Equal opportunities in ELT: putting native-speakerism to bed

Recently, we shared an article about native / non-native speaker teachers (NST / NNST from now on) on the Pearson ELT Spain and Portugal facebook page and it sparked some quite lively debate. There were polarised arguments in the vein of ‘Natives don’t know their own grammar’ to ‘Non-natives can’t pronounce properly’ as well as more nuanced arguments in between and the aim of this blog post is to delve into this issue which remains a thorny one in our profession.

I’ll start with a personal angle. I began by teaching French and German in a state school in England, before moving to Spain where I have taught in a private school as well as a state-assisted school: primarily English, but also French. Therefore, I was a NNST when working in England and both a NST and a NNST in Spain, depending on the language I was teaching.

In Spain I have certainly been aware of having an advantage as a NST when teaching English: I recall a headteacher in a job interview remarking ‘Cuando aparece un currículum de un nativo, hay que aprovechar’ (When you receive a CV from a native speaker, you have to take advantage). I receive regular Linkedin notifications from a prestigious school (which shall remain nameless) looking for a teacher with the slightly baffling requirements of “Native – English mother tongue (bilingual candidates will not be accepted).” Given that my wife is Spanish, my son need not apply! To continue the farce, I once had an American colleague called Carlos: his Spanish wasn’t great, but the school told him to go by the name of Charles in case any of the students thought he was Spanish!

The existence of discrimination among employers won’t come as a surprise to many. But does it exist because students (or is it their parents?) really are looking for NST or is this merely what schools and private language academies perceive? Worryingly, upon leaving my second school in Spain I was told by the teacher who succeeded me (and with whom I am friends) that the parents had written a letter of complaint to the head because “Nuestros hijos se quedan sin nativo” (Our children won’t have a native speaker). At least in this instance, there was clear prejudice at play on the part of the parents.

Of course the sentiment was misguided and simplistic, for a range of reasons:

Think about your best languages teacher. What was so good about them? I’ll lay long odds against anyone answering this question with ‘They were a native speaker.’ We need teachers with personality, humanity and creativity. We need teachers who are qualified, understand methodology and have a strong work ethic. We need teachers who inspire. Linguistic proficiency is necessary of course, but you don’t need to be a NS to possess it and of course being proficient in a language isn’t the same as knowing how to teach it.

The culture argument: supposedly we NST are best-placed to transmit ‘our’ culture. This is hugely problematic. First of all, what is culture? Is it music, literature and film? Is it talking about Big Ben and red phone boxes? Is it roast dinners or is it Chinese stir fry? Secondly, what is the culture of the English language? It’s spoken in so many countries as a first language and each of these countries has their own ‘culture’ (which in each case will be a rich tapestry): how much can anyone really know and what are we supposed to transmit? And of course a NNST who has lived in Australia for a few years will probably know far more about Australian culture than your average NST who isn’t from Australia. 

The accent argument: A native speaker has a ‘better accent’. But which native speaker accent is the right one to teach? After all, many native speakers feel they are discriminated against in their own country because of their accents. I have encountered NST who have told me they change their accents when teaching to make them more ‘neutral’, which I find rather tragic, but also unnecessary. My own accent is a mixture of Southern and Northern English (I say ‘bath’ ‘grass’ etc with a short ‘a’). Gone are the days when RP was the holy grail for our students, the consensus these days is that intelligibility is the name of the game and a proficient NNST can provide a clear model just like a NST.

L1 use. For a long time this was considered one of the seven deadly sins and students were told to ‘Think in English!’ from an early age, but attitudes are changing. L1 use in moderation can have advantages for our students. And a NST without the students’ L1 won’t be able to predict and plan for errors and misunderstandings that will inevitably arise because of the structure of the students’ L1, but a NNST will have been through everything the students have. I would add a personal reflection here that I’m suspicious of a languages teacher who has never learned another language apart from their own: how will they be able to empathise with students? How can you transmit a passion for learning foreign languages? Of course many NST have learned their students’ L1 and are able to draw on it in their lessons.

There are other factors of course. I could go on talking about how some native speakers struggle to make themselves understood on an international stage (the updated CEFR has removed phrases like ‘Maintain conversations with a native speaker’ and replaced them with ‘maintain conversations with speakers of the target language’). You could mention how the line between ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ is being blurred in a globalised world with people’s more complicated life trajectories. But the idea isn’t to put NNST above NST or vice versa, the idea is that everyone is given a fair crack of the whip and is judged on their skills and not their passport. That, of course, is the hard part.

There are organisations such as TEFL equity advocates fighting for equal employment opportunities and a number of the foremost methodologists and linguists in the ELT world have thrown their weight behind the cause, as have many organisations, such as ACEIA in Spain. The conversation can also be taken to students and parents, many of whom it appears need their awareness raised on what good teaching is: how do you hold a school to account? Is it by asking where the teachers are from or is it by enquiring about the school’s teaching practice and asking about the results the students are achieving? It’s a fight that needs need to be taken up by all teachers: not only NNST. That letter the parents wrote made me cringe: I’d much rather be appreciated as a good teacher than as a native speaker.

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