Do you prefer a ‘native’ or a ‘non-native speaker’ teacher? – the wrong question to ask

When we ask people in ELT, in particular the recruiters, why so many schools hire ‘native speakers’ only, one of the most common answers you will get is: market demand. In other words, the clients demand ‘native speakers’, and thus if the schools want to stay in business, they need to offer classes with ‘native speakers’.

I’ve already written previously about it reviewing dozens of studies which cast some serious doubt on how strong and widespread this demand for ‘native speakers’ is. I’ve also argued on this blog that we should raise students’ awareness and discuss native speakerism with them, rather than simply give in to the demand right away. And I’ve shared 5 simple activities that you can use to do so in your class (you can download them here).

In this post, I wanted to look at a related issue which I got reminded of the other day when I spoke to a school director. He said that in their school the students can choose whether they have classes with:

  • a ‘native speaker’
  • a ‘non-native speaker’
  • both a ‘native’ and a ‘non-native speaker’.

It might seem completely common sense to give students the choice, right?

The problem is these students aren’t given any relevant information about their choice apart from the teacher’s nativeness. This is puzzling because surely you’d want to also know what:

  • experience
  • skills
  • qualifications
  • specific teaching strengths or specialisms

a given teacher has before you make your choice, no? Otherwise, you are only choosing based on a completely irrelevant criteria: the teacher’s mother tongue.

It’s not surprising then if many students in such a situation choose a ‘native speaker’. On the surface, especially if you’re not involved in language teaching, or maybe if you have failed to master a foreign language despite trying for years in the state school system, the only logical answer seems like a ‘native speaker’ will surely be a better teacher. In fact, when I asked students in Polish language schools whether they preferred a ‘native’ or a ‘non-native speaker’ teacher, approximately 80% said they preferred the former. 80%!

We all know, however, that being a good language teacher has nothing to do with the teacher’s mother tongue. Numerous studies have been conducted on what it means to be an effective language teacher, but not a single one of them shows that being a ‘native’ (or a ‘non-native speaker’ for that matter) has anything to do with it. For example:

  • many researchers agree that the ability to motivate learners is one of the virtues of successful teachers (Bell, 2005; Jones, Llacer-Arrastia, & Newbill, 2009; Lamb & Wedell, 2013);
  • numerous scholars point to the importance of subject knowledge for language teachers (Lamb & Wedell, 2013; McNamara, 1991; Muijs & Reynolds, 2001; Pachler, 2007);
  • Britten (1985), Phillipson (1992) and Ellis (2006) have all argued that the experience of learning a foreign language should be considered an important characteristic of a successful English teacher.

Bearing this in mind, what do you think might happen if we ask students to list what they think are the most important skills and qualities of an effective English teacher? How many of these students will list ‘nativeness’ or the teacher’s L1? Will being a ‘native speaker’ be the most or the least important in comparison to the other skills and qualities the students will list?

These were some of the questions I set out to answer in my paper “Students’, Teachers’ and Recruiters’ Perception of Teaching Effectiveness and the Importance of Nativeness in ELT”, which has recently been published in the Journal of Second Language Teaching and Research. The publication is completely open-access, so you can download the article for free right here.

Who did I study?

Participants came from three big language school chains in Poland. During the focus group phase (see below), there were 79 participants, 49 (62%) of whom were students, and 30 (38%) who were teachers. During the follow-up questionnaire, 86 respondents – 57 of whom were students, 24 teachers and 5 recruiters participated.  Finally, 13 interviewees – 3 (24%) of whom were students, 5 (38%) teachers and five (38%) recruiters – agreed to take part in the semi-structured interviews that followed the questionnaires.

How did I approach the question?

The research was divided into three phases:

  • an exploratory qualitative phase using focus group interviews with approximately 6 participants in each group
  • quantitative phase, in which the data from step 1 was fed into the questionnaire to see if the qualitative results were generalisable over a larger pool of participants
  • an explanatory qualitative phase using semi-structured interviews.

What were the results?

This will be a very brief summary here, but you can download the entire paper for free to see a more detailed report.

First, only ONE student interviewee, out of a total of fifty-two who took part in focus groups or interviews, said it was important for them that their teacher is a ‘native speaker’. Even more strikingly, during the focus group interviews, where students could list ANY skills and qualities they thought were important in a good English teacher, out of 49 students not a single one mentioned ‘nativeness’ or L1 as an important quality of an effective English teacher. These results are very similar, for example, to those obtained by Ali (2009), who interviewed 31 Arab students about the qualities and skills of effective English teachers. None of the respondents in that study listed ‘nativeness’, or the teacher’s L1 as an important skill.

So what kind of skills and qualities did the students list as important in a good language teacher during focus group interviews? For example, they found these abilities to be important:

  • motivating students
  • being creative
  • conveying knowledge clearly
  • having good rapport
  • knowing English well
  • knowing teaching methodology.

Second, what do you think might happen if we now add to the above list being a ‘native speaker’ and speaking English as an L1 and ask participants to rank all of them from the most to the least important? How important will be the teacher’s ‘nativeness’ in comparison to these other skills?

It turns out that being a ‘native speaker’ and speaking English as an L1 were the least important in the eyes of the students. These results are very similar to those obtained by Walkinshaw and Duong (2012), and Levis et al. (2017), who in similarly designed studies carried out in Vietnam and the US, respectively, also found that being a ‘native speaker’ was the least important skill or quality of a good teacher according to the surveyed students.

If you’re interested in a more detailed report of the results, download the full article for free right here.

Some conclusions

What does this mean? I would argue that it means that asking the students if they prefer a ‘native’ or a ‘non-native speaker’ teacher is the wrong question to ask.

The first reason is that by not providing students with any relevant information about the two teachers, we are in a way prompting them to answer the question using the stereotypes and unconscious biases for and against the two groups they might already have. It’s a bit like asking students if they prefer a female or a male teacher, or a black or a white one. It’s simply inappropriate, to say the least.

The second reason is that this and other studies clearly show that when students are not prompted with the labels ‘native’ and ‘non-native’, or are not presented with a binary choice, but given a wider context about the teacher’s expertise, they are unlikely to say they prefer a ‘native speaker’. For example, in a study conducted in the US, researchers showed that there was no statistically significant difference between how well or badly the students rated their current teachers, who were a mix of ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ (Aslan & Thompson, 2016).

So, all in all, I would argue here that it is high time the discussion (both in research and practice) moved beyond the constant binary comparisons between ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers. It is time we started valuing ALL teachers based on their ability to teach. And it is time we started giving students a real choice based on the teacher’s skills and expertise, rather than their L1.


Aslan, E., & Thompson, A. S. (2016). Are They Really “Two Different Species”? Implicitly Elicited Student Perceptions About NESTs and NNESTs. TESOL Journal, 8(2), 277–294. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.268

Bell, T. R. (2005). Behaviors and Attitudes of Effective Foreign Language Teachers: Results of a Questionnaire Study. Foreign Language Annals, 38(2), 259–270. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1944-9720.2005.tb02490.x

Britten, D. (1985). Teacher training in ELT (Part I). Language Teaching, 18(2), 112–128. https://doi.org/10.1017/S026144480001140X

Ellis, E. (2006). Language learning experience as a contributor to ESOL teacher cognition. TESL-EJ: Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, 10(1). Retrieved from http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume10/ej37/ej37a3/

Jones, B. D., Llacer-Arrastia, S., & Newbill, P. B. (2009). Motivating foreign language students using self-determination theory. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 3(2), 171–189. https://doi.org/10.1080/17501220802358210

Kiczkowiak, M. (2019). Students’, Teachers’ and Recruiters’ Perception of Teaching Effectiveness and the Importance of Nativeness in ELT. Journal of Second Language Teaching & Research, 7(1), 1-25–25.

Lamb, M., & Wedell, M. (2013). Inspiring English teachers: a comparative study of learner perceptions of inspirational teaching. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/6924631/Inspiring_English_teachers_a_comparative_study_of_learner_perceptions_of_inspirational_teaching

Levis, J. M., Sonsaat, S., & Link, S. (2017). Students’ beliefs about native vs. non-native pronunciation teachers: Professional Challenges and Teacher Education. In Native and Non-Native Teachers in English Language Classrooms (pp. 205–238). De Gruyter Mouton. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781501504143-011

McNamara, D. (1991). Subject Knowledge and Its Application: Problems and Possibilities for Teacher Educators. Journal of Education for Teaching, 17(2), 113–128. https://doi.org/10.1080/0260747910170201

Muijs, D., & Reynolds, D. (2001). Effective teaching : evidence and practice. London: Paul Chapman.

Pachler, N. (2007). Modern foreign languages: teaching school subjects 11-19. London: Routledge.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walkinshaw, I., & Duong, O. T. H. (2012). Native- and Non-Native Speaking English Teachers in Vietnam: Weighing the Benefits. TESL-EJ: Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, 16(3), [no pagination]. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244014534451

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Ahmed Tageldin
Ahmed Tageldin
2 years ago

One more concern here; what is nativeness? Is it speaking English as the first language? OR holding a passport of an English speaking country? OR being born and educated in the west? Let me share my students’ experiences with you: * The principal is from Australia, originally from Newzealand, and whenever he visits classes, he asks a non-native teacher to accompany him to put what the principal says in “ENGLISH”, yes you read it right, in clearer English to the students as he has a hard-to-undertstand accent. * Two NES teachers are from North London and I believe you can… Read more »

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