If you start questioning these practices, you are likely to hear one or all of the following excuses:
1. Students prefer NESTs
2. Students need NESTs to learn ‘good’ English
3. Students need NESTs to understand ‘the culture’
4. NESTs are better for public relations
While it is beyond the scope of this short article to fully debunk all the above, I would like to briefly outline here why these arguments are flawed.
1: The first argument gets repeated like a mantra and has become so deeply ingrained that few attempt to question its validity. Yet, I have never seen a single study that would give it even the slightest backing. On the other hand, I have seen many which confirm that students value traits which have nothing to do with ‘nativeness’, such as being respectful, a good communicator, helpful, well prepared, organised, clear-voiced, and hard working. Other studies show that students do not have a clear preference for either group. It seems then that it is the recruiters, not the students, who want native speakers.
2: On the second point, I believe it’s a myth that only NESTs can provide a good language model. What I find troubling is that many in the profession assume language proficiency to be tantamount to being a good teacher, trivialising many other important factors such as experience, qualifications and personality. While proficiency might be a necessity – and schools should ensure that both the prospective native and non–native teachers can provide a clear and intelligible language model – proficiency by itself should not be treated as the deciding factor that makes or breaks a teacher. Successful teaching is so much more! As David Crystal put it in an interview for TEFL Equity Advocates: ‘All sorts of people are fluent, but only a tiny proportion of them are sufficiently aware of the structure of the language that they know how to teach it.’ So if recruiters care about students’ progress, I suggest taking an objective and balanced view when hiring teachers, and rejecting the notion that nativeness is equal to teaching ability.
3: As for the third argument, most people will agree that language and culture are inextricably connected. But does a ‘native English speaker culture’ exist? I dare say it doesn’t. After all, English is an official language in more than 60 sovereign states. English is not owned by the English or the Americans, even if it’s convenient to think so. But as Hugh Dellar notes, even if we look at one country in particular, ‘there is very clearly no such thing as “British culture” in any monolithic sense’. As native speakers, we should have the humility to acknowledge that ‘no native speakers have experience, or understand all aspects of the culture to which they belong’ (David Crystal).
4: Finally, the almighty and ‘untouchable’ market demand. Show me the evidence, I say. Until then, I maintain that a much better marketing strategy is to hire the best teachers, chosen carefully based on qualifications, experience and demonstrable language proficiency, rather than on their mother tongue. We are not slaves of the market. We can influence and shape it. As Henry Ford once said: ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have told me: faster horses’.
Perhaps most significant of all, being a NNEST might actually give you certain advantages as a teacher. For example, you can better anticipate students’ problems, serve as a successful learning model or understand how the learners feel. Actually, in a recent post James Taylor went as far as wishing he were a non–native speaker.
However, I feel that the question Peter Medgyes asks is his article: ’Native or non–native: who’s worth more?’ misses the point slightly. As Michael Griffin has shown, the answer is neither. Both groups can make equally good or bad teachers. It’s all down to the factors I’ve been talking about here: personal traits, qualifications, experience and demonstrable language proficiency. Your mother tongue, place of birth, sexual orientation, height, gender or skin colour are all equally irrelevant.
So why does this obsession with ‘nativeness’ refuse to go away? Because for years the English language teaching (ELT) industry told students that only NESTs could teach them ‘good’ English, that NESTs were the panacea for all their language ills. But let’s be blunt and have the courage to acknowledge that the industry encouraged a falsehood which many of us chose to turn a blind eye to while others assumed they could do nothing. I feel this needs to change.
The good news is that positive changes are already taking place. TESOL France has issued a public letter condemning the discrimination of NNESTs. Some of the most renowned ELT professionals such as Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury, as well as organisations such as the British Council Teaching English team have already expressed their strong support for the TEFL Equity Advocates campaign I started, which fights for equal professional opportunities for native and non–native teachers.
And you can help bring about the change too in numerous ways that were outlined here. So stand up, speak out and join the movement.