NS and NNS labels: a false dichotomy?

Two days after Silvana Richardson’s brilliant plenary: The Native factor (read more about it here), there was an equally fascinating Q&A session. However, since it was impossible to address all the questions posed by the audience then and there, Silvana and I decided we would continue the discussion on this blog. We gathered all the questions and divided them into four groups according to the emerging topics:

  1. NS and NNS labels: a false dichotomy?
  2. NS and NNS identity: issues of self-confidence, language ownership and authority
  3. Language proficiency: is there a minimum level for a teacher?
  4. What can we do to advance equality in ELT? How can I get involved

This is the first post with questions on the topic of NS and NNS labels. We’d like to invite you to answer the questions below in the comments section. We’ll then gather the answers and post a follow-up article also including our comments.

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  1. Who is a native English speaker anyway?
  2. Are non-native English speakers shooting themselves in the foot by calling themselves non-native?
  3. Is the native vs non-native a false dichotomy?
  4. What terms can we use instead of native and non-native, or NEST and NNEST?
  5. How about monolingual and multilingual English teachers?

For the next three weeks we will post the remaining three topics, one every week. So if you’re interested in continuing the discussion, stay tuned. Follow the blog on Twitter, FB or via email so you don’t miss any of the discussion.

34 thoughts on “NS and NNS labels: a false dichotomy?”

    1. It’s a fair point that the term NNS implies a deficiency, but the labels of NS and NNS do not define the same qualities as the terms ‘monolingual’ and ‘multilingual’. What’s necessary in this case are labels which define the degree of a teacher’s language proficiency, because in my view that’s what the terms NS and NNS imply.

      1. I think one of the misunderstanding that comes from how NS and NNS have been used in SLA and ELT is that it is suggested that a NS is proficient, whereas a NNS is ‘deficient’. We associate being a NS with ideal language model and perfect language proficiency. On the other hand, a NNS is by definition seen as linguistically deficient. But we both know that there are different degrees of proficiency in both groups. Perhaps we should just talk about proficient English users?

  1. 1. Who is a native English speaker anyway?
    This is a question that I want to think about a little more before responding (I may wait and see what others have to say).

    2. Are non-native English speakers shooting themselves in the foot by calling themselves non-native?
    Only if they’re not thinking about whether there might be better alternatives – which is exactly what happens on TEA!

    3. Is the native vs non-native a false dichotomy?
    There’s only one correct answer to this question – yes.

    4. (and 5) What terms can we use instead of native and non-native, or NEST and NNEST? How about monolingual and multilingual English teachers?

    I think the term monolingual has to be used with caution, as I suspect some may think that ‘monolingual’ is somehow… inferior. We do have to sympathize with those who have forged successful careers in teaching English without being fluent speakers of a language that isn’t English. Most of them are decent, hardworking, dedicated professionals who have worked hard to earn the roles they now perform (and can in many cases state that their hard work and dedication, rather than their status as a ‘native speaker’, were the factors that got them into their current roles).

    There are many who perhaps don’t have the opportunity or the motivation to learn a second language as children. Some of them, as adults, become wonderfully talented teachers of English, and if it so happens that they are unable to find the time to learn a second language on top of all the efforts they’re putting into their own teacher development, we can hardly blame them. I’m sure that a lot of those who up to this point have been referred to as ‘native teachers’ would like to try learning another language as well as teaching English, but worry about being distracted from the jobs into which they’ve put so much of themselves. That and paying the bills.

    On this point, I’d like for us to encourage employers to do more to enable their teachers to learn a second language – there are many good schools and education departments which already do this, but some others offer little or no support to teachers and other staff who want to learn the language of the country in which they’re employed, and, sadly, I’ve also encountered schools that actively discourage it, lest those teachers begin using the students’ L1 in the classroom.

    One of the many misconceptions surrounding the issues we’re discussing is that the so-called ‘native speaker’ can and should speak only English. That’s something we can, and should, reconsider and change. I’m trying my best to learn Chinese, and while我的國語依然真的不好,being a language learner has helped me in my teaching.

    It might turn out that monolingual and multilingual are indeed the best terms – let’s see how this discussion develops – but using terms that, even unintentionally, might antagonize or alienate people who, with good reason, think of themselves as respectable, decent, moral human beings is something we need to be careful of.

    I dare say that these are the type of teaching professionals who were, um, non-standers and non-applauders at the end of Silvana Richardson’s speech in Birmingham. All of those people had earned their right to be at the IATEFL conference, but I think they felt challenged and perhaps a little uneasy the prospect that they might be in the way of this fast-approaching train rather than on it. My view is that, right now, they are exactly the people TEA needs to be reaching out to. If we are to break down the false NS versus NNS dichotomy and forge a better future for the teaching of English, it must be done with the consent of all those who have a stake in it.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂
      I agree that we don’t want to antagonise anyone by using mono and multilingual. However, as opposed to NS and NNS labels, they are actual skills, things you can learn. And I don’t think we need to use the term bilingual to mean someone who is on C2 level in both languages, but learning a foreign language to at least intermediate level is I think something all language teachers should do. Of course, I understand that some might not have time or will to do that, but I’m not sure this is a great excuse. Some teachers never engage in any professional development for the same reasons, but we wouldn’t exactly excuse them.
      As you say, I’m sure some of the monolingual English speaker teachers are great professionals (I’ve worked with a few myself), who engage in PD. If we start assessing the teachers in a more complete way, rather than solely based on their ‘nativeness’, than engaging in PD would be a big plus, while being a monolingual would probably be considered a disadvantage. So it’d not that a monolingual would be right away considered a worse teacher (as NNS are now) – we’d also need to look at other important factors, e.g. experience, qualifications, teaching skills, etc.
      Having said that, I think that often not learning a foreign language comes from the monolingual approach so widespread in SLA and ELT which you mention. A mate of mine in Japan was told by his boss that he had to pretend he spoke no Japanese and knew nothing about the local culture, because a ‘real’ NES has to remain forever exotic… Go figure!
      Totally agree with your last paragraph. We’re in it together. As English teachers. And we should be united rather than divided. However, having run TEA campaign for over two years, I’ve seen a lot of people who will simply never be convinced. You should see some of the ‘hate’ comments or emails from them. But there’s definitely a large group out there who is still feeling a bit uneasy about this discussion and who might be persuaded to get involved. These are the people we really have to reach out to.

      1. Paul Harrington

        Surely, the fact that NS and NNS mean something precise, would suggest that no further tinkering is necessary.
        There are no implications. If I describe myself as a Native Speaker (of English), and someone from, say, China as a Non-native Speaker (of English), I am telling interested parties whether or not English is the language spoken in the countries we are from. I am implying NOTHING. The person to whom I am directing my message may make an assumption based on my labelling, but, if he or she is going to make an assumption, it is probably better made earlier rather than later.

    2. I think Native speakers who learn and KNOW the original of any language.Therefore,there are lots of foregners or Second English language Speaker are fluency in speaking like nativespeakers but I think not like the orignal who speaks languaguage from birth.

  2. Yes, of course it’s a false dichotomy but it’s also a business driven reality that causes inequality. So it’s one we have to live with and fight against.

    Finding new labels is not going to resolve the issues of people being discriminated against. It just allows the discrimination to be hidden behind new labels.

    My first language is English but I speak three more languages as well so I am therefore multilingual. The idea that all ‘native speakers ‘ are monolingual is a bit daft.

    The definition of a native speaker is sometimes determined by governments for visa purposes. I think it would be useful to find out more about this. Within the EU, for example, there is free movement of those with EU passports so there is no reason for businesses to distinguish between NS and NNS. In fact, they should be giving most of their jobs to EU citizens. In the ME or Asia, the rules get more complicated. It would be wrong to say that such and such a company is discriminating when they are bound by the rule of law. The issue related to equal pay for local teachers is, of course, a different issue.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that perhaps inventing new labels isn’t going to change much, but just hide the discrimination behind other terms. Should we perhaps get rid of the terms all together (in professional ELT discourse)?
      We didn’t suggest that all native English speakers are monolingual (though many unfortunately are). You’d be a multilingual English speaker. So if you speak English (whether as a mother tongue or not), plus another language (s) you’d be labelled as a bi/multilingual English user.
      I wish companies in the EU didn’t distinguish between NS and NNS. Around 75% of all ELT job ads in the EU are for NS only (which effectively means Ireland or the UK – for some reason Malta is excluded).

  3. 1. Who is a native English speaker anyway?
    It’s obviously difficult to define, but personally, I’d say you’re a native speaker of whatever your strongest language is (that might be more than one in some cases).

    2. Are non-native English speakers shooting themselves in the foot by calling themselves non-native?
    Probably. But it’s more employers that make the distinction rather than teachers.

    3. Is the native vs non-native a false dichotomy?
    To some extent. One of the issues I had with Sylvana’s talk was that she seemed to have assumptions about the skills of NESTs and NNSETs. There was an assumption that the NEST is monolingual, which is not necessarily the case. There was also an assumption that the NNEST shares the language of the students, which again, is not always the case. And a NNSET who has learned English to fluency as a child might have quite a different set of things to bring to the classroom than someone who learned it to fluency as an adult. But the final issue was the idea that students don’t care. It’s actually quite a complex issue, and it’s more a question of how many care and how much, because some clearly do. Certainly in Vietnam, where I last worked, there were issues, although it was more straight up racism rather than NEST bias. I know plenty of Asian American teachers who got complaints from parents, but I’ve never heard of a white NNEST getting one.

    The reality is that we’re talking about the difference between a completely fluent NNSET and a NEST, but in a lot of the developing world, students are taught by NNESTs that are barely intermediate level. That is most students’ experience of the local teachers. Add to that a completely lack of trust in a country where dodgy business practices are common place, and parents will pay extra for a NEST because they believe it guarantees quality. There’s a Japanese language school in Saigon that charges 3 times the price to learn with a Japanese teacher rather than a Vietnamese one. They can only do that because people are willing to pay more for the native teacher. Of course, actually making parents aware of qualifications, and the English language abilities they infer, would go a long way to solving this problem.

    4. What terms can we use instead of native and non-native, or NEST and NNEST?
    If you claim that it’s irrelevant, then there shouldn’t even be a term to separate them.

    5. How about monolingual and multilingual English teachers?
    As I said earlier, the main issue is whether or not they share the language of the students, not how many languages they speak. If we accept that sharing the language of the students is beneficial, then the next question becomes what level of, say, French does the teacher need to have to be able to bring some of these benefits to a classroom in Paris? Does it depend on the age and/or level of the students? For what it’s worth, the adverts I’ve seen that do require some local language knowledge tend to specify B1 level.

  4. In response to Questions 3 and 5, if the native vs non-native categories pose a false dichotomy, it is also possible that the labels of monolingual and multilingual do so too. Looking at the dictionary definitions, the difference between NS and NNS definitely isn’t clear-cut, as a NNS could have spoken their L2 since they were a baby, for example with a kindergarten or nursery teacher.

    native speaker
    someone who has ​spoken a ​particular ​language since they were a ​baby, ​rather than having ​learned it as a ​child or ​adult

    non-native speaker
    someone who has ​learned a ​particular ​language as a ​child or ​adult ​rather than as a ​baby

    speaking or using only one ​language

    able to use more than two ​languages for ​communication

    (from Cambridge Dictionaries Online)

    The question is whether the distinction between ‘a monolingual’ and ‘a multilingual’ is any clearer than the gap between NS and NNS, and at what point a person switches from being monolingual to multilingual. The definition of multilingual states the defining factor is the ability to use two or more languages, but it is debatable whether this has to be anything more than CEFR A1 level in the same way that it is debatable at what age a child has to start speaking an L2 to be classified as either a NS or a NNS.

    The question is, therefore, that if we are faced with an undesirable false dichotomy, is a replacement false dichotomy going to solve the root of the problem viz. the prejudice associated with categorizing language teachers under labels which very loosely imply pedagogic competencies.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂
      I agree that bilingual and monolingual can pose another false dichotomy. But wouldn’t they help move us away from the prejudice NNS face?

      1. In a certain sense, yes it might reduce the potential to discriminate but I think it would be replaced by another set of assumptions and therefore prejudices about the pedagogic competencies of teachers based on their new labels. The point is, what can arbitrary labels from job-posts like ‘degree-holder’, ‘native-speaker’ and ‘monolingual’ really tell us about a teacher’s pedagogic competence? Who can tell for sure that a teacher who can speak the student’s mother tongue but who has CEFR B2 level English will establish a better rapport, achieve better learning outcomes and work more diligently than a teacher who is monolingual and an expert user? It’s extremely hard to say and I personally believe that it depends on a lot of different factors e.g. the curriculum, learners’ L1 and age, culturally-established expectations of teaching practices, etc.

        But stepping back, I also think it’s important to remember that this discussion is framed as if we could change the terminology which is used by recruiters and job-seekers via legislation. Although its’ worthwhile to debate the NS/NNS issue, because it has the potential to influence beliefs in the TESOL profession, at the same time it’s important to realise that until attitudes change on a wider scale, the terminology probably won’t change either.

  5. Who is a native English speaker anyway?
    Officially: “A person who has spoken the language in question from earliest childhood” (thanks Oxford dictionary)
    For students: “someone who says ‘America/UK’ when you ask them where they’re from.”
    I actually don’t think changing the definition will solve any problems. Instead I think we should focus on understanding the problems with these definitions until they become obsolete. I’m bilingual but right now I feel far more comfortable teaching English than I would my “native” language. I moved away 3 years ago and even before that I used English more often than my native. So if I wanted to be mean I could ask how long can and ESL teacher live in another country before they stop being a competent teacher? (But I won’t because it doesn’t work like that.) My point is, people today live complicated lives, being born or growing up somewhere doesn’t actually mean as much as people pretend it does – linguistically speaking. So even if you DO want to discriminate against people on this basis, you need better parameters. And since the point is to not do it, well, I guess just chip at those definitions until they fall apart completely.

    Though I do want to say here that I’m not a fan of going after native speakers for their lack of knowledge about grammar. I’m a “non native” speaker who didn’t know any grammar until I decided to do this job and forced myself to learn it. Hell, I’m still learning it. I understand the instinct to say “this is what we’re better at” but as I said, some of us are not. And if this truly was the only branch saving us, I would have drowned ages ago.

    Are non-native English speakers shooting themselves in the foot by calling themselves non-native?
    I don’t call myself non native unless I’m proving a point (see above :D). But yes it definitely feels like the equivalent of going to a job interview in, idk, a law firm and saying “I watch a lot of Judge Judy.” (I’m not saying that’s how it is, just that that’s how it feels to me.)

    Is the native vs non-native a false dichotomy?

    Hm… not more or less than any other label. The thing is, students don’t want native speakers because they teach English better, whatever that might mean, they want native speakers because they are hoping to pick up the accent, they want the latest slang, they want “natural” not “practiced” speech. Culture, as well as the language. Now, I spend a lot of time online, talking to Americans, slanging, “lol” and “omg”-ing, I write, I debate… I feel comfortable enough to play with both spoken and written English. But there might be some cultural aspects to it all the I’ll never be able to pick up. Ok, two examples. I only learned a few years ago (I’m over 30) that “cup” in American recipes isn’t just some random cup but an actual unit of m. Likewise, up to a few years ago, I had no idea watermelons and fried chicken had racial connotations in America.
    So, I don’t know, if that’s what students mean when they say “native” instead of “non native”, is it a false dichotomy?
    (I’m not trying to play the devil’s advocate, I’m just trying to be logical about some aspects of this, even the ones that annoy me 😀 )

    What terms can we use instead of native and non-native, or NEST and NNEST?
    Competent? Fluent?

    How about monolingual and multilingual English teachers?
    Not sure how that helps. I speak several languages and while it sometimes makes my classroom time more fun it’s actually not a method I use in teaching at all. In fact, I’m a solid A1 in my local language because I don’t live in the country that… “I’m from”. I know plenty of other teachers in the same position. Meanwhile my American friend is rushing towards a B1 in that same language. So she’s native and multilingual and I’m non native and multilingual in a way that is irrelevant to my current situation 😀

    1. Thanks for a fascinating comment, Andrea.
      RE definitions, common sense would tell us that a NS is somebody who has acquired a given language as their first language. However, as you pointed out, it gets much more complicated than that. Lots of people are bi/multilingual. Lots of people emigrate and lose the connection with their mother tongue. Also, in ELT and SLA, the NS has been endowed with so many unrealistic and imaginary qualities (e.g. it’s often assumed that a NS speaks the lg perfectly), that it no longer describes the real NS. A very good book on the topic is: ‘Native speaker: myth and reality’ by Davies. Recommended if you want to find out more about it.
      RE your points on not knowing certain cultural aspects or certain idioms. Would a NS who isn’t American know this? They probably wouldn’t. Also, how many sts actually need to learn stuff like this? Unless you want to emigrate to a particular English-speaking country, I can see little point in learning a lot about the slang/culture/idioms from that country.
      RE multilingual English speakers, this is precisely the point, i.e. moving away from the NS and NNS distinctions. A NS that speaks another lg apart from English would be a bilingual English speaker, just as any NNS is by definition. What do you think?

  6. Dita Phillips

    The more I think about it the more I dislike the terms mono and multilingual. As mentioned above these are not only merely side stepping the real issue but, in fact, creating a dichotomy of their own. Why stigmatize yet another group? All English teachers are lingual, but some are more lingual than others?
    The need for labels seems to come from the need to ensure sufficient language proficiency. That’s why any new labels should cover this area. Suggestions like competent or fluent user of English seem to be heading in that direction. There is another issue though. There seems to be a new trend in ads online, especially for jobs in the UK. Many have started asking for native speaker level English. What does that mean and how do you measure it, I hear you ask. A colleague of mine rang one of these schools to ask. The answer was: we interview the candidates and we know. As far as I’m concerned the search for the right term is still on.

    1. Hi Dita,
      Thanks for commenting 🙂
      You’re right. We don’t need more stigmatising I suppose. Mind you, you could argue that calling people fluent or not fluent is the same. Especially if we’re not really sure who decides and what fluency or proficiency mean (check out the upcoming series of questions on proficiency level). Another issue is that we might need a new proficiency model and testing system which does not peg levels to the idealised NS, as is unfortunately the case with CEFR.
      Having said that, I definitely agree that using proficient English speaker is by far the most neutral and professional of all labels. I’d also say that both NS and NNS should be required to take a proficiency test. Perhaps one that would also include language awareness.

      1. A proficiency test? I think it says a lot about the state of the industry if industry-standard qualifications aren’t considered adequate proof of your competence in English. It would be insulting to ask someone with a CELTA, DELTA or even a masters to prove their proficiency in English to be able to get a job.

    1. I think it’s a very good suggestion. Certainly less loaded than NS and NNS. Do we need any of these labels, though? Can’t we simply talk about qualified and unqualified English teachers?

  7. This post has been fascinating to follow. I don’t think I have much to add, but I find myself wondering why we aren’t talking about proficiency more.

    I have never been confident enough to say that I am bilingual. Some people are more critical of their own abilities than others.

    So, Whilst I wouldn’t be happy to describe myself as monolingual, neither would I describe myself as multilingual. I would be happy to say I know bits and pieces of other languages, but I know them all to varying degrees of proficiency.

    If I was to pursue a job which relied on one of those languages, I would more than likely have to take a test to prove my proficiency. However, my proficiency in English is assumed because I was born in an English speaking country. That is where the discrimination lies for me.

    Shouldn’t language proficiency (for ALL teachers) be measured objectively, rather than assumed based on a candidate’s country of origin?

    What do you think?

    1. Great suggestion. One problem is, as much as I’m totally in favour of the idea, how to measure proficiency without pegging it to an idealised NS language competence. Even the CEFR, practically on every level mentions things like being understood by NS, being able to interact with NS, etc. We probably need to rethink how proficiency is measured and what it means. Any thoughts?
      But definitely, I agree that proficiency shouldn’t be assumed, but measured. At the moment it is assumed that as a NS you’re always more proficient than a NNS.

      1. I see your point.

        I don’t know what I could suggest. The CEFR is widely used but I agree that you need to have definitions that fit with English as a Lingua Franca and not emulating the ideal Native Speaker.

        I may not know the best way to measure proficiency, I know how I feel about assumptions.

        I find that both view points are assumed. It’s assumed that I have a high level of proficiency with the English language because of where I was born, while at the same time it is also assumed that my awareness of the language is lower.

        I would much rather be thought of as a proficient speaker rather than a native speaker.


        1. You hit the nail on the head. This is how native speakerism works, T. NS are assumed to be proficient but unaware of how lg works. On the other hand NNS are assumed to be not proficient, but aware of how the lg works. Very simplistic and black and white. As a result of this, in some countries NS will be given conversation classes, while NNS grammar or exam prep.
          Love your last sentence! I’d much rather be seen as a proficient speaker than a NNS too 🙂

  8. I speak some Italian (B2+). Someone who was socialised in Italy and/or acquired the language during their formative years would be a native speaker. Why on earth should I feel in any way offended if someone called me a non-native speaker of Italian? Or, for that matter, if I was told that my pronunciation wasn’t sufficiently authentic to pass as an Italian? I for one want an Italian teacher whom I can rely on to provide an authentic language model at beyond C2 level proficiency. It would be exceedingly rare for someone who had learnt Italian as L2 to have reached that level. Hence I would always insist on a native speaker.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Peter. I don’t think I’d feel offended if someone called me a non-native English speaker. I probably am one, because my first language is Polish. However, I do feel the label is completely irrelevant in ELT, because first and foremost I am a qualified and experienced English teacher. I think it’d be best if we started judging teachers based on their teaching skills, not an accident of birth. Regarding pronunciation, I don’t think sounding like a NS should be the goal. First, which NS? Second, intelligibility in international settings is what really matters. Sounding native doesn’t guarantee that.
      Also, being a lg teacher is so much more than being proficient in the language, or being a NS. I’d personally always go for the best teacher, regardless of what their mother tongue is.

  9. Well, like everyone else, you are entitled to your views, as long as you don’t insist that others share them. Being a “good teacher” and being a native speaker are not mutually excusive categories. I do take exception to your telling me my goal should not be sounding like a native speaker. I WANT to sound like a native speaker, or as close as I can get. That is MY goal.

    1. Why would anyone want to sound like a native speaker when they’ll never be considered one anyway? You might try to emulate and copy native’s accent and all, but there’s always gonna be something about you that gives away the fact that you’re not a native speaker in that language. I don’t understand people’s obsession with sounding like a native speaker.

      1. I think you’ve made a good point, and I think this is an important aspect of the dichotomy. There is too often an assumption that ‘native like’ is the ultimate goal. Now, I don’t think it’s up to us to decide what our learners’ goals should be but I do believe that we need to challenge those assumptions and educate learners to set targets and goals that are valid and realistic. I haven’t found it difficult to get that message across generally. Once students understand and believe in this new goal, they often feel more motivated and successful as they know they are doing something that is achievable, not looking for a holy grail.

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  11. Food for thought

    NS has been studied, however, no simple or clear definition is forthcoming. Research also reveals an additional societal aspect, as gender, ethnicity and mother tongue are also part of the Teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) context. At all levels there has been a certain level of discrimination towards NNESTs; universities across the UK and abroad offer TESOL courses to NNSs and NNESTs knowing that they may be discriminated against in the job market. Just as qualification does not necessarily equate to competence, neither does being a NS; NESTs and NNESTs can instead strengthen their teaching practices by complementing one another. Further studies on gender and discrimination in TESOL will benefit both sides of this dichotomy. It would be interesting to assess the effects of a differentiated teacher professional development model designed especially for NNESTs. Another possible area of future research would be to investigate professional credentials and linguistic inheritance. Ultimately, being part of Kachru’s inner circle (native speaker) is not, in itself, a qualification for teaching English. (Almeida, 2015: ii)

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  13. Pingback: Proficiency: is there a minimum level for a language teacher? – TEFL Equity Advocates

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