Are native English speaking teachers better?
Some students and schools believe that the only good teacher is a Native English Speaking Teacher (sometimes referred to as a NEST or Mother Tongue speaker). However, the term doesn’t necessarily define teachers or their abilities very well. For example, I’m considered a NEST (although I was born in Germany) while Welsh-born professor David Crystal OBE, foremost expert on the English Language and language teaching, is not.
What’s wrong with that?
We work in an industry that is preparing millions of people to speak English and hundreds of thousands of teachers to help them do it. If native speaker status is essential, then some 80% of the world’s English teachers would be considered to be lacking or lesser in some way (Suresh Canagarajah, 2005). Still, many job ads for teachers demand NESTs. Is it really the case that a teacher’s passport is the most important qualification they will ever get? After years training and observing teachers, I can’t believe that – and many others agree with me. We are seeing a growing number of places that refuse to accept these ads, and in some countries (including the UK) it’s illegal to discriminate on nationality when hiring.
Who is a “native speaker” anyway?
In some parts of the world, teachers from India, Malta, or South Africa who grew up speaking English are not considered “native speakers” by the visa regime, and simply can’t get visas or work permits as English language teachers. Apparently, the most internationally-employable English teachers are from the BANA countries (Britain, Australia, and North America, including Ireland). But consider: With all the varieties of English out there – considering local dialects, and the fact that some British English accents are notoriously hard to understand – simply being a NEST does not mean your English is “standard”. Compare that to a Non-NEST who may well be better educated and a better communicator, with a wider vocabulary and crystal clear Oxford English Dictionary pronunciation.
Why do they say NEST is better?
The main argument is that a native speaker will be a model of the language: their English will be more idiomatic, the teacher will have a richer vocabulary, and they will use a standard model of pronunciation. Students aiming to study or work in the country their teacher is from may see a native speaker as a role model and mentor. In other schools, Native English Speaking Teachers are employed to develop high-level communication or writing practice (which students only have access to after learning non-communicative English from their local teachers).
What do Non-NESTS have to offer?
A non-native English speaking teacher will typically have learned English themselves; an experience which gives them greater empathy, useful first-hand tips, plus an insider’s perspective on the difficulties of learning. This awareness of usual language-learning issues becomes particularly relevant when teaching students of their own mother tongue. Given the difficulty Non-NESTS can have finding employment, they are often the most committed and well-trained teachers you come across. (If you have struggled through and made it I have nothing but admiration for you!)
Is this really such a big deal?
This false division between teachers is not something to ignore. Taking the position that a native speaker is automatically better allows for a linguistic imperialism where somehow one variety of English, type of teacher, way of teaching, or even culture, is superior. This can even lead to cases where some schools discriminate and employ NNEST teachers for specific lower paid jobs. There are soon to be over two billion speakers of English in the world and only 18% of us are native English speakers. I, for one, want my teaching to be opening doors, spreading knowledge, and increasing opportunity.
Read all about it
If you want to know more here are some good examples of research, as well as other bloggers’ opinions to consider:
S. Canagarajah (2005) Reclaiming the Local in Language Policy and Practice. Erlbaum.
B. R Reichard (2015) Does it matter to students whether their teacher is a NNEST?
F. Copland et al. (2016) Investigating NEST schemes around the world: supporting NEST/LET collaborative practices
I. Walkinshaw & D. H. Oanh (2014) Native and Non-Native English Language Teachers: Student Perceptions in Vietnam and Japan
M. Kiczkowiak (2014) Native English-speaking teachers: always the right choice?
S. Thornbury (2010) N is for Native-speakerism