Advantages of Non-Native English Teachers in the TEFL Classroom

By Krzl Light Nunes
November 25, 2019
Bridge grad, Shella, from the Philippines, teaching English in China

“Are you from the U.S?” It’s a question Krzl Nuñes usually encounters from students and one that, as a non-native English speaking teacher (NNEST) from the Philippines, she was even scared to answer during her first few years as a teacher Chile. However, the ratio of non-native to native English teachers has increased to 4 to 1 in recent years, suggesting a global change in who’s teaching English worldwide. This change brings up questions about native vs non-native English teachers. What unique qualities does each type of teacher brings to the TEFL classroom And to take it a step further, are there, in fact, advantages of non-native English teachers over their native English-speaking counterparts when it comes to TEFL? Let’s look at a few.

Most non-native teachers of English have the advantage of having studied English in-depth. 

In many countries where English is not the native tongue, English education tends to focus heavily on grammar and other technical aspects of the language. For Argentinian teacher, Romina Villagra, for example, 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 because, as she says, “You need to tell them how to understand things.”

English teachers, Krzl from the Philippines, left, and Romina from Argentina, middle

Bilingual teachers’ firsthand knowledge of learning English gives them empathy and experience. 

While it’s possible that a native English-speaking teacher has learned a second language, with a bilingual English teacher, this point is guaranteed, leading to advantages like empathy for students and firsthand classroom experience as an English student.

Empathy


Having experienced learning English themselves, non-native English teachers have the advantage of being able to put themselves in their students’ shoes. They’ve been through the process themselves (and succeeded!) and can empathize with the challenges specific to English learning, such as grammar quirks and inconsistent pronunciation.

Ana Flavia a Brazilian English teacher in China, has experienced this advantage. “English is not my native language,” she says, “so I think this helps me understand when students struggle with pronunciation or grammar and it could also be something to look up to because if I was able to reach fluency, students will also be able to reach it.”

Ana Flavia, from Brazil, teacher in China

Because of this empathy, students can feel more at ease with bilingual teachers. Polish teacher Magdalena Smolinsk agrees. “They know that I went through all this adventure to get to a certain level,” she says. She motivates her students from this perspective, with encouraging words like, “Please be patient. I’m on your side.”

Polish English teacher in Chile, Magda

Experience


Another benefit of this firsthand experience learning English is that the non-native teacher of English can bring ideas from their days as English students to the TEFL classroom. Perhaps there were particular exercises that helped them learn vocabulary or games for different grammar points that really helped them stick.

Pavel, a Russian English teacher in Israel, agrees. “I feel that not knowing English as my first my language helped a lot by teaching students with the techniques that I used when learning the English language myself.”

Russian English teacher in Israel

Pavel, from Russia, teaching one of his English classes in Israel

Non-native English speaking teachers may have the advantage of speaking their students’ language.

Another advantage of non-native English teachers is they tend to 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.

While Polish fluency may not help Magda in her classrooms in Chile, Argentinian teacher, Magda, has Spanish up her sleeve if her students get stuck on a difficult concept. Translating in the ESL classroom sometimes gets a bad rap, but with lower-level students, it’s often essential. Having the capability to switch from one language to another during class to quickly clarify a point can maintain the momentum of a lesson instead of derailing to act out something that could have been summarized in a few words.

The non-native teacher can infuse the class with a different cultural perspective. 

Jelena Dukic, an English teacher in Chile who is from Serbia, remembers getting a lot of students’ questions at the start of every course, ranging from her country’s geography to what their food is like. Like native English-speaking teachers, non-native teachers of English, especially those coming from countries less familiar to students, can create an interesting opportunity to tackle cultural differences and even further open learners’ eyes to the world. “You add a dash of novelty,” she says.

Jelena, an English teacher in Chile from Serbia

For teacher Magda, from Poland, this diversity also fosters open-mindedness. She feels that as an NNEST, “You command the language but also you put a bit of culture into it, which is really exciting, and I think that you give a mix of different cultures, not only North American or British but also your own.”

In the end, we argue the advantages of non-native English teachers in the classroom vs. native English speakers, but instead, why not celebrate the growing diversity in TEFL and strengths each type of teacher brings to the classroom.  As Venezuelan English teacher, Marta Sojo puts it, “If you’re e a good teacher,  your students won’t care if you’re a native or a non-native English speaker.”

About a third of students in BridgeTEFL Online Courses speak a first language other than English. Get started today and join a global community of English teachers!