Culture, native speakers and teaching English

‘Native speakers’ know the culture.

They can provide students with cultural insights about the English language.

And this is what students want and need to master the language.

This is an argument that comes up time and time again to justify why ‘native speakers’ are better teachers, why they are preferred by students, and why so many recruiters prefer to hire them over ‘non-native speakers’. Naturally, the argument also presupposes that ‘non-native speakers’ lack the cultural insight into the English language, and probably can never obtain it. At least not to the degree a ‘native speaker’ has.

Let’s pause for a second, though, and ask ourselves:

  • How would you define target culture, especially as far as language teaching is concerned?
  • What does culture mean in relation to the English language?
  • If our students are much more likely to use English with other ‘non-native speakers’, what’s the point of learning anything about the target culture (as you defined it above)?
  • Is learning about the target culture necessary to become fluent in a language?
  • Does knowledge about the target culture make you a more skilled user of the English language (consider its global use)?

I address some of these questions in this extract from my BBELT 2017 plenary:

Now over to you:

  • How would you answer the questions above?
  • What’s your take on culture, ‘native speakers’ and teaching/learning English (or any other foreign language for that matter)?

Really interested to hear what you think, so do get in touch in the comments section below.

If you’d like to further explore the ‘native speaker’ debate and its practical implications for teaching English, you might be interested in my on-line courses Going beyond the ‘native speaker’ model in ELT. Implications for teaching, training and materials writing, as well as Understanding the global nature of English. Practical guide for English teachers.

12 thoughts on “Culture, native speakers and teaching English

  1. Jedrek Stepien says:

    Hi Marek,
    You are absolutely right about the relation between leanrning a language and knowing the culture, but the reason why natives are so valuable is not because they know culture (you showed it perfectly that even natives don’t know all nuances of their culture) but because they know “how to say” or “como se dice” or “comment dire”, not because they have the knowledge about the culture. Their reign will end with the perfection of google translate or similar tools.

      • Jedrek Stepien says:

        It depends. I consider myself to be a proficient speaker, but every now and then I miss a phrase or offer my students the second best. It would drive me to a serious depression if it wasn’t for the fact that in my work, I don’t concentrate so much on the language as on sense and mutual understanding.

        • marekkiczkowiak says:

          But do you think a native speaker would always know how to explain every piece of language that comes up better than you do? Isn’t the issue here similar to that of culture?

          • Jedrek Stepien says:

            Marek, with each of your questions we are closer to the obvious, and to what TEFL EQUITY ADVOCATES is standing for. Thanks for letting me rethink some issues and keep up the good work you are doing, I am proud of you as your countryman, and as a fellow non-native English teacher 🙂

  2. Tova Israeli says:

    “Culture is homogeneous”. Not. Culture is the beautiful fabric of life and English is an amazing window to the complex world of beliefs, ideologies, communication and love. You can’t necessarily know everything about the culture you come from, you can only try to expose yourselves and others to the beauty of the complicated cultures. English is a global language and therefore in many ways the language represents the whole world!

  3. creens86 says:

    I am a Chinese Native English Teacher in Hong Kong. I grew up in Australia so my English fluency is considered to be ‘native’. However, I often feel prejudiced simply because of my skin colour. From my experience in teaching over the years and observations of fellow Native English Teachers who are Caucasian, their English standards are not necessarily better than local Non-Native English Teachers. They often make spelling or grammatical errors without realising. I think as second language learners of English, we are able to learn and understand the pragmatics of English more extensively and more in depth. We learn more through reading and writing rather than speaking and listening. Non-native English speakers may not have the most accurate pronunciation or the best accent, but they seem to fare better in reading and writing.
    With regards to Native English speakers knowing more about the culture, I do not think that there is a true ‘English culture’ in our world. If we talk about a culture related to English, which English culture is the one to know? British and American English are not the only ones we should acknowledge. There is also Australian, Canadian, South African etc. and one that people often forget about – Singaporean English. Rather than trying to define or teach the culture within certain English speaking communities, we should encourage inter-cultural and inter-community communication using English as a tool. There is a reason why so many countries teach English as a core subject. However, we should also acknowledge the many varieties of English all over the world and the changes that have developed over time. All the different variations in spelling show that. The language is ever-changing and ever-evolving. New words are being invented every day. We need to let go of the idea that English belongs to any one or particular country or ‘culture’. English truly is a global language.

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