Who is qualified to teach English? by Amy Thompson

The answer, of course, is someone who is a competent user of English with specific training in the field of language pedagogy.

Why, then, do we still see job advertisements requesting that the applicants be native speakers of English? Is this a lack of understanding on the part of the employer?

Perhaps.

Is it discrimination against particular demographics?

Most definitely.

Arguably, companies who will only hire native English speakers to fill teaching positions are selling an image to their customers – an image of an “authentic” product in their eyes; the companies promote it, and the customers buy it.  However, the instances of “image over quality” are abundant. Galloway (2014) tells the story of a multilingual Eastern European who was required to take on a fake American identity for her job in Japan.  My bi-racial former MA student was not allowed to take part in a marketing campaign for the language school where she worked in China because she looked “too Asian.” A friend’s husband was only offered a job teaching English in Eastern Europe by telling them he was from “America” (South America, in fact, but the employer didn’t bother to dig deeper).

One oft-used argument of hiring native-speaking teachers is so that students will have a good model for pronunciation. However, results from Levis et al. (2016) refute that argument with finding that “there was no significant impact of teachers’ language backgrounds on students’ overall improvement of comprehensibility and accentedness” (p. 22). Similarly, findings from Huensch and Thompson (2017) indicate that “many students in this FL context did not perceive their instructors’ nonnativeness as an obstacle to successful pronunciation instruction” (p. 17). Thus, in cases when both English (i.e. Levis et al) and languages other than English (i.e. Huensch and Thompson) are the target languages, there is evidence that both native and non-native speakers are successful at teaching pronunciation.

Is it the case that this obsession with native English speakers is driven by the potential English language students, or is it the misguided attempt at authenticity on the part of the companies offering English language instruction? What can be done to promote the idea that “native speaker of English” and “English teacher” aren’t synonymous?

One way of approaching this point of inquiry is to ask students. This asking, however, has to be done carefully, as to avoid what’s known as a type of “linguistic priming,” which means to include terms that would sway answers one way or another. In other words, how do you ask students what they think about native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) and non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) without mentioning the term “native speaker” or “non-native speaker”?

Aslan and Thompson (2016) set out to do just this. In a series of carefully constructed questions involving teacher characteristics, 76 responses were collected from ESL students taking classes at an English language program that, at that time, employed 23 NESTs and 19 non-native NNESTs (i.e. an almost balanced number). A semantic differential scale inspired by Gardner’s AMTB was used.  Each item was composed of two opposing adjectives, such as these examples below from the original article: Attitudes toward students – approachable vs. unapproachable; Teaching style and practice – tolerant vs. strict; Personality – nervous vs. relaxed.

The results?  Of the 27 adjective pairs, there was only one significant difference: the students found the NNESTs to be significantly more creative that the NESTs.  Otherwise, there were absolutely no significant differences.

The conclusion is that when the politically and culturally charged terms of “native speaker” and “non-native speaker” are not mentioned, students are likely not to perceive a difference in the quality of their English language instruction between these two groups of instructors. And, indeed, why should they if the hiring entity offers employment based on qualifications as opposed to the native language of the employee?

References:

Aslan, E. & Thompson, A.S.  (2016).  Are they really ‘two different species’? Implicitly elicited student perceptions about NESTs and NNESTs. TESOL Journal. Early View, 1–18. doi:10.1002/tesj.268

Galloway, N. (2014). ‘I get paid for my American accent’: the story of one multilingual English   teacher (MET) in Japan. Englishes in Practice, 1(1), 1-30.

Huensch, A., & Thompson, A. S. (2017). Contextualizing attitudes toward pronunciation: Foreign language learners in the United States. Early View, 1 – 22. Foreign Language Annals. doi:10.1111/flan.12259

Levis, J. M., Sonsaat, S., Link, S., & Barriuso, T. A. (2016). Native and nonnative teachers of L2 pronunciation: Effects on learner performance. TESOL Quarterly, 50(4), 894–931. doi: 10.1002/tesq.272

amy thompsonAmy S. Thompson, Ph.D. (Ph.D. Michigan State University, 2009) is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and currently the Associate Department Chair in the Department of World Languages at the University of South Florida.  She is also currently the graduate director for the Ph.D. program in Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS), teaching a range of graduate level theoretical and methodological courses in applied linguistics. Her primary research interests involve Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition and the interaction of these IDs and multilingualism. In conjunction with these topics, she also incorporates ethical issues regarding perceptions of native and non-native speaker language teachers. Examples of her research can be found in journals such as the Modern Language Journal, TESOL Quarterly, Foreign Language Annals, and the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. You can read more about her and her research here.

Advertisements

12 thoughts on “Who is qualified to teach English? by Amy Thompson

  1. Halina Maria says:

    Reblogged this on Halina's Thoughts and commented:
    I have been unsuccessfully looking for a job as a Non- Native English Online Teacher for over one year.
    The majority of the offers included the limitation to a NATIVE English teacher.
    First-rate of the platforms almost found the online position for me, but it turned out they cannot hire me because I don’t have the American’s permanent address.

  2. derekkeever says:

    Your post seems reasonable as far as it goes, but, unfortunately, as long as corporate interests dictate in our field, as long as institutions perpetuate the notion that entry into elite discourse communities requires a minimum test score, then learners will be more inclined to a qualified native teacher.

    • dilbilimciyim says:

      See my response to your first comment above. As for your second comment, there are many programs that evaluate the whole application package and are flexible with test scores. Our MA program in Linguistics: ESL in World Languages at the University of South Florida does just this. Teaching English does require a high level of language knowledge, but there is more to an applicant than test scores.

  3. James Scholl says:

    Thank you for the article Amy. The most interesting thing for me is the answer to the question: ‘Who is qualified to teach English? (‘…someone who is a competent user of English with specific training in the field of language pedagogy’)

    What interests me is that this statement seems to idealise the langauge teacher and might sideline holistic or craft conceptualisations of teacher development. We can imagine the perfect language pedagogy graduate leaving university with a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree for good measure, being proficient in both the target language and mother tongue. But does this ideal teacher exist? Moreover, is this teacher really ideal?

    I once taught in South America at a cultural institute which hired locals (95% of 800 teachers), whose first langauge was Spanish. These teachers sometimes only had an FCE or CAE certificate without any teaching qualifications. From working with them, I came to realise that their on-the-job teacher training was just as, if not more, valid than the highly theoretical education that I and my classmates received on a master’s degree in tesol.

    Not to say that pedagogic training in an academic environment doesn’t have its uses, just to point out that the ideal proficient teachers that you mention may be few and far between, and that in reality teacher’s langauge proficiency and pedagogic repertoire may better develop gradually over the years rather than being ‘front-loaded’ as pre-service teacher-education.

    I don’t mean to put words in your mouth by implying that you endorse ‘front-loading’ PRE-SET, but rather to point out that none (or very few) of us are perfect, and that we should bear this in mind when, for instance, speaking of under-proficient NNESTs and under-trained NESTs.

    • dilbilimciyim says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’m actually not advocating for MA degrees, necessarily. The statement, “someone who is a competent user of English with specific training in the field of language pedagogy” can mean a variety of things; however, I do think that some background in theoretical aspects of SLA and pedagogy are helpful, if not imperative. On-the-job training is also important, but without the cognitive and social theories to use as a starting point, the on-the-job training will not be nearly as effective. A variety of certificates or professional development on-the-job workshops are oftentimes exactly what people need, as it seems to have been in your experience. For our former MA students (both NSs and NNSs) who go abroad to teach, their feedback to us has been that the MA degree has helped them get promoted faster, which is the one reason it might be a good avenue to pursue for some with this in mind. And, of course, in many contexts, you can teach content classes at the university level with an MA degree (as opposed to the Ph.D. degree required in many U.S. institutions – if a Ph.D. is really needed for entry-level courses a different topic of discussion), and ELPs in the U.S. context do require MA degrees as well.

      All this to say that I agree with your comment, and I explain all of this to students who inquire about our MA program in World Languages at USF. The experience they need depends on their professional goals.

  4. dilbilimciyim says:

    @ James Scholl – Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’m actually not advocating for MA degrees, necessarily. The statement, “someone who is a competent user of English with specific training in the field of language pedagogy” can mean a variety of things; however, I do think that some background in theoretical aspects of SLA and pedagogy are helpful, if not imperative. On-the-job training is also important, but without the cognitive and social theories to use as a starting point, the on-the-job training will not be nearly as effective. A variety of certificates or professional development on-the-job workshops are oftentimes exactly what people need, as it seems to have been in your experience. For our former MA students (both NSs and NNSs) who go abroad to teach, their feedback to us has been that the MA degree has helped them get promoted faster, which is the one reason it might be a good avenue to pursue for some with this in mind. And, of course, in many contexts, you can teach content classes at the university level with an MA degree (as opposed to the Ph.D. degree required in many U.S. institutions – if a Ph.D. is really needed for entry-level courses a different topic of discussion), and ELPs in the U.S. context do require MA degrees as well.

    All this to say that I agree with your comment, and I explain all of this to students who inquire about our MA program in World Languages at USF. The experience they need depends on their professional goals.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s