I’m sure you’re all aware of the countless job ads for ‘native speakers’ only that just don’t seem to go away, but morph into job ads for ‘native’ level teachers with ‘native-like’ proficiency (especially in the EU, where advertising for ‘native speakers’ only is illegal). But this is just one, albeit perhaps the most visible, effect that native speakerism has on our profession.
What is native speakerism?
It can seen as an ideology that by dividing language teachers into two opposing camps (‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’) and assigning a set of stereotypical characteristics to each, positions one group as superior to another. It leads to a situation where those perceived as ‘native speakers’ might be seen as culturally, pedagogically and linguistically superior to those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’.
And the word perceived is vital here, because not all ‘native speakers’ will be perceived as such, typically because they do not fit the stereotypical image of a white and Western-looking ‘native speaker’ (more on racism in ELT here).
What are the effects of native speakerism?
Apart from job hiring practices, native speakerism affects many other aspects of ELT. Just to name a few, it impacts the way:
- students perceive ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’ (more on students’ perceptions here)
- language is presented and taught, with authentic language being often viewed as that of a ‘native speaker‘
- the best pronunciation model is conceptualised as that of a ‘native speaker’ (more on it here)
- researchers divide the two groups into fixed categories, frequently using the acronyms NEST and NNEST, and assign lists of stereotypical characteristics to each.
I could go on, but I’m going to stop now.
So the big question of course is…
How do we tackle native speakerism?
Of course, as with tackling any negative ideology such as sexism or racism, it is a complex question with a complex and nuanced answer. And any potential effects of the proposed solutions are likely to take generations (just think how long we’ve been trying to tackle sexism, and we’re still nowhere near gender equality).
With this caveat in mind, I’d like to propose 4 levels of change or action that you can engage in to help tackle native speakerism. They are based on this YouTube video by Will Grant (big thanks to Dan Barber for sharing the video with me):
The four levels of action or change
In this video Will Grant argues that in order to tackle climate change, the are four levels of action we can engage in, each with a slightly different level of impact and possibility for individuals to do. So here they are:
- Individual level
- People close to you (friends, family, etc.)
- Insititutions you belong to
- Policy makers and government
While Will discusses them in relation to tackling the climate crisis, I think these 4 levels of actions can really help us tackle native speakerism. So let’s look at each in detail to see what they are about and how YOU can engage in them.
Change Level 1: Individuals
What this refers to is the changes that you can make in order to tackle native speakerism. This can involve
- not accepting to work for schools that hire ‘native speakers’ only (see why Adam Beale now refuses to work for schools that do not hire ‘non-native speakers’)
- writing to schools to persuade them to implement an equal opportunities policy
- reacting to discriminatory job ads on social media
- tweaking your teaching practice to avoid some of the problematic native speakerist beliefs and transitioning towards teaching English as a Lingua Franca (see what this would involve in practice right here)
- discussing native speakerism with your students.
If you’re interested in the last idea and would like to raise your students’ awareness of native speakerism, download this free article that gives you 4 practical activities.
The problem with small changes on this level is that they are unlikely to have a big impact.
Don’t get me wrong. They ARE vital. Without these small tweaks, we will never tackle native speakerism.
However, I’d agree with Will Grant that it is level two, and particularly level three, changes that can have the biggest impact, while being still fairly easy to engage in by an individual.
Change Level 2: People close to you
I am personally quite passionate about reacting to job ads for ‘native speakers’ only as much as possible and whenever I see them (some great tips how to tactfully and persuasively respond to such ads here). But what I try to do is also encourage people to do the same thing.
Of course, here you want to start with the people that you know fairly well. It can be your immediate family or friends, or maybe some of your coworkers.
Likewise, I think it’s important to raise students’ awareness of native speakerism (see the 4 activities you can download above). But if only I do it, I might impact only a relatively small number of students. However, if I share the lesson plan with a few colleagues and talk them into trying it out, I’m potentially able to affect hundreds of students.
That’s why level 2 change can be quite a lot more powerful than level 1.
Change level 3: Institutions you belong to
Will Grant defines this level as either the institutions or groups you belong to, or those that are fairly close to you and fairly easy to access. So for example, this could be your local company, but also the mayor of your local town. In both cases, while you might not be immediately familiar or close with these people (unlike in level 2), it would still be relatively easy to reach them.
Change at this level can be very powerful, because you can potentially influence thousands of other people. If an institution you belong to makes changes, this will have immediate effects on all the members. It can also encourage other institutions to take similar steps by starting a new trend.
So what would change at level three mean in terms of tackling native speakerism?
For example, you could aim to persuade your school to implement an equal opportunities policy. In fact, for greater effect, you could combine it with level 2 and first talk to your colleagues, get them on board, and then try to engage at the institutional level.
If you’re a member of a teaching association, you could try to convince them to openly speak out against native speakerism. Or to ban job ads for ‘native speakers’ only from their job board. Again, you could first start by discussing this issue with other members you know well to get their support.
There are of course many other things you could do at level 3. To help you generate some ideas, I prepared a handy free checklist with ideas how to tackle native speakerism. You can grab it below:
So, we’re now left with the last level of change:
Change Level 4: Policy makers and government
Now, potentially, this level can have the most far-reaching and widespread impact. For example, as far as climate change is concerned, Norway’s government policies incentivising citizens to buy electric cars (free parking, lower taxes, free charging stations, special lanes on motorways that help you avoid rush hour traffic jams, etc.) have led to a surge in the purchases of these vehicles.
As Will Grant mentions in the video, it seems that a lot of climate change discussion, and I also think the same goes for tackling native speakerism, has focused on level 4 changes. In other words, we could indeed argue that one of the quickest and best ways to tackling native speakerism would be to implement anti-discriminatory laws. However, there are two problems with level 4 changes.
First of all, anti-discriminatory law already exists in many places. For example, in the EU it is illegal to advertise for ‘native speakers’ only or for speakers of a particular mother tongue. And it has been for about two decades. It is questionable whether this has led to fewer job ads for ‘native speakers’ only or less discrimination.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think such law needs to be in place. However, schools might still find their way around it.
The second problem is that such changes can take a very, very long time. And as individuals, we have practically no influence over policy makers or governments. Having said that, again this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for anti-discriminatory legislation, because sometimes we might actually be able to persuade policy makers to implement such law (see this post about changes to law in Taiwan making job ads for ‘native speakers’ only illegal that will hopefully be in place very soon).
How can you then tackle native speakerism
As Will argues in the video, I personally think that we can make the biggest impact if we focus on level two and three. It’s not to say that levels one and three are unimportant. However, levels 2 and especially 3 combine the potential of a very wide impact of our changes with the relative ease of access.
So if you value equality and want to tackle native speakerism, focus on trying to make changes with people that are close to you and with the institutions you belong to or have immediate access to.
And if you want ideas about what specifically you can do to tackle native speakerism, get your coopy of the checklist below.
Holliday, A. (2006). Native-speakerism. ELT Journal, 60(4), 385–387. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccl030
Holliday, A. (2018). Native-Speakerism. In The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching (pp. 1–7). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118784235.eelt0027
Kiczkowiak, M. (2017). Confronting native speakerism in an ELT classroom: practical awareness-raising activities. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 6(1). [free copy available here: https://www.academia.edu/39123465/Confronting_Native_Speakerism_in_the_ELT_Classroom_Practical_Awareness-Raising_Activities]