I started my English language teaching career soon after completing my undergraduate degree in 2005. South Korea appeared to be a wonderful opportunity, as all you needed to qualify as an English language teacher was to be a Native English Speaker (NS), hold a degree in any subject from an English-speaking country and be willing to travel half-way across the world. I decided to jump at the chance once I secured a full-time teaching contract and was very happy, yet incredibly nervous at the same time. I spent a total of three years in this wonderful country with some interesting experiences and stories to share, particularly with regards to the teaching of English and institutions keen to recruit teachers based upon their accent.
In my first year in Korea, I was working for a private language school teaching young learners between the ages of 5-16 years. The school marketed to parents on the promise that their children would acquire American pronunciation and spoken fluency within a year, despite a native British English teacher and two non-native English teachers (NNESTs) working at the school. A number of months passed and one of the directors asked whether I could sound more American and less British. This did not just happen to myself but a similar situation happened to my wife who was a NNEST in Korea and teaching various clients business English skills. My wife applied for a part-time contract and the recruiting agency dealing on behalf of a school in South Korea phoned to hold a telephone interview. The conversation went like this:
Recruiter: “I am phoning as you applied for the teaching post.”
Wife: “Yes? I am available to teach and have experience teaching business clients.”
Recruiter: “Ohh! You have an English accent. We are looking for someone with an American accent.”
My wife immediately put the phone down and was shocked at how both native as well as non-native teachers were judged on their suitability for employment from their accent. It is worrying that there are a small number of institutions and recruiters operating in South Korea who are readily judging teacher performance on a perceived accent from a particular country.
However, to be fair, I had a wonderful time in South Korea and the majority of the time that I spent working and living in this magnificent country was very positive. Once completing a CELTA course, I was more employable and I discovered another element of teaching in South Korea which was more professional and respectable compared to their ‘backpacker teachers’ equivalents.
I changed jobs from the small American English school in a rural area of Korea and was employed by an international English institute where there were a number of native English teachers (NESTs) from various different countries. The time I spent at this school lasted until I decided to return to the UK but there were a number of tacit understandings with regards to this institute.
Firstly: all teachers had to be NSs and hold a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language – a plus for me as I had just completed the CELTA. Secondly: NNESTs were not recruited – positive discrimination in a sense – as the institute informed that paying customers expected a perceived NS. And thirdly: those NNESTs were away from the majority of those general English students.
In a way, it was nice to see that there was no bias from the English being taught but again there was this love-hate relationship between native and non-native English teachers. Unfortunately, one senior member of staff told me, “If they look Korean, students will not think that they can speak English”.
The main reason for this, I believe, is that Korea is somewhat a homogenous society with a perception of ‘pure blood’ for those that are Korean. ‘Pure blood’ results in positive or negative discrimination towards people who are ‘foreign blood’ or ‘mixed blood’ working and living in Korea. Their opinion is such that a stereotypical English speaker is one who does not look Korean, but Western.
Unfortunately, this does have an impact on the recruitment for those people who do not look Western in the eyes of the Korean recruiters, e.g. NS of Asian decent. However, I should reiterate that this is somewhat a historic view of how English teachers were recruited or viewed a number of years ago and I should mention that it may not portray how things are currently in Korea.
Nevertheless, the above is not to say that things have developed or improved for non-native English teachers but I should mention I have worked with a number of non-native English teachers both in South Korea, Romania and the UK and all have been incredibly professional. However, NNESTs in Korea, despite being fluent in English, are used mainly to describe English grammar in Korean, and NESTs are used to teach conversation and listening skills. As a result, this may lead learners to perceive NESTs and NNESTs in a somewhat biased way.
For example, learners are initially taught that particular people look a certain way in certain countries and this reinforces the stereotypical opinion of students. Therefore, learners will expect their native English speaker teacher to be a Western speaker with the blond hair, blue eyes and not looking remotely anything like a Korean.
Coming back to the way teaching duties are divided between NESTs and NNESTs in Korea, while it might be a good principle in theory – and works to an extent in Korea – it does raise the question whether native or non-native teachers of English should be focusing on particular skills or not. Meanwhile, it might also influence the learners to think that NESTs and NNESTs are only good at certain things, i.e. teaching speaking and grammar, respectively.
However, having worked with NNESTs in three different countries, I must say they have been incredibly professional, are treated with the utmost respect by their colleagues and hold various qualifications to support their teaching. At my current place of employment in the UK there are several NNESTs- and it is wonderful to see that there are no forms of judgement by other members of staff and the students seem satisfied with NNESTs. In fact, there are more managerial issues at our school with NESTs compared to NNESTs.
To sum up, it is a shame that we are living in an age where teachers are judged upon their accent for their eligibility for employment but as a profession we should focus on our own professional development and educating those that are none-the-wiser. If a school decides to employ a teacher based upon their ethnicity and accent, rather than their professional attributes, then the school will never progress to a level of professionalism expected by many native as well as non-native teachers of English.
I do hope that Korea does recognise the variety and diversity of English speakers, who come from various countries (at the moment only passport holders from seven English-speaking countries are eligible for ELT recruitment: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, UK and USA). I also hope that they widen their recruitment policy to those teachers who are based in non-English speaking countries.
For there are numerous benefits to hiring NNESTs. For example, they have gone through the process of acquiring and using a language which is not their mother-tongue and thus might be better equipped to support their learners through the difficulty they face learning and acquiring a second language. Furthermore, students would also benefit from learning that English is not just spoken in English-speaking countries, but that there are numerous countries around the world that use it as a lingua franca or a second language. Consequently, students would broaden their understanding of the world and realise that it does not perfectly fit into one predictable area with stereotypical views. Finally, if non-native speakers of English hold the necessary qualifications and experience to teach English as a second language in Korea, then they should have the right for employment with any institute. Therefore, if a person from France holds a CELTA, as well as their degree from a French University, and has taught English for ten years, they are better placed to teach English in Korea than a ‘backpacker teacher’ who holds an undergraduate degree from an English speaking University with no certificate to teach English.
Martin Sketchley has been teaching English for over 9 years, starting his career in South Korea before returning to teach in the UK and has taught for a short period in Romania. He is Young Learner Co-ordinator at LTC Eastbourne and is in charge of teacher training and professional development, inducting newly qualified staff and developing the young learner curriculum. Martin is also a Trustee for English in the Community and offers consultancy support for this charity. Martin is particularly interested in professional development, lesson planning and humanistic forms of teaching. You can learn more about him from his website, ELT Experiences.