The problem with conference speaker balance and what to do about it – by Gavin Dudeney

A few years ago I finished up a two-week training course in Rosario, Argentina and started a rather bizarre journey to Manila for a conference. Leaving Rosario by limo on a Friday morning, I travelled to Buenos Aires and then caught a flight to Madrid, one from Madrid to Helsinki, another from Helsinki to Hong Kong and a final one from Hong Kong to Manila. I then jumped in a limo, was whisked to a hotel where I showered and shaved, and went on to deliver a plenary at the conference. It was Sunday afternoon and I’d been travelling for forty-eight hours. But I was so excited – the exotic locations, the sights, the swish airport transfers. Somebody paid for all that… I was in demand… life was a whirlwind of adventure.

That same year I travelled to around 30 countries for training, consultancy and conference visits. I can’t remember much about any of them – they were all airports, hotels, conference centres, Ministry of Education offices, teacher training institutes… I do believe I had a day off in Hanoi once, and went on a trip to Halong Bay. Ah, the glamour!

I was addicted – I don’t mind admitting it now – and there are plenty of people like me in ELT.

When I was at home I wanted nothing more than to be back in the air again, flying off to an exotic location (near or far), meeting people, doing my thing. I never thought of the environment, never thought of what it might be doing to me. Never thought much, to be honest – it was just all so very exciting. Since then I’ve cut down a lot on my work travel, for a variety of reasons. Some of them I’ll share here, others are private.

Fast forward, then, to this weekend where I came across a Facebook post which started out being about job adverts for native speakers only, and morphed into a more general study of privilege and discrimination in the ELT world. We are all perhaps familiar with these discussions in the era of social media – from Silvana Richardson’s plenary to the work done on this website, we know how certain people are afforded greater opportunities than others.

But it was one particular comment which caught my eye:

I remember sharing this picture somewhere a few months ago [a picture is worth a thousand words] noting the Male – Female ratio as well as the ratio of NESTs to NNESTs…. I got the feeling that some people were less-than-happy about my sharing it…

Now, clearly, any sane person looking at this advertisement for a conference in Poland would acknowledge that the balance is all wrong – there is a bias towards male speakers, and male speakers of a particular tribe (mostly white, middle-class, ‘native’, British). How on earth did I allow myself to take part in such an event?

I found myself asking that, because the ‘some people’, and the somewhat annoying self-congratulatory nature of the smiley (“I rocked the boat there…. they must all be feeling a bit silly today, colluding in such an offensive conference”) seemed aimed more at the speakers than anyone else. I wondered why the person writing the comment hadn’t specified who the ‘some people’ were? Were we to draw the same conclusion that I had come to – that it was the ‘high-profile’ speakers that were being criticised? Well, perhaps not – maybe it wasn’t – but you can certainly see how that conclusion could be easily arrived at.

And then I had to cast my mind back to that event (it takes longer these days…). I was kindly sponsored by Cambridge for that one. I had done a session for them at a private training event in Prague and they thought it would go down well at this conference, and be suitable for the audience. They had invited me months before the conference, and I had dutifully booked and paid for trains, flights and hotels in order to be able to attend.

I had no idea who the other speakers were going to be (and, I suspect, neither did my sponsors) – I got an invitation, I like Poland, the conference was one I was interested in attending, I had a business meeting I needed to go to in Poland (which could be combined with the conference) and it all seemed like a good way of combining everything into a short, agreeable weekend of work away. And so I went.

A few weeks before I travelled, though, I saw the line-up and was a little put out by the balance. I have long argued for greater gender balance at events, and have been instrumental in organising a handful of events which have focussed on getting good local speakers rather than constantly parachuting ‘experts’ in from the UK. My company has an excellent gender balance in it, and over the years I have done my bit (as have so many others) – albeit quietly – to work against some of the major threads in this particular Facebook discussion. But – and this is important – if I pulled out, I would have been considerably out of pocket (not being able to reclaim the outlay for travel and accommodation) and I would have been considerably unpopular with the organisers and my sponsor. And, like everyone else, I have a living to make, and that living is somewhat dependent on my professionalism and dedication.

So why does this happen?

Well – if you’ve organised events you’ll know why it can happen – different people invite different people, large sponsors often insist on certain speakers (a new coursebook, teacher development publication or product to promote), conference organisers choose a topic where certain experts just seem to fit, are in demand… The local audience are also often their own worst enemy in asking for certain speakers, and so on. Conferences are complicated beasts, and with so many influences (and so much money) pulling on them, they sometimes (often?) go awry.

Looking back at that list of speakers, I can see why it happened – but let’s not assume that the speakers themselves colluded in the lack of balance, because it is extremely unlikely that most of them knew the line-up when they agreed to speak. Now, of course, you could ask why they didn’t find out once it had all been decided, and then work out if they thought  it was acceptable to speak, but that’s really not a logical and reasonable demand. People have to make money, they have to speak at events to promote things, they are under contractual agreements and more.

So where does change come from?

Well…. It needs to come from local organisers of events, who need to start discovering and nurturing local or regional talent. It also needs to come from sponsors, who might usefully do the same, and simply promote their wares in the exhibition rather than through imposing speakers on events. It also needs to come from local teachers and teacher associations – empowering, mentoring, nurturing talent. What could be more useful than someone from your own background and culture speaking to you at a conference? If you want useful stuff, stop asking for the ‘big names’, and start looking within – after all, you can always read their books. In the long run, this kind of approach can work.

Now, right up at the top of this post I said that I’ve cut out a lot of my travel, where feasible, and it’s been for a variety of reasons. One of them was that I got over the addiction to the whole process, and began to question whether what I was doing was good for me, good for my health, and even – yes – good for the people I was speaking to at events. I have my doubts about the utility of short events these days, I’m simply not convinced they serve their primary purpose. I think events are great for networking, for the communal and social aspects, but I’m no longer convinced that they really contribute to anything more than an ephemeral surge in ‘development’, and are then easily forgotten. They serve lots of other purposes, but perhaps, when all is said and done, a secondary school teacher in South Korea really doesn’t get anything long-lasting from a visit from me. I get the visit, the food, the lovely people, the sights and sounds. It’s not a good balance.

I came across this recently, and it lit a small light up in my fuddled brain:

Nothing has promised so much and has been so frustratingly wasteful as the thousands of workshops and conferences that led to no significant change in practice.

Fullan, M. (1991) The new meaning of educational change. Teachers College Press

It is precisely because of this feeling that I prefer ‘training’ to conference appearances. It seems to me that a whole day with a group of people stands much more of a chance of having an impact than a thirty-minute workshop. These days I crave one- and two-week courses, and do quite a few of them each year. They’re demanding, tiring, but it’s quality time with quality people and I think it works.

I have other reasons, though. I realised that all the travel wasn’t helping with the environment, and that stared to feel bad, too. But most of all it has really been out of a sense that the gene pool of conference speakers is too small, and not nearly diverse enough. Look at the line-ups for major conferences and you’ll see the same twenty names time after time – there simply has to be more to it than that.

I put all this together and it amounted to one simple thing for me – travel less.

Over the past four or so years I’ve made it a habit to say ‘no’ to many of the invitations which come my way, often with the (not unreal) excuse that I am already busy on those dates, or have too much work on. When doing this, I have also tried to recommend one or two names who might usefully fill the gap I am creating – and I’ve tried to do that bearing in mind some of the things I’ve already mentioned here. If all of us who get lots of invitations start to do the same, then it might go some way towards promoting greater balance. I’m not saying people have to or even should do this, merely that I think it’s one way of going about things. But it is part of a bigger picture which clearly needs a lot more work.

When all is said and done, my reasons are not entirely altruistic, but they can help. That’s the best I can do, I think. I’ve volunteered for ELT organisations for seventeen years and – along with many others who perhaps aren’t overly vocal on social media – I think I’ve done (and continue to do) my bit for a better ELT world. There are lots and lots of us – women, men, ‘native’ and ‘non-natives’. Although these issues are very much in the limelight currently, it would be wrong to assume that they went uncriticised in the era before blogging and social media. We just need to step up the offensive a little – do more, together.

I still go to the odd event each year, and will continue to do so, because a few seems like a decent balance, it helps me stay up-to-date with what’s going on, it keeps my professional profile healthy and – after all – it’s my profession, it’s where I work and what I do and, crucially, often where I get work from. I just think the pie could be cut into more, smaller pieces, and those pieces could usefully be distributed  more evenly and fairly across the ELT demographic.

Gavin Dudeney[15900]Gavin is Director of Technology for The Consultants-E, working in online training and consultancy in EdTech.  Former Honorary Secretary and Chair of ElCom at IATEFL, he now serves on the International House Trust Board and on the Educational Writers Group Committee of the Society of Authors. Gavin is author of The Internet & The Language Classroom (CUP 2000, 2007) and co-author of the award-winning publications How To Teach English with Technology (Pearson 2007) and Digital Literacies (Routledge 2013).  His latest book, Going Mobile, was published by DELTA Publishing in 2014.

Non-native speakers encouraged to apply – by Rob Sheppard

Without discrimination against ‘NNESTs’ I never would be an English teacher. I’d wager I’m not the only one.

In late August of 2006, somewhere in the crowded streets of Kangbuk District in Seoul, a woman with a master’s degree in English and tired eyes walked to the post office with a padded yellow mailer under her arm. The next stop after the post office was the bank. She probably walked with some hurried annoyance at being asked to perform this task, thinking of all the other things she had to do. Inside the mailer was my passport, and at the bank she’d wire me around $600, a full reimbursement of the cost of my flight to Korea.

When I arrived in Seoul about a week later I was so absorbed in my own exhaustion, excitement, and culture shock that all I thought when I met this woman, my new supervisor, was that she didn’t seem particularly friendly. I must have been a bit dense, because it took me a full six months to become fully cognizant of the uneven lay of the land.

Our school had 20 teachers: 10 Korean and 10 ‘foreign’ (a term I initially chafed at). The Korean teachers all held masters’ degrees from English speaking countries, while the requirement for foreign teachers was simply a bachelor’s degree and ‘native English,’ (which generally meant a desirable combination of passport and complexion). For the Korean teachers this was a career, but for most of the foreigners it was a gap year. The Korean teachers worked full time (which in Korea regularly means mandatory overtime); the foreigners only 15-20 hours per week. The Korean teachers made the equivalent of around $15 per hour: the foreign teachers something like 30% more than that.

These highly qualified, talented Korean English teachers watched kids like me cycle in and out of their country like it was spring break, make our bland observations about their culture, collect our paychecks, and saunter out of the office after 3 hours of work. That they still welcomed and befriended us rather than despising us is a graciousness I’ll never fathom.

The injustice of this situation really only hit me like it did because, by the time I finally recognized it, I was already good friends with several of these Korean teachers. At the time I dealt with it in the only way I knew how, in the staging of meaningless acts of protest: wearing shorts and a punk t-shirt to work, oblivious to the fact that this was only a further exercise in privilege.

Since then I like to think I’ve grown up some. Realizing this was more than a gap year, I got an MA TESOL and eventually got good at doing this teaching thing. So far I’ve been lucky. I’ve been given a shot more than once and hired above my experience level, and privilege of various kinds has no doubt factored into those opportunities.

I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of leading teams of teachers, of hiring, training, and promoting some amazing ELT professionals. That first experience with the injustice of native-speakerism has stuck with me, and I’ve done what I can to make certain it never happens on my watch, in my programs. I can say with confidence that the three best hires I’ve ever made were of non-native speakers.

There are those who say that students would rather learn from native speakers, and as a program administrator at a nonprofit, my ultimate duty is to serve a population. So I have had to give this argument careful consideration. And indeed, I have heard rooms full of students affirm that they would prefer an “American teacher.” That attitude certainly exists. But more importantly I’ve seen that bias vanish in minutes, as they fall under the spell of their incredible new teacher whose first language happens to be Chinese, or Russian, or Portuguese.

Meeting student needs doesn’t always mean catering to every misguided want. Many students hold some serious misapprehensions about what ought to happen in a classroom. It is our responsibility as educators to disabuse them of these ideas.

To me the core argument against native-speakerism is two-fold:

First of all, the notion that native speakers have a leg up on non-natives is simply unfounded. A quick metaphor explains why. If I need to understand the inner workings of my computer, who’s the better resource: Paolo who built his own computer, or rich-kid Evan whose mom just bought his ungrateful ass a new iMac?

Once that illogic has been demonstrated, the more compelling part of the argument comes in. Saying you “prefer” a native speaker doesn’t change the fact that it’s discriminatory. In my experience, if the rationale for a policy or a preference or a belief about a group of people can be traced back to the circumstances of that group of those people’s birth, that’s usually a good time to start raising eyebrows and asking questions. A whole lot of injustice arises from that kind of reasoning, and this is no exception.

Recently, I’ve started my own business, Ginseng. It’s a mission-driven online English school offering live group classes to students around the world. As we state on our homepage, we see teachers as the most valuable resource we can offer, so we want the best. We intend to pay and treat them very well. With competition out there touting native speakers left and right, I certainly had to consider whether I would be wise to do the same. Business is business, right?

But why do people learn English? Why do we teach English?

For me at least it’s in large part because of the opportunities it affords my students. I didn’t come here to found the next E.F.  So what kind of hypocrite would I be if I professed to be increasing opportunity, only to go and offer that opportunity only to those who were born into the privilege of native English?

It was this that led me to enthusiastically embrace the mission of TEFL Equity. It was also this that led me to commit 10% of our student slots to providing free classes to those who can’t afford to pay. If your values align with ours, and are interested in joining a team, I hope you’ll check out Ginseng’s job listings, complete with the TEFL Equity badge. Non-native speakers are encouraged to apply.

rob shephardRob Sheppard is senior director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources and the founder of Ginseng English, an online, mission-driven English school that will fully launch in late 2017. He also serves on the community advisory council at First Literacy, is a member of the Open Door Collective, and is co-chair elect of TESOL’s Adult Education Interest Section.

Who is qualified to teach English? by Amy Thompson

The answer, of course, is someone who is a competent user of English with specific training in the field of language pedagogy.

Why, then, do we still see job advertisements requesting that the applicants be native speakers of English? Is this a lack of understanding on the part of the employer?


Is it discrimination against particular demographics?

Most definitely.

Arguably, companies who will only hire native English speakers to fill teaching positions are selling an image to their customers – an image of an “authentic” product in their eyes; the companies promote it, and the customers buy it.  However, the instances of “image over quality” are abundant. Galloway (2014) tells the story of a multilingual Eastern European who was required to take on a fake American identity for her job in Japan.  My bi-racial former MA student was not allowed to take part in a marketing campaign for the language school where she worked in China because she looked “too Asian.” A friend’s husband was only offered a job teaching English in Eastern Europe by telling them he was from “America” (South America, in fact, but the employer didn’t bother to dig deeper).

One oft-used argument of hiring native-speaking teachers is so that students will have a good model for pronunciation. However, results from Levis et al. (2016) refute that argument with finding that “there was no significant impact of teachers’ language backgrounds on students’ overall improvement of comprehensibility and accentedness” (p. 22). Similarly, findings from Huensch and Thompson (2017) indicate that “many students in this FL context did not perceive their instructors’ nonnativeness as an obstacle to successful pronunciation instruction” (p. 17). Thus, in cases when both English (i.e. Levis et al) and languages other than English (i.e. Huensch and Thompson) are the target languages, there is evidence that both native and non-native speakers are successful at teaching pronunciation.

Is it the case that this obsession with native English speakers is driven by the potential English language students, or is it the misguided attempt at authenticity on the part of the companies offering English language instruction? What can be done to promote the idea that “native speaker of English” and “English teacher” aren’t synonymous?

One way of approaching this point of inquiry is to ask students. This asking, however, has to be done carefully, as to avoid what’s known as a type of “linguistic priming,” which means to include terms that would sway answers one way or another. In other words, how do you ask students what they think about native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) and non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) without mentioning the term “native speaker” or “non-native speaker”?

Aslan and Thompson (2016) set out to do just this. In a series of carefully constructed questions involving teacher characteristics, 76 responses were collected from ESL students taking classes at an English language program that, at that time, employed 23 NESTs and 19 non-native NNESTs (i.e. an almost balanced number). A semantic differential scale inspired by Gardner’s AMTB was used.  Each item was composed of two opposing adjectives, such as these examples below from the original article: Attitudes toward students – approachable vs. unapproachable; Teaching style and practice – tolerant vs. strict; Personality – nervous vs. relaxed.

The results?  Of the 27 adjective pairs, there was only one significant difference: the students found the NNESTs to be significantly more creative that the NESTs.  Otherwise, there were absolutely no significant differences.

The conclusion is that when the politically and culturally charged terms of “native speaker” and “non-native speaker” are not mentioned, students are likely not to perceive a difference in the quality of their English language instruction between these two groups of instructors. And, indeed, why should they if the hiring entity offers employment based on qualifications as opposed to the native language of the employee?


Aslan, E. & Thompson, A.S.  (2016).  Are they really ‘two different species’? Implicitly elicited student perceptions about NESTs and NNESTs. TESOL Journal. Early View, 1–18. doi:10.1002/tesj.268

Galloway, N. (2014). ‘I get paid for my American accent’: the story of one multilingual English   teacher (MET) in Japan. Englishes in Practice, 1(1), 1-30.

Huensch, A., & Thompson, A. S. (2017). Contextualizing attitudes toward pronunciation: Foreign language learners in the United States. Early View, 1 – 22. Foreign Language Annals. doi:10.1111/flan.12259

Levis, J. M., Sonsaat, S., Link, S., & Barriuso, T. A. (2016). Native and nonnative teachers of L2 pronunciation: Effects on learner performance. TESOL Quarterly, 50(4), 894–931. doi: 10.1002/tesq.272

amy thompsonAmy S. Thompson, Ph.D. (Ph.D. Michigan State University, 2009) is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics and currently the Associate Department Chair in the Department of World Languages at the University of South Florida.  She is also currently the graduate director for the Ph.D. program in Linguistics and Applied Language Studies (LALS), teaching a range of graduate level theoretical and methodological courses in applied linguistics. Her primary research interests involve Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition and the interaction of these IDs and multilingualism. In conjunction with these topics, she also incorporates ethical issues regarding perceptions of native and non-native speaker language teachers. Examples of her research can be found in journals such as the Modern Language Journal, TESOL Quarterly, Foreign Language Annals, and the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. You can read more about her and her research here.

The Beauty and Horror of Explaining Mixed Conditionals (Among Other Grammar Points) by Madeline Castillo

One of the most misused grammar forms is the mixed conditionals, and this is not really much of a surprise. The use of one verb tense in a sentence is already difficult, so imagine having to put together two verb tenses in one sentence — it’s almost a nightmare!

For most ESL teachers, myself included, a mixed conditional sentence is a classroom conundrum. I have seen how it transforms into a total horror show as you try to explain not only how the sentence is constructed, but also what it means. I have watched as my students’ faces scrunch up in confusion when I mention how these situations or conditions (mostly imaginary) affect results (either in the past or the present). I have looked for signs of me second-guessing myself as doubt sets in.

The last bit, perhaps, is the worst. More than the form or function of any grammar point, the biggest challenge for a ‘non-native speaker’ teacher is the fact that any explanation you give can easily be trumped by a ‘native speaker’ teacher’s “That’s just how it is.” Even though some tend to have a less structured ESL background, ‘native speakers’ are usually preferred to non-native English speakers. In the ESL industry, there are many instances when one’s value as a teacher is primarily determined by ethnicity, and not knowledge, experience or skill. The privilege of having been born in a ‘native English-speaking’ country has long been a standard and not having the ‘right’ nationality, a stigma. As a result, gifted and proficient teachers are sidelined for less experienced and less effective ‘native’ individuals.

However, ‘non-native speaker’ teachers know mixed conditionals well, not just because we studied them in school or because we teach them in class. We know this lesson topic well because we have learned to live with a few conditional questions ourselves: Would I be more credible if I had been born and raised by parents whose primary language was English? If that company I applied for saw me as a native English speaker, would I have gotten that teaching job? Had I been born in the US or the UK, would I be a better English teacher?

Almost a year ago, I joined Learntalk, an ESL startup, and was tasked to create a written grammar exam for our teachers. As it is a way for us to check our overall proficiency is as a company, everyone had to take the test. Most were pretty happy with the results – save for my boss. Born and raised in the UK, he thought that he’d be one of the few who’d ace the test. When he got the results, they were pretty mediocre, with some of our teachers scoring higher than he did! What’s remarkable is that we are all Filipino ESL teachers: all ‘non-native’, different backgrounds, same passion. That incident was one of the many instances that prove that it doesn’t really matter if you’re a ‘native English speaker’ or not. Knowledge has never been just skin deep, and never will be.

I’ve been teaching English for more than six years now, and mixed conditionals are still a pain to teach. Students still get confused occasionally and at times I still doubt my own understanding. However, there is comfort in knowing that my grasp of conditionals and English grammar is just as good as my understanding and acceptance of my own self as a teacher.

madelineMadeline Castillo is an ESL teacher, lifestyle writer and dancer from the Philippines. She has been teaching English to both children and adults for more than six years now. In 2016, she joined Learntalk, an EdTech startup that harnesses technology to give students a fully immersive language learning experience without the need to travel and live in a distant country, while at the same time providing all the grammatical rigor of a classroom setting. The company operates in three segments, providing language training to individuals, corporates and education institutions around the world.

Native and non-native speaker teachers in Spain by Ben Greensmith

[From the editor: this post was originally published on this blog, and is republished here with the permission of the authors]

The battle rages in Spain between natives and non-natives. The streets run with blood and Euros fly out of the hands of desperate parents looking for a good teacher for their precious little ones. Working and toiling together in Spain as a native and non-native pair has given us an interesting insight into how the two, completely random coincidences of where you are born, are seen and in turn respected/disrespected in Spain. A little background to the situation, for prospective teachers:

Countless times have we seen teachers refused jobs or not even given a job due to them being ‘non-native’. A case in point; myself a native Greek with a CELTA (B) with 3 years experience have been passed over for multiple positions simply because of the elephant in the room. What is driving this cult of the native is, as one director said “The parents want their children to be taught by natives” So, the parents push the idea and of course the academies have to oblige. This makes business sense but does it give the students the best experience, in this supposed meritocracy? It is easy to sound bitter about such a matter but one cannot fault an academy for providing a service suited to what the payers want. It’s business and perhaps that is that.

However, an interesting point to note is that in private classes the parents in Spain are more than happy to employ a ‘non-native’ if the price is right and they come recommended, as a good teacher to trust in your house with your kids is hard to find. So it is not all one big conspiracy against johnny foreigner, there are positions for ‘non-natives’ and don’t despair because in Spain the private market is strong for ‘non-natives’ with some business nous, and there are of course some academies more than happy to employ the right person for the right job regardless of where your choice less birth, within man-made borders happens to have been.

This gives you some background and perhaps some hope when looking to move to sunny Spain (despite at the moment of writing there being only rain). We want to help start a greater discussion about this topic wherever you may be reading this, so below we list some pros and cons, that we hae come across in Spain, for the age old topic of ‘natives’ vs ‘non-natives’ and your opinions are more than welcome.

Pronunciation, real life vocabulary and the accent

Natives speakers have the accent, they have the pronunciation, and the semantics of the language. This is a built-in system learned from early age through constant exposure, which in Spain is highly desirable for parents, as they believe that it will perhaps rub off on their children who they think will be drinking a cups of tea with their pinky finger sticking out before they know it. Having these skills however, are inherently useless unless a teacher knows how to transfer these skills to their students and also how to focus on inherent language specific problems for example, the ones that Spanish people have when it comes to the English accent and pronunciation. Furthermore, an accent is a double edged sword, it is great to have it but doesn’t a CD also have that and the Internet too. I used to live with a guy from Liverpool and even when toning down his accent I still needed a translator so now, somewhere out there, are a group of Scouse Spaniards, the benefits of which I will let you decide.

Natives on the whole have a stronger vocabulary, especially with those torrid phrasal verbs that one only comes across when living in England, but on the other hand, the system of learning vocabulary can completely elude natives, whereas a non-native has been there done that and got the T- shirt. A well prepared and clued up ‘non-native’ is more than a match for any ‘native’ in the classroom but the Spaniards love a good conversation class where a natives fluidity can really make the difference.   The benefits of such a class are cause for another post.


For better or worse the academies want that prestige. “We have a native speaker” they cry from every Spanish techo. “Come to our language school we have natives” as if they are some Zoo animal worthy of letting your child see if they pay the ticket price. Parents love it too, “oh did you hear that Maria has a native teacher for her child?” NO I did not and I don’t really care. Prestige is everything in Spain and if you live by the sword you die by the sword. If it is what they want then it is what they get, but to overlook a more experienced teacher for the sake of prestige lowers the overall teaching efficiency of your school. The key to getting a job here as a non-native is to play the system. Around the start of the academic term the schools are desperate and also in January when the teachers decide that life in blighty is better than Spain, that is when prestige goes out of the window, and they will hire non-natives and rightly so because they may just get someone to step into the breach and make a real difference in their school as in Spain doing a good job and having the students like you counts for so much more than what passport you have.


There is so much more to learning a Language than just words and grammar rules. Learning about the culture is equally as important as many students use English to access the culture (games, internet, tv) and this in turn increases their love of it and willingness to carry on learning it. With a native speaker an academy gets instant access to this and students benefit from the direct access they can get between language and culture. If you want to learn about food, customs, music, comedy and so much more, a native speaker can reminisce and instruct about theses matters first hand, and really help bring the language to life. This weighs heavily on academies in Spain and adds another string to their advertising bow when trying to attract students, or should I say parents, to their academy. Can non-natives learn all this….? Yes of course they can but if for example an English joke is intrinsically linked to the culture of the people then isn’t it just the blind leading the blind? Or what about Christmas customs, you really need to experience it first hand in England if you want to bring it to life; I am just not sure that reading about it is enough, however I remember the joy of a non-native teacher explaining to me their favourite English music and how much it meant to them that they could now understand and full enjoy it. And this enthusiasm and thirst for cultural knowledge is perhaps something natives don’t have or indeed take for granted. I can’t tell a student about my journey to understand an English song, about how overjoyed I felt when it finally clicked. It is an interesting issue and perhaps one that affects overall learning in a minimal way but it is worthy of a mention nonetheless.

Teaching of higher levels

The dreaded C1 and C2 class can be the bane of any teachers life. It is generally considered acceptable in Spain to give these higher classes to natives. Some academies may do otherwise but in my experience it has generally been like that. What I don’t understand is why I may be put in one of these classes but my fellow writing partner may not be even though she has done these classes herself and passed the exam. She in fact knows more about it than me! I am not so sure that being a native offers any inherent advantage except perhaps in practising speaking fluidity and really getting into the nitty gritty of when to use words and how to say them. But the C2 seems to me to be a purely academic exercise and if you have already got your C1 then go to England and bloody use it, really get down and dirty with the language. Perhaps these higher levels are the great leveller where natives and non-natives unite in head scratching and bafflement at the ludicrous nature of the English language. I have to study to teach these classes, you have to study to teach these classes and whatever inherent advantage I gain from being a native is immediately destroyed when I realise that I don’t know what half these words are and I need a god dam dictionary! So neither side can win this battle and at times we both lose, therefore native and non-native goes out of the window in my opinion and with these classes the term SURVIVE becomes more and more germane.

Under qualified

So, here is the scenario, I put an advert up for my teaching services at a reasonable price. I listed my qualifications and experience and the fact of course that I am native. I get a few classes from it no problem then to my horror I find that a friend of a friend who works as an assistant teacher in a school is charging more than me and has a sum total of zero qualifications/ experience. Then to top it all off said friend comes in to tell me that he now has a B2 exam class under his instruction and calmly asks ‘ is that a difficult level?’ ‘do they use a book for it?’ and other such questions that make me question all remaining faith I have in the Spanish system. At closer inspection of the website, I then find that a non-native university student, in the town, is charging twice as much as me and in her advert liberally smashes native speakers, with famous quotes from people I’ve never heard of…. that is her whole advert.

What is going on? This is where the moot divisions of who is better meet reality. Every boss is different and so many of them are hoodwinked into thinking they are getting a decent teacher because said teacher struts in and says ‘I am a native and I can teach….’ well welcome aboard I guess. I honestly feel sorry for parents too, who want to find and do the best for their kids, who end up with two bit wannabe teachers. The system here is broken and I don’t know how you can fix it.

The CELTA means diddly squat to parents and when there aren’t enough teachers you can find yourself working alongside someone in an Academy whose only qualification is an American passport. These people in turn push out Spanish native English teachers, who have to work twice as hard to get work and must feel quite appalled when walking past an English academy with a bundle of qualifications in hand, only to see a group of people at the window waving passports at them; an exaggeration but an analogy that sums up the system here quite well. It is not that natives triumph here it is that people with no qualifications to teach are given jobs, paid more than Spanish teachers and quite frankly turn the teaching of English in to one big farce. Some people need to realise that nationality may in fact have little to do with quality and that this nonsense doesn’t pass in any country where English is spoken with a shred of decency.

To conclude this divisive affair, it is fair to say that regardless of where you are from, there are good teachers and bad teachers, teachers who work hard and teachers who don’t. Who is better than whom is a debate that will rage on as long as the market favours one over the other. Don’t be discouraged from applying for a position in Spain as a ‘non-native’, be confident and fight for it. We’ve both worked alongside countless natives and non-natives all with unique strengths and weaknesses as teachers. There is much we can learn from people who were born into English and people who have studied it for most of their lives, a mix of the two in one academy can only lead to success in our most humbled opinion.

If you enjoyed our first blog post then wherever you find this start a conversation about natives vs non-natives in your country. We are interested to know the thought processes behind it in your country and we also like to read internet arguments.

ben greensmithTeaching in Spain: An Englishman and a Greek is written by two teachers in Northern Spain. With 6 and a half years experience between them, they want to share some of their experiences on the good bits and bad bits of working/living in Spain. They offer cautionary tales, advice and talking points in an attempt to start a discussion about teaching in Spain and maybe in some way change it.

Equity in ELT – who do we need to convince? by Kenneth Arnold

I fully support TEFL Equity advocates and want to fight discrimination, so I clicked on the link here about what we could do. One of the suggestions is to make a blog post about it, so here is my attempt.

Not discriminating against someone due to their place of birth seems such an obvious thing, I started wondering who we need to convince. Obviously we need to convince someone or it wouldn’t still be a problem. I have tried to narrow the situation down to four basic groups for the sake of simplification. I am speaking very generally here.

  1. Experienced teachers/Teacher Trainers: I’ll start with the category that I fall into. I’ve been involved in ESL for about 20 years now as have most of the people I work with and we have worked in a number of countries in Europe and Asia.

You only need to look around this blog or watch videos produced by all of the big names in this profession to see the support against discrimination. I personally don’t know of any teacher trainers who believe in native speakerism. This has no doubt come about through experience. Just working in this industry for any length of time will put you into contact with talented, qualified NNESTs. You can’t avoid them. And any teacher trainer will tell you there are strong and weak NNEST just like native speakers. NNESTs tend to have certain advantages, such as being about to empathize with their students. While you might occasionally find an experienced native teacher, teaching in isolation, who believes that “natives are the best”, it’s fairly clear that they have no real influence on the profession and for all intents are “flat-Earthers”.

So why are we spending time lecturing each other in conferences or by writing blogs trying to convince each other? It’s fairly clear you are preaching to the choir when it comes to convincing those who have experience in this area. I’m fully aware that anyone frequenting this blog doesn’t need any convincing.

  1. New/Pre-service teachers: A friend of mine did some research that demonstrated that new and pre-service teachers are much less likely to notice discrimination in general in our industry. This makes sense. Quite often this might come from marketing for TEFL courses (“If you can speak English, you can teach English.”) With native speakers, they are probably less likely to notice it because it is discrimination in their favour. Particularly if you are only planning on being in this profession for a short time, why not take advantage of it. And in general, more than anything, it could just be a lack of exposure/interest.

I know that for myself, as a young teacher all those years ago, I hadn’t really thought about it until I observed an experienced non-native at my school. She taught such a knowledgeable, organized lesson that I left feeling inadequate in my own teaching. Of course, it inspired me to try harder, learn more grammar and try to improve in many ways.

I see this on a monthly basis in my training courses. Native speakers are routinely convinced of non-native teachers’ effectiveness just by being around them, seeing them teach. Recently, I had a native speaker trainee, in the final week of the course, tell a Belgian trainee just how impressed with her he was, being able to do what he was doing, all in a second language. Evidence of a clear convert.

So while we can preach to new teachers about discrimination, you probably don’t need to hit them over the head with it. Just being around, working in the industry with NNESTs of ability should convince them. To be honest, new teachers are not involved in the hiring process anyway. So if they stay in the profession for any length of time and become an experienced teacher or trainer they should convert.

(Interestingly, NNESTs seem to not support each other on occasion. I remember at a conference, watching the eye-rolling of the audience of NNESTs when the next presenter with a clearly non-English sounding name was announced. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies)

  1. Language schools/Employers: It is pretty common to see Native Speaker clearly labelled among job adverts in any country it seems, quite often, almost without thought. (A local ad advertised “Real Native Speaker” as the first requirement. I wonder what prompted that the “real” be included? Of course, as a friend points out, it doesn’t specify “of English” so technically everyone is a “Native Speaker” of some language.)

In the EU, it is quite clearly against the regulations of discriminatory practice but still happens constantly. Most school owners will sheepishly shrug their shoulders and say that native speakers are what the clients demand.

Now why is this? In Prague, there is often a clear case of “Keeping up with the Jones’s”. Native speakers were once rarer therefore more prestigious to have. Students could boast, “I have an actual British teacher.” And feel better than their friends who were learning from a native Czech who had been teaching Russian up until everything changed. In the old days, teachers might be only a few units ahead of their students in the course books. Of course these days are long gone, but the hangover still remains.

While the language school owners’ answers might appear sheepish, they do strike at the heart of the matter. They are in a service industry and will do whatever the students demand. If, for some reason, students believed they were better taught by pink-haired female teachers with interesting dress sense, then you’d see hiring ads like “REAL pink haired teachers only.” In many ways, the owners are just following the market trends, like all businesses.

  1. Students: Which leaves us firmly in the lap of the students. For whatever misguided reasons, this myth is perpetuated by the clients. Theirs is the attitude which needs be changed to have any hope of ending the discrimination. As a former colleague once told me, “It all comes down to the students’ attitudes.”

And how do we change their attitudes? I’m open to ideas. Anyone? Anyone?

kenneth-arnoldKenneth Arnold has degrees in education and English and has worked in TEFL teaching and training since 1997. Originally from St. Louis, he completed his higher education with the Shenker TEFL certificate in Italy and the Cambridge DELTA. Kenneth has taught English in various countries including Malaysia, South Bohemia, Italy, Spain, and the U.S., in many academic settings. He currently works for TEFL Worldwide Prague. When not teaching or training, Kenneth enjoys history, reading, and spending time with his young daughters.

Brazilian English is beautiful by BrELT

The following video has been produced by BrELT (Brazil’s English Language Teachers), a Facebook community that fosters collaborative professional development among Brazil’s ELT professionals. The message is clear: “We are here. We are Brazilian. Deal with it.”

“Who are you talking to, though?” you may wonder.

Other Brazilians, believe it or not. Sadly, we needed to reaffirm our pride in being who we are not to the world, but to our fellow citizens.

Recently, a highly qualified Brazilian English teacher with a successful YouTube channel has been abused by a countryman saying she shouldn’t be recording because she’s from Brazil. Another famous Brazilian YouTuber said learning from native speakers is more cost-effective. In several other YouTube channels, Brazilians have mocked household names because of their accents in English.

What’s being revealed by the comfortable anonymity of internet comments is only the tip of the iceberg. Native-speakerism runs deep in this country, as it finds a fruitful field in our infamous shame of being Brazilian.

Representing almost 12,000 teachers, most of whom from Brazil, BrELT could not leave it at that and embarked on the Brazilian YouTubers’ campaign #AccentPride. Join us! No matter where you are from, record a video reaffirming your pride in your accent or showing your support to non-native English language teachers worldwide.

We are many. It’s time we made our voices (and accents) heard.

BrELT is a Facebook community for ELT professionals in Brazil and for those who wish to connect with us. You are welcome to join us at BrELT – Brazil’s English Language Teachers . For more information about our initiatives, which include online events, blog posts and the Brazilian counterpart to ELTChat, please check our blog here.

The people in the video are volunteer moderators in the community:

Bruno Andrade, one of the founders of BrELT, has a B.A. in English from UFRJ, the TKT and the CPE and is now working towards his Master’s in Applied Linguistics. In the industry for 15 years, he’s worked in online education and as a school coordinator in Rio de Janeiro.

Eduardo de Freitas is a teacher trainer for PBF Guarulhos. He holds the CAE, the TKT, and the CELTA and has been a teacher for seven years.

Ilá Coimbra is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and Cambridge Examiner based in São Paulo. In the field for 17 years, she has a B.A. in Languages from USP, the CPE, the CELTA and the ICELT.

Natalia Guerreiro works as an Aviation English teacher trainer and examiner in Sao Jose dos Campos. In ELT since the year 2000, she holds a B.A. in English from UFRJ, the TKT, the CELTA, the CPE, and an M.A. in Language Testing from Unimelb.

Priscila Mateini, based in Niteroi, holds a B.A. in Languages from UFF, a postgraduate degree in Linguistic Science (UPF), the TKT and the ECPE, as well a UDL Specialist course certificate from Harvard. With over 8 years of experience (4 years focusing on Special Education), she is now working towards her Master’s and helping schools adapt to children with Special Needs.

Ricardo Barros is a CELTA tutor and freelance teacher based in Jundiaí, who has been working in ELT since 2003. He holds a B.A. in History from Unicamp, the CPE, the CELTA, and the DELTA.

T. Veigga, who has being in the industry for 14 years, is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials designer who lives in Rio de Janeiro. He holds a B.A. in English from UFRJ and a post-graduate degree in Media Education (PUC-Rio).

Making job specifications more specific by Alex Moore

The fact that you’ve visited this website and are reading this tells me you probably don’t need convincing that “native-speakerism” is a myth that discriminates against thousands of qualified teachers, for whom English happens not to be their native language.

I’m also going to assume you’ve read Marek’s post about “native speaker only” job adverts, and his suggested write-back campaign.

Advertising for native speakers only is considered discriminatory by TESOL International or IATEFL, and a breach of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Writing back is an excellent way of reminding employers of this, and showing that teachers, of whatever background, care.

You can’t say “native speakers only” any more. However, there is a one-word dodge that could, potentially allow schools to continue the hiring practice.

Imagine you are the DoS or principal of a school where students, or their families, seem to prefer native speakers. You may know that academic opinion is against them on this, but it would be too hard to change their minds. You’re also worried that, if you tried, they might take offence or feel let down, and take their business to the school down the road who will tell them what they want to hear. TEFL Equity might be an admirable principle, but it’s a principle you can’t afford to have.

So you’d like to continue employing native speakers, but know you can’t explicitly advertise for them. You ask for native-level speakers instead. That one extra word send out the right message, “non-native speakers have a chance, if their English is good enough”, but retains all the power: “We decide who is native-level, and who isn’t”. A school could, covertly, still only hire native speakers. Instead of telling non-native applicants that they’re being turned down because of the crest on their passport, they could just say “Sorry, we don’t think your English is native-level”. End of chat.

This “native-level” phrase isn’t hard to find. Looking more or less randomly on the “International jobs board” at, I found schools in Turkey and Russia that listed “NATIVE LEVEL”, in capitals, in the first line of their text. Another, in Hungary, asked for “native fluency” and one in Spain had a requirements list where, tellingly, “native level of English” was listed above “TEFL or CELTA”.

I found similar results at A company that runs summer schools in the UK and elsewhere in Europe asked for applicants with an “English native level of competence” (sic), and similar phrases seem to be common throughout adverts for British summer schools. A full-time job advert in Poland, the country I currently work in, shouts that it wants an “ENGLISH NATIVE LEVEL SPEAKER” in the headline, though weirdly doesn’t mention this in the “qualifications” list later.

In all these cases, I have no idea what thought process lay behind the wording of the adverts. For all I know, these schools may give NNESTs a fair hearing, and may have many on their payroll. But, if I were a non-native, seeing that advert, I might still wonder: “Is there any point in applying for this?”

Also, all of these schools are in ECHR signatory countries, so are presumably aware of their Article 14 responsibility. Would they advertise for natives only, if they were legally free to do so? I don’t know, but we’re entitled to be suspicious.

So, inspired by the aforementioned write-back campaign against “native only” adverts, here is an alternative letter, aimed at the more widespread (in Europe) “native-level” phrase:

Dear __________,

I am writing in reply to your recent job advert for English teachers, posted at [web address].

Your advert lists “native-level” command of English as a requirement for candidates.

“Native-level” is a vague phrase. It is highly open to interpretation, both on the employers’ side and the potential applicants’. Many qualified teachers, for whom English happens to be a second language, might be put off from applying by this wording – a scenario where both parties potentially lose out.

As I’m sure you know, there are many ways of formally classifying language ability. If you specify a CEFR level, IELTS grade or Cambridge Suite exam grade, applicants will know the standard they are being judged against, and have an objective way of demonstrating their proficiency.

Furthermore, non-native speakers, as English teachers, can provide an inspiring example to your students, living proof that hard work, dedication and practice pay off. Compared to native speakers, they will also know the exam systems available to their students, having passed through one or more of them themselves.

Bearing this in mind, I hope you might consider amending the above-mentioned advert, and future adverts, to include a more precise phrase than “native-level”.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.


This is not about telling schools who they should and should not hire. I am proud to say the company I currently work for requires candidates to have an IELTS band 8, or demonstrate a CEFR C2 level, and employers are perfectly entitled to set such high standards. But falling back on a weasel phrase like “native-level” is as good as not setting standards at all.

alex-mooreAlex Moore currently works in Poland. Before becoming an English teacher, he worked as a journalist for a local newspaper group in his native South Wales. After qualifying, his first spell abroad was in China, from 2011 to 2016 (“a six-month career break that got seriously out of hand”). During that time he played a key role in opening two new language school campuses in Chongqing and was appointed Foreign Teacher Manager by i2. Since then, he has worked at CSL in Swansea and is now at IH Bielsko-Biala.
Fun fact: In his very first placement in China, the school sent him back to the agency after three days, complaining he “stuttered too much”. Since then, his delivery has improved, or his DoSes have become more considerate, or both.

How the native speaker myth affects us all by Christina Lorimer

I was 22 years old when it occurred to me there was a problem.

By that time, I had a strong teacher identity and was actually quite adept at teaching. Growing up with parents who were public school teachers meant I didn’t spend 4 or even 8 hours a day at school but rather 10 or even sometimes 12. My childhood took place in a music classroom. My chores weren’t doing laundry or cleaning the bathroom but erasing the chalkboard, alphabetizing the songbooks, and organizing the chairs. My playmates were the stapler, the hole punch, the markers and the highlighters, and my babysitters were my mom’s students waiting in line to audition for a solo in the upcoming concert. I learned how to do fractions and percentages by adding up scores on music theory tests and how to give feedback by addressing student questions about their final grades after class. I was nine years old.

Around this time, my dad pursued his dream of becoming a biology teacher. His eyes lit up when he talked to students about the natural world, just like they did when he read me Bernstein Bears before bed, and he started doing science experiments and testing out his lesson plans at home. I died of embarrassment when my friends told me how he jumped up on tables and made up silly science songs in class, but I also intimately came to understand the concept of multiple identities, having to behave differently when my parents were “mom” and “dad” than when they were “teacher” or, later, when my dad was “principal”.

At twelve, I started doing choreography for my mom’s choir groups and regularly taught hundreds of high school students how to dance. Still today, whenever I feel unprepared for a class or nervous about teaching a new subject, I think back on my 12-year old self, standing on a platform in front of 200 high school boys, successfully teaching them how to jazz square and do a roll off. As a teenage female teacher, I had to develop thick skin and learn how to stay cool and collected in the classroom, even when I felt hurt or confused by student side comments.

So, as you can see, my teacher identity and skills developed early on.

Throughout my undergrad, I studied art and foreign languages. I also taught academic English for a year, doing one-on-one test preparation sessions at my university’s Learning Assistance Center. But I didn’t consider myself a trained English teacher and had never even heard of TESOL, ELT, EFL or any of the other million acronyms in our field. I certainly wasn’t familiar with expressions like “native speaker myth” or terms like NEST and NNEST. Even though I had been teaching most of my life, I was new to the field of English teaching. And although I felt very connected to my teacher identity, I hadn’t explored what it meant to be an English teacher.

After I graduated, I applied to a non-profit to be a volunteer English teacher at a rural elementary school in Costa Rica. Our group had a two-week training before arriving in our small communities to teach English for a year. The stakes were high. We were being sent to these particular schools because they were either too small or too poor to receive an English teacher from the government. When (or in many cases, if) students start high school in Costa Rica, they are expected to have at least a low-intermediate English level upon entry. So, if these children aren’t exposed to the language in elementary school and don’t build a strong English foundation, there is a high chance they flunk out of high school early on. The first day of training, I learned that out of 25 volunteers I was the most experienced and qualified English teacher. Something felt off about this.

And this was the first time I detected NEST issues and English teaching tourism.

It felt problematic that among a group of twenty soon-to-be English language teachers, I was the most experienced and qualified. I had only been an English tutor for a year. It felt problematic that a volunteer openly stated she decided to teach English in Costa Rica in order to learn Spanish and that another guy told me the program was his ticket into previously inaccessible surf spots on the coast. And while I understood my primary role was teaching English, I had to admit that I was there for other reasons too, like improving my Spanish and having a cultural experience. Something didn’t feel right, but I also wasn’t sure it was wrong. Americans teaching English abroad is so common and normalized that I didn’t dig deeper into those feelings.

But they came up again in my MA TESOL program. Although NEST/NNEST issues weren’t, unfortunately, an explicit part of our TESOL coursework, in a program where over half the students were new NNESTs, I became well-versed in the terminology. In my first graduate grammar course, the girl behind me was a whiz at syntax trees, and the girl in front of me asked really good questions I would’ve never thought of. These two tutored me throughout the semester and became my closest friends in the program. They were from Germany and Russia, respectively, and together we discovered NEST/NNEST issues. We would be at conferences (yes, TESOL conferences), and people would say to them, “I can’t believe you grew up in Germany, your English accent is so good!” (She has lived in the U.S. since she was 14.) Or, as soon as they would learn my other friend grew up in Russia, they would suddenly detect an accent. “Oh yes, I didn’t hear it before, but of course, yes, you do sound a little Russian.” Like magic, after three days of interacting with her and watching her present research, suddenly, she’s Russian. Suddenly, she’s labeled as “non-native”. And then the icing on the cake: “You don’t even look like a non-native speaker!”

Those feelings got stronger when I completed a Fulbright in Brazil.

Stories began to circulate among the Fulbright fellows about Brazilians constantly questioning their “native-ness” and consequently their right to be a Fulbright English teaching fellow. My closest friends in our group were a Puerto Rican guy, a black woman from the South, and an Ecuadorian-raised girl from Kentucky. The whole year, they felt they had to defend their native-ness because they also spoke Spanish or weren’t born in the States or didn’t “look like a native speaker”.

Those feelings got even stronger when I began to look for work in Brazil. Waiting for interviews with language schools and even multinational publishers, I felt defeated every time I sat down next to another candidate with little to no experience. But hey, they were native speakers too, so we were being considered for the same job. When I opened up my schedule for private students, they never once asked about my experience but rather only cared about where I was from, as if being born in a specific place qualified me to teach. The reality hit me that all my training and education may have been in vain. I thought back to my parents and the saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I wondered if they ever felt this way.

Most recently, these feelings have become overwhelming.

I’ve seen students pay three times the market price for private lessons with unqualified native teachers and then believe they were “stupid” or “unable to learn languages” when they didn’t improve. I’ve watched as a white American pursuing his doctorate in science gained hundreds of thousands of Brazilian followers on YouTube by giving English tips. Recently, he quit his PhD program and started a crowdfunding campaign to get Brazilians to financially support him. His campaign platform states they should donate money because “he has the advantage of being a native speaker who speaks Portuguese” and “has lots of ideas”. In his video comments, learners say, “Great! Our Brazilian teachers never teach us these things!” (They try to, but you don’t listen.) If this isn’t a prime example of white privilege coupled with native speaker superiority, I don’t know what is.

This may sound harsh. After all, recognizing and accepting privilege is a hard task. And it’s even harder to move from acceptance to action. And what about people who just want to travel and make extra cash? Are they wrong to claim to be English teachers? And the Youtuber probably doesn’t realize NEST/NNEST issues even exist. I mean, he’s a scientist for heaven’s sake. Can we really hold him accountable for naïvely perpetuating the native speaker myth?

Yes, we can. And yes, I do. I do take teaching seriously. Teaching has been my life. It’s been my parents and grandparents lives. It’s my sister’s life.

Teaching will make or break a student’s life.

Wherever I go, I meet everyday English speakers who ask me “how I did it”. They want to travel, see the world, and ‘find themselves’, to be quintessentially American about it.

“I wanna do what you did,” they say.

“How do I do that?” they ask.

Then they conclude, “Where do you think I should teach English?”

Most days, I give my short, (now) prepared response that goes something like, “It’s a good idea to get training first––there are certificates and programs I can recommend––and try to do some research on work conditions, culture, and lifestyle before you agree to teach anywhere.”

But there are other days, days when I’ve had a set back at work or I’m tight on money or I’ve just watched someone make millions selling a secret method to learning English that is the spitting image of Krashen’s input hypothesis from 1985.

On those days, it takes every ounce of energy to not respond:

“How do you do this? Well, first you’ll pay to do a volunteer program. You’ll teach children how to tell jokes and build treehouses in English and teach their parents how to negotiate their salaries and defend themselves against foreign interests, but you’ll also be pretty poor for the next five years. Then you’ll need to work three jobs and get a research fellowship to complete a master’s in teaching English. After that, you’ll want more professional development, so apply for a competitive Fulbright fellowship in English teaching and English teacher training. Hopefully after a year and a half of interviews you’ll get it. Then, spend years making your class materials from scratch, on carbon paper or with markers, not just to get the hang of curriculum development but also because most schools have no resources or government support. Work for publishers, work for private schools, work for non-profits and public universities, but most of all, don’t forget to work as a bartender because that’s how you’ll actually pay your bills.”

In the end, when these feelings consume me, I remember. I remember English is my first language. I remember I’m a white middle-class American. I remember that if this is a frustrating experience for me, imagine what it must be like for a POC non-native English teacher looking for work in, say, any country.

And I remember how much I love teaching and love my students.

I’ve spent the last ten years surrounded by intelligent and patient NNEST peers and colleagues. Together, we’ve shared stories and unpacked the many ways native speakerism is yet another form of discrimination. We’ve brainstormed alternatives to “non-native”, feeling that a “non-” label and deficient model is part of the problem, and created professional development modules about how to educate students, teachers, and administrators about NNEST issues.

The native speaker myth results in the deprofessionalization of our field. But in much worse-case scenarios, it results in illegal hiring practices, fuels discrimination, and cheats students out of the opportunity to work with truly exceptional teachers. And these are issues that affect all of us.

christina-lorimer-4258_hi-res11254Christina Lorimer is a teacher trainer, materials writer, and certified language coach with an M.A. in TESOL and 13 years in the field. After teaching in the U.S., Costa Rica, and Brazil, she founded Step Stone Languages, an English for Specific Purposes school for autonomous learners focused on providing real-life materials that increase student motivation and decrease teacher burnout. She is also an author and editor of teacher guides for National Geographic Cengage Learning. In her free time, she loves hiking to waterfalls and playing with her one-year old niece.

What does a red phone box have to do with learning English in 2017? by Richard Willmsen

[From the editor: this post was originally published on Richard’s blog here and is republished here with his full consent]

One of my roles in life involves testing the English language to make sure it’s working properly. It’s in this capacity that I get to fly down to Mérida for a few days, eat sopa de lima and cochinita pibil in nice restaurants, and pay a visit to an excellent language school. It’s easy to find because it has a red phone box outside. Everyone I meet there is friendly and seems competent. The owners (both English, in their thirties) greet and chat to the students as they arrive; they seem to know their names and both speak very good Spanish. As for the teachers, they are young, cheerful, and seem to be mostly English.

The school, which goes by the name of the London Academy and has been open for around two years, is “the only British language school in Mérida with 100% qualified British teachers that offers a true British cultural experience”. The images on the walls show cool young people enjoying themselves in London. It’s unlike a lot of  ‘British’ schools I’ve worked at in the past in that there’s a refreshing lack of photos of Beefeaters and the Royal Family and the atmosphere is by no means austere and reserved as it is in some anglophone learning environments. Entering the school I worked at for several years in Lisbon was like going to the dentists: staid, forbidding and snobbish. The school in Mérida is selling an updated version of the UK. It certainly needs to stand out, because there are a lot of schools in that particular suburb. When I walk round the block I count another four. Some seem to be part of chains and most are selling themselves on cost: low prices, discounts if you pay upfront for online classes and year-long courses.

Ultimately it’s a question of marketing. What the London Academy is selling is a tourist experience. For the students (or at least for their parents) the school is a corner of a foreign field. They will be immersed in the classroom in an English-only environment with a representative of the target culture. What the teachers get is a reasonably-paid job and an experience of living abroad, one which gives them the chance to learn some of the language and, if they’re lucky, become friends, or possibly very good friends*, with some of the locals. Nowadays in the world of English language teaching this is quite a retro model. It is based on the promotion of the assumption that the teacher is a monolingual native speaker with no or little knowledge of the host culture. Bringing a new cohort of teachers over every year is very expensive at a time when there is more competition from schools which use other images and associations to promote the learning of English.

There also seems to be a growing recognition that the language study trips abroad business is similarly a branch of tourism. The school I worked at for several years in London has just been bought up by a language travel organisation. It is true that there is no easier environment to learn and teach in. The students get some experience of interacting in an English-speaking setting and they also make English-language friendships with each other. This doesn’t mean that they start watching Eastenders and spend every night down the rub-a-dub. Rather they bond over their dislike of the food, the absurd rents they have to pay and the hangovers they picked up (and the fellow students they didn’t) in bars and clubs where most other customers (and the staff) are also there to improve their English. This is perfectly natural; after all, on holiday, you tend to make friends with other tourists rather than the locals. Some students do arrive with the impression that it’s all about becoming “English” (which is a useful marketing illusion), but they soon knuckle down to the more important and less confusing task of developing an English-speaking life. It’s far more important for Mehmet, who lives in Istanbul and deals with Chinese people on the phone, to understand Wei Wei from Shandong than it is for him to understand what Russell Brand says**. As for the teacher, their job largely involves creating a environment conducive to social and cultural exchange, with their role a mix of tour guide, cultural mediator, facilitator and occasional counsellor.

Sadly, thanks to a combination of international competition in the education market, arbitrary and ill-thought-out changes to visa rules and the global economic situation, the language school industry in the UK (and London in particular) has taken a hammering over the last few years, with very well-established places going to the wall and the survivors getting snapped up by international concerns. It is also possible that over the next few years the international marketing of British English by institutions such as the British Council will encounter difficulties in a world which no longer views Britain as vibrant, mobile and welcoming but rather as insular, hostile and closed. Whereas most marketing of English courses tends to sell an image of mobility – in the words of an advert I saw recently, ‘Where can you go if you don’t know English?’ – all this talk of shutting borders is designed and destined to do permanent damage to one of the very remaining industries which the UK still dominates.

Another major change in the world of English language teaching is a shift away from the notion that native speakers automatically make better language teachers. That’s not to say that the assumption is by any means dead. Browsing websites advertising teaching jobs in Mexico recently I was shocked by the number of ads looking for ‘native speakers’ and specifying ‘no experience necessary’. I’d imagine that most people learning a language would want a teacher with experience. But the rationale for this never was pedagogical. Again, it’s more to do with marketing, to the extent that one term commonly used in China for a foreign teacher is ‘dancing monkey’. Anyone ‘foreign’ will do as long as they don’t have a Chinese face or name.

There seems to be growing acceptance nowadays that the best attribute a teacher can have is the ability to teach, regardless of where they happen to have been born. The spread of English as a lingua franca has led to a growing recognition that it does not ‘belong’ to any one national group. Indeed, it helps to have consciously learnt the language you’re teaching. Having done so gives the teacher insights into the learning experience which allow them to give their students shortcuts and to identify potential pitfalls and misunderstandings. Non-native teachers also make more realistic role models, as the old joke about an English learner saying that when he grows up he wants to be a native speaker acknowledges. Plus it’s also true that a ‘native’ level of English is not a desirable goal. In international settings it is often British, American and Australians who have most difficulty making themselves understood, given their reliance on irony and idioms which may be lost on people who don’t share their cultural background. The trend is partly driven by economic changes – although native speakers are more profitable, non-native teachers are cheaper – but it has a positive effect as better teachers find it easier to get work.

The notion of ‘native speaker’ is problematic in any case. I’m one of them, yet there are lots of lots of ‘foreigners’ who use(d) ‘my’ language better than I do: Conrad, Nabokov, Zizek and Varoufakis all spring immediately to mind. My Italian wife writes things in her job that are much better than anything I could produce***. The idea that a ‘native speaker’ is an exemplary model has given way to a focus on proficient, competent or expert speakers. Similarly, the category of ‘mother tongue’ speaker does not take account of people who grew up speaking one language at home and another at school. Ultimately, nation state and language are just not a very good fit, especially in relation to English.

I myself found out quickly in Portugal many years ago that in a monolingual EFL classroom it’s the monolingual teacher who has problems expressing what they want, especially when dealing with teenagers. Students know their own culture and can communicate perfectly well with each other. Hence they can run rings round a teacher who has little training and almost no experience of inspiring learning and imposing discipline. Such a relationship depends partly on the personality of the teacher and partly on their ability to assert their authority over the language on the basis of their national identity. Anyone who has taught in such a context will recognise the frustrations described by George Orwell in his story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘. It is all too common for fledgling (and sometimes veteran) EFL teachers to develop the attitude of a colonial policeman and to dismiss the ‘natives’ as lazy, stupid “evil-spirited little beasts” who are out to “make (your) job impossible”.

This doesn’t mean that teaching and learning is impossible in such a context but where it does take place it tends to be by accident. My own ‘teaching journey’ has taught me that any meaningful educational experience has to be based on cultural exchange. Every teacher who sticks at it works out eventually that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. The model I’ve been describing is about trying to impose one identity on another. What must take place instead is a recognition and validation of each others’ identities. This involves drawing on the students’ expert knowledge of their language, their experiences, expertise and social roles rather than dismissing all of the above and relying instead on a combination of communication games, bullying and luck.

I would like therefore to put forward five suggestions for roles that EFL teachers can usefully adopt in a monolingual teaching/learning environment:

  1. The students’ knowledge of their own language is an essential classroom resource. This means that both the teacher and the students sometimes need to play the role of translators. It also implies a ceding of control and a certain amount of humility on the part of the teacher. My students know their own languages better than I do and sometime meanings have to be negotiated and dictionaries referred to. This has the advantage of reflecting real language use; in any given human interaction where more than one language is involved discussions over corresponding forms, functions and meanings are ever-present and sometimes other authorities have to be invoked. Clearly there are activities where this is not appropriate, and the teacher needs to establish when and why only the target language should be used. In a cooperative environment with purposeful activities students will be happy to go along with this.
  2. Tip number 1 implies that the teacher should speak or be learning the language of their students. There are, bizarrely, language teachers who have no experience of learning another language or who have never done so successfully. Such teachers are not able to understand and relate to the frustrations and ritual humiliations their students are exposing themselves to. Several times in my teaching career I have been put on the spot by a student asking me to perform a task I have asked them to do. Such experiences have helped me to reflect on how useful and how ‘doable’ the activity I’m imposing is. Once, with a class of Italian teenagers who were traumatised by the prospect of their Trinity Exam, I did the task myself in very imperfect Italian, getting them to play the role of examiners. A light bulb went on. They realised that they didn’t need to be completely fluent and that it was fine to make mistakes as long as they basically made themselves understood. They all went on to pass the exam. In order to be a teacher you also need to be a learner. This is a role no teacher should ever stop playing; there are always new things to learn.
  3. If you are teaching in another country you are also a model of someone immersed, out of their depth, occasionally thrown in at the deep end, experiencing anxiety, and sometimes losing face. Your ability to articulate these feelings and reflect on those experiences in English will be better than that of your students****. This involves drawing on your own experiences.  This paragraph itself could generate a very useful lesson for students struggling to articulate their own experiences with the language. It doesn’t mean that the teacher is an exemplary language learner but as someone who learns and also thinks about language a lot you do have insights to offer.
  4. A teacher needs most of all to be a teacher, with a range of approaches and techniques to suit each particular class. Hence our role is not that of an oracle on our language and culture. Both students and teachers have gaps in their knowledge of the world. That is fine. A classroom can be a very useful place to identify things that we don’t know and to figure out how we can find out. It very often happens that I learn new things in English*****, and when that happens I point it out to my students. As a language teacher I know that some students fail to understand that one’s command of a language is never total. Pointing it out by using yourself as an example helps students to recognise that their English need not and can not ever be ‘perfect’. I am there in the classroom because of my teaching experience and ability, and not as a proxy for the Queen or for Cambridge University.
  5. Teachers should also facilitate sharing of emotional experiences. We can help the students visualise their learning experience and identify specific examples of progress. One excellent way to do this is to explore learning metaphors: are they on a journey, climbing a mountain, working out in a gym, hanging out with some friends once a week? In tackling such themes the teacher is playing the role of a counsellor. In order for this to be effective the teacher needs to work constantly on creating an encouraging and forgiving environment based on an ethic of cooperation rather than on shaming people who make mistakes.

These tips are written with the teaching of English in mind. Some of them also apply to other languages. For example, I can’t say that the list of characteristics of various French supermarkets I spent ninety minutes learning in an intermediate French class a few years ago has helped me a great deal when talking to recent Senegalese immigrants in Rome. The same applies to Spanish and to an extent Portuguese; there’s not much point learning to lithp or to use o senhor appropriately when you’re off to live in Mexico or Brazil. Some other-language courses I’ve encountered have confused language competence and grammatical knowledge, with little room for error and a very narrow definition of success. The teaching of English does have something to offer language teaching in general given that there is simply more practise and research taking place.

It’s different with, say, German, Italian, Japanese or Finnish, since almost all speakers of these languages are from those countries or have spent time there. Then learning things like the names of personalities and radio advertising jingles is important. At the moment I live in Italy, where what hinders my comprehension most is a lack of knowledge of the (admitedly very complex) culture. It is, however, only one of many possible experiences. In past I’ve tended to assume that my own learning experiences are the only or the ultimate model, which is clearly not the case.

Several years ago in London there was a best-selling book/CD for English language learners called ‘Get Rid Of Your Accent‘. The cover featured a woman who looked like Agatha Christie and sounded like Lord Reith’s elocutionist. As David Crystal points out, learners do need a pronunciation role model but the notion there is one way of speaking is absurd. People certainly need to have a command of Standard English, but in a globalised world intelligibility is the main issue. The same goes for local varieties of grammar. A former colleague used to teach his newly-arrived elementary students to ask everyone they met “What do you do work-wise?”, a question guaranteed to draw a blank look from Akiko from Kyoto. It can be useful to teach students to understand local accents in questions like ‘wotjado?’ and ‘naamean?’, but it’s pointless and unfair to ask them to speak in that way. Sometimes over the years my lessons have been about making students talk just like me. That,to briefly use a particularly British English term, is bollocks.

* In some cases, very many very close friends.

** Mind you, there’s a wonderful story about teaching TEFL from the man himself here.

*** This is not meant to suggest that I have a number of wives from different countries. Maybe I should ask her how to rephrase it to make it more clearer.

**** If it isn’t, you may have wandered into an INSET session by mistake.

***** Such as how to spell ‘bizarrely’.

richard-willmsenI’m an DELTA-qualified English teacher and IELTS examiner from the UK and I’ve taught in Ireland, the UK, Portugal, Spain, China and Mexico. I’m currently working at a university in Rome. I post regularly about EFL, languages, politics and whatever else takes my fancy at