“Are you from the U.S?” It’s a question I usually encounter and one that, as a non-native English speaking teacher (NNEST) I was even scared to answer during my first few years of teaching in Chile. It is not uncommon to see the catchword “native English speaker” in English teaching job offers and class adverts, overshadowing non-native English speaking teachers’ chances of getting students.
While this could be a common frustration for non-natives, ironically the ratio of non-native to native English teachers has increased to 4 to 1 in recent years, suggesting that we are starting to see a change in this hiring preference. This change brings up the question: What advantages might non-native English speaking teachers have over their native speaking counterparts? The following are some points to consider!
Most non-native speakers have studied English in depth and detail
In many countries where English is not the mother tongue, English education tends to focus heavily on grammar and other technical aspects of the language. For Argentinian teacher, Romina Villagra, extensively learning English grammar in university has helped her as a teacher, especially when it comes to explaining grammar rules more effectively to her EFL students. “You need to tell them how to understand that, what is the difference, you know, [for example] between present simple and present continuous,” she says.
English teachers, Krzl, left, and Romina, middle
While native English teachers can do this too, their focus on teaching grammar tends to differ. Matthew Harris, an EFL teacher in South America who is from the U.S., points out that he stresses grammar usage more in the context of overall fluency. “Sometimes the books focus on points that aren’t relevant,” he shares. “I can explain what students need to attach importance to.”
NNESTs understand firsthand what it’s like to learn a second language
Since they have experienced learning English themselves, NNESTs can put themselves in their students’ shoes more easily than native English speakers. “They know that I went through all this adventure to get to a certain level,” says Polish teacher Magdalena Smolinska. She motivates her students from this perspective, with encouraging words like, “Please be patient. I’m on your side.”
Polish English teacher, Magda
Non-native English speaking teachers are bilingual (unlike many native speakers)
Most NNESTs know the structure and phonetics of their first language and use that knowledge to enhance strategies in TEFL even as a non-native English teacher. For instance, Venezuelan English teacher, Marta Sojo, relates that as a native Spanish speaker, she understands why it is hard for her Spanish-speaking students to pronounce certain sounds. This enabled her to develop ways to solve their pronunciation problems from the beginning.
NNESTs can infuse the class with their own cultural perspective
Jelena, an English teacher from Serbia
In the end, maybe it’s not a question of whether native or non-native English speakers make better teachers, but a matter of celebrating the different strengths of each. As Venezuelan English teacher, Marta Sojo puts it, “If you are a good teacher… your students will not care if you’re a native or a non-native English teacher.”