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.