Why the native vs non-native debate completely misses the point

It’s been a while since I went on a rant on this blog, but I hope I’m not out of shape yet.

There is something that has frustrated me for a long time in the whole ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ debate, and it’s probably high time I vented my frustration. 

The ‘native’ vs ‘non-native speaker’ debate

The source of this frustration has for a long time been the incessant comparisons between those perceived as ‘native speakers’ and those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ (we’ll get to why the word perceived is so important, but if you’re impatient, you can read this blog post). If you’re not familiar with the debate, it has started in earnest with Peter Medgyes’ research (see references and read the interview with him here) in the early 90s. 

Peter set out to prove that those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ can be equally good teachers as those perceived as ‘native’. The research he conducted led him to suggest a list of advantages and disadvantages of both groups. So for example, those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’:

  • have high language awareness
  • are able to anticipate students problems
  • are familiar with students’ first language and culture.

On the other hand, they are unfortunately also crippled by their foreign accent and poor proficiency.

And what about those perceived as ‘native speakers’? Their advantages are for example pronunciation, intuitive feel for what is correct, wider vocabulary, etc.

Unfortunately, they are crippled by their lack of language awareness, for example.

This initial research by Medgyes has led to numerous other studies which sought to identify the advantages and disadvantages of those perceived as ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’. Unfortunately, this led to an entrenchment of the idea that the two groups are fundamentally different. And as a result that they teach in different ways. That they should be given different types of classes or levels.

Self-perpetuating prophecy

The main problem with these studies is that they use (and generate) more stereotypes and prejudices to fight the initial stereotypes and prejudices. Let me explain.

First of all, we are locking both groups in fixed regimes of truth defined by rigid characteristics. “Oh, you’re a ‘native speaker’? Great, we’ll give you the conversation class, because you probably wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching grammar”.

And of course those perceived as ‘non-native’ should get their fair share of low-levels. Surely they couldn’t cope with anything above B2.

By repeating such statements over and over again, and also ‘validating’ them through research, we’re further entrenching them in the minds of the wider public. Unsurprisingly then, most research on students’ perceptions of those perceived as ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ has concluded that students perceive teaching speaking and pronunciation as the strength of the former group, while teaching grammar as the strength of the latter. You also shouldn’t be surprised to find out that in many studies the teachers teaching speaking were ‘native speakers’, while those teaching grammar were ‘non-native.

And voila, we’ve got a lovely self-perpetuating prophecy.

It’s frankly bonkers

Second of all, by saying that an advantage of those perceived as ‘native speakers’ is their intuitive feel of the language, we’re doing two things:

  1. saying that all ‘native speakers’ are endowed with this ability
  2. implying that all ‘non-native speakers’ lack it.

Defining who a ‘native speaker’ is is already a minefield in itself. Scholars such as Alan Davies have written entire books on the subject without really reaching any definite conclusion. I’ve also written a blog post about it.

That’s why I’ve been referring to those perceived as ‘native speakers’ throughout this post. Numerous studies show, for example, that being perceived as a ‘native speaker’ in ELT is associated with being white and Western-looking. As a result, not all of those who might think of themselves as ‘native speakers’ will be perceived as such. And this unfortunately leads to bizarre and shocking situation when someone born, bred and educated in, say, the US is turned down for a job because they don’t fit the image of a white Western-looking ‘native speaker’.

So while defining a ‘native speaker’ is very problematic, assuming that all those perceived as ‘native speakers’ are endowed with a particular quality and teach in a particular way is frankly bonkersAs I argued in this paper with Robert Lowe (much more academically and much less angrily), the supposed advantages and disadvantages of those perceived as ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’ are NOT connected to the person’s first language, but to their training and expertise.

In other words, it should be no surprise that many of those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ have high language awareness. After all, they spent years studying the language themselves. And then likely did a 3 or 5 year degree in English philology or something similar.

However, it doesn’t mean that all (or even most) of those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ have high language awareness. Nor that those perceived as ‘native speakers’ cannot have it.

Personally, I’ve long forgotten many of the grammar rules in English because I haven’t taught grammar for ages (most of my teaching focuses on academic English, and I mostly use TBLT). So while in the past I could have recited to you the rules on any grammar point, now I would really struggle.

And of course there are tons of those perceived as ‘native speakers’ who have developed incredibly high language awareness. But not through some kind of accident of birth, but through training and teaching practice.

In other words, there is nothing unique or universal about the supposed advantages and disadvantages of those perceived as ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’. They can all be acquired by each group through training and teaching experience.

It perpetuates native speakerism

The worst part about this ‘who is worth more’ debate is that it just further perpetuates the ideology of native speakerism. If you want to know more about the ideology, watch this video. But in a nutshell, native speakerism is the ideology that positions those perceived as ‘native speakers’ as linguistically, culturally and pedagogically superior.

Similarly to other ideologies, native speakerism is not spread in a vacuum. It is spread, maintained, justified and made to seem perfectly normal through powerful discourses or beliefs, which are then enshrined in social practices, or things we do.

So to give you an example, the discourse that positions those perceived as ‘native speakers’ and those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ as fundamentally different, each with a set of immutable strengths and weaknesses, further supports the ideology of native speakerism. This discourse uses stereotypes about the two groups to put them in certain categories and position some as superior. For example, it probably won’t surprised you that the belief that ‘native speakers’ are better models of pronunciation was significantly correlated with a preference for being taught by ‘native speakers’ among students in Polish language schools I studied as part of my PhD.

And this divisive discourse is further enshrined in social practices, namely research and conference talks, but also who gets to teach which classes and what levels. For example, up until fairly recently, research on this issue concerned itself to a large extent with identifying the strengths and weaknesses of those perceived as ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’. And I recently came back from a brilliant ACEIA conference in Seville, where one of the speakers spent her entire presentation on the advantages and advantages of the two groups.

Where do we go from here?

Kumaravadivelu has argued (much more eloquently than I can in this post) that we must discontinue research that aims to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the two groups. And he’s right. 

I’m sorry, but this is a time to be blunt: such research is neither interesting nor helpful. And unfortunately, as Kamhi-Stein observes, it has not led to greater equality between those perceived as ‘native speakers’ and ‘non-native speakers’.

If anything, it has only further perpetuated the stereotypes and prejudices about the two groups.

Yet, practically every week I get a notification from academia.edu that someone has uploaded a paper on the advantages and advantages of ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’. That email ends up in the bin right away.

And please, don’t give 45-minute presentations on the topic either.

What I would suggest we do instead is be much more careful about how we talk about the two groups. We need to move away from using acronyms and question the rigid and fixed categorisation into ‘native’ and ‘non-native speakers’. Perhaps those perceived as ‘native speakers’ is a very clumsy phrase, but it might have to do for now.

It reminds you and me that the terms are ideologically-laden and very much subjective.

Let’s talk about professionalism

What I would also suggest is that we finally need to start talking about what actually matters (no, it’s not where you were born or which language you picked up as a child): professionalism. As Kumaravadivelu rightly observes, the question whether those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ can teach English equally well to those perceived as ‘native speakers’ (and vice versa), which led to Medgyes’ initial research, is a moot point.

All teachers need pedagogical preparation for the job.

And the incessant comparisons between the two groups only distract us from the importance of professionalism. Think about it: would you ever investigate whether male teachers are better at teaching English, or history, or maths or whatever, than their female counterparts?

Of course not. And I doubt you’d want to write research papers or give presentations about it. 

Intuitively, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s a loaded and sexist question in itself.

Similarly, whether those perceived as ‘native speakers’ are better or worse English teachers than those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ is an equally loaded question. And a native speakerist question to be more precise.

Rant over.

For more ideas how to tackle the ideology of native speakerism, check out this blog post I wrote. You can also download this FREE checklist.


Amin, N. (1997). Race and the Identity of the Nonnative ESL Teacher. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 580–583. https://doi.org/10.2307/3587841

Árva, V., & Medgyes, P. (2000). Native and non-native teachers in the classroom. System, 28(3), 355–372. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0346-251X(00)00017-8

Benke, E., & Medgyes, P. (2005). Differences in Teaching Behaviour between Native and Non-Native Speaker Teachers: As seen by the Learners. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-Native Language Teachers (pp. 195–215). https://doi.org/10.1007/0-387-24565-0_11

Chun, S. Y. (2014). EFL learners’ beliefs about native and non-native English-speaking teachers: perceived strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 35(6), 563–579. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2014.889141

Davies, A. (1991). The native speaker in applied linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Davies, A. (2003). The native speaker: myth and reality (2nd ed.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Davies, A. (2012). Native Speaker. In The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal0855/abstract

Kamhi-Stein, L. D. (2016). The non-native English speaker teachers in TESOL movement. ELT Journal, 70(2), 180–189. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccv076

Kamhi-Stein, L. D., Aagard, A., Ching, A., Paik, M.-S. A., & Sasser, L. (2004). Teaching in Kindergarten through Grade 12 Programs: Perceptions of Native and Nonnative English-Speaking Practitioners. In Lia D Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and Teaching from Experience. Perspectives on Nonnative English-speaking Professionals (pp. 81–99). Ann Arbor, MA: University of Michigan Press.

Kiczkowiak, M. (2018). Native Speakerism in ELT: Voices From Poland. (PhD). University of York, York.

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Susan Holden
Susan Holden
1 year ago

Good to see this, Marek. Yes, a bit more about what makes a good teacher for a specific context is needed… professionalism, not what language you began speaking when a child. Thanks for the Medgyes refs.

Marek Kiczkowiak
1 year ago
Reply to  Susan Holden

Thanks for your comment and support

Ekaterina Lommas
Ekaterina Lommas
1 year ago

This is an amazing article suggesting the right actions. I’ve been also receiving tons of emails on the same topic. This race is just becoming a childish “my toy is better than yours” kind of thing.
We should ONLY care about how much can we give to our students because, finally, our goals is to give them a better future and more opportunities to achieve their goals.

Marek Kiczkowiak
1 year ago

Thanks! Absolutely! Well said

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