You don’t look like a ‘native speaker’: Racism in ELT

When we talk about native speakerism, we typically emphasise the discrimination those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ suffer. It’s easy to forget, though, that there is a far more sinister problem lurking in the background.


Many who were born, raised and educated in English, and who might not even speak any other language, are not perceived as ‘native speakers’ because of their skin colour, accent, ethnicity or name.

So in this post, I want to draw your attention to the problem.

Sorry, you don’t fit the job description

Have a moment to look at this ad. Is there anything that strikes you about it?

This is a real ad, by the way. It popped up in my FB feed some time ago.

You can clearly see the racial discrimination in the salary scale. I’d also argue that what the recruiter means by a ‘native’ or a ‘European’ is someone white and Western-looking. Let me explain why.

There is substantial research evidence to show that being a ‘native speaker’ of English is often “a proxy of whiteness” (Kubota & Fujimoto, 2013, p. 197).

While I don’t have space to go through all the studies here, I’ll give you a few important examples.

For instance, despite having spent her childhood and teenage years in the US, Kim (2013) reports that the employers in South Korea would only give her exam preparation or low-level classes solely due to her Korean ethnicity, and in spite of her very high language proficiency. This brings back the idea that those perceived as ‘native speakers’ are good at certain things, while those those perceived as ‘non-native speakers’ at others. I showed why this is simply nonesensical in a previous post.

Another example comes from a study by Kubota and Fujimoto (2013). They relate a story of a Japanese American ‘native speaker’ who, while working in a Japanese language school, felt she was always viewed as and referred to as the Japanese American. On the other hand, an Italian American ‘native speaker’ never had their Italian descent highlighted because of that individual’s white skin colour and Western appearance, which the Japanese American lacked.

Two very similar examples can be found in Javier (2016). Li – a Canadian of Hong Kong descent – and Andres – a US of Mexican descent – have their ‘native speaker’ identities questioned by students and parents, who expect a ‘native speaker’ of English to be white and Western-looking.

Things can go even as far as certain names being perceived as ‘non-native’. For example, in the Gulf countries, recruiters were found to reject Inner Circle ‘native speaker’ applicants based on their non-Anglo Saxon ethnicity or even names (Ali, 2009). 

Sorry, you don’t come from the right country

I’m sure you’ve seen ELT job ads for ‘native speakers’ from particular countries. Or, when countries are not specified, the job is for those from ‘native-speaking’ countries.

Now, of course, it could be argued that there is nothing racist in this per se. After all, you might be a non-white ‘native speaker’ from a ‘native-speaking’ country. Whether you’d be accepted for the job is questionable, unfortunately, bearing in mind what you’ve read in the previous section.

But I want to go further here and suggest that some ELT recruiters base the notion of a ‘native-speaking’ country on racist ideas.

First, Bolton (2006) has pointed out that the naming and classifying countries and Englishes into ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ ones has much more to do with race than linguistics. For example, it is curious that Caribbean English is not given the same status as British, Australian or American English despite the fact that English is an official language of many Caribbean countries. In fact, the history of English in the Caribbean is as long as that of American English, and much longer than that of its Australian cousin.

It is also curious that the ‘native-speaking’ countries as used in ELT only typically refer to the UK and its former settler colonies (e.g. Australia, the US). While of course very multiethnic now, these countries have been predominantly white. On the other hand, all predominantly non-white countries where English is an official language, and where obviously plenty of people speak it as their first language, are not seen as ‘native-speaking’ countries. This for Romney (2010) is a prime example of the effect race has on how Englishes are described and classified.

Another paradox worth mentioning which relates to how the seemingly innocuous label ‘native speaker’ has become racialised is that for example in Japanese ELT those ‘non-native speakers’ who are white and Western-looking might also be enjoy the same job benefits (e.g. salary) as ‘native speakers’ solely based on their appearance (Toh, 2013).

Sorry, you don’t sound ‘native’

It’s become almost received ELT wisdom that students prefer ‘native speaker’ pronunciation. And there are quite a few studies that indeed show this to be true.

However, the problem is that learners tend to idealise ‘native speaker’ speech (G. Hu & Lindemann, 2009; Scales et al., 2006; Timmis, 2002), which as a result can lead to skewed findings. Let me explain.

In a very interesting study (you can read the blog post about it here), Kramadibrata (2016) got students to listen to two recordings: one of a white and Western-looking ‘native speaker’, and one of an Asian-looking ‘non-native speaker’. The perceived race of the two speakers not only affected students’ judgments of their pronunciation, but also of their teaching ability.

This may result in a situation where non-Caucasian teachers, ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ alike, who do not speak standard English might face prejudice from students and from employers, some of whom implicitly view whiteness as a desirable trait in a prospective teacher (Ruecker & Ives, 2015).

So what might a person mean when they say someone doesn’t sound like a ‘native speaker’? Amin (2004, p. 65) would argue that they imagine a ‘native speaker’ of English as someone who has “a White accent”.

I wrote more about accents in this post.

Some take-aways

All in all, while we might want to use the term ‘native speaker’ to refer to somebody who has learnt a language as their mother tongue in early childhood, we need to remember that in ELT the term has unfortunately become very much racialised.

It can be used to arbitrarily divide English users into genuine and fake ‘native speakers’ (Kubota & Fujimoto, 2013). As a result, some individuals are labelled as ‘non-native speakers’ of English solely based on racial and ethnic prejudice, despite the fact that objectively speaking English is their first language.

On the other hand, some white and Western-looking individuals who speak English as a foreign language (myself included) can escape this prejudice and be treated as ‘native speakers’ (Holliday, 2009).

This situation propagates Anglo-centrism (Nayar, 1994) and the privileged position of a ‘native speaker’ elite (Widdowson, 2003), for as Romney (2010) highlights, being Western-looking is equated with ‘nativeness’, and ‘nativeness’ in turn is equated with superiority, privilege and power.

As I argued elsewhere on this blog, it does seem that the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’, despite attempts from linguists to define them, are a minefield of opinions, prejudices and biases (Aboshiha, 2015).

What can we do about it all?

It makes for a depressing read, I know. But the first step to solving any problem is acknowledging it exists.

If you don’t know about it, or don’t believe it exists, you cannot do anything about it.

I previously wrote here about 4 levels of change. In a nutshell, they are:

  1. Individual level
  2. People close to you (friends, family, etc.)
  3. Institutions you belong to
  4. Policy makers and government

It seems that the most effective type of change can occur on level 2 and level 3. This is because your actions will reach many more individuals much more quickly.

So if you’re interested in learning more about tackling native speakerism, I prepared a checklist, which you can download below.


Aboshiha, P. (2015). Rachel’s Story: Development of a “Native Speaker” English Language Teacher. In A. Swan, P. Aboshiha, & A. Holliday (Eds.), (En)Countering Native-speakerism (pp. 43–58). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137463500_4

Ali, S. (2009). Teaching English as an International Language (EIL) in the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) Countries: The Brown Man’s Burden. In F. Sharifian (Ed.), English as an International Language: Perspectives and Pedagogical Issues (pp. 34–57). Multilingual Matters.

Amin, N. (2004). Nativism, the Native Speaker Construct, and Minority Immigrant Women Teachers of English as a Second Language. In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Learning and Teaching from Experience. Perspectives on Nonnative English-speaking Professionals (pp. 61–80). University of Michigan Press.

Bolton, K. (2006). Varieties of World Englishes. In B. B. (introd. . Kachru, Y. Kachru, & C. L. Nelson (Eds.), The Handbook of World Englishes (pp. 289–312). Blackwell.

Holliday, A. (2009). English as a Lingua Franca, “Non-Native Speakers” and Cosmopolitan Realities. In F. Sharifian (Ed.), English as an International Language: Perspectives and Pedagogical Issues (pp. 21–33). Multilingual Matters.

Hu, G., & Lindemann, S. (2009). Stereotypes of Cantonese English, apparent native/non-native status, and their effect on non-native English speakers’ perception. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 30(3), 253–269. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434630802651677

Javier, E. (2016). “Almost” native speakers: the experiences of Visible Ethnic-Minority Native English-Speaking Teachers. In F. Copland, S. Garton, & S. Mann (Eds.), LETs and NESTs: Voices, Views and Vignettes. (pp. 227–239). British Council.

Kim, H.-J. (2013). Learning to fit in and create my own place. In L. D. Kamhi-Stein (Ed.), Narrating Their Lives: Examining English Language Teachers’ Professional Identities Within the Classroom. (pp. 40–54). University of Michigan Press.

Kramadibrata, A. (2016). The Halo surrounding native English speaker teachers in Indonesia. Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 5(2), 282. https://doi.org/10.17509/ijal.v5i2.1352

Kubota, R., & Fujimoto, D. (2013). Racialized Native Speakers: Voices of Japanese American English Language Professionals. In S. Houghton & D. J. Rivers (Eds.), Native-speakerism in Japan. Intergroup dynamics in foreign language education (pp. 196–206). Multilingual Matters.

Nayar, P. B. (1994). Whose English is it? TESL-EJ: Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, 1(1). http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume1/ej01/ej01f1/

Romney, M. (2010). The Color of English. In A. Mahboob (Ed.), The NNEST Lens: Non Native English Speakers in TESOL (pp. 18–34). Cambridge Scholars.

Ruecker, T., & Ives, L. (2015). White Native English Speakers Needed: The Rhetorical Construction of Privilege in Online Teacher Recruitment Spaces. TESOL Quarterly, 49(4), 733–756. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.195

Scales, J., Wennerstrom, A., Richard, D., & Wu, S. H. (2006). Language Learners’ Perceptions of Accent. TESOL Quarterly, 40(4), 715–738. https://doi.org/10.2307/40264305

Timmis, I. (2002). Native‐speaker norms and International English: a classroom view. ELT Journal, 56(3), 240–249. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/56.3.240

Toh, G. (2013). Scrutinizing the Native Speaker as Referent, Entity and Project. In S. Houghton & D. J. Rivers (Eds.), Native-speakerism in Japan. Intergroup dynamics in foreign language education (pp. 183–195). Multilingual Matters.

Widdowson, H. G. (2003). Defining Issues in English Language Teaching. Oxford University Press.

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1 year ago

Hey, I just found this post and I enjoyed it a lot. I actually made a video about the same topic a few days ago:

I help many teachers from different countries around the world on my website: https://studentlanguages.com and I want to inspire them to realise that they can be just as good if not better than myself!

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x

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