We need to talk about native speakerism.

My experiences as a teacher recruiter at the sharp end of the native speaker non-native speaker debate have made me a strong advocate of non-native speaker (NNS) rights in ELT. However, as a white male native speaker (NS) with an EU passport, I am only a small part of the ELT mosaic and I was keen to have a wider spectrum of views about the debate and what we might do about the challenges that our profession faces.

This rather long piece is based upon 12 questions that I posed to five non-native ELT practitioners, with some commentary from me (Chris/ed).  There is no ‘house style’ or consistency and is not designed to be a piece of research. Rather it is here to flag up some directions the debate might take. I have edited the responses but all the writers have seen and agreed to this final version.

They are:

Asma Bouali from Algeria.

Anna Loseva from Russia.

Assel Baibatyrova from Kazakhstan.

Marek Kiczkowiak from Poland.

Nick Michelioudakis from Greece.

Their mini bios are at the end.

 

Question One

How would you describe your relationship with the English language? What role does it play in your life?

Asma 

Once I started studying English and then teaching it, it did have a huge role in my life. It determined the kind of books I read, the films I watched and even the music I listened to. It was a kind of passion and more of a way to push myself forward. The English language influences both my professional and personal life – I’d rather have friends and colleagues who are able to interact with me in English than those who are not.

Marek

I definitely use it much more in my daily life than I use my first language, Polish, so it’s definitely become an integral part of my personality. I’m no longer sure whether I’m a NS of Polish or English, or Spanish for that matter, which I also use more often than my L1. I guess I’m all of them at different times, depending on the situation.

Anna

For almost 15 years, English has been a major part of my life; my studies; my work; my hobby; my reading; my writing; my connection to the world and means of communication. Frankly speaking, I can’t even separate English and non-English in my life now, it has all blended smoothly together now that I live away from home. I communicate in English daily, 90% of the time.

Assel

I am totally in love with the English language. My love started when I was a schoolgirl. I have always wanted to be connected to it and that is why I entered a language university in the pedagogical department, to eventually become an English teacher. I cannot imagine my life without the English language present in it.

Nick

I love English and it’s a huge part of my life. Out of 1,300 or so books/audiobooks in my flat, less than ten are in Greek. Many/most of my friends are native speakers of English and, given a choice between Greek or English, I always use English. I think if you want to be good at something you have to do it all the time.

Chris. I wish I could bottle these ideas. No not ideas but emotions, and preserve them as the spirit of non-native speaker teachers.  The passion that so many NNS feel towards the language for me underpins their success in the classroom. Of course, many NS teachers have immense passion and commitment to their language, but it is precisely this extra investment and commitment that NNS have had to make that requires our profession to treat them equally. For many NNS it seems to be more than a job.

A final extra point from Anna illuminates the myth of the native speaker.

…. , there’s more to be said about my feelings towards my own English ability. I used to be hyper-conscious of my English and worried a lot about pronunciation, range of vocabulary, complexity of grammatical structures and whatnot. As I got to know English teachers and professionals online, I learned that there are different (and many more!) variations of English, subtleties that count or do not count, unique language expressions. This helped me to gradually embrace my “Russianness” in English.

Question Two

How do you feel about the pre-eminence of native speakers in the ELT profession, as writers, speakers and trainers?

Anna

It does not really bother me. Being a Russian English teacher in Russia (and please take it as a subjective opinion), one wouldn’t think of pondering this question. It simply is not an issue as school teachers, university professors and language school instructors of English would primarily be Russian. Native speakers are invited guests at Russian conferences and ELT events, valuable and almost rare, clearly very special species. At least that is what I have encountered.

Chris. I too have felt that I am a rare and special species at events around the world.  A native speaker is coming to talk to us so he must be good! I prefer to be judged for my ‘what’ and my ‘how’ and not my ‘who’.

Marek

Up until recently I had no feelings about it whatsoever. I hadn’t considered it, to be honest. It’s just one of those things that one might take for granted and never question. Now that I’ve read a lot on the topic, I find it disturbing. I must agree, unfortunately, with what Kumaravadivelu (2014, p.17) wrote in his recent article: “seldom in the annals of an academic discipline have so many people toiled so hard, for so long, and achieved so little in their avowed attempt at disrupting the insidious structure of inequality in their chosen profession”.

If you look at the history of ELT, it is self-evident why there are so many NS at the top and so few NNS, i.e. the latter have never (up until very recently) been allowed to get to the top. Our industry has for decades actively propagated methods, books and teaching practices produced by and for the benefit of the centre, while the periphery scholars were to be passive consumers of those products (see e.g. Linguistic Imperialism by Phillipson). Having said that, I am convinced that any NNS would have had to publish much more and have worked much harder to have climbed to the ELT top. For example, Kumaravadivelu (2014) admits that his “life as a non-native professional was being managed and manipulated by subtly invisible, and seemingly invincible, forces”.

Nick

I feel like the monkey in this fantastic video. Does this answer your question?  (We’re all monkeys, Nick, but I love the video; ed.) Let me say at this point that it is NOT the case that our NS colleagues actively discriminate against us – far from it; the vast majority of them are in favour of equity in the field. Yet facts are facts. I think there are a number of reasons for the current state of affairs – mostly historical ones.

Marek again

Not that it’s the fault of the NS though, or that there’s some kind of anti-NNS conspiracy on the NS’ part. Many (if not all) of the NS who are out there as famous writers, speakers or trainers have worked VERY hard to get there. They have published articles, done research, written books.

Chris. Calm responses, but I sense there’s some anger hidden away down there. Rightly so. I also don’t think there is a conspiracy to keep NNS “in their place” but, equally, Marek and Nick may be being a little too generous.  I have put various pro-equality postings on some of the EFL groups on Facebook. The responses have varied from calling me anti-NS – no, I just want equality – to really vitriolic and personalised trolling. Facebook forums are hardly scientific and some of the responders are what my dad would have called nutters, but there is a strong anti-NNS movement out there. I think there is a type of NS that feels somehow threatened and does not wish NNS to progress in the profession. Sad but true.

Question Three

What are the advantages to the students of having a bilingual teacher?

Asma

Many in fact, though I’m not somebody who supports the idea of using a lot of translation in teaching a foreign language, but any teacher can find him or herself in a situation where his or her students ask about something in the mother tongue. Students feel happy not to see a question mark on their teacher’s face! Moreover, it’s way easier to use the mother language when initially setting discipline and behavioural expectations.

Anna

I imagine a bilingual teacher probably shares the same mother tongue and cultural background as the students. This can have an effect on students’ learning if it is utilized as an opportunity rather than seen as an interference. A bilingual teacher theoretically has the power to appeal to students’ knowledge and understanding of their L1. In practice, it is, or can be, more than just translation. It is analysing differences and similarities in sentence structure, recognizing patterns and drawing comparisons that help. Additionally, there is the personal successful experience of a teacher of learning the language to tap into and draw from.

Nick

There are two main ones: a) a bilingual teacher is likely to be more aware of the difficulties a homogenous group of learners has and  b) they are likely to be more efficient in using the L1 (e.g. in order to gloss an abstract term).

Assel

A bilingual teacher can quickly eliminate doubts about translation of, for example, false friends, whereas a monolingual teacher may fail.

Chris. So it seems pretty clear the view is that bilingual teachers who share the students’ mother tongues have significant benefits over the NS who has little or no knowledge of the L1. I’d like to think there is a little dispute about this, but know in reality there is.  All the benefits outlined above seem to be countered by the phrase “not a native speaker”.

Marek looks at this issue from a slightly different angle:

Marek

Numerous. Would you like to have a ski instructor who says they can’t ski? I wouldn’t. I find it shocking that there are NS teachers out there who’ve never learned any foreign language, even to an intermediate level. It’s unacceptable, really. How demotivating would this be for your students?! And if lack of interest is the reason, then perhaps one should look for a different profession.

As Ellis (2006), among others, has pointed out, learning a foreign language should be a compulsory part of any language teacher training curriculum. It gives you an insight into how languages are learnt and allows you to give first hand tips to your learners. It makes you the walking proof that it is possible to become fluent in a language. It forces you to go through the same pains and difficulties as your students, which is an invaluable experience.

Chris. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, in my recruiting days I would always look for at least some proper language learning experience on a CV.  Not as easy to find as you might perhaps imagine, but Marek’s skiing analogy says it all.  Demonstrating how having studied English themselves is a key asset that NNS have should be put in our armoury of arguments to use with parents and employers.

Question Four

Why do you think students so often ask for native speaking teachers? Or do they?

Asma

If students do, it’s just because they have the perception that a native teacher is better since it’s his or her first language. But of course, not every native speaker can be a teacher. It is absolutely not enough to have been born into the language.

Asma makes the point clearly – being a native speaker is not a qualification – but a quick scan of online job posts tells a rather different story.

Marek

One thing which the ELT community is perhaps less willing to acknowledge is that language schools have made NS their unique selling point, for decades promoting and propagating the view that a NS is always a better teacher, regardless of anything else. This inevitably must have had, and still does have, an effect on students’ perceptions of NS and NNS and their decisions as customers.

Chris. Marek hits the nail on the head here.  The NS myth is like the famous English dish, The Ploughman’s Lunch.  A marketing device.

Marek again.

Having said this, I can’t see why we should shy away from dispelling the myth of NS superiority. Students are not informed clients. To the contrary, they come to us because they don’t know how to learn a language themselves. They might not even be aware of the whole NS vs NNS debate. If we really care about our learners, we must educate them. Discuss native speakerism with them. Make them aware of the fact that your L1 is as relevant to how well you can teach as the colour of your hair.

Nick

Sometimes they do ask and in most cases they (or their parents) prefer them. It’s a simple heuristic device. We use accent as an indicator of someone’s language knowledge and language knowledge as an indicator of something else – teaching competence. A teacher needs to have a) a good command of the language, b) good command of methodology and  c) a nice personality. The last two are hard to assess easily, but in seconds we think we can make a fairly good assessment of how good one’s language level is. We rely on such heuristic devices all the time, especially for screening processes. Degrees are a good example; I know a lot more about psychology than about ELT, (you know a lot about ELT, ed.) but I cannot work in the former field because I lack a degree in the subject.

Chris. So, Nick is suggesting that it’s all about the pronunciation. That’s the assessment tool commonly and wrongly used to measure a NNS teacher’s “language knowledge”.  Yes. He’s right.

I tend to agree that pronunciation is a key issue in all this; employers believe they need NS because of their accent.  There is universal agreement that education of students, parents and employers is the way forward, so one set of arguments we need to make is about pronunciation, accent variety and how much it all matters anyway for most EFL students.

We might also need to engage with employers about how we assess the language skills of NNS teachers.

Question Five

What benefits does a native speaker bring to the classroom?

Anna   

I realize now that in my personal 23-year history of learning the English language, I have never had a native speaker for a teacher. This means that my ideas of the benefits for learners could be pure speculation, at least from the perspective of a learner (which is probably what matters). In my view, the most significant benefit is automatically creating the atmosphere, in which communication in English would be natural, given the native speaker is able to give that space. No matter how imaginative, creative, resourceful I am as a teacher, the fact that I am a Russian teaching Russian students makes the classroom experience somewhat artificial. We share the language which is not English, so we have to “pretend” (aka create situations of meaningful communication). With a native speaker in the room, the artificial air can vanish.

Chris. Anna, I tend to understand rather than agree with your suggestion that the lack of a NS teacher creates an air of artificiality in class. My take is that all classrooms are artificial, theatrical even, and we are all playing roles. I’m not sure that the fact that you and the students share an L1 is any more than just an element in the artificiality of it all.

Marek

I’d rather stay clear of the ‘who’s worth more: a NS or a NNS?’ (Medgyes, 1992) debate. It leads to creating more stereotypes and prejudices. For example, that all NSs are better pronunciation models. Or that all NNS are better at teaching grammar. Different individuals have different strengths and weaknesses, but I feel that the antagonistic divide into NS and NNS is counterproductive. We’re all English teachers, and we all need professional development, as well as pedagogical and linguistic training, to be any good at teaching.

Nick 

Mainly three a) more ‘standard’ sound production and prosodic features, b) a better feel for what would be considered as ‘natural English’ (e.g. collocations) and  c) a more reliable instinct about what language (words, phrases etc.) is likely to be more useful  for the learner (e.g. in terms of frequency, context-specificity etc.). 

Chris. I need to take issue with this, Nick. Anything in language that is labelled as ‘standard’ or ‘natural’ or even ‘instinctive’ makes me wonder for whom? I think some of these may be arguments employed by the dissenters in this debate, but surely the range of Englishes spoken in the world rather mitigate this?

Assel   

When students ask for native speaking teachers in my opinion they want to hear real English, authentic pronunciation, they are sure they will get much more language practice than with a non-native teacher.

Chris. Assel again I don’t really agree – see my discussion with Nick above. What is ‘authentic’ and why will a NS give them more language practice? Some NS will of course, but not because they are natives.

Question Six

Have you ever had resistance or comments from students based upon the fact that you are not a native speaker? If you have, how did you handle the situation?

Assel

Never.

Nick

No.

Marek

No, never. I’ve taught in six countries in Europe and Latin America. I’ve also never felt or been told by the DoS that any of the students were unhappy about my L1 or nationality (I’ve never tried to hide it, mind you). I think most students, once they get to know their new teacher and overcome any initial reservations they might have towards a NNS teaching them English, will be concerned about more important things, such as making progress. If they feel they are, then they’re bound to be content.

Chris. The idea that the students are not the problem, not the resisters, has been mooted above. Three of you seem to agree based upon your experience. Hardly a major research project, but I think it might stand up to scrutiny. Marek mentions nationality. Visa issues aside, this is a whole new can of worms in the ELT employment area. British and Americans of say Chinese, African or Pakistani heritage do suffer from discrimination in the ELT recruitment field. That heady mix of language, nationality and ethnicity.

Question Seven

How do you feel about L1 use in the classroom and bilingual rubrics and notes in course materials?

Nick

There is nothing wrong with using L1. I recently attended a talk by Philip Kerr where he argued persuasively that the use of L1 is both useful and unavoidable.  Having said that, the use of L1 on the part of the teacher should be a conscious choice, rather than a crutch to fall back on because their level of English is not good enough. Though I do realise that a NNS can be a very effective teacher even if his/her level is, say, C1, I feel their ultimate aim should be C3 – not C2.

Chris. Nick, I spot another can of worms being opened here! What level of English does a NNS need to be a competent EFL teacher? This is a question that I regularly collide with in my teacher development projects around the world. The answers, I suppose, depend upon who the intended students are and what goals they have. And the context. The context matters, because levels of economic development, English medium educational traditions and the quality of ELT in universities will all impact on the levels of English in a given country and thus upon the levels of English in the local teaching community. Overall it is worth making the point that a five-year degree in English for a NNS teacher does not make an English teacher, any more than their culture of birth does for a NS. Teacher training and ongoing CPD make teachers.

How we assess the language skills of the NNS of course needs to be explored – classroom language always seems to be overlooked – and Nick’s point above about pronunciation being the measure is a thought-provoking one.

NS also need a form of assessment – I could tell you stories from my recruitment days about so-called teachers’ mangled versions of simple past vs. present perfect. Or the guy who refused to answer grammar questions as they “aren’t relevant”. Go figure.

Assel

In my context in Kazakhstan, bilingual rubrics are useful for our students and clients as they are used to Soviet methodology where there were translations everywhere in the books.

Marek

It’s one of the seven deadly sins of TEFL that Anthony Gaughan talked about a couple of years back, isn’t it? It’s been stigmatised, for no good reason really, because it certainly has its time and place in any language classroom. Arguably, it’s the fifth skill. All bilinguals (or multilinguals), like myself, do it all the time. We translate, abruptly switch between or gently slip from one language to the other. It’s much quicker when it comes to vocabulary clarification. It can be a great tool for raising awareness of false friends, as well as similarities and differences between the structures of the languages. Of course, as with anything, translation should be used judiciously as it can create an over reliance on dictionaries or the teacher.

Question Eight

What type of certified training might suit you best or have you actually done, a Cambridge CELTA, a DELTA or an MA/MSc?

Chris. I asked this to see to what extent NNS have an awareness of what is out there qualification-wise and to begin to see if the ‘traditional’ NS routes into and across ELT are being taken by NNS. I also wanted to see how much TKT and ICELT would be mentioned.

Asma

I think teachers should never stop learning. The day I stop learning as a teacher is the day I should stop teaching. It’s the teacher’s job to self-reflect, define their needs and choose the training that suits him or her. I personally am thinking of DELTA and have taken the TKT.

Marek

I’ve done CELTA, DELTA and have a BA in English Philology. I’m starting a PhD in TESOL in October.

Nick

I have done all three. For me, CELTA is an excellent starting point and DELTA is almost exactly what teachers need. In my experience (and from what I have heard from colleagues), most MA/MSc courses have little to do with what an EL teacher needs ‘at the chalkface’ (would ‘at the IWB-interface’ be better here?). Some of the modules taught are almost entirely useless.

Chris. Nick I’m not sure if Marek will agree with the last bit!

Anna

I graduated from Moscow City Pedagogical University, in what was the prevailing five-year Soviet system, granting me a specialist degree, which counts globally as an MA. While I now realise how it could have been better training for me, as well as what could be done to improve the official teacher training university curriculum there (arrogant!); I think the time was exceptionally valuable and I wouldn’t trade it. The intensive programme in both linguistics and teacher training served me just right to help me become the English speaker and teacher I am now. I don’t plan to do any of the above-mentioned certified training but I might get serious about pursuing a PhD someday, when and if I feel my research will make a difference.   

Question Nine

Are there any specific professional development needs that native or non-native speakers might have specifically because of their language background?

Marek

No. Each teacher is a distinct individual and the CPD should be adapted to their particular needs.

Nick

Setting aside issues of language knowledge, I cannot think of any.

Chris. I think we need to have an adult conversation here.  The fact is that there is a significant proportion of NNS needing language improvement work.  For many reasons, the levels of English amongst teachers varies widely globally.  I work all over the world and thus have a real sense of where the provision is making the grade. Saying there are NNS out there whose English is not up to scratch is not playing into the hands of the NNS haters. In fact, recognition of the issue and a call to action in terms of developing the language improvement elements of initial training and PD seems to strengthen the case.

However, as Marek points out in his answer to question 11 below, the industry also needs to explore language knowledge levels amongst NS. The CELTA selection process should weed out those who have very poor language awareness, but in my view the CELTA bar is set pretty low and I suspect most new entrants don’t go through that process anyway. The lack of language knowledge amongst some NS is as concerning as the levels of some NNS teachers.

Question Ten

What moments of self-doubt, if any, have you had about teaching English?

Anna

The most memorable times of self-doubt and self-flagellation for me are connected to non-language related aspects of teaching: managing a class; creating the right dynamics; keeping discipline under control; building up interpersonal relationships between and with the students. In other words, the environment and atmosphere in class are crucial for the way I approach teaching, and I wish I had more training in that.

Assel

Never. At least, I cannot remember any.

Marek

None really. I’ve been angry a few times. Discouraged as well. Inevitable, I guess, when you receive an email saying that, while your qualifications and experience are more than the school could ask for, your L1 makes you ‘unsuitable’ for the job. I’ve tried to vent this anger in a constructive way though, and this is how TEFL Equity Advocates was started.

Nick

I have often marvelled at how much more seriously (on average) NS are taken compared to NNS. A good example are the IATEFL interviews that one can see on YouTube. You find yourself wondering ‘Were there no NNS at the Conference? Is it that they did not want to be interviewed?’

Chris. There is no reason why NNS should have any more self-doubt about their classroom practice than NS teachers but if they look at some of the ELT forums they might begin to feel insecure after seeing the opinion of some NS. Anger is fully understandable and Nick’s point about NNS representation at conferences is telling – I have a sense that things are getting better, but some research on this needs to be done or, if already done more widely disseminated.

Question Eleven

What do you do to maintain and develop your level of English?

Anna

I have already said a lot about it in answering the first question, but I am happy to add more. I think at the moment, my way of maintaining and developing my English is primarily by welcoming (and agreeing to) opportunities to write in English (like I am doing now) and to speak in English (e.g. by presenting at conferences). I create challenges for myself, then procrastinate and eventually try to address them as best as I can.

In pre- Twitter and Facebook times, my relationships with the language were artificially, meticulously created by studies day-by-day. After graduating from university I panicked; for five years I’d had daily encounters with English. Now there was no outward pressure to do so, which appeared to be a looming danger. My response was a frantic search for ways to return English into my life by reading books non-stop, filling up my personal library with literature of all genres, including (for the first time!) books for teachers and teaching, handy materials for hypothetical teaching contexts I imagined having in the future. Most of those books are still untouched, as so often happens.

Nick

Nothing in particular, it’s just that I have changed my life in such a way that I do everything in English as far as possible. Everything I read is in English, I listen to audiobooks in English, I never watch TV (only DVDs or videos on YouTube in English), the default language of my PC is English and whenever I go out with my students I speak in English. Unfortunately, finding an English-speaking girlfriend (or indeed any girlfriend) can be a bit of a challenge sometimes as they have a say in the matter …… . (Come on Nick you’re highly eligible! ed.)

Mind you, there is a risk here. I believe that in order to be really good at English, you have to change your identity somewhat. As humans tend to be very ‘groupish’, you may find you do not really belong anywhere. You sort of ‘smell funny’ to your compatriots, and no matter how excellent your English is, you can never properly join the ‘other’ team.

Asma

I try to read lots and lots, watch films in English and go on whatever training courses I can. All the reading and research I do for my professional development work is in English. 

Marek

I read books, newspapers, listen to podcasts, watch films and talk to my friends and colleagues. I think that as a NNS you must get to at least C1 level and make sure your English is good enough to be teaching. After all, they pay you for it, don’t they?

If we are to be fair, though, we would have to ask all NS who might be reading this a similar question: what do you do to maintain and develop your knowledge ABOUT English? Let’s not forget that language proficiency (knowledge of) and language awareness (knowledge about) are a different kettle of fish all together. As David Crystal pointed out, “All sorts of people are fluent, but only some sufficiently aware of the language to be able to teach it”. If we are to have a level ELT playing field, we need to be demanding high standards from both NS and NNS.

Chris. Once again enthusiasm and dedication, but tempered with Marek’s comments on language awareness for both NNS and NS.

Question Twelve

As a profession, what can we do to deal with discrimination in employment practices?

Assel

We need to try to involve local and national teaching associations or raise this issue in national and international EFL/ELT conferences.

Marek

Act against it! Talk to your students. Educate them. Discuss native speakerism in class. Introduce it as a topic during CELTA/DELTA or in-house CPD programmes, most of which tend to steer clear of this issue. Include ELF, World Englishes and NNS accents in course books. Most students are likely to interact with other NNS anyway. Speak out against it. Write about it. Talk to your colleagues. Don’t let the industry fool you into thinking that your mother tongue makes you a better, or a worse, teacher

Nick

Here are three ideas:  a) we can raise people’s awareness of the problem (thank you, Chris!)  b) we can ban discriminatory practices (e.g. ‘NS wanted…’)  c) we can take affirmative action (e.g. by introducing a quota system for plenary speakers).

Chris. To address Nick’s second point, to advertise for a NS teacher is illegal in the EU but remains common practice. Yes, we need to spread the word and make counter arguments to those put forward by that part of our community that is against equality. But what concerns me is why there is so much opposition based not on alleged pedagogic arguments but upon simple prejudice.  Countering this is our biggest challenge.

References:

  • Ellis, E. (2006). Language learning experience as a contributor to ESOL teacher cognition. TESL-EJ 10(1).
  • Kumaravadivelu, B. (2014). The Decolonial Option in English Teaching: Can the Subaltern Act?. TESOL Quarterly. doi: 10.1002/tesq.202
  • Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: Who’s worth more? ELT Journal, 46(4), 340-349.

Asma Bouali, Algeria.

Asma is an English language teacher at middle school level for the Algerian Ministry of National Education. Her first training was a four-year university course after that she has taken a number of professional development programmes with her ministry, the inspectorate and with the British Council. These include the TKT and ‘Train the Trainer’ sessions.

Anna Loseva, Russia.

Anna has been involved in English language education for over nine years, most of that time teaching a variety of English courses to university students and adults in her native Moscow, Russia. In April 2015 she moved to Japan to teach English in a private high school in central Tokyo. She blogs at her own http://annloseva.wordpress.com, blogs for and curates the iTDi Blog , and enjoys presenting at conferences in different parts of the world. The best possible pastimes for Anna at the moment are reading, writing, musing on a bench or on the beach, travelling, and sleeping.

Assel Baibatyrova, Kazakhstan.

Assel was a teacher for eight years at University and private language schools in Almaty, Kazakhstan. She holds a BA in English Pedagogy, the IH Certifcate in online tutoring and the IH BET. Now she is an ELT consultant for Oxford University Press in Kazakhstan and has been with Oxford for seven years. In her free time, she enjoys travelling, singing in English, reading and driving.

Marek Kiczkowiak, Poland.

Marek has taught English in six different countries and is currently teaching EAP at Brunel University in the UK. He holds the CELTA, DELTA and a BA in English Philology and is a PhD in TESOL student at the University of York. He’s an outspoken advocate of equal employment opportunities for NNS through TEFL Equity Advocates, and a keen blogger at TEFL Reflections. In his free time he loves travelling and meeting new people, is an avid reader and a passionate language learner.

Nick Michelioudakis, Greece.

Nick (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been working in the field of ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner and teacher trainer. His love of comedy has led him to start the ‘Comedy for ELT’ channel on YouTube. He is particularly interested in student motivation as well as Social and Evolutionary Psychology.  For articles or worksheets of his, you can visit his blog at  www.michelioudakis.org.

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11 thoughts on “We need to talk about native speakerism.

  1. How come the other guys’ links show up in red and mine only appear in grey??!? 🙂 My first thought was that it must be an anti-NNEST conspiracy, but then it occured to me that the others are NNESTs too! 🙂 [Btw, this is a great post. Thank you Chris! 🙂 ]

    Like

  2. We also need to talk about ELT working conditions in general. This naturally leads to a larger set of questions around power; who has it, who doesn’t, and how this diminishes the ‘profession’.

    Big questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t agree more.

      Native speaker can get the thin end of the wedge too. Placing “native-speakerness” above “qualifiedness” means those of us who are dedicated English language teachers are not valued – and this is reflected in the UK in zero hours contracts, no pay for prep time, no pay for meetings, no increments for having the DELTA, no security. Life as an ELT teacher here is pretty demoralising.

      How do we change our employers’ mindsets? Is the only way to raise awareness in potential students that you get what you pay for, i.e. the cheapest courses are likely to be taught by unqualified teachers and that they might learn less than if they pay a bit more for a better experience where they achieve more? Is it about changing the conversation from nativeness” to qualifiedness”?

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think questions around working conditions could be strongly connected to the issue of inequality in our business yes. As an example, myself, I have no ill-feelings towards NNESTs and worked with plenty. However, currently the thought of the native speaker thing finishing makes me somewhat uncomfortable. And this is because where I work, the last thing we need is a much larger pool of potential candidate teachers competing.

      Most of the employers know the balance is massively in their favour and they exploit the hell out of all of us, even those in more “respectable” positions. In the very entry-level positions, they evade national law on paying health insurance, have people working unpaid overtime and on their days off, cut their holidays on a whim and generally treat them awfully. They can do this because they know that a)the authorities who might prevent it dont care and b) for even the lowest positions there are plenty of people willing to step in.

      If the barriers were to truly come down then they wouldn’t be hiring qualified non-natives, they’d be hiring the best-looking ones.

      In the article I noticed that they mention that there is a rather large amount of people who stand up for the native-speaker-is-the-best idea, and this could be a reaction to how insecure they are in this industry.

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  3. Excellent post – thanks. As an NS I do feel that I have an unfair advantage when it comes to employment. Now, I am a well trained and experienced teacher and teacher trainer and I do a lot of work with C1/C2.

    I have an advantage in feeling things such as collocations and being able to explain small differences in synonyms but for a long time (and probably even now) my NNS were better at explaining grammar – not because they could translate but because they have studied grammar and can relate to it and compare with L1.

    As an experienced teacher, I feel I can now hold my own with NNS’s 🙂

    In my current situation, at least one school recognises that all teachers should be paid according to ability and experience – but that is one out of few. This prejudice comes mainly from students/companies.

    It can also work the other way – I have a group of company classes who were delighted to have a native speaker but really thought they needed someone who could use L1 for the beginner classes. They agreed to try out only having an NS and we are still working together 3 years later.

    Teachers (whether native speakers or not) need to support each other and back each other up. And we have to educate the learners that neither option is “better”. The ability to teach is far more important than what your first language is.

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  4. One of the books we’re expected to read (or have read) for the DipTESOL discusses this issue, the notion that around the world, what constitutes “native” is fluid and ever-changing. For instance, in many parts of India, English is the official language. Similarly in Liberia or in Belize. And yet all sound different from what is held up as “native” by ELT, which is U.S., Canada, UK, Australia. The problem is that even in the U.S., there are dialects that make understanding difficult. Someone from the deep south (Mississippi, Alabama) speak very differently than someone from California. Likewise, someone from Brooklyn speaks very differently than someone from Michigan. (I have lived in or visited almost every U.S. state). But we hold the U.S. up as an icon of nativeness. And yet, there are different IPAs as well (something that worries me as I will sit for the exams in Barcelona and will be expected to know the British IPA even though I have no real exposure to it here in the U.S. other than to watch international news and watch videos online to practice phonology). The whole notion of “native” bothers me, but I recognize the need to understand the language from the perspective of nativeness. Still, a native speaker from Belize is very different from a native speaker from New York City.

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