“We need to move beyond the unhelpful and pernicious dichotomy, and conceptually stop separating [language] professionals into different camps. In many cases, this absolute division is artificial, given the global mobility of many ELT [language] professionals, and how some of us live in other countries for long periods of time.” Silvana Richardson
The issue with non-native speaker language teachers (NNSLTs) has always been critical for parents and is crucial to address. It has been coming up a lot lately in conversations and discussions with friends and clients, and the common denominator has not been experience or pedagogical skills, as one might expect, but rather – whether a teacher is a native speaker or not. I shouldn’t be surprised as I have made plenty of unpleasant, even humiliating experiences, myself looking for teaching positions as a non-native speaker of English. But I am still baffled when I hear parents or employers talk about the native speaker aspect as the single most important factor. So, why is that and what does one mean by ‘native speaker’ exactly?
As Dewaele, Bak and Ortega put it, the so-called non-native speaker is the “nemesis” of the native speaker. These two terms are heavily loaded and carry immense social consequences when it comes to language learning and teaching. In fact, non-native speakers are often regarded as ‘deficient’. What that means is simply that as a non-native speaker of a language, a language teacher is often automatically considered inferior and unequal to native-speaker teachers. Sadly, that also “leads to discriminatory employment practices” (Dewaele, Bak and Ortega, 2021), where any hard-earned qualifications are often disregarded. And it is a huge problem.
The native speaker / non-native speaker divergence fuels the idea that we, as learners, need to strive for native-like proficiency in a world where the non-native speakers often massively outnumber the native ones. Take English, for example. As Canagarajah points out, almost 80% of English teachers worldwide are non-native speakers of the language. That was back in 1999 and I think it’s safe to assume that they are even more now. We are all needed to cater to the always growing need for English language teachers around the globe – be it in big cities or small remote villages. It also imposes a native-speaker standard, perpetuating the idea that bilingual speakers are not worthy unless we reach the coveted monolingual-level proficiency in a language.
So, this post is a much-needed reminder and below are five reasons why we should root for non-native speaker language teachers despite (un)popular opinion.
- A source of inspiration
NNSLTs can serve as a source of inspiration and role models for language learners – the epitome of a linguistic model! Not only can they showcase great language skills – be it correct usage of grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation – but they are also bilingual speakers themselves. NNSLTs will create a diverse environment, modelling multilingual, multicultural learners and educators, ultimately teaching the children that, just like them, they can reach high levels of proficiency if they want to and be a part of a diversified community who speaks that language. They are worthy of it too, even though they are not native speakers.
2. Eliminating the ‘accent issue’
The belief that if the teacher is a native speaker, a child is guaranteed to acquire native-like accent is lacking on many levels. Obviously, the vast majority of NNSLTs do not have a native-like accent – something a lot of caregivers consider the ultimate proof for language proficiency and tend to look for in a language teacher. Of course, accents are not unimportant, but definitely not at the top of the list. Especially in our globalised world where everyone has some sort of an accent, the glorified native speaker simply needs to be taken off the pedestal. And who are they exactly, the native speakers and which variety of the language do they speak? An accent is a part of a person’s identity and it is absolutely crucial not to stop children in their tracks by focusing on accents rather than on fluency, communication skills and just being comfortable with a language. Having a NNSLT will show children that all accents are valuable and what matters are language knowledge and skills, rather than a native-like accent.
3. Better communicators
One of the main benefits of bilingualism is that a person who speaks more than one language develops excellent communication skills. They are aware that the people around them might not always understand them and learn to adapt what they say and how they say it as well as to look for alternative ways to express themselves. These traits in a NNSLT might be even more helpful if they have a class with a lot of multilingual students. In contrast, a lot of monolingual speakers “often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture.” (Carder, 2022). This can make it very difficult for the learners to understand, potentially letting them feel incapable and inadequate.
4. Knowledge about the intricacies of the language
NNSLTs often have a better conscious understanding of and awareness about the language because they have studied it themselves. Imagine having a native-language teacher with no experience and hardly any qualifications and a non-native one. Who would be able to explain in more detail why a learner should use one structure and not another? Think about your native language and imagine having to explain to someone why and how to make choices about using certain grammatical structures or vocabulary. Would you be able to elaborate on it? Judging by experience, probably not. Unlike non-native speakers.
5. Understanding students’ needs
A non-native speaker language teacher might often have a better understanding of their students’ needs, simply because they already have experience learning the language. Being familiar with the potential problems or pitfalls, they might not only have greater empathy but also be able to share their own experiences and adapt certain required methods, approaches or materials to suit the students’ needs, based on their personal experience. In addition, if teacher and learners share the same native language, a NNSLT will also have a better understanding of the relationship of different features of these languages, which would help them with their material choices as well.
I want to be clear – what I have tried to do here is not to slam native-speaker language teachers, but rather to showcase that what makes a good language teacher is not the fact that they are a native speaker of that language or not. What counts are their pedagogical skills and the experience they’ve made, along with their linguistic dexterity. It’s a package deal! “How we name things and people matter, as they reflect how we see and value them.” (Dewaele, Bak and Ortega, 2021). That’s why we need to take a step back and consider our attitudes and beliefs. In particular, if they, knowingly or unknowingly, celebrate inequality by victimising those wrongly considered linguistically defective.
Are you interested in finding out where the term ‘native speaker’ comes from and how it developed? Watch this space as I will dedicate a post on this topic.
- Canagarajah, A. S. (1999) ‘Interrogating the “Native Speaker Fallacy”: Non-Linguistic Roots, Non-Pedagogical Results’, in G. Braine (ed.) Non-Native Educators in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 77-92.
- Carder, M. (2022) ‘The advantages of NNESTs – Non-native English-speaking teachers – as role models in international schools’, International Schools Journal, April 2022.
- Dewaele, J.-M., Bak, T. & Ortega, L. (2021) ‚Why the mythical “native speaker” has mud on its face‘, in N. Slavkov, S. Melo Pfeifer & N. Kerschhofer (eds.) Changing Face of the “Native Speaker”: Perspectives from Multilingualism and Globalization. Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, pp. 23-43.
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