In this quick post I wanted to share with you the latest episode of TEFLology podcast where I was interviewed about the issues of native speakerism in ELT. Among other things, we chatted about where and how the idea for this website came about, as well as how all of us ELTers can get involved in promoting equality in our profession. Hope you enjoy the podcast! 🙂
Robert William McCaul (CELTA,DELTA) is a teacher, language learner, examiner, materials developer with over 6 years of teaching experience in countries such as Ecuador, Costa Rica and Vietnam. He currently teaches in Bournemouth, UK, and has recently started blogging on TEFL Reflections.
In this article I wanted to summarise and reflect on the talk I gave with Marek Kiczkowiak this November at TESOL France, in which we argued that the ideal situation for students, teachers and language school owners is to give equal opportunities and to employ both NESTs (Native English Speaking Teachers) and nNESTs (non-Native English
Speaking Teachers) as each group brings different and complementary qualities into the class and staffroom.
Being an English teacher who grew up as a native speaker in Ireland, you might be surprised at my getting involved in equal rights for NESTs and nNESTs. But it is an issue that is close to my heart. I have spent the last few years in staff rooms with a huge number of nNESTs and often they were some of the best teachers – usually having a high degree of language awareness, the ability to anticipate learner errors (and to quickly figure out why these errors were happening) and crucially having the credibility factor i.e. They practice what they preach.
While at my last job for EIU in Vietnam, I spent a lot of time interviewing teachers and what I looked for in candidates as a recruiter were their qualifications, personality, experience and of course a demonstrable proficiency (in my humble opinion: at least IELTS 7.5 or C1 level), which, as the diagram below suggests, attempts to ensure you hire the best applicant:
Upon returning to work in Europe this summer, I was taken aback when I learned that over 70% of the job adverts for EFL positions in the EU are for ‘native speakers’ only – as shown in the chart below. Coupled with the fact that 80% of the EFL teachers are nNESTs, it makes shocking reading.
These statistics are by no means an exception. Several independent studies (Selvi, 2010; Lengeling and Pablo, 2012; Ruecker and Ives, 2014) of different job listing sites all confirmed that between two thrids and three-quarters of all advertised positions are for NESTs only.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that mentioning ‘native speaker’ in an advert in the EU is against the law, as it was for example pointed out in this article:
- “Advertisements requiring a particular language as a ‘mother tongue’ are not acceptable” (EC Com 694, 2002).
- “The term native speaker is not acceptable, under any circumstance, under community law” (EC, 2003 in response to MEP Linen question).
However, unfortunately, it seems that the majority of the advert writers (directors of studies, recruiters and school owners), in short our colleagues, seem prepared to flout the law. The tragedy is that when you talk to people in the industry about the issue, you are often met with one of two attitudes. 1) We’re past that aren’t we? Or 2) So, you think you’re going to change the world?
I would argue that the complacency associated with the first attitude is misplaced. Ignoring this particular problem doesn’t seem to be making it go away. In fact, according to the chart presented above, the prejudice against nNESTs seems to be firmly established and shows indication of disappearing any time soon of its own accord.
In response to the second mindset, I would argue that this is a largely solvable issue. In my opinion, it would only take a couple of the big recruiters to implement equal employment policies and a notable difference would be made. In fact, some of them have already done this.For example, in 2011 International House World informed all their affiliate schools that they must not recruit for native speakers only (Kiczkowiak 2011). In addition, some job-listing sites such as
Having said that, we often hear that ‘schools have to employ natives only because students demand it’. School owners are naturally concerned about remaining as competitive as possible in their respective local EFL markets, but it is worth asking if learners actually prefer NESTs?
The most lamentable aspect to this whole issue is that very rarely do we talk to the students to find out what they really want. Recently, Marek and I interviewed some of our own students to see what they want in an ideal teacher. Not surprisingly, ‘he/she must be a native speaker’ rarely came up – it seems what they want is someone who is knowledgable and can explain the language to them, who can help them gain the ability to use English in their workplaces and in the lives in general.
A lot more research needs to be conducted in order to find out what students actually want from their teachers although there is ample evidence that students have either no clear preference for NESTs or nNESTs (Lipovsky and Mahboob 2010), they appreciate the different qualities each group brings into class (Benke and Medgyes 2005), or value characteristics such as excellent pedagogical skills (Mullock 2010), high proficiency in the language (Kelch & Santana-Williamson, 2002; Liang, 2002) and tolerance, the ability to motivate, engage and explain clearly (Constantinides 2010), etc. Non of the above have nothing to do with your mother tongue.
However, even if it is ascertained what exactly students want from their teachers, and it turned out it was being a native speaker, it may be decided that what they actually need in order to learn the language effectively does not match this.
Don’t get me wrong. NESTs of course can be excellent teachers too. And just being exposed to a NEST can be a very positive experience for students. NESTs often have an insight into the emotional aspect of the language that nNESTs just don’t have. And of course, just being exposed to various native accents in the classroom can give learners the confidence they need to deal with the real thing when they come across it.
However, learners themselves can be a little naïve. Some of my Spanish students in my beginners class told me that they want to learn correct ‘proper’ English from a native. I’m not really sure what they mean by this. Perhaps they want to learn RP. This reminds me of a kind of Victorian world. The one in which My Fair Lady takes place.
I often get told that I sound native when I speak Spanish. But I do think that I am one of the exceptions that prove the rule. The vast majority of students will end up speaking perfectly comprehensible English in an accent flavoured by their mother tongue. They should not be encouraged from this and forced to sound like some latter day Eliza Doolittle. As David Crystal put it in this interview:
“Sounding native is no longer the point. I can think of only one category of person who needs to sound native – ie totally lose a NS identity – and that is: spies. Everyone else should be proud of their NS identity and not wish to lose it. […] Just as I want to experience the glorious diversity of English accents and dialects in Britain, which enrich our linguistic and literary heritage, so I want to experience this diversity on the newly emerging global scene. I want to hear X-tinted English – fill in the ‘X’ by Canadian, French, Russian, Ghanaian, Brazilian… what you will. It would be a sadly denuded English linguistic world if people were being taught as if this wonderful series of varieties did not exist.”
While pronunciation is one of the most crucial features of any English curriculum, and this should involve super-segmental features predominately, I think that the remit of ELT is to teach learners to be good communicators in English. At a certain point accent becomes a cosmetic issue and it enters the territory of voice coaching.
The most gratifying aspect of developing the talk Marek and I delivered in Paris at the at the TESOL conference was how willingly some of the most recognisable faces of ELT contributed videos supporting the issue. A big thank you to Scott Thornbury, Luke Meddings and Hugh Dellar (click on the hyperlink to watch the videos on YouTube). Much like celebrity endorsement of political campaigns, I feel that this will capture people’s attention and get them on board.
Like Luke said, English is nobody’s private property. It is all of ours. It belongs to the world. The vast majority of English speakers around the world use it as their L2. So, it is only natural for teachers to reflect this new reality.
Have I convinced you yet?
- Benke, E., & Medgyes, P. (2005). Differences in teaching behaviour between native and nonnative speaker teachers: As seen by the learners. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-native language teachers: Perceptions, challenges, and contributions to the profession (pp. 195–216). New York, NY: Springer.
- Constantinides, M. (2010). What kind of teacher are you? [available on-line here]
- Kelch, K., & Santana-Williamson, E. (2002). ESL students’ attitudes toward native- and nonnative-speaking instructors’ accents. CATESOL Journal, 14(1), 57–72.
- Kiczkowiak, M. (2011). A (non-)Nativity Scene: Schools breaking EU law. EL Gazette. July 2011: p.4 [available on-line here]
- Kiczkowiak, M., & Beddington, J. (2014) All teachers are equal but some more than others. Presentation at IATEFL Poland annual conference.
- Lengeling, M., & Mora Pablo, I. (2012). A critical discourse analysis of advertisements: Contradictions of our EFL profession. In R. Roux, I. Mora Pablo & N. Trejo (Eds.), Research in English language teaching: Mexican perspectives (pp. 89-103). Bloomington IN: Palibro.
- Liang, K. Y. (2002). English as a second language (ESL) students’ attitudes toward non-native English speaking teachers’ (NNESTs’) accentedness (Unpublished master’s thesis). California State University, Los Angeles.
- Lipovsky, C., & Mahboob, A. (2010). Appraisal of native and non-native English speaking teachers. In A. Mahboob (Ed.), The NNEST lens: Non native English speakers in TESOL (pp. 154–179). Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars.
- Ruecker, T., & Ives, L. (2014). White Native English Speakers Needed: The Rhetorical Construction of Privilege in Online Teacher Recruitment Spaces.TESOL Quarterly.
- Selvi, A. F. (2010). All teachers are equal, but some teachers are more equal than others: Trend analysis of job advertisements in English language teaching.WATESOL NNEST Caucus Annual Review, 1, 156-181.
Steve Oakes is an experienced teacher, teacher trainer and trainer trainer who has worked in numerous countries around the world including the UK, the US and Japan as well as various parts of Central Europe. He has been the Head of Teacher Training at International House, Budapest since 1997. Steve is also a co-author of Speakout, a general adult course from Pearson.
In the interview we use the following acronyms:
- NS – Native Speaker
- NNS – non-Native Speaker
- NEST – Native English Speaker Teacher
- nNEST – non-Native English Speaker Teacher
- TT – Teacher Trainer
- TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language
- L1 – first language (mother tongue)
1. From the point of view of an experienced Teacher Trainer, how important is ‘nativeness’ – or lack thereof – for being a good or a bad teacher?
I have never observed any correlation between ‘nativeness’ and the effectiveness of a teacher, and I’m astonished at the persistence of the myth that a native English speaker might be a ‘better’ teacher. When I talk to someone who thinks so and tell them my view, they’re astonished. There’s clearly a massive gap in perceptions, understanding, and experience.
2. What characteristics, then, are in your opinion and experience necessary to become a successful teacher?
What is a ‘good’ teacher? From the point of view of an employer and a DOS, a ‘good’ teacher is one who gets results, specifically
- Overall good feedback from students
- High return rates
- Students who move up from level to level because they really are ready to do so (not because the level system moves them along by default)
- In exam prep classes, high pass rates.
A good teacher is dynamic in the sense of not being stuck in a routine but seeking new ways to help students learn effectively. A good teacher constantly tries to gain a better understanding of the language learning process and how it relates to their own practice. A good teacher is a great colleague—supportive and open to support when needed.
I’d add that a good teacher isn’t necessarily the ‘popular’ teacher. Some teachers are well-liked by students because of their personality, because they interact with their students a lot in a social context; I think there’s a place for that sort of persona in a teaching staff, but I wouldn’t want my whole staff to aspire to be like that. Many great teachers are rather quietly effectively, achieving results without the flash that one might identify with the ‘popular’ teacher.
3. If there is no correlation between being a successful teacher and being a NS, why do some recruiters and schools still insist on hiring NESTs?
The main reason that schools advertise for NS teachers is commercial—the market perception tends to be that a NS teacher is better, or more ‘attractive’, whatever the word is. I’ve talked to school directors who state overtly (or vet job applications according to nationality, covertly) and they are quite open about this—that the best way they can distinguish themselves from the competition is to have NESTs, or more NESTs than the other schools. So they see it as a matter of survival, and while I don’t agree with it, I can understand it.
4. It’s interesting that most recruiters are so convinced about this since there is really very little (apart from anecdotal) evidence for students’ preference for NESTs. Having said that, though, do you think that this market demand for NESTs in Hungary could have been caused by bad previous experience with nNESTs?
The observation I’ll make concerns Hungary specifically but may be true of other countries particularly in the region [I think it is true of Poland – M.K.]. I’ll also preface this by saying that this observation is my perspective, i.e. I welcome any contrasting or dissenting perspectives.
Around the time that I came to Hungary, in the early 1990s, the thousands of Russian teachers who were no longer needed to teach Russian were being ‘retrained’ to teach English. That meant learning English to a level where they were competent enough to teach it; in some cases it involved learning a different approach to teaching language than what they’d been practicing up to that point. So, while there were Hungarians teaching English who had an advanced level in the language, the impression was that a large number who didn’t. I don’t think this helped the ‘market’s’ perception of nNESTs, and it took some time before the proportion of English teachers who had an advanced competence in English became prominent in the ‘market’.
So, in the years since then, I’ve seen a veritable explosion in the number of Hungarians teaching English whose competence in the language, as well as their teaching skills (thanks to the growth of effective training here) has meant the NEST vs. nNEST question has lost its relevance. Whereas previously the number of nNESTs on our CELTA and DELTA courses was relatively small, many of our courses are now dominated by Hungarians and other nNESTs. And institutions that formerly showed a strong preference for hiring NESTs-only (and Brits only), such as the British Council, now employ nNESTs in significant numbers simply because they are highly effective, motivating teachers. Yes, many private language schools still try to play the NEST card to attract students, but the momentum against this has become hard to resist.
5. Could it be argued then that by giving equal opportunities to nNESTs and employing the best teachers (regardless of their L1), schools could gain a competitive advantage and reshape the market demand?
Absolutely, though I don’t think it would happen in the blink of an eye—market perceptions are on one hand vulnerable to manipulation but also deeply entrenched. If the local perception is that NESTs are better, and if enough schools are promoting their services on that basis, a school that decides to follow the policy of ‘Not just NESTs, just GREAT teachers’ (there’s a tagline in the making there) will need to show results before the market is convinced. Luckily, THAT shouldn’t be a problem, because the fact is that good teachers (of whatever background) will always get better results than teachers who are classified in any other way (e.g. by nationality).
6. Taking all this into account, if you were responsible for hiring new teachers for the school, how would you go about it?
I have been responsible for hiring new teachers in the past, as acting DOS of IH Budapest during a period when we had no ‘full’ DOS. At the time, while about half of the teaching staff were NESTs, the other half was made up of 5 different nationalities, and this made for a truly rich teaching staff (a real international house). My attitude and ‘line’ was that we don’t employ native speaker teachers, we employ good teachers. I wasn’t under particular pressure (from management) to show preference for NESTs, though at the time IH Budapest still played the NEST card in its marketing.
7. In the Teacher Training community, are there many successful Teacher Trainers who are nNESTs? Why (not)?
There are lots of successful teacher trainers who are nNESTs, and at IH Budapest about half of our TT staff are, and I would consider all the TTs here to be at the top of the profession in terms of the sort of training they currently do (I suppose I’m wondering what it means to be a successful teacher training—e.g. does one need to be a big draw at international conferences to be ‘successful’?).
The question though makes me think of one that’s come up a lot in recent years among my coursebook writing colleagues—How many non-native English speaking coursebook writers can you think of, and how many of the major coursebook titles have been (co-)authored by NNSs? If a major coursebook had a recognisably NNS name among its authors, would it sell less well? This is the subject of a whole other conversation, but to me the implication is that the publishers are dealing with the same market perceptions that language schools are, and this affects hiring policy.
8. What message would you give to aspiring teachers who have faced or heard about the issue of discrimination in TEFL?
First of all, I think that aspiring teachers of all nationalities (including NESTs) should be well-informed and be engaged in discussion about discrimination in TEFL. Many novice NESTs (and no doubt some veteran NESTs) assume they are ‘better’, and they need to confront both the roots of this perception and its consequences/ramifications.
On the other hand, all nNESTs should in any case join and use nNEST support groups for just that, support. Having said that, I would emphasise that it’s vital not to develop a victim mentality about the whole thing. Walking around with a black cloud hanging over one’s head will not only help perpetuate the problem but make one a less employable. If successful teachers have one thing in common, it’s positive energy, positive presence.