A teacher trainer, Daniel Baines, sheds light on the alleged advantages of native English speakers as language teachers from his experience on intensive initial teaching training courses. Daniel’s bio can be found below the article.
Intensive teaching certificate courses, or TEFL courses, flourish throughout Europe and a cross-section of a TEFL school at any given time during an intensive course shows an interesting and unique habitat.
In the classrooms: The future teachers, usually a mix of US, British and Australian citizens garnished with a bunch of Canadians and / or New Zealanders and one or two non-native English speakers. The trainees vary in their backgrounds and motivations. Many of them in their twenties, some far from it. Some undergrads, some career changers, some on their Euro trip, some serious, some not so much.
In the tutors’ office: A handful of trainers, trying to grasp the new course, making nerdy schwa jokes, discussing the possible pronunciations of “schedule” and trying to gorge their lunch before the next lesson.
This very habitat produces the native English speaking teachers that schools around the world scream and advertise for relentlessly while the non-native speaking teachers to graduate these courses are often harshly rejected like an uninvited by-product. Native or not: 4 weeks a teacher.
Prague, Czech Republic, a few courses back, week 1 of 4 on the course…
The trainers’ office is in a bit of an uproar because of cheeky Nandos. After their first day of teaching practice the trainees were exhausted and one of the Britons, Jim, gets a lot of laughs from his fellow countrymen for swearing about his inability to get “cheeky Nandos” in Prague. The trainers, two Americans and a Brit are startled. What is a cheeky Nando? What does one do with it and where is such an item purchased? Can it be bought at all? Or is it something you find within yourself rather than on a supermarket shelf? All we could tell was it had to be something desirable after a long day and Jim couldn’t get it – may this inability be extrinsic or intrinsic. Nick, the Hungarian, laughs. He’s spent the last 5 years living in Brixton and has been for more than a few “cheeky Nandos”, he says, on his way out into town for “a few jars”.
Fast forward: Week 2. A row erupts between the trainees regarding a vocabulary activity designed to raise teacher awareness of small differences in meaning. It’s a gap fill. The answer is continually. All of them (native speakers) bar three (two native speakers and a non-native) get this wrong and this is common, it happens every course, it’s the point of the activity really. It usually ends with the tutor drawing a timeline on the board and explaining that continuous is without end and continual is repeated. Not this time, however. Nick comes to the rescue and casually and clearly explains the difference between them. “How did you know that?” asks one trainee, mouth agape. The answer was simple. He learned it studying for his CPE exam.
Week 3: Trainees chuckle because Jack from Ohio, 54, who’s been living in the Czech Republic for over 15 years now, mispronounced Kanye West’s first name in an attempt to show that he’s as well informed as any twenty-something on the course. Josh, a fresh from university young Englishman, tells a teaching practice group that he doesn’t actually know the prime minister of his own country. And finally, to end the week, another row. This time it’s about modal verb stacking. Laura, from Louisiana argues that “I might could do that” is perfectly acceptable where she’s from. This is met by universal derision. She has more allies later, though, when studying the perfect aspect. All the Americans jump to her defence to argue that when returning home to discover missing house keys, “Oh no! I lost my keys” is correct and, indeed, preferable to “Oh no! I’ve lost my keys”. Incidentally, Nick sided with the English stating that that’s what he was taught in school and heartily joined in with mockery. He also knew the prime minister and how to pronounce Kanye, turns out he was a bit of a fan, (at least of the first three albums).
Week 4: Graduation! Happy faces. The trainees attend a so called job workshop where different language schools present themselves as potential future employers. All of them are looking for native speakers. Luckily there are loads of natives on the course. Nick looks downhearted, and who could blame him? He moved to Prague with his Czech wife to be closer to his young daughter’s grandparents. He took the course incredibly seriously, was loved by his students and was the only trainee that particular month to earn a distinction. But apparently the jobs are off limits to him.
I questioned one of the school directors some time later to ask why his employment policy is so discriminatory. It was sad to hear the same sad reasons, repeated like a mantra. He has no problem with non-native speakers, he is one himself, but native speakers have clear advantages. Non-native speakers are great at teaching grammar because they understand it better, but natives are better at teaching vocabulary because they understand the nuances. Native speakers are also better at teaching conversation courses, because they know how the language is used and can talk about things related to their culture, which is interesting for the students. Of course, let’s not forget that native speakers have better pronunciation.
In the last 5 years I have trained over 1000 teachers and when you do that, some things become very evident, namely that these arguments hold no weight. The examples above, Nick, Jack, Laura, Josh, serve to a series of simple facts.
- Native speakers do not always have an extensive lexical knowledge and those who do still have blind spots. I myself had to look up the word palpable after it was used by a Brazilian trainee in class and once watched a very well educated American girl teach a class that both George VI and Prince Charles could be considered ancestors of the Queen.
- Not all native speakers know a lot about their homeland culture and culture is so vast, how could they know it all anyway. I’m from a small seaside town in North West England and haven’t lived there for over a decade now. We don’t have Nando’s there, the nearest is 30 miles away, and I’d struggle to tell you anything about the culture these days as I take little interest in it.
- There is no one native speaker pronunciation. When I look back to my first ever lesson on my training course I still get a little red-faced remembering that my pronunciation was so hard for the students to follow that I had to write “bus” on the board for them to understand. It always raises a smile watching students squirm in teaching practice trying to decipher the Glaswegian pronunciation of “girl”.
The biggest problem with this fantastical idea of the native speaker is not that all fit the profile described by the director above, which of course isn’t true, but the belief that somehow no non-native English speakers do. Obviously, not all non-native speaker teachers have wonderfully rich vocabularies, excellent pronunciation, deep cultural awareness and native-like grammatical control. There are many who don’t, just like there are many native speakers who also don’t. Trust me, I’ve seen terrible non-native speaker English teachers, but I have seen equally inept native English speaker teachers. Being a native speaker of English doesn’t make you a teacher of it. Neither does being a non-native speaker of English. What does make you a good teacher is the ability to teach what you do know and, in many cases, a good amount of patience and charisma. Where someone is born doesn’t define their abilities to teach English at all. And I believe we should finally stop asking about birth places.
One of the people who had everything it takes to make a brilliant teacher was Nick, our Hungarian trainee. So, where is he now? After the course he spent weeks sending out CVs only to get either no reply or a response saying they were looking for natives. He came in to see us asking for advice, so I suggested that he go around the schools door to door. Talk to them in person. Let them see how good his English is. Weeks later he came back, this time with a bottle of champagne for each of the tutors. It was a thank you gift. He told us how much he’d enjoyed the course, how much he’d learned, that he’d never forget it. He told us he’d only managed to get one interview and how he’d only been offered two lessons a week for one school. He told us how it had put a lot of strain on his marriage, how his wife had kicked him out because he wasn’t working, how he had to go back to Hungary to earn money again and leave his daughter behind. He also told us his bus left the following morning. It was a thank you and leaving gift. It was heartbreaking, but all too familiar. He worked as hard as anyone could to discover that it didn’t matter, because he wasn’t and never could be born in an English speaking country with the privilege of English as his mother tongue. What are the qualities that make natives speakers the better option? I don’t know, but I’d certainly like to. Answers on a postcard…
PS: apologies if you don’t get the reference, you might be a non-native speaker! Or a native speaker who didn’t grow up where/when I did. I’m sure you’re still a great teacher either way.
Dan is a freelance teacher trainer from the North of England, based in Prague, who has been working in the EFL industry since 2004 and teacher training in some form of another for the last 7 years. When not training the next wave of Prague’s English teachers he fills his time with teaching, course design, research and writing. He has DELTA and a Master’s degree in TESOL and his dissertation is published and available through the British Council teach English page. He is currently working in Nottingham where he is teaching presessional EAP to prepare overseas students to begin their post-graduate degrees in the autumn and generally hating the English weather, but loving the food.