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'Why native speaker teachers are often a bad thing!' by Adrian Tennant

In this article, originally published in IATEFL Voices. Issue 202 May – June 2008 and republished here with full consent of the author, Adrian Tennant asks if NS (Native Speaker) teachers are, in fact, as fit for purpose as we believe. Adrian’s bio note can be found below the article.

At last year’s IATEFL Conference in Aberdeen, two unrelated events got me thinking about an issue which, in spite of the changing role and face of English in the world, has not yet been resolved: the role and status of native speakers as teachers of English. The first was a chance meeting with a young Korean teacher during one of the evening social events and the second was a workshop that focused on initial teacher training courses.

The meeting with the Korean teacher was one of those unplanned things that can actually be extremely productive and thought-provoking. I was at one of the evening events and we were asked to turn to someone nearby and just start talking to them. Behind me there was a small group of first-time conference attendees, I turned round and we began to talk.

Fairly soon, we got onto the subject of where people worked. At this stage, the conversation took an unexpected turn: one of the Koreans started talking about his frustration with his work context. I was intrigued and decided to try and find out as much as I could. It turned out that his institution was employing a number of unqualified native speakers (NS) to teach (mostly ‘conversation’ classes) and that these ‘teachers’ were being paid twice as much as the local (Korean) teachers who had had 5 years’ training!

The second event was a workshop led by a native speaker that focused on ‘Initial teacher training courses’. Within five minutes it became clear that the courses being referred to were courses such as CELTA and Trinity which are often taken by ‘native speakers’ as a way into the TEFL ‘profession’. It also became apparent that the presenter was unaware that some of his audience were non-native speakers (NNS) and that their courses often lasted up to five years. (I sat at the back and cringed for much of the session).

These two experiences started me thinking about the training undertaken by people entering the ELT profession, the disparity and inequality between the training of many NS teachers and many NNS teachers and the often unequal status and pay.

Unfortunately, there still seems to be the feeling that ‘nativeness’ and the type of passport held etc., is a prerequisite for many positions around the world. But how can a teacher who has taken a four-week course be better (and worth more in terms of pay) than one who has studied for five years? How can someone whose classroom experience might amount to six hours over a fairly short period of time be considered better than someone who has spent six months or more in a school, teaching day in and day out? And, worse still, how can someone with absolutely no training be paid more than someone who has spent years studying both language and methodology?

Surely the questions that need to be asked are ‘How competent is the person?’ not ‘What’s your nationality?’ As ‘professionals’ we have a responsibility to make employers and students aware that where you come from (and the accent you speak with) are not the most important things. Far more important is the question of how good you are as a teacher, and training must be a factor in this!

Another issue we need to consider is whether a course that is only four weeks long can ever be considered appropriate. Of course, length does not guarantee quality, but on the other hand, we have to be realistic about how much can be taught and learnt in a month. In a way, it is not the fault of the course providers, but more the fault of the employers (and to some extent the students) who seem to give more weight to the nationality of the teachers they employ than to their training and resulting competence in the classroom.

In fact, the arrogance shown within the ELT world by many NS and towards NNS is quite breathtaking! Looking at the state school sector in the UK, English-speaking teachers who teach French or German are certainly not paid less than French or German NS teachers at the same school. In actual fact, unless the French or German nationals have a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) or accredited equivalent, they are paid less. So, why is it that in ELT someone with no qualification, or after an extremely short course, is deemed a better teacher (or at least given a higher financial reward) than someone who has spent five years studying to be a teacher, but happens to have been born outside an English-speaking country?

adrian tennantAdrian has been involved in ELT for over twenty-five years and now divides his time between writing, running teacher training courses, giving talks & workshops at conferences around the world and working as an ELT consultant. He has worked in many countries and contexts including in Cambodia, Indonesia, China, DR Congo, Senegal, Serbia, Turkey, Spain, Saudi Arabia, India and Sri Lanka.

As a writer he has worked on a wide range of courses for many different publishers from Grammar Books, Primary and Secondary materials and Adult course and also regularly contributes to Onestopenglish.com writing everything from methodology articles to podcast materials.

He has been a member of IATEFL for many years and was on the Trustee Board as Membership Chair from 2007 until 2011. He is currently on the Scholarship Working Party. For many years he had a regular column in Voices the IATEFL newsletter where he examined a wide range of issues in the ELT world.

In his free time he likes reading (travel books and crime novels), hiking, swimming and cooking, but usually not at the same time!

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Rob Western
Guest
Rob Western

Hi, I enjoyed reading your blog, but I wanted to clear up a couple of things about Korea (I am just finishing up my final contract in Korea, having been here six years). I don’t know who this guy is who is making half of what the NS teacher is, but he is not working in the public school system. If he is working for a cram school (hagwon), he is working for a very bad one. New teachers start on low wages and long hours, but after a certain number of years their salary goes up dramatically. I’ve heard… Read more »

Adrian
Guest
Adrian

Hi Rob, you’ll have noticed that the article was written over seven years ago, so maybe things have changed. Also, I couldn’t verify what they guy told me, but I’ve seen similar things in many countries around the world. I think the issue is more complex than I painted in the article, but I do worry about the whole concept of a ‘native speaker.’ btw – on the TeachEnglish Facebook page (where the article has been reposted) someone has said that a key area NS are better at is pronunciation – well that really depends which kind of NS people… Read more »

Rob Western
Guest
Rob Western

I agree. I come from Canada and was told by my first employer before I started that he liked how I had a good accent, but could I please spell correctly. By correctly he meant colour without the “u” as opposed to an actual error. My current school is MUCH better, but that idea is still well established in Korea, and from what I understand China and Japan as well. That despite the fact that I would argue every Korean person I have ever met has a Korean accent. I agree the accent argument is bunk. But again, in a… Read more »

jesper
Guest

I think Adrian is making a valid point. Non-native teachers of English often have an insight regarding typical difficulties students may encounter that ns with insufficient training may lack. The problem with nns teachers is when the standards set by the employing institutions is too low. In the Balearics self-governing región in Spain, where I live and have a language school, B2 cefr level is considered sufficient to teach a foreign language in state secondary schools. Mind-boggling when you consider that C1 Catalán is mandatory for teachers in public employment.

Omar
Guest

Well, I’m afraid I cannot agree on your statement claiming that NS with extensive knowledge on English language are much better and qualified than the five-year trained NNS even though NS teachers have greater competence in correcting, adjusting and identifying errors of students (or NNS by far). Teaching is a lot more about How you do it (techniques and skills in managing a whole learning environment) rather than What or how well you do it. It seems to be spontaneous or unsystemic to have fluent English speakers take part in teaching without having been engaged in and experienced how it… Read more »

Jean
Guest
Jean

I am a native-speaking English teacher in a mid-level economy country, and yes, I am hired to do conversation practice, and I get paid a lot more than the non-native speakers – and I got into teaching via the CELTA course. The gist of this situation is that native English speakers learn English organically, while non-native speakers do not. Native English speakers with a college education (which is the typical requirement of a training course for native speakers) have achieved a very high level of English knowledge which is typically still greater than non-native-speaking teachers who have studied English for… Read more »

Jean
Guest
Jean

The last ‘in” should not be there.

Anon
Guest
Anon

I think you raise an important point here about pronunciation. Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are the key components of language competence. Whilst I am sure that many NNS may have perfect pronunciation and accents, I am imagining that risk-averse language schools may feel more comfortable hiring a NS, particularly if the school places an emphasis on spoken communication.

typtoptokyo
Guest

While I dont agree that minor mistakes or even pronunciation should be an issue, it is. In Korea and other “face saving” countries, oftentimes a teacher who makes noticeable errors would be considered inadequate. And any Korean who gets very advanced at using English will be able to find much better conditions and remuneration in another industry. Actually in the few places I have worked I have found my NS status to be quite valuable in this aspect, nearly everyday I was asked questions about English. From grammar to checking materials they made to checking advertising materials. I think if… Read more »

Omar
Guest

Well, I’m afraid I cannot agree on your statement claiming that NS with extensive knowledge on English language are much better and qualified than the five-year trained NNS even though NS teachers have greater competence in correcting, adjusting and identifying errors of students (or NNS by far). Teaching is a lot more about How you do it (techniques and skills in managing a whole learning environment) rather than What or how well you do it. It seems to be spontaneous or unsystemic to have fluent English speakers take part in teaching without having been engaged in and experienced how it… Read more »

typtoptokyo
Guest

I agree with Rob. As I was reading the article I thought yeah this is a familar story but what are you gonna do about it? You cant replace the unqualified NS with NNS because then your students will up and go to the school just down the road that has 4 NS teachers. Also you might want to check your own stereotypes and about non-qualified NS as some of them do care a lot about what they do and are quite savvy with it. How much do you all know about teaching in Korea anyway? Anyway by and large… Read more »

Simon Thornley
Guest
Simon Thornley

While relocating and living in a foreign country are a practical necessities for NS teachers abroad, it only seems fair that they should receive compensation, in terms of salary to compensate for this fact. Additionally, the slippery pole of promotion may not be so clear to NS teachers who travel, whereas the NNS teachers certainly have a clearer path and more certain prospects.

chris
Guest
chris

one thing is clear, a non native speaker can never replicate the way a native speaker speaks or thinks, which is perhaps more important. perception of a language is as important as speaking it.

Adrian
Guest
Adrian

Some interesting, and for me quite worrying comments.

Right – a challenge for everyone: Define what a native speaker is, please?

Rob Western
Guest
Rob Western

How I would define a NS-
Anyone who grew up speaking the language at home, including in a bilingual environment.

The definition that matters-
What consumers (students and their parents) think a NS is.

adrian
Guest

Hi Rob, thanks – would be interested in what other people think. You second definition is the one we should be trying to influence.

typtoptokyo
Guest

Id like to know what qualified and experienced means to you. Presumably NNS have always had to do qualifications and etc to work in their home countries, and yet i have had students of many nationalities (Spanish, Korean, Polish especially) say their public school English education is poor, with terrible teaching. Especially my NNS colleagues have said this. Perhaps one thing to address is that the popularity of this narrow view of what a native speaker is stems from most students being unable to really get to fluency until they live abroad, and then replicating this. Anyway, what qualifications could… Read more »

adrian
Guest

Unfortunately there are many countries where there are lots of unqualified teachers working, whether they be ‘so-called’ native or non-native speakers. As for the quality of teaching … public school education in most countries can be questionable. Try learning a language in the UK school system! As for a universal qualification … I’m not sure that’s possible or desirable. However, an initial qualification and in-built CPD which teachers sign-up for … that can be relevant to the country etc. There are also a few organisations (the British Council being one) that are trying to put together a framework of teacher… Read more »

typtoptokyo
Guest

Yes I agree public schools are not great places to learn languages and it is never a straightforward matter anyway. From what I have heard, in Korea the “native speaker” boom began when they started employing traveller-types at the more elite cram schools. This caught on and then parents were demanding a more fair crack at English as Korea modernized, and the NET public school programme was born. Ive noticed how in some north European countries, it is particularly tough to get an ESL job as they seem to be able to do it through the public school system, likewise… Read more »

victor muzy
Guest
victor muzy

I agree with Jean’s opinion to some extent. Many non-native speaker teachers sound really bad and should not be teaching English. However, being a native speaker alone does make you a good teacher either. Most of our students will meet and speak in English with speakers of other languages so the argument that “we have the best accent and acquired the language as children” is not strong enough. How about all the accents the English language has???Kiwi, African, Irish, Appalachian English?? Most learners have cable TV home and surf the web these days. They can hear to a lot of… Read more »

Rob Western
Guest
Rob Western

I’ve heard this argument a lot, that only NNS who have learned English “understand” what it is like to learn a second language. I mean this as an honest question. Would you put the importance of personal experience in to another profession? Would you say a doctor treating cancer who has never had cancer is an inferior doctor to one who had? Would you not take retirement advice from someone who was not retired? Does your real estate agent have to be a home owner? Does your veterinarian have to own a sick animal or even be a pet owner?… Read more »

typtoptokyo
Guest

I agree that having a second language helps, but it isnt quite as clear cut as that. For example, if you are Spanish person who teaches English, does your experience mean you are better for a job in China than someone who is NS with say pre-intermediate Chinese?

Also, another point is why are NS so popular as English Teachers? Presumably there have always been NNS teachers around, so if their experience in learning English is so golden, why do people even need to employ NS in the first place?

victor muzy
Guest
victor muzy

Well, I would say the best teacher is the one who speaks the learners first language and the one who has a good command of the English Language and on top of that, somebody who has some knowledge of how languages are learned. Very few native speakers are bilingual and properly trained to be a teacher. My mom is a Brazilian national and that does not make her a good teacher of Portuguese. Once you speak the learner’s first language, you may know what they mean and can help them reduce the amount of interference their first language plays on… Read more »

typtoptokyo
Guest

“Both NNS and NN should be assessed and be paid according to their experience and performace instead of their pay being based on nationality. This is So unfair!!!!” Cant argue with this. But again, why are NS so popular? Im not asking aggressively I think it is just glossed over quite a lot. In Korea and Japan, the reasons are quite obvious. There are not that many people who can speak it well enough and if they can that is a passport to a better job. Educational culture in both places doesnt lend well to the kind of informality we… Read more »

Gustavo
Guest
Gustavo

All of the points are interesting. In my opinion what is important how the teacher learned the language. I´m a Brazilian whoes first language in English. I teach English for some 12 years and know the difficulties my students have due to knowing their language and culture, which is the same as mine.

hakim
Guest
hakim

I am Algerian and I spent thirty years teaching English to high school students. I had NS colleagues when I started my career. My students were a bit reluctant to have a NNS teacher and I had to work much harder to gain their confidence. knowing the language of my students (Arabic) was quite useful, as it helped me with error analyses and the way to get rid of those mistakes (which was so difficult for NS). Besides, knowing the culture of my students proved also very useful.

TeamBritanniaHu
Guest

Reblogged this on hungarywolf and commented:
How can someone with little or no training be paid more than someone with years of teaching and training experience? Good question, which should, however, cut both ways.

TeamBritanniaHu
Guest

I think the real problem is the lack of international standardisation of qualifications, even in the EU.

quazisstepinenglishgrammar
Guest

I don’t think native teachers are always bad thing rather everybody should learn English grammar more or less. As a native has chance to have grasped the English grammar most like environment surrounded by English language only that is why their English specially speaking is good, however, somewhere writing has not up to the mark though many non natives are not. The quintessence and veracity are many non natives are good at English grammar and language like many natives do. However, discrepancy always prevails when nonnatives are not confident enough for their English as incompetent grammatical phenomena, of course, there… Read more »

paquivg
Guest

Reblogged this on Blog colaborativo and commented:
Hola compañer@s,
Aquí os dejo un artículo que me parece bastante relevante para nuestro grupo. Éste hace una reflexión sobre la importancia (en exceso) que a veces le damos a los profesores nativos de idiomas extranjeros frente al profesorado no nativo.
Espero que os guste 🙂

Jon
Guest

Some thoughts: 1) As you mentioned, it should be about competence and not about whether one is a NS or NNS. However, if a NS is more competent then I guess you can’t argue with the NS earning more. That may sound unfair (“I’ve studied 4 years and this person has only studied 4 weeks or isn’t trained at all”), but we’re learning a language aren’t we and thus isn’t it about how good a teacher you are. 2) Of course, I think a person who isn’t trained (just a NS) or one who has only got a 4 weeks… Read more »

Chris
Guest
Chris

Some very interesting points here, and it cannot be denied that the pay disparity is often very unfair, as many non-native speaker teachers are excellent, and many native-speaker teachers are fly by night cowboys!
I’d just like to throw in another question:
Why should a competent teacher with over a decade of experience be paid less than (or even be completely barred from some jobs accessible to) somebody who has just graduated and has little or no practical classroom experience?

Ghada
Guest
Ghada

simply, because we are in materialistic world. What they admire is showing of and boasting around, no more no less; however, those who are experienced in the class are the only victims cause the hadn’t a chance or even a circumstances never allowed them to have master degree to authorize the organization properly.

dcw6
Guest
dcw6

Wow, what a conversation! I haven’t read all the comments but what interested me was the question of ‘qualifications’ to teach. One contributor asks, “How do we measure competence, though, if not through qualifications and experience?” ‘Qualifications’, are they really a mark of competence? While writing my dissertation for my Master’s, which was on an aspect of training given to Teachers of EFL, I looked at the routes people took to get into TEFL. Given the first recognised qualification is the CELTA or Trinity, a 4 week course, I wanted to see what subjects were taken at degree. I asked… Read more »

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