Sexism, racism, ageism and native speakerism – job ads in ELT

Earlier this year Marek Kiczkowiak and I gave a talk at TESOL Spain in Vitoria-Gasteiz about native speakerism in teacher training (you can download the ppt here).  In preparation for the talk, I set up a survey on general issues of discrimination in ELT to get an idea of different attitudes about discrimination in general, but predominantly to look at native speakerism; that is, the prejudice against individuals based on their mother tongue or perceived ‘nativeness’.  The survey features a series of ELT job adverts with examples of language which could be interpreted as discriminatory.  Participants were simply asked to judge if the language was discriminatory and if it was, was the discrimination justified in the context provided.  The scenarios were as follows.

  • A women’s college in Saudi Arabia seeking only female teachers.
  • A summer camp for teenagers seeking only teachers aged 18-30.
  • A private language school in Prague seeking only native English speaker teachers.
  • A language school in China seeking only Caucasian teachers.
  • A language school in Japan unwilling to hire anyone with visual tattoos.
  • A university in Turkey seeking only teachers with C1 or above language proficiency.
  • A language school in Poland only willing to hire teachers with an EU passport.

Some of the adverts were genuine and taken from http://www.tefl.com whilst others were adapted to include the discriminatory language.  In total, over 580 people took part in the survey coming from all over the world and from every corner of the industry, from trainee teachers to teacher trainers to academics.

General tendencies

Looking at the collected data, some things were unsurprising.  Overall, 92% of respondents believed that a Turkish university requiring teachers to have a minimum language proficiency of C1 was completely reasonable with the majority stating that this is a necessary attribute for the job and, in theory, attainable by anyone.  A similar percentage (88%) felt that seeking a Caucasian teacher was unjustifiably discriminatory, the only surprise perhaps being that 6% felt it was in no way discriminatory.

The other ads were more divisive.  Half of the respondents felt that refusing to employ someone due to visible tattoos was unjustified discrimination with a quarter feeling that it was either justified or not discrimination at all.  Requiring a teacher to have an EU passport was only found to be discriminatory by 44% of those responding with 14% overall finding the discrimination justified.  The issue of the employment of only women for a women’s college in Saudi Arabia was the most controversial.  The majority (44%) felt that asking for female teachers wasn’t discriminatory whereas a third felt that despite being discriminatory, within the context provided, it was justified.  The two questions that showed the most similar attitudes were regarding the need for native speakers and for teachers to be within a certain age range with 68% and 62% respectively finding the terminology both discriminatory and unjustified.  In each case 12% found the language to be discriminatory but justified in some way.  Analysing the justifications given for the discrimination a few trends became clear.

Culture

The most common justification given for both the Saudi and the Japanese contexts was that of culture.  Many, for example, were keen to point out that having visible tattoos was not, in itself, a reason to refuse employment, but considering the connotations tattoos have in Japan e.g. organised crime, it may be culturally more sensitive to employ teachers who do not have tattoos on display.  Similarly, many pointed out that considering the political and religious climate in Saudi Arabia it may be necessary to only employ women to teach women.  However, many were also keen to express their dissatisfaction with what they saw as an incredibly oppressive regime with one stating that “Saudi is a patriarchal hellhole”.

Ability to do the job

Another trend that arose was discriminatory criteria that could affect the successful candidates’ ability to do the job in question.  The most common, unsurprisingly, was the requirement for a university teacher in Turkey to have a suitable level of English proficiency – one respondent even commented that they didn’t believe that C1 was high enough for such a position.  Ability to do the job was also the most commonly stated justification for the summer camp wanting employees under 30.  A number of participants stated that working at a summer camp requires a lot of energy and younger applicants may be better equipped to deal with those demands.  In addition to this, there were a number who believed that native English speakers would be better able to teach colloquial language and culture and therefore be more suitable to be English teachers and so justifying the discrimination in this case.

Language schools

The third major justificatory factor was that which was seen to be imposed on the language schools by external factors.  Market demand was often mentioned as a factor in both hiring native speakers and in hiring only Caucasian workers.  The general tone of such justification was that if that is what the customer wants, then the language school should do its best to meet those demands, even if it means not employing the most qualified or experienced teachers.  It was also felt that visa requirements set by the government could be an acceptable reason for discriminatory language in job advertisements.  It was pointed out many times that the process of getting a visa in the EU can be expensive and schools may not have the financial resources to sponsor this.

Conclusions

It’s clear from the responses to the survey that discrimination can be justified in a number of different ways.  However, much of the justification provided seems to shy away from individual responsibility to the situation.  Market demand is a convenient excuse to prefer Caucasian teachers as accusations of racism can then be firmly levelled at the customer in the same way that seeking NEST has frequently drawn the comment “I’d love to hire NNEST, but the students want natives”.  Despite the convenience though, it’s a cowardly and reckless response.   As long as language schools continue to persist with NEST/NNEST labels, they perpetuate the idea that there is somehow a difference between the two and no amount of insistence of market demand can abdicate them from the responsibility of creating such demand.  A demand, incidentally, that there is no academic evidence of.
Ability to do the job is a much more acceptable justification to prefer one group over another and would rarely be described as discrimination.  However, there is, again, no evidence that a NEST is any more capable of teaching idiomatic language or pronunciation  than a NNEST only that some individuals are better than others.  There are NNEST with tremendous language proficiency and phonological ability just as there are NEST with pronunciation and grammar that few would identify as native and vice-versa.

What isn’t clear is whether this discrimination is fuelled by a genuine ignorance to the fact that NEST are not intrinsically more capable, a genuine belief that this market demand is really there or whether the motives are something more sinister entirely such as attempts to maintain the NES dominance of the industry.  What is clear is that despite the percentage of respondents finding native speaker requirements unacceptable being encouraging (68%), the 32% minority at around one third of the industry is a noisy one.

The next post in this series will look at the perceptions of teachers in training and compare them to those of the industry in general. You might also be interested in a paper I co-wrote with Karin Krummenacher and Marek Kiczkowiak, where we suggest practical activities that could be used in initial teacher training programmes such as CELTA or Trinity CertTESOL to tackle native speakerism. The paper is available for free via ELTed journal here. You can also download it for free from academia.edu here or from researchgate.net here.

daniel bainesDaniel Baines is the Director of Studies at Oxford House Prague and a Trinity CertTESOL and DipTESOL tutor. He holds an MA TESOL from Sheffield Hallam University and has given talks at conferences in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Spain and most recently at IATEFL in the UK. His primary research interests are native speakerism in ELT and reflection in initial teacher training. He was a finalist in the 2014 British Council ELT Masters Dissertation Award.

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8 thoughts on “Sexism, racism, ageism and native speakerism – job ads in ELT

  1. EFS Sam says:

    I completely agree with your views here, Dan. In my opinion, being a native speaker has no impact on how well someone teaches. I’ve known NEST who were atrocious teachers, and I’ve known NNEST who were fantastic. There are just too many variables that go into being a good teacher.

    Of course, a NNEST should have a good knowledge of English, but the same can be said for NEST. If I were sending my children to learn a language, I would choose someone who had the correct qualifications and a passion for teaching over someone who speaks the language as their first language.

    • Daniel Baines says:

      “Of course, a NNEST should have a good knowledge of English, but the same can be said for NEST”

      This is a really key point. All teachers, in my opinion, need to have strong teaching skills, language knowledge and language proficiency. If they have them, native or non-native, they deserve a job; if they don’t, they don’t. This should be the criteria we use to employ teachers, not first language. After all, there is no other field where this happens. You’d never turn down a driving instructor just because they spent 10 years previously teaching scuba diving.

  2. Jo Shahi says:

    I cannot find anything wrong with the requirement of “A university in Turkey seeking only teachers with C1 or above language proficiency”. Why was it mentioned among the other discriminatory ads?

    • Daniel Baines says:

      Hi. The intention was to include a range of requirements to see if people found them discriminatory. The idea was to use things that I found non-discriminatory to blatantly discriminatory and as much grey area in between as possible. There were people who actually thought that a language requirement like this was a form of discrimination 🙂

  3. Sam Bradford says:

    I agree with you on most of this, and I’d say that in general NNESTs have been better teachers than NESTs in my experience, perhaps because they have a better understanding of the difficulties of learning English. I would make one exception though, and that is for classes that are focused on teaching pronunciation to advanced students. There are many NNESTs who are very well-equipped to teach every aspect of English except that. I’d also add that most teachers I’ve met, NEST or NNEST, are ill-equipped to teach pronunciation in any case, but a native speaker would have a definite advantage in teaching such a class.

    (Personally, as a non-EU native speaker, I’ve found the ‘EU applicants only’ most aggravating, but I completely understand it. Perhaps with Brexit some schools will be forced to become more accommodating to non-EU teachers… or hire good NNESTs..?)

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