Why I wish I was a Non-Native English Speaker by James Taylor

I’m thrilled that James Taylor agreed to write a guest post for us 🙂 I met James in Costa Rica and we worked in the same school for a while. He talked me into starting blogging and gave some invaluable advice on it, as well as on teaching freelance. Here’s what he says about himself:

Originally from Brighton, UK, I have taught English as a foreign language to adults in Brazil, South Korea and Belgium. Currently based in San Jose, Costa Rica, I teach adults at Centro Cultural Britanico. I am the current President and a co-founder of BELTA, the Belgian English Language Teachers Association. You can also find me moderating #ELTchat, a weekly discussion on Twitter with teachers from around the world, presenting the #ELTchat podcast, mentoring teachers for iTDi, blogging and taking photographs. You can read my blog here.

So without much further ado, let’s find out why on earth James wishes he was a NNEST…

“Firstly, let me say that the title of this post is a lie. I don’t wish I was a non-native English speaker teacher (NNEST). As someone from the UK who teaches English as a foreign language, the country of my birth is a huge advantage to me. As has been well documented on this blog, I am much more likely to get a job than someone from Japan, Algeria or Brazil, no matter how qualified or experienced they are. For some students, having a native speaker teacher has a certain cachet, as in most countries it is unusual and many of them think that it means they have a better teacher as a result. So both employers and students seem to think that because I’m English, I must be a better teacher, which has got to be good for me.

As a result, you can’t be blamed thinking that I am pleased about this situation. Without any effort on my part, I’m placed ahead of the vast majority of teachers around the world in the job market. But you’d be wrong, it offends me and I want to see it change. I’m also tall, white, heterosexual and male and these are also a benefit to me in wider society (click on the links to find out more), but I have no desire to live in a world where nationality, size, race, sexuality and gender are the yardsticks by which our employability is measured. I would rather be judged by my ability, experience and qualifications equally against anyone else who wishes to apply for the same job. It’s not to my advantage, but that’s the world I want to live in. So if you’re a NNEST, this post is for you. There are many reasons why you have an advantage over NEST’s like me in the classroom.

For a start, you provide their students with an excellent role model of how to study and succeed. No matter how good a teacher I am, I will never be able to look my students in the eye and say “I know how you feel, I know how frustrating this language can be and I will guide you through it.” That’s a very powerful thing to be able to say, and I wish it could come out of my mouth.

You also provide a role model for specific aspects of the language, most notably pronunciation. Luckily in ELT we have largely disposed of the idea of the ‘native speaker as model’ in how we ask our students to speak, and now focus more on intelligibility and clarity in a variety of international contexts. You are perfectly positioned to provide a working, clear model for the students of how this is possible, and can provide them with strategies and techniques to help them get there, plucked from personal experience.

This can also apply to other aspects of language learning. English is a messy and unpredictable language, and rules are broken so regularly they aren’t worth saying. Once a student has learned the basic structures of the past, present, future, modals and conditionals, they have to tackle all the horrible anarchy of phrasal verbs and prepositions. As a NEST, I never had to actively learn these things, whereas the NNEST has had to suffer through them to reach the level where they are qualified to teach them. This NEST wishes he could use that experience to help his students.

The use of the learners first language is an idea that is currently coming back into vogue, after a couple of decades out of fashion. A long way from grammar translation teaching, current thinking takes a more sophisticated look at how it can be used. It is clear that when the teacher is from the same linguistic culture as their students, they have a massive advantage in an accurate and nuanced use of the L1 over an NEST. I can get really good at Spanish, but my Costa Rican colleagues will always have an advantage in using L1 in the classroom. No matter how hard I wish for it, that won’t change.

Empathy and understanding are crucial aspects of language teaching. Local teachers will have a much better idea of the local environment and the lives of their students. You will be much more aware of what English means to people in your culture and what the possible implications of learning it are. You will understand the educational background of the learners and how that influences their current learning practices, and you are likely to have an understanding of the personal environment the student has to study English within. I can learn these things, but to reach your level will take me years, and no amount of wishing will help me.

Learning about the culture is one of the most interesting side effects of learning a language, and you would think that this is one place where the NEST has a clear advantage, but I’m not so sure. Firstly, there is no such thing as a culture of the English language. It is used in too many countries by too many people to be homogeneous. So as a NEST, I can only represent a very small element of that and that is inevitably the bit that I know best. In my case it is British, specifically English, specifically the south of England – there’s an awful lot missing there.

You can have a more well-rounded view of the culture and find it easier to pick and choose from the things that interest them, and you think will interest their students. You can offer your students insights into a variety of communities, backgrounds and viewpoints without the natural bias that I have towards my own. I can try and rid myself of this, but I wish I could resist this natural inclination as easily at it would be for you.

So it’s true that I don’t wish I was a NNEST at this time. In many countries, the industry is unfairly set up in my favour and some students unwisely think I’m a better teacher. But there are many reasons why you have the upper hand, and it’s not just the ones listed above. The tide is turning, slowly, but it’s turning. In the future you will have more rights and be more respected by an industry in which you are the backbone. And this is the point that needs to be remembered – they are many, many more of you than there are of me. You have the power, so use it. I just wish more of you realised that.”

What are your views? Do you agree with James? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.


120 thoughts on “Why I wish I was a Non-Native English Speaker by James Taylor

  1. Roli Thaler says:

    That was a very interesting read, thank you! I had to do research on this topic for an argumentative essay we have to write for university (also studying to become a teacher, a NNEST that is).

  2. Vi Thai says:

    Thanks for pointing this out. It’s a great outlook. For a long time I have always felt ashamed of myself for not being a native English teacher who wants to teach English. Your message is powerful, and helps me to understand my worth. And I just wish there will be more fairness in this society, especially in Asia.

    • Gerardo Rivera says:

      Sorry to hear you feel this way. There is no need to feel ashamed for not being a native English teacher. You write/communicate in English perfectly well. It is the system which is unfair. I, too, wish it was based on merit or qualifications rather than appearance.

  3. Emm Halliday says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I am a NEST and a language learner. Above and beyond all my teaching training courses, learning a language has developed me as a teacher. All NNESTs have learned English, usually to a very high level. This gives them huge advantages over me as an English teacher in terms of understanding the language and empathy with their learners. In the best school I worked, teachers tandemed classes with a NNEST. This offered both teachers and students the best learning environment.

  4. Louise Nick says:

    Thank you so very much for this article. I am happy to see that attitudes are finally changing, emphasizing clear pronunciation and correct speech over native accents.The tide is indeed turning.
    I teach mainly German and some English in Spain. While I do get hired for some English teaching jobs, it is usually by Spanish employers. These employers also usually apologize for not being able to offer me regular academic or intensive courses at their schools, because their clients demand native speakers. Your article can help educate the public in what should truly count in the art of teaching English.

  5. Monica Birchall says:

    Dear James Taylor, thanks a lot for the nice and wise words. As a NNEST, I gave me pleasure and satisfaction observing my values through the eyes of a native teacher. This syndrome of valuing less than native speakers teachers always haunted me. Your article made me reflect on my value something I have never thought before.

  6. Gerardo Rivera says:

    Hi James. Thank you for your article. I feel validated as someone who is not Caucasian yet can speak English perfectly well. I am interested in teaching ESL around the world but my concern is I will not find a job (or will have a difficult time) because of my name and appearance (I am of Mexican descent but was born in the US). I earned my BA degree, M.Ed., and TEFL certification.

  7. Giulia says:

    Thanks for the interesting article James, it is great that some NESTs raise their voice for this important cause.

    However, as a non-native teacher I have to disagree on some of the points you make. I have native-speaker colleagues who know Italian (my first language) as well as I do and who have been living here for years so have a deep understanding of our culture and environment. So many of the points you make wouldn’t apply to them. They are great teacher, as some of my Italian colleagues are.

    I prefer to avoid the “I’m better than you” mentality and think we all have strengths and weaknesses as teachers, no matter what out L1 is. 🙂

  8. Simon Greenall says:

    Very elegant and thoughtful article, and so helpful for you to express your views. Hope you’ve had a chance to look at the new edition of Medgyes Peter’s The Non-native Teacher, which supports everything you say.

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