Talking to Native Speakers… or not.

Over the last half of my career, I have had a duel-existence. By profession, originally, I was a teacher of English as a second or foreign Language, and when doing my graduate work I specialized in bilingualism and teacher-training. In both sides of my career, there is a myth that is prevalent and detrimental to parents, students and teachers alike.

This is the myth of “native speaker” superiority. Across the board, and across the globe, there is a belief that you are a better speaker, and a better teacher, if you are a “native speaker”. It is an easy presumption to make, and an easy ideal to sell – that those of us born into a certain language are somehow, always, superior to those who “learn” the language.

In the industry that is known as TESOL/TEFL/ELT (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, or Teaching English as a Foreign Language or English Language Teaching), native-speakers teachers are prized above all others. Just being a native speaker of English can get you lucrative jobs in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and less lucrative jobs almost anywhere you could want to go. Some of the jobs require no training; some require a certificate (sometimes a weekend course, at most a one-month intensive course). Very few require anything like the kind of training that you need to be a teacher of any other subject. Meanwhile, non-native speakers of English around the world are working hard and getting degrees in education, English Language or linguistics, hoping to get a job teaching English when they are finished school. Sometimes they do get a job, but very often, the job goes to someone with a “better accent” or “more native-like” pronunciation. Realistically, most non-native speakers of English will spend more time speaking to other non-native speakers than they will speaking to English speakers, unless they are moving to an English-speaking country. In the European paradigm, English is used between Italians and Dutch doing business together, or Germans and Chinese doing business, and only occasionally between anyone and the English doing business. Being able to understand and work with people with different accents is a necessity, and people who can only understand the English speaking English are at a distinct disadvantage.

This is one of the reasons that I believe that often non-native speakers are better teachers than native speakers (in the world of English language teaching). Firstly, being a native speaker of any language does not mean that you have a pedagogical bone in your body. Very often, the desire to become an “English teacher” is driven more by the travel bug than by any real calling to teach. Secondly, the process of being a second language learner is one in which you acquire an in-depth understanding of how the language works, and how it interacts with the language you speak. A French speaker teaching English to other French speakers has insight into what is difficult to learn, how different structures/words relate to French, and can use French to explain complicated concepts or misunderstandings. Non-native speaker teachers often also have better training than native speakers.  I remember vividly the first time the term “present perfect” came up in my pedagogical grammar course in my undergrad degree – there was a roomful of native speakers of English with puzzled looks on their faces, and one lone French speaker who knew exactly what verb tense that was and when to use it. Thankfully, over the course of that degree we had several classes on English grammar, and caught up to the lone French speaker, but certainly none of us were prepared to teach English grammar when we started our degrees.

The market for English teachers has created an industry of quick qualification programs that promise to turn an average high school graduate into an English teacher in a very short amount of time (for a price, of course…) . The quality of these programs varies immensely; as does the quality of teachers they turn out. On the other hand, becoming a certified English teacher in Russia, or Korea, or Canada, means doing a full teaching degree with a specialization in teaching English (generally, of course). These teachers are trained not only in the English language, but also in teaching methods, lesson planning, classroom management, and a host of other education-related subjects.

Who, then, is the most qualified teacher for your company or your class or your child’s class? There is no one-size fits all answer, but the bottom line is that it is important to look at the teacher in question and their training and experience, rather than just at the first language of the teacher, before deciding that a native speaker teacher is always a better choice than a non-native speaker. 

Next post, I will talk about the impact of the native-speaker myth on bilingual families. 

3 thoughts on “Talking to Native Speakers… or not.

  1. Olga says:

    Interesting article and I agree. The best teacher is not always the one with the best accent, but rather the one with the best education, and the talent for teaching. If he is a native speaker on top of that- fine, but this is not the most important thing.

  2. Lucie says:

    I agree that teachers with a good knowledge of English grammar and that of the student’s own language can explain rules and concepts even better than an educated native speaker.
    If it is important for the student to make up their own work text or presentations in English, as opposed to repeating standard sentences for daily conversation then such teachers are just priceless. There are so many podcasts, online radios and cable TV programs to try and pick up the English accent that you or your employer or school favors…

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