Why is the term ‘non-native speaker’ so problematic? by Sulaiman Jenkins

I’ve had a lot of fruitful discussions with Marek Kiczkowiak and Andy Hockley as of late, and it was from our dialogue that I was encouraged to inject another perspective into this international conversation on native speakerism.

As a Black American, a ‘native speaker’ of the language, and a graduate of some of the US’s most prestigious academic institutions (Amherst/BA, NYU/MA), I have both enjoyed the privileges of native speakerism while simultaneously sharing some of the struggles of my ‘non-native’ teacher colleagues. For that, I felt it imperative that I join the discussion, helping my peers realize that they are just as talented and capable (in many instances, more so!) than anyone holding a US, British, Canadian, or any other Inner Circle passport.

I’d like to eventually talk about my personal experiences with what I term ‘perceived’ native speakerism in a later blog post. But for now, my primary concern is discussing why we urgently need a more constructive, empowering term to describe native speakers of languages other than English.

In a recent article I wrote about “a powerful plenary session …[in which] Richardson (2016) reminded us that the term, ‘non-native’ has been and continues to be offensive to many professional English language instructors…offensive….because it ‘asserts what [people] are by negating what [they] are not” (Jenkins, 2017). The use of the term “non-native” perpetuates the stereotyping of TESOL professionals and research has shown that the recycling of this term in professional circles leads some ‘non-native’ TESOL teachers to feel inadequate. She asked in the session, ‘How is it possible that it is still a legitimate term in our professional discourse in 2016?’ (Richardson 2016).

That question reminded me of a similar issue in the US about a derogatory term for Native Americans that a particular sports team continued to use even though many Native Americans had repeatedly stated it is highly offensive and petitioned to have it removed. If the people to whom the term is referring are upset and offended by it, then it reasons that it should not be acceptable to use it, right?

Furthermore, in TESOL is there any academic currency to using descriptors (i.e. ‘non-‘) that affirm an identity by confirming what it is not? In describing myself as a ‘non-Canadian’ and ‘non-Republican’ speaker of English, are these descriptions helpful, in the least, in providing meaningful information about what my capabilities in language teaching are? Even more basic than that, could one discern what my nationality is? What my political affiliation is?

The ‘non-’ identifier simply indicates that I’m not a Canadian citizen nor a Republican, but it doesn’t provide any information beyond that: and it certainly doesn’t indicate my level of core pedagogical or theoretical competencies, things that I would assume are much more important to a recruiter hiring qualified candidates.

As such, we really need to (re) consider an alternative, meaningful and constructive term that more accurately and congenially accounts for “over 80% of the teachers of English in the world” (Richardson 2016). I mean, it is 2018! The success of the Me Too movement shows us that rapid change is possible to break molds that have been in place for decades.

For decades in ELT, scholars have been calling our attention to the contentiousness of using such terms, acknowledging that they are indeed problematic (Holliday and Aboshiha 2008). Jenkins (2000) in her analysis of English as a Lingua Franca stated that referring to a ‘native speaker’ of a truly international language “cannot be acceptable or appropriate for a language that has passed into world ownership”. She also stated that “it is entirely inappropriate, indeed offensive, to label as ‘non-native speakers’ those who have learnt English as a second or foreign language” (Jenkins ibid: 9). In a study by Holliday (2005), one professional pleads for “avoid[ing] using the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’…[for]…these terms are imprecise and misleading’ and that ‘as long as we use the ‘non’ as a descriptor, such teachers will be perceived as lacking in something essential and therefore of less value” (Holliday 2005: 160).

Consequently, in trying to delegitimize the usage of such terms, scholars have flirted with a number of alternatives (Jenkins 2000; Selvi 2011), but as Selvi mentioned, we seem to be “a long way from reaching consensus about whether to adopt any of these labels” (Selvi 2011). Though there may not be consensus about new labels, that still does not validate using the ‘native/non-native’ dichotomy as “legitimate term[s] in academic discourse” on the grounds of “the practical convenience of maintaining the distinction” (Moussu and Llurda 2008, p. 318).

I would add that we subtly endorse discriminatory practices when we continue to legitimize and perpetuate the very terms that promote this division. We must be cognizant that “every language user is in fact a native speaker of a given language (Nayar 1994), and therefore speakers cannot be divided according to whether they have a given quality (i.e., native speakers) or they do not have it (i.e., non-native speakers), based on whether English is their first language or not” (Moussu and Llurda 2008, p.317).

Thus, we need a new framework, a new construct, that accurately describes teachers whose mother tongues are languages other than English. That framework should address the following features:

  • Mother tongue of a TESOL professional, where such identification has some academic, pedagogical, or professional relevance
  • Usage and ability to manipulate the language and not simply “speaking” it (I’m not just a speaker of English, I actually teach it, write it, read it, etc.)
  • Competency and fluency in the English language (to what degree said teacher understands the language, can articulate its rules, can accurately utilize a wealth of vocabulary, etc.)

I truly believe that if we can begin with relevant descriptions, then we can more easily dispel archaic notions of ‘native’ vs ‘non-native’ speaker teachers and move closer to eradicating discrimination.

Sulaiman Jenkins earned his MA in TESOL from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education. He has been in the field of ELT, most notably in Saudi Arabia, for more than 14 years. He has also contributed to academia by way of publishing numerous articles in top peer reviewed journals. He is currently working at an engineering university in Saudi Arabia and is also a Senior Research and Activism Contributor for Turnkey Educational Group’s Research and Activism blog.



Holliday, A. 2005. The struggle to teach English as an international language. Oxford University Press.

Holliday, A., & Aboshiha, P. 2009. The Denial of Ideology in Perceptions of ‘Nonnative Speaker’ Teachers. TESOL Quarterly, 43(4), 669-689. Available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/27785049 (accessed February 23, 2017)

Jenkins, J. 2000. The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, S. (2017). The elephant in the room: discriminatory hiring practices in ELT. ELT Journal, 71(3), 373-376.

Moussu, L., and Llurda, E. 2008. Non-native English-speaking English language teachers: History and research. Language Teaching, 41(03), 315-348.

Nayar, P. B. (1994). Whose English is it? TESL-EJ 1.1, F-1.

Richardson, S. 2016. The haves and the have nots. IATEFL. Available at https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2016/session/plenary-silvana-richardson (accessed February 7, 2017)

Selvi, A. 2011. The non-native speaker teacher. ELT J 2011; 65 (2): 187-189. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccq092

13 thoughts on “Why is the term ‘non-native speaker’ so problematic? by Sulaiman Jenkins”

  1. This is a wonderful blog post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue. After running my recruitment side of my website for almost a year now, I thought it would be wise to plead with recruiters that they refrain from the use of the term ‘non-native’ or ‘native’. It was met with unfortunate unhappiness with the recruiters and they were only willing (albeit tacitly) to hire teachers who held a particular passport.

    It is my mission to ensure that recruiters are educated and should they be unable to hire particular nationalities (due to visa requirements) that this has to be stipulated so not to waste the time of potential candidates. However, it is a long process and I am still unhappy with how slow things are shaping. It should be quicker in this day and age. It is 2018!

    I hope that in the end, particular countries do not have this racial requirement for particular English teachers to be defined by nationality, but rather be of satisfactory requirements such as capability of English, qualifications, experience, etc. and treat all nationalities equally. Should things not improve, it will always be considered a gap-year / backpackers profession.

    Apologies for rambling but I do like the effort that organisations and associations are taking to support equality in the profession. And this needs greater support and work for all those involved in the teaching and education of English.

    1. I wonder how many recruiters hide behind visa restrictions that don’t actually exist. I’ve seen adverts requesting NS teachers “for visa purposes” when I know for a fact that other schools in the same country are hiring NNS teachers.

      I’ve also noticed some sneaky tactics being used to discriminate, not against NNS teachers, but against local teachers (i.e. same nationality as most of the students – which in my experience, seems to be a bigger issue than simply being a NNS).

      One tactic I’ve noticed is to hide behind job requirements that you know local teachers won’t be able to fulfill because of the discrimination of other schools in the city. One school I know of had no policy of refusing to hire local teachers, but they knew that the only schools that would hire a local teacher after doing their CELTA were the poor-quality ones that offer little in the way of professional development (which is also a great reason for local teachers to not bother getting the CELTA). At this point, they can then point to a poor CV as a reason not to hire. As a result, while they had NNS teachers, I don’t know of a single local teacher who ever worked there.

      Another school (same company, different country) hired local teachers, but used technicalities to pay them less, despite claiming to be an equal-opportunities employer. It had three types of contract: hourly paid, local salaried and overseas hire. The latter not only had vastly superior benefits, but paid approximately 50% more than the local salaried position.

      What was interesting is that both of these schools had this salaried position with the great benefits, but only the school with a large number of NNS teachers required you to be outside of the country to apply for it. In the first school with exclusively foreign teachers, most of their “overseas hire” contracts went to people already in the country, and locally-appointed teachers were encouraged to apply. In the second school, teachers already in the country were excluded from applying. They can still claim to be equal opportunities, because technically, there’s nothing to stop a local teacher going abroad and applying from there, but they know that in reality, it’s not going to happen.

      What’s also interesting is that the earnings gap between local and international hires was far greater in the second school. In the first school, the benefits were better with a salary, but the hourly earnings worked out roughly the same. In that latter school, as I said, it was about 50% higher.

      It operates on the same level as “must have a degree from a native-English speaking country.” They can claim to be not technically discriminating, because in theory anyone can get a degree from an English-speaking country. But in reality, they get to exclude 99% of NNS teachers, which is what they wanted to do in the first place.

      1. Sulaiman Jenkins

        Hey Joe many thanks for your reply. Unfortunately dirty tactics are no strangers in the ELT recruitment game. As you so eloquently stated, sometimes the lengths that recruiters will go to just to deny someone an employment opportunity is just unspeakable…but exposing these practices for their inherently flawed approach will hopefully help us move forward as a field.

      2. You make so many great points, especially the CELTA part. I’ve been teaching ESL since 2000 (6 in America and in Italy since 2006). I’ve got university qualifications (English Literature and all the advanced courses to boot), a TEFL certificate and when I inquired with British Council about becoming an IELTS examiner, they told me I wasn’t qualified and suggested I sign up for a CELTA course in Milan

  2. Sulaiman Jenkins

    Dear Martin many thanks for the kind words and I’m glad the content resonated well with you. Yes, as Marek and I have discussed, this type of sentiment, however prevalent, simply needs to stop. Linguistic and pedagogical competence should the the only measuring factors, except where visa restrictions specify certain nationalities. Hopeful TEFL Equity and other like minded organizations will continue to galvanize us. Take good care!

  3. I agree 100% and I’m very happy you brought the debate up. All too often I see my colleagues here in Italy feel the need to lie about their background, claiming to be British, Canadian, American and it’s unfortunate because as you mentioned, qualifications should be considered before what your first language is.
    However even sadder is the fact that employers at least here in Italy still claim their teachers are “100% native speakers” and at the same time use a teacher’s L1 as an excuse to pay them less whilst native speakers with no qualifications are hired and at higher rates of pay.
    Kind regards from Italy,

  4. Sulaiman Jenkins

    Hi Maura all the way from Italy! Thanks for the response. Yes it seems to be a prevalent practice in many places in the world. So sad, but so true. But it doesn’t make my conviction (nor Marek’s) wane in the least; everything positive change begins with awareness and dialogue, which hopefully we’re generating here. Insightful commentary and much appreciated!

  5. Absolutely not. I hope I didn’t come across as disagreeing with you all. I agree 150% and hope that one day all teachers in our specialization will show more solidarity. I’m looking forward to more articles.

    1. Sulaiman Jenkins

      No not at all, your point was well taken and I concur; I hope as you hope that our profession will move forward speaking out against clearly unjust policies.

  6. With so many new speakers of English, entire communities are nativizing their brand of English and reshaping what is considered acceptable English. The dynamism of English is real…and so rather than looking for so-called native English teachers, seek comptent English teachers, no matter what workd Englush they use.

    1. Sulaiman Jenkins

      Precisely. I couldn’t agree more. There are so many varieties of English, and so many populations that use English in tandem with another local language (i.e. Philippines), that in my estimation, it’s impossible to accurately (and objectively) define what a ‘native speaker’ of English is supposed to mean in this day and age. It is simply a construct now, not a reality.

  7. Yes, so true. We need to focus on qualifications, experience and language ability (levels of which can be set locally rather than from the Western ‘Core’ as language needs are often different in different parts of the world/sectors of teaching). The attempt to change this labelling also comes up against the conservative and apolitical nature of the ELT industry (I include the university sector in this). In my experience,attempts at discussion of this kind is often met with a dismissive attitude and the argument that ‘it’s not about politics’ or ‘there is no racism in ELT’.

    1. Sulaiman Jenkins

      Absolutely. It’s quite uncomfortable talking about this (at least it can be), but it is (as I’ve mentioned before) a huge elephant in the room that needs to be addressed seriously; especially with tremendous movements worldwide to recognize the rights of historically marginalized groups of people (i.e. MeToo movement)

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