Buy a megaphone: Non-discriminatory language is not enough by Karin Krummenacher

Do you believe in primal scream therapy? I am not going to lie to you: It had not been a great day before I set foot into the weirdly medievally furnished meeting room that would be the backdrop of scenes that made me want to scream. Feeling like King Arthur, waiting for the other parties to arrive I had no idea I was only half an hour away from considering buying a pillow just so I could scream into it to release my frustration.

Spoiler: I did not buy that pillow. I postponed my tantrum to the privacy of my own home, as decent postmodern humans do. And now I write about it on the internet. As postmodern humans do.

Back to the meeting room. The interviewers have arrived. Now listen to this:

Roberta: You come highly recommended by the person who used to teach this course. Do you have any experience teaching English to non-native speaking English teachers in Prague?

Karin: Absolutely. In fact, I specialised in this exact area for the extended assignment of my Delta. The paper I wrote is called Language Development for In-service Non-Native English teachers in the Czech Republic.

Roberta: Oh, really? Well that’s wonderful! Exactly who we are looking to hire. Say, are you from the US or the UK?

Karin: I am Swiss. As stated in my CV.

Roberta: Really? Are you sure? I cannot hear your accent. Lena, can you hear that she is not a native speaker?

Lena: No. Hm. What a pity. I think we need to discuss this real quick.

See where this is going?

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I expected them to leave the room, to come back and escort me outside with a made-up shallow excuse for why they could not employ me. Far from it! They turned to each other and started discussing in Czech right in front of me, simply assuming that I, the dumb foreigner, will not understand them. They talked about how it was a shame that I am not a native.

Roberta (turns back to me): Would you like to teach German?

Karin: I am not a German teacher.

Roberta: That is ok. You are a native.

Karin: I am not. My native language is Swiss-German and I am neither qualified nor able or interested to teach any language but English.

Lena: Are you sure you did not go to university in an English speaking country? That could count.

Karin: I am quite certain I did not.

They continued to talk in Czech. The most humiliating, degrading experience of my professional life, I think. That’s when the pillow thought started to take shape. Eventually they turned back around to me.

Karin: No, je to škoda, že jsem velmi kvalifikovaná, ale narodila jsem se na špatném místě.

Baffled looks. They realise I understood their entire conversation.

Lena: Unfortunately, we cannot offer you to teach the course. We need a native speaker. It is nothing against you, really. It is “psychological”. The participants want to know their teacher is a native speaker.

Karin: You realise you have told me that the other applicants are less qualified and that I am the perfect fit. You understand this is discrimination and against EU law, right?

Roberta: No, it is just psychologically. For the participants. We have lots of non-native teachers for low levels. Maybe we could find some A1 or A2 classes you could teach…

Luckily, I am much better off now than the last time I had this conversation. I have a wonderful full-time job as a teacher trainer that I love, I do not need the money, I was just interested in the work as it is an area of expertise of mine. And, as opposed to last time this happened to me, I know my rights. I know Roberta and Lena are wrong, they are mossbacked, they are unprogressive, they are a plague to our industry. And they are smiling at me.

What this made me realise is how easy it is to forget how backward things still are, what the reality of EFL hiring still is, once you surround yourself with intelligent forward-thinking people.

Since my last post for this blog I have done a lot of research, given workshops, published articles, talked at conferences, presented at IATEFL, worked with great minds on the issue of native speakerism. I discussed the topic with the elite of the industry. And it is easy to forget that that is not the majority of the industry. Sitting in that room, being disrespected and discriminated against by two smug language school owners, making the most offensive claims there are, was a good strong reality check.

Do not get me wrong: Not for a second was I ever under the impression we had won our battle. But I had seriously thought that there was much more awareness now than half a decade ago. That people would at least be ashamed when sitting face to face with a person they are discriminating. At least in Europe.

They are not.

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Now, to be completely honest with you, I am not a very good activist. I am too impatient and too lazy and do not enjoy repeating myself like a parrot to people who do not want to listen. I am so tired of this. And I have other research to do, other fights to fight, other thoughts to think. I am fed up. I did not even choose to be so passionate about this issue. In fact, the violation of my very own rights has got old a while ago. I am just not very good at this whole thing. Luckily though, I am good at being angry. I might even be the best at being angry. You would not believe my stamina, my passion, the fuel anger is to my actions.

In the words of Miley Cyrus: We can’t stop and we won’t stop.

I will not buy a pillow. But a megaphone. I will be louder, fight harder and ruffle more feathers.

As a very concrete action, I have decided that I will not accept empty talk any longer and be more critical of alleged changes.

I often get job advertisements from language schools in order to share them with my network of English teachers and recently certified teachers. Many of them ask for native speakers. I used to email them back, explaining that would be discrimination, etc. Asking them to change the wording. They usually would and I would then share the ad.

This week I received another request to share a job opening. Stating “native speakers only” on three occasions within the ad. I was about to write back and realised that same school had already received the nice “could you please change the wording”-email over five times. Clearly, they had not changed a single thing and definitely not their hiring practices but were just paying me lip service to get their ad out there.

I wrote to the school that I do not support hiring processes that promote discrimination in any form and that, should they be ready to revise their practice and focus on applicants’ qualifications and experience rather than their places of birth, they could contact me again in the future with concrete evidence thereof. Until then: Find your natives yourself.

Avoiding discriminatory terminology is a great start and a step in the right direction. But it does not end with terminology.

What needs to follow is deeds and a revision of beliefs that lead to discrimination in the first place. It is some sort of evidence of our work when discriminatory language becomes a no-go for language schools but it does not change that they have a pile of native CVs they actually consider and a pile of non-native CVs which then land in the bin.

Honestly, that the word native is now replaced by native-like competency or native-level speaker, to make ads non-discriminatory, shows that there is no profound change yet, just a strategy around it. Our claims need to get bigger. We can not be happy with the bones the industry throws us. We need genuine change.

Buy a megaphone and pack a lunch. This whole thing is going to take a while.

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karin krummenacherKarin is a Prague based teacher trainer, international conference speaker, and published writer. She takes an active interest in teacher development and equality in the industry. Her latest research deals with differentiation on initial teaching training courses. Karin does not sound like a native English speaker but like the proficient non-native speaker she is and thinks that is very much the way it should be. Give her a shout at karin.krummenacher@gmail.com

12 thoughts on “Buy a megaphone: Non-discriminatory language is not enough by Karin Krummenacher

  1. Elizabeth Bekes says:

    What a great account and how timely! I “enjoyed” reading it a lot: the passion, the reasoning. Karin, you are my hero.

  2. rossthorburn says:

    Thanks for sharing Karin. It’s shocking that instead of choosing the best teacher the school would pick someone based on their passport. An amazing opportunity to educate students, lost.

  3. Lina says:

    Honestly, I didn’t expect such discrimination happening in Europe! I somehow always thought that Europe has gone much further than Asia on this matter. Apparently, I was wrong…
    Thank you for your story; it’s really inspiring!

  4. Prem says:

    What did you tell the two ladies in the office? I hope you made them realise that it’s them who’s missing out by not hiring you.

    • Karin says:

      It was quite a surreal conversation, to be honest. I told them that what they did was blatant discrimination – which they refused to accept. They insisted they were not discriminating against me while confirming that they weren’t hiring me because of my place of birth. I think I left with the words: “This is discrimination whether you like it or not. It’s not up to you.”
      They repeated their offer to teach German again via email 2 days later. I declined stating that I found their behaviour unprofessional. Their reply: “Oh. Bummer.”

  5. Anna says:

    This was an interesting article! Didn’t the ladies have any shame?! Thank your for sharing and for speaking up against discrimination, Karen!

  6. Tim Radnor says:

    Great article. I’m happy you have got a job you obviously deserve. I worked in Central Europe for over 15 years and heard these views expressed by students and teachers at language schools (not that this issue is solely a ‘Central European’ issue). I think one of the most revealing things is their refusal to accept there was any discrimination at all and come up with their ridiculous answer about psychology as if that makes their view somehow ‘objective’ – maybe they believe this stuff, but I doubt it – they are in denial, I think. If they believe it, then the roots go deeper than we may have thought.

  7. Melanie Brennan says:

    This article really brought to light the blatant discrimination against “non-native English teachers” that is happening all around the world, which I realise I’ve been largely unaware of as an Australian (almost, as many schools still say ‘British or American teachers only’ *sigh*). However, despite the outdated view that many language academies sadly still have, I do think that people are becoming more aware now. I live in Barcelona and every time an ad is posted on the local Facebook TEFL page, advertising for ‘native-speakers only’, it receives several warnings and results in the ad either being taken down or re-worded. Another source of the problem is textbooks, but again, I believe I am seeing some small changes (i.e. including names and pictures of people from many different nationalities, instead of just Anglo-Saxon ‘Jane’ and ‘Bill’….)
    I sometimes wonder – if people were exposed to the facts (i.e. that there are more non-native English speakers than native ones, that the majority of conversations in English take place between two non-native English speakers, that English is an official language in many more countries than we typically think of, and that it is true that various ‘Englishes’ exist, etc) would that change the belief that a native-speaker teacher is always preferred?

  8. Joe says:

    The problem is that there are no consequences. It’s all well and good having the law on your side, but until you sue them, they’re not going to learn a lesson. Obviously easier said than done. But the other thing that confuses me is the reluctance to name and shame such schools. This post is about an unspecified school. Why? Perhaps it’s due to the fear that it might affect future job opportunities or out you as a trouble maker, but that’s exactly how discriminatory practices are allowed to continue.

  9. Giusy Fotia says:

    Thanks a lot Karin for your passionate words. I have experienced and keep experiencing the same humiliation. It’s the same old story going over and over again every time I apply for a job in Italy. I’m a CELTA qualified TEFL, with +13 years of experience teaching junior/senior/in-company classes etc. etc. I’m currently based in Bratislava and since last February I’ve been working as an ADoS as well. But nothing matters. Only my nationality (Italian). Nobody has ever bothered replying to my applications, so one day I made an experiment: I changed the nationality on my CV (British, instead of Italian) and re-sent it to the same schools. Then I was invited for an interview. That was humiliating. It meant nobody had bothered reading the relevant parts of my CV, they just stopped at the words NATIONALITY: ITALIAN on the first page. Two weeks ago I applied for a job as a TEFL in a private English school in my hometown. In the ad they didn’t expressly required a native speaker, but then the DoS replied as follows: “Dear Giusy, Many thanks for your reply.
    We usually hire only those teachers who were born and bred in an English speaking country. However, in the next few days we will be drawing up a short list of candidates to interview. Kind regards
    Colin”. I’m pretty sure my name will not end up in the shortlisted pile, despite my qualifications, experience, passion, and the fact that I share the same L1 as the learners.
    Yes, Karin, I want to buy a megaphone as well!

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