RELC Journal, 38(3), 257–277. https://doi.org/10.1177/0033688207085847

Chun, S. Y. (2014). EFL learners’ beliefs about native and non-native English-speaking teachers: perceived strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 35(6), 563–579. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2014.889141

Cortazzi, M., & Jin, L. (1996). Cultures of learning: Language classrooms in China. In H. Coleman (Ed.), Society and the language classroom. (pp. 169–203). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jin, J. (2005). Which is better in China, a local or a native English-speaking teacher? English Today, 21(03), 39–46. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0266078405003081

Kramadibrata, A. (2016). The Halo surrounding native English speaker teachers in Indonesia. Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 5(2), 282. https://doi.org/10.17509/ijal.v5i2.1352

Kula, J. (2011). Postawy polskich uczniów szkoły średniej wobec nauczycieli rodzimych i nie-rodzimych użytkowników języka angielskiego. Studium przypadku. (MA). Jagiellonian University, Kraków.

Lasagabaster, D., & Sierra, J. M. (2005). What do Students Think about the Pros and Cons of Having a Native Speaker Teacher? In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-Native Language Teachers (pp. 217–241). New York: Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-24565-0_12

Mahboob, A. (2004). Native or non-native: What do the students think? In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and Teaching from Experience. Perspectives on Nonnative English-speaking Professionals (pp. 121–148). Ann Arbor, MA: University of Michigan Press.

McKenzie, R. M. (2008). The role of variety recognition in Japanese university students’ attitudes towards English speech varieties. Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development, 29(2), 139–153. https://doi.org/10.2167/jmmd565.0

Moussu, L. M. (2006, August). Native and Nonnative English-Speaking English as a Second Language Teachers: Student Attitudes, Teacher Self-Perceptions, and Intensive English Administrator Beliefs and Practices. Purdue University, Lafayette, IN.

Mullock, B. (2010). Does a Good Language Teacher Have to Be a Native Speaker? In A. Mahboob (Ed.), The NNEST Lens: Non Native English Speakers in TESOL (pp. 87–113). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Pacek, D. (2005). “Personality Not Nationality”: Foreign Students’ Perceptions of a Non-Native Speaker Lecturer of English at a British University. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-Native Language Teachers (pp. 243–262). New York: Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-24565-0_13

Subtirelu, N. (2013). What (do) learners want (?): a re-examination of the issue of learner preferences regarding the use of “native” speaker norms in English language teaching. Language Awareness, 22(3), 270–291. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658416.2012.713967

Walkinshaw, I., & Duong, O. T. H. (2012). Native- and Non-Native Speaking English Teachers in Vietnam: Weighing the Benefits. TESL-EJ: Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, 16(3), [no pagination]. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244014534451

Wang, Y., & Jenkins, J. (2016). “Nativeness” and Intelligibility: Impacts of Intercultural Experience Through English as a Lingua Franca on Chinese Speakers’ Language Attitudes. Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics, 39(1), 38–58. https://doi.org/10.1515/cjal-2016-0003

Watson Todd, R., & Pojanapunya, P. (2009). Implicit attitudes towards native and non-native speaker teachers. System, 37(1), 23–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2008.08.002

5 thoughts on “Students prefer ‘native speakers’

  1. Naveeda says:

    Who cares about what student perceptions are when it’s all controlled by the recruiters. Despite having all and in some cases more than what was required for a particular ELT job, even after talking to the recruiters and getting very positive feedback from them after our conversations, when I told I was a non native, they never contacted me again. It’s all about blond hair, white skin and the passports whether you agree or not.

    • Marek - TEFL Equity Advocates & Academy says:

      Thanks for your comment, Naveeda. As a ‘non-native speaker’, I do understand your frustration as I’ve been in similar situations on numerous occasions. As you point out, racism is also quite widespread in ELT recruitment, unfortunately.
      However, I do think it is important to talk about whether students really prefer ‘native speaker’ teachers because this is the main reason many recruiters give for not hiring ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. I hope that this post might convince some of them to reconsider their recruitment policies

  2. M. Makino says:

    I should say first that I agree in principle with your project. To make your argument more complete, you may want to address these issues in particular:
    -Positive assessments of teachers after having been in their classes won’t mitigate recruiters’ fears that non-native teachers will drive down recruitment.
    -Not mentioning NS status at all or having a complicated (if true) conversation around the issue puts one at a disadvantage when surrounded by competing schools who trumpet out appeals to potential students’ prejudices.
    -In many countries, NS/NNS skills are considered separate, which might lead to results such as the Chun (2014) one above. Only NS teachers might be taken as synonymous with “only communication, no grammar or test prep”.

    • Marek Kiczkowiak says:

      Thanks for your comment.
      A) could you explain why you don’t think positive appraisal of ‘non-native speaker’ teachers won’t mitigate recruiters fears? It would seem to me that if it turns out that many students are indeed quite happy with their ‘non-native speaker’ teachers after having classes with them, that’s actually a good reason to continue hiring ‘non-native speakers’, isn’t it? Or am I missing something here?
      B) I’m not entirely sure this is always the case. I know numerous schools and directors of studies who refuse to give in to clients who demand ‘native speakers’ and their schools are doing very well. Perhaps the key is emphasis on professionalism and teaching excellency rather than L1? Also, if you have an equal opportunities policy, you’ll likely end up with a mix of the two groups. This means that students will also at some point have classes with ‘native speakers’
      C) very true. In Kula’s study I refer to, this led to a situation where ‘native speakers’ were considered far better at teaching communication, while ‘non-native speakers’ at teaching grammar. That’s why I think the labels themselves are part of the problem.
      Thanks for taking the time to read the post and comment 🙂

      • M. Makino says:

        A) Positive appraisals of teachers from students in their classes are from people who have already chosen to enroll. It stands to reason that those are people who are already less inclined to consider NS/NNS status important.
        B) I think you’re clearly right in certain cases. I’m thinking mostly of the chain schools (about half of all schools nationwide) I knew in Japan who would have rapid turnover in both students and teachers and relied on brand image and price rather than professionalism to appeal to potential students. Professionalism is at the very least expensive and probably difficult to explain in a pamphlet or 30-second commercial. I certainly agree that it would be better if NS were a less powerful symbol.
        C) In my experience, this was the overwhelming consensus in EFL, and was not a belief that existed in isolation but was related to a lot of other widely-shared beliefs on language and identity. I think it would be difficult to do away with these labels without radically changing people’s common-sense views of language and identity.

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