How the native speaker myth affects us all by Christina Lorimer

I was 22 years old when it occurred to me there was a problem.

By that time, I had a strong teacher identity and was actually quite adept at teaching. Growing up with parents who were public school teachers meant I didn’t spend 4 or even 8 hours a day at school but rather 10 or even sometimes 12. My childhood took place in a music classroom. My chores weren’t doing laundry or cleaning the bathroom but erasing the chalkboard, alphabetizing the songbooks, and organizing the chairs. My playmates were the stapler, the hole punch, the markers and the highlighters, and my babysitters were my mom’s students waiting in line to audition for a solo in the upcoming concert. I learned how to do fractions and percentages by adding up scores on music theory tests and how to give feedback by addressing student questions about their final grades after class. I was nine years old.

Around this time, my dad pursued his dream of becoming a biology teacher. His eyes lit up when he talked to students about the natural world, just like they did when he read me Bernstein Bears before bed, and he started doing science experiments and testing out his lesson plans at home. I died of embarrassment when my friends told me how he jumped up on tables and made up silly science songs in class, but I also intimately came to understand the concept of multiple identities, having to behave differently when my parents were “mom” and “dad” than when they were “teacher” or, later, when my dad was “principal”.

At twelve, I started doing choreography for my mom’s choir groups and regularly taught hundreds of high school students how to dance. Still today, whenever I feel unprepared for a class or nervous about teaching a new subject, I think back on my 12-year old self, standing on a platform in front of 200 high school boys, successfully teaching them how to jazz square and do a roll off. As a teenage female teacher, I had to develop thick skin and learn how to stay cool and collected in the classroom, even when I felt hurt or confused by student side comments.

So, as you can see, my teacher identity and skills developed early on.

Throughout my undergrad, I studied art and foreign languages. I also taught academic English for a year, doing one-on-one test preparation sessions at my university’s Learning Assistance Center. But I didn’t consider myself a trained English teacher and had never even heard of TESOL, ELT, EFL or any of the other million acronyms in our field. I certainly wasn’t familiar with expressions like “native speaker myth” or terms like NEST and NNEST. Even though I had been teaching most of my life, I was new to the field of English teaching. And although I felt very connected to my teacher identity, I hadn’t explored what it meant to be an English teacher.

After I graduated, I applied to a non-profit to be a volunteer English teacher at a rural elementary school in Costa Rica. Our group had a two-week training before arriving in our small communities to teach English for a year. The stakes were high. We were being sent to these particular schools because they were either too small or too poor to receive an English teacher from the government. When (or in many cases, if) students start high school in Costa Rica, they are expected to have at least a low-intermediate English level upon entry. So, if these children aren’t exposed to the language in elementary school and don’t build a strong English foundation, there is a high chance they flunk out of high school early on. The first day of training, I learned that out of 25 volunteers I was the most experienced and qualified English teacher. Something felt off about this.

And this was the first time I detected NEST issues and English teaching tourism.

It felt problematic that among a group of twenty soon-to-be English language teachers, I was the most experienced and qualified. I had only been an English tutor for a year. It felt problematic that a volunteer openly stated she decided to teach English in Costa Rica in order to learn Spanish and that another guy told me the program was his ticket into previously inaccessible surf spots on the coast. And while I understood my primary role was teaching English, I had to admit that I was there for other reasons too, like improving my Spanish and having a cultural experience. Something didn’t feel right, but I also wasn’t sure it was wrong. Americans teaching English abroad is so common and normalized that I didn’t dig deeper into those feelings.

But they came up again in my MA TESOL program. Although NEST/NNEST issues weren’t, unfortunately, an explicit part of our TESOL coursework, in a program where over half the students were new NNESTs, I became well-versed in the terminology. In my first graduate grammar course, the girl behind me was a whiz at syntax trees, and the girl in front of me asked really good questions I would’ve never thought of. These two tutored me throughout the semester and became my closest friends in the program. They were from Germany and Russia, respectively, and together we discovered NEST/NNEST issues. We would be at conferences (yes, TESOL conferences), and people would say to them, “I can’t believe you grew up in Germany, your English accent is so good!” (She has lived in the U.S. since she was 14.) Or, as soon as they would learn my other friend grew up in Russia, they would suddenly detect an accent. “Oh yes, I didn’t hear it before, but of course, yes, you do sound a little Russian.” Like magic, after three days of interacting with her and watching her present research, suddenly, she’s Russian. Suddenly, she’s labeled as “non-native”. And then the icing on the cake: “You don’t even look like a non-native speaker!”

Those feelings got stronger when I completed a Fulbright in Brazil.

Stories began to circulate among the Fulbright fellows about Brazilians constantly questioning their “native-ness” and consequently their right to be a Fulbright English teaching fellow. My closest friends in our group were a Puerto Rican guy, a black woman from the South, and an Ecuadorian-raised girl from Kentucky. The whole year, they felt they had to defend their native-ness because they also spoke Spanish or weren’t born in the States or didn’t “look like a native speaker”.

Those feelings got even stronger when I began to look for work in Brazil. Waiting for interviews with language schools and even multinational publishers, I felt defeated every time I sat down next to another candidate with little to no experience. But hey, they were native speakers too, so we were being considered for the same job. When I opened up my schedule for private students, they never once asked about my experience but rather only cared about where I was from, as if being born in a specific place qualified me to teach. The reality hit me that all my training and education may have been in vain. I thought back to my parents and the saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I wondered if they ever felt this way.

I’ve seen students pay three times the market price for private lessons with unqualified native teachers and then believe they were “stupid” or “unable to learn languages” when they didn’t improve. This is not OK and this why we need to take teaching seriously. Teaching has been my life. It’s been my parents and grandparents lives. It’s my sister’s life.

I’ve spent the last ten years surrounded by intelligent and patient NNEST peers and colleagues. Together, we’ve shared stories and unpacked the many ways native speakerism is yet another form of discrimination. We’ve brainstormed alternatives to “non-native”, feeling that a “non-” label and deficient model is part of the problem, and created professional development modules about how to educate students, teachers, and administrators about NNEST issues.

The native speaker myth results in the deprofessionalization of our field. But in much worse-case scenarios, it results in illegal hiring practices, fuels discrimination, and cheats students out of the opportunity to work with truly exceptional teachers. And these are issues that affect all of us.

christina-lorimer-4258_hi-res11254Christina Lorimer is a teacher trainer, materials writer, and certified language coach with an M.A. in TESOL and 13 years in the field. After teaching in the U.S., Costa Rica, and Brazil, she founded Step Stone Languages, an English for Specific Purposes school for autonomous learners focused on providing real-life materials that increase student motivation and decrease teacher burnout. She is also an author and editor of teacher guides for National Geographic Cengage Learning. In her free time, she loves hiking to waterfalls and playing with her one-year old niece.

12 thoughts on “How the native speaker myth affects us all by Christina Lorimer

  1. Leda says:

    I agree with so many of the points made here.
    What I’ve been seeing a lot in this website, however, is native speakers using the cause of equity to promote their own businesses or careers with NNESTs as their main target customer. It feels a bit ironic, to say the least. I don’t want to sound ungrateful as the more voices against linguistic prejudice we can hear the better. I also appreciate the fact that equity involves respect for professional competence and the efforts taken by those who care to develop it, regardless of mother tongue. But for the unbalance to be addressed, I feel L2 speakers should be more fairly represented, given that we by far outnumber L1 speakers.

    • christina@stepstonelanguages.com says:

      Hi Leda! Thank you for sharing your perspective. First of all, I’m glad to hear that you identify with many of the points in the article. Also, I agree with you that this community should be a space where NNEST voices should be front and center, and their experiences more heavily shared. Finally, although it wasn’t my intention, I regret if you understood this article as promotional in any way. Perhaps we can gather a group and brainstorm strategies to involve more L2 authors; feel free to reach out!

  2. Teaching in Spain says:

    Great topic and a great read. I approached the topic in a blog i wrote and i didn’t realise it was such a big issue. Independent of any blogs or internet trawling i had seen it first hand and couldn’t get my head round the discrimination so decided to write about it. The reception was great and it is clear that it affects a lot of people, especially in Spain where i work. Non natives are treated like second class citizens and native auxiliaries Americans charge twice as much for private classes as non natives despite having no qualifications or experience. It’s quite outrageous. Once again great read!!

  3. Richard Willmsen says:

    Excellent article! I think Brazil is one of the main ‘culprit’ countries in terms of equity -there are lots of extremely able local teachers who get pushed out or overlooked by ‘superstar’ Americans or Brits who’ve never set foot in a classroom before.

  4. christina@stepstonelanguages.com says:

    Hi Richard! I’m pleased that you liked the article. Alas, I would have to agree that I’ve never seen a country where so many prepared and motivated local teachers get overlooked. I was here in 2012 when the government rolled out their “Science without Borders” program. I had a meeting with the dean of one of the most importante universities in the country to discuss TOEFL prep (so Brazilians could actually make use of all those fellowships they poured money into). For hours, I tried to convince him why it was a terrible idea to spend government funds on bringing random Americans over to teach test prep when there were literally thousands of over-prepared Brazilian teachers who could do this. In the end, he ended up…recruiting Americans with little to no training. It’s a pretty frustrating situation, to say the least.

  5. Noel Chivers says:

    These articles are beginning to leave me frustrated, annoyed and more than a little saddened. So disheartened, that I am leaving this group. Before I explain why, I should firstly explain that I have set up 2 schools and both only advertise for experienced, qualified teachers – race, ethnicity or gender are never considered. I have also trained many NNESTs for CELTA and TKT – hands up – I am also one of those NEST’s that stumbled into TEFL for no good reason.

    So, with those credentials, why am I leaving? I have seen so many people, extolling the virtues of NNESTs while NESTs seem to be born with silver spoons and are merely doing it for ulterior motives – no altruism here apparently.

    In case you haven’t noticed, ELT is a business, run by people who invest their own money [school owners] and paid for by people with their own money [customers]. They decide and always have done, through ‘supply and demand’, who they employ. Until you broach that, nothing will change, no matter how many blogs you write.

    Furthermore, many countries where many excellent NNESTs come from [Indonesia is a good example] are prevented teaching by legislation from their own governments through immigration laws – nothing to do the poor old NEST. So why can’t a fluent NNEST [IELTS 8] teach in a village in Indonesia or Thailand? Again, continue blogging but to no avail.

    What is required is a campaign led by school owners, to prove the equality of teachers; stop using the labels; and start producing empirical evidence and white papers.

    It may help the case further, by losing the chips weighing heavily on some shoulders and start treating everyone equally.

  6. geoffjordan says:

    Hi Christina,

    You make it clear that you think “the native speaker myth” is a bad thing, but you don’t actually say what it is. Could you define it, or describe it for us, please?

    • clorimer1127 says:

      Hi there! In the most simple terms, the Native Speaker Myth refers to a widely held but false belief or idea that just because someone is a native speaker of a language s/he is somehow more qualified to teach said language than someone who is not a native speaker of the language in question. Hope that clears it up!

  7. Rossana says:

    As a Brazilian EFL teacher, I have witnessed this kind of discrimination countless times. Students really seem to believe that a NEST with no training is better able to teach that a NNEST with TESOL certificates, MAs in Linguistics, tons of teaching experience and a real passion for teaching.
    What saddened me, though, was seeing that you don’t practice what you preach, Christina. In your business (I checked your Step Stone Languages website), you use the fact that you are a NEST and that your listening materials are “100% in English and recorded by native speakers” as a marketing tool to attract more Brazilian students, which only helps perpetuate the myth that you can somehow provide something that us NNEST can’t. Pity.

    • clorimer1127 says:

      Hi there Rossana, thank you so much for leaving this comment, and I’m sorry you feel I’ve let you down. You are right: I do professionally share that I’m a native speaker of English on both my site and my CV and that the materials of the specific course you are referencing are 100% in English and recorded by native speakers in the U.S. If I may, I’d like to explain the reasoning behind my decision to share this information.

      First of all, being a native speaker of English isn’t a characteristic that by any means qualifies me to teach English, rather it’s one of my many identity markers. I provide this information on professional documents because it is almost always solicited and is, in fact, part of my teacher identity: I am a NEST. As I’ve pointed out in articles and talks I’ve given, I have long been uncomfortable with the native/non-native dichotomy and labels, but I have also struggled with using alternative terms to effectively represent these ideas to the layperson outside of our academic/professional field. If you have more effective alternatives, I’d love to hear them. (And I don’t mean this sarcastically; I have a lot to learn about in this constantly evolving area in the field of TESOL.)

      In regards to the latter use of native speakers: The particular course you are referring to teaches a particular variety of English. Because the objective is to culturally and linguistically discuss American culture and American English with the learners, I thought it was important the description of the course explain exactly who recorded the materials and where they were recorded (and again, anticipating the fact that this information will inevitably be solicited by anyone interested in enrolling in the course). I understand how you see this as a marketing tool (as it is so often used in that way, especially, as you pointed out, in Brazil), but the decision was to share as much detail as possible about the course so students can understand if it’s a good fit for them. By providing this information, I’m not saying that non-native speakers cannot provide authentic or effective learning materials or that a non-native teacher is not able to teach American English, I am just, to be frank, avoiding having to respond to hundreds of emails asking the same question about who I am and where these learning materials come from. In other courses, I use audios and videos from a number of different English speakers from a number of different countries and regions around the world. These materials are rich and inspiring for learners, and I believe they are incredibly effective at preparing learners for a real-life usage of English as an International Language. Because I am involved in ESP, each course is different with a specific aim.

      Thank you, though, for bringing this to my attention and holding me accountable. As a new entrepreneur in the English language distance learning world, I am constantly grappling with a hundred ideological questions at once, and I’ll be sure to revisit this one as I write new materials and develop new curricula that best support Brazilian ELLs.

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