• Tom Garside

Why is there still prejudice in the TESOL world against ‘non-native' speaker teachers?

In the context of initial teacher education, teacher trainers are the first point of contact between many course trainees and the English Language Teaching industry. We have trainees who come to us from many walks of life: some are experienced teachers, and others have not been in a classroom since they were at school themselves.

On our teacher training courses, we put a heavy emphasis on diversity and inclusion, both in our applicants (who are from anywhere and everywhere in the world) and in the content which we deliver on the course. This means that inevitably we have the eternal debate about the value of ‘Native’ English Speaker Teachers’ (NESTs) and ‘Non-Native’ English Speaker Teachers (NNESTS).

On every course we have to battle the assumption that ‘non-native’ speakers (the inverted commas are mine, as I do not like using the term ‘native’ to describe anyone, regardless of their background) are somehow at a deficit when it comes to language teaching ability. Unfortunately, this assumption most often comes from 'native' speakers.

After a long evolution, and huge bodies of research showing the value brought to our industry by second-language speakers, why does this prejudice persist?

1) The ‘natural English’ argument

One belief which persists is that first-language English speakers have an intuition about the language, which allows them to teach more ‘natural’ forms of English. This belief comes from the assumption that first language speakers don’t have to think carefully when they speak, and that they understand their own language perfectly, so the perfect, ‘natural’ example will be there on the tip of their tongue whenever a student asks a question.

Unfortunately, teaching and learning does not work like that. The range of methodologies that we use to help students develop fluency, intelligible pronunciation and meaningful organization of a message don’t in fact rely on intuition or explanation – the teaching processes involved are complex and highly strategic, involving management of interaction, delivery of specific tasks, techniques to correct errors, all of which are highly technical skills, if performed well.

2) The ‘native speaker accent’ argument

Another misconception about ‘non-native speaker’ teachers is that they cannot teach students to develop a ‘native-like’ accent in their classes. This is a problematic argument, as most students’ goal is not to ‘sound like a native speaker’, whatever that means, but to be understood in English to a degree where they can fulfil their life, work or study goals. There are very few situations (other than the English teaching industry, ironically), where having an accent will prevent you from progressing in these goals.

In fact, one of the most interesting features of English itself is that it has so many accents and dialects. Assuming that a ‘native speaker’ will have a single, universally understandable accent is simply not true. Yes, a student may think that they want to study ‘American English’ or ‘British English’, but even this is not easily defined. The English spoken in New York, California and Georgia vary wildly, as do the forms spoken in London, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

Even if a learner does study a specific accent and end up sounding like they are from a specific place in the English-speaking world, they will have the same issue as everyone else when they come to interact with a speaker with another accent, so this plays very little part in their overall skills development in English.

In addition, where you come from and what first language you speak has little to no bearing on how you actually teach pronunciation. This is another highly technical skill which does not depend on nationality or passport colour.

3) The ‘native speaker intuition’ argument

The final argument which frequently raises its head is that ‘native speakers’ understand their language better than ‘non-native speakers’ because they have grown up speaking English. Firstly, anyone who has spent a long time immersed in a culture (whether they are physically in a specific country or not) will understand the various levels of cultural inference, slang and other underlying forms of meaning in a message, but this has nothing to do with the nationality or first language of that person. I know many people who have moved to the UK or US and adapted culturally and linguistically to that setting, though who would not be classed as ‘native speakers’ by those who uphold this prejudice.

Secondly, understanding a message is very different from understanding the patterns of grammar and meaning which operate at a linguistic level. English language speaking countries typically do not include much, if any, awareness of the technical side of English in their school curricula, leading to a typical lack if language awareness in the general populace. Compare the grammar knowledge of an English speaker about English with that of a French, Italian, Russian or Chinese speaker, and it is soon clear that knowledge of how language works is far more developed in the average ‘non-native speaker’ from school.

In English Language Teaching, this awareness of language in ‘NN’ESTs is strengthened by the experience of having learnt English as a second language themselves. Who would you trust more to give you a simple way of learning a technical grammar point than someone who has developed their own strategies for doing exactly that, with years of language analysis under their belt in both their own first language and English? Add to that the chance that a ‘NN’EST may also draw on the students’ first language to aid learning, and the ‘native speaker’ teacher may not seem so attractive.

There are more and varied arguments which try to favour people of certain nationalities over others when it comes to employment, salary and effectiveness of teaching, though none of these hold water. A good teacher is a good teacher regardless of their first language. If someone has a good understanding of the language they are teaching, a toolkit of techniques and approaches to draw from in their classes, and the ability to bring out the best in their students in a range of ways, then nationality, skin colour, passport origin, accent, or any other personal attribute, should play no part in the choices made by schools and their students. The sooner all corners of the industry are educated to this, the better.

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.