From English Language Learners to Teachers: Busting the Native-Speakerism BiasBy Andrea Nyilas
September 21, 2021
These are game-changing times for hiring professionals in the field of English language teaching (ELT). English is one of the key languages shaping the modern world and the language itself is shaped by different speakers, teachers and learners, estimated to reach 2 billion in the next 10-15 years. Businesspeople, teachers and students realize that now, more than ever, English has become a nearly universal essential skill for the job market and a core subject of the curriculum (if not the medium of instruction) in schools all around the world.
As language schools realize that their hiring process does not need to revolve around just finding native-speaking English teachers, they’re adapting their expectations and practices in terms of training, credentials and equity. Those failing to adapt quickly and effectively risk falling further behind and being accused of discriminatory practices.
BridgeUniverse spoke with Karin Heuert Galvão, who runs i-Study Interactive Learning, a business English school in São Paolo, and Sarah Stanton, senior associate of education from the Dialogue Leadership for the Americas, a network that engages global leaders to foster democratic governance, prosperity and social equity in Latin America and the Caribbean. We compared the hiring process for non-native (a term, which, although commonly used, is rightly offensive to some due to its implications of “otherness”) English-speaking teachers (NNEST) versus native English-speaking teachers (NEST) and probed the current challenges for NNESTs and the possible solutions for those challenges surrounding the acceptance of qualified English teachers whenever English is not their native tongue.
The Emerging Acceptance of Non-Native English-Speaking Teachers
“This language no longer ‘lives’ in the mouths of native speakers,” Galvão said. “Accept that. We, the Brazilians, Latinos, Asians, Middle Easterns, the people of the world, we are in charge.”
English is the top language spoken as a first or second language in the world and is also the global language of business, diplomacy, higher education and tourism. Its importance is indisputable; however, the number of people speaking English as a second language greatly outnumbers the language’s native speakers, which generally influences the ELT industry. This also suggests that the number of NNESTs is higher than NESTs.
“This language no longer ‘lives’ in the mouths of native speakers,” Galvão said. “Accept that. We, the Brazilians, Latinos, Asians, Middle Easterns, the people of the world, we are in charge … English is the language of the internet; it’s how the younger generation got to know places like South Korea and their K-pop; it’s how we travel from our screens to long distances and get to know everything that is going on in the world by reading academic articles or watching the latest reality show. We shape the language at a speed that is no longer controllable. We manipulate language; we play with it as Play-Doh, we, the outsiders. For this, language learning and teaching should not be the same because we are no longer the same.”
“English is a valuable skill in the job market and a lingua franca in many places and sectors,” Stanton said. “Given this reality, countries in Latin America will need to develop policies and programs that equip students with language proficiency, and the reality is that they will need to rely on NNESTs to do that.”
Looking at such demands, it becomes clearer that NNESTs play a large role in helping people acquire English proficiency, and the way English is spoken is far from being universal. We are not only talking about different dialects anymore.
In discussing the qualities of an effective teacher, we need to switch the focus to the proper transfer of knowledge and away from preferred accents. Simply being a native speaker born in one of the so-called Big Seven countries where English is the mother tongue — the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa — should no longer be seen as a priority when jobs are advertised. (This topic of global Englishes and the categorization of “English-speaking” countries is discussed in the recent Language Magazine article, “Make English Truly a World Language.”)
Yet, qualified NNESTs are still facing difficulties finding jobs compared to their native-speaking colleagues. Many ads on top ELT job boards target NESTs, including native speakers with no formal teacher training, credentials or experience, who end up having a better chance of landing a job than a trained and certified NNEST.
Historically, in Asia and especially in China, anyone with a bachelor’s degree and a passport from a Big Seven country would enjoy priority in getting hired over teachers from other countries, regardless of their years of experience and proper qualifications. Perceptions of English as a second language (ESL) teachers play an important role in influencing the hiring process, and NNESTs are frequently rejected due to notions about the ideal teacher. However, as research has shown, including a study in the Asia Pacific Journal of Education, Chinese and Korean students who have a negative perception of their non-native teacher often change their views by the end of the semester and their attitudes became more favorable following the actual classroom experience.
“It’s 2021, and there’s no such thing anymore as favoring one dialect or accent,” Galvão said. “Students should be able to communicate easily with people who speak differently, full stop.”
A study of students in Hong Kong also showed that students do not have a clear preference for NESTs nor NNESTs. Moreover, they point out that most language school owners and their recruiters are the ones preferring NESTs, which leads to discrimination against NNESTs. NESTs are usually appreciated for their speaking skills, vocabulary and cultural knowledge; however, they are also criticized for a lack of expertise, including grammar knowledge and teaching methodology. Furthermore, they often do not understand learning from the perspective of the student whose first language differs from theirs. The opposite is often true for NNESTs.
Sometimes “accents” are the reason for the selection of NESTs as teachers, even though a study by Lucie Moussu showed that teacher accent didn’t negatively influence students’ attitudes, and perceptions regarding NNESTs only grew positively throughout a course or a semester.
“It’s 2021, and there’s no such thing anymore as favoring one dialect or accent,” Galvão said. “Students should be able to communicate easily with people who speak differently, full stop. International English is much more result-oriented and can add much more to the students’ development. Students must understand how different cultures/countries pronounce the words and the variation of spelling and vocabulary. Being prepared for international interaction is the key.”
However, Galvão expressed her worry regarding the situation.
“Sadly, it seems we’re still living in a world that your passport counts more than your years of experience and study,” Galvão said. “Not only this exists, but it also exists amongst non-native English teachers and employers; in other words, companies that are not based in English-speaking countries also do this.”
What Truly Matters to English Language Learners?
NNESTs have the benefit of having been students of English themselves, so they have better insights into learning English. They have gone through the same language acquisition steps and understand the pitfalls of learning English.
Some argue that while NESTs model good linguistics because of their accurate pronunciation and grammar, NNESTs can provide a metalanguage for explaining grammatical rules. In fact, an Ohio State study found that it is difficult for students to understand NESTs’ ways of thinking when they are learning grammar. Aspects that students consider when evaluating teachers, according to this study, are knowledge of the subject, effective communication, understanding students’ difficulties and needs, cultural knowledge and whether multiculturalism and diversity are present in the classroom.
This study goes on to state that among the factors that significantly influence students’ learning process are experience and methodology. NNESTs have the benefit of having been students of English themselves, so they have better insights into learning English. They have gone through the same language acquisition steps and understand the pitfalls of learning English. If the students’ and NNEST’s native language is common, it might help even further, because the teacher is able to point out the specific differences between the two languages more effectively. The NNEST teacher can even serve as an example of a successful learner. According to a study on attitudes of Hong Kong university students toward NNESTs, the language proficiency of NNESTs is actually very similar to that of NESTs.
The Power of Motivation
From the students’ perspective, a major driving factor in studying is motivation. Students are motivated to learn from NESTs because they believe that their speaking skills will improve by having a native speaker instruct them, while studies show NNESTs motivate students by serving as examples of proficient speakers of English who learned it as a second language. NNESTs may also be more understanding of students’ difficulties, hence providing a familiar and safe environment to enhance learning.
NNEST teachers typically have more extensive training in teaching English, unlike NESTs who usually complete a TEFL certification but do not necessarily hold a degree in a related field, like linguistics or teaching English to speakers of other languages. The motivation studies also show that certain students experience anxiety when they encounter NESTs and prefer certain teaching styles of NNESTs.
“To be effective, English teachers need to possess both language proficiency which, for non-native speakers, can be shown through internationally recognized language certifications, and pedagogical knowledge which, along with language skills, should be developed as part of the teacher education curriculum in pre-service training institutions,” Stanton said. “Beyond that, there is still work to be done in collecting robust evidence on teacher effectiveness, but data from Chile and other countries suggests that effective teachers often spend more time speaking to their students in English. A study in Mexico also showed that teachers who gave their students more opportunities to practice their language skills in class produced higher results.”
The International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language emphasizes the need for equality and acceptance of diverse English in a world in which accent reduction is unnecessarily prioritized. The association took on the responsibility of encouraging the acceptance of global Englishes in the classroom and stands against prejudices NNESTs face in the ELT world.
Péter Medgyes was the first to explore non-native English-speaking teachers in his 1994 book ”The Non-native Teacher.” Even though it had a different purpose, describing the advantages of NESTs and NNESTs, the book can be regarded as the start of the movement. A growing number of academics have since concluded that it is discriminatory to favor the employment of native-English-speaking teachers. It is still common to see ESL teaching job ads that ask only native speakers to apply, but many institutions are trying to overcome the idea that native speakers should be the gold standard for language learners. There is a growing agreement that qualifications, methods and experience matter far more valuable than a teacher’s place of birth.
This view against the discrimination of NNESTs is increasingly gaining ground at a time when the number of second-language speakers of English has become significantly higher than the number of native speakers, who live in around 70 different cultures and speak different dialects.
Some organizations are reflecting this change. The International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language emphasizes the need for equality and acceptance of diverse English in a world in which accent reduction is unnecessarily prioritized. The association took on the responsibility to encourage the acceptance of global Englishes in the classroom and stands against prejudices NNESTs face in the ELT world.
The TESOL International Association is the largest professional organization for teachers of English as a second or foreign language and is at the forefront of cultivating a nondiscriminatory, professional environment for NNESTs. TESOL France and TESOL International Association have issued several public statements and white papers condemning discriminatory practices. In addition, advocacy-oriented entities within and beyond these professional organizations have also been established.
Besides large organizations, there are also grassroots initiatives emphasizing the need for changes in the field. TEFL Equity Advocates and Academy was founded by Marek Kiczkowiak, who started a major initiative in the fight against the discrimination of non-native English language teachers. Kiczkowiak says he often encountered refusals during his own job-hunting simply because he was an NNEST, despite his qualifications and experience. He says he also faced difficulties due to his skin color, name and accent, because these, in the eyes of recruiters, did not fit the “native speaker” ideal. The aim of Kiczkowiak’s organization is to raise awareness of native speakerism among ELT professionals and the public. Most professionals in the world of English teaching refer to Kiczkowiak as a pioneer of the movement. Some of the most well-known ELT professionals, such as Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury, and the British Council Teaching English team have expressed their strong support for Kiczkowiak’s TEFL Equity Advocates campaign.
Araik Arzumanyan, director at Nova School of English and co-founder and co-coordinator of English as a Native Language Project in Russia, discusses this in his TED Talk on the English teaching profession, attacking the fallacy of native speakerism and the discrimination of NNESTs. Through his unique workshops and conferences, he also strengthens NNESTs’ movement for professional equality.
In Inter-American Dialogue’s 2019 report, several countries in Latin America reported significant success in training their own English teachers. For example, in Costa Rica, 99% of English teachers have proper training, and the number is 88% in Chile, which is quite high by English teacher training standards. That said, because of the shortages of English teachers in many Latin American countries, education ministries need to find creative solutions, which may include hiring native speakers along with locally trained and certified NNESTs.
Professionalism Leading to Success — Proper Training and Certifications
“… 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.”
Although native speakers may serve as effective teachers and role models, it is becoming widely recognized that linguistic competence alone does not make someone a proficient teacher.
“Companies and institutions don’t want ‘good’ professionals anymore; they want spectacular ones,” Galvão said. “They want adaptable, team players, reliable, intellectually honest, high-performance individuals who know the subject matter and keep developing themselves. Still, above all, they want loyal and trustworthy professionals because attitude matters.”
This leads to many experts’ opinions, too: ESL or EFL teachers need to have adequate professional training to be able to transfer their knowledge, regardless of their first language.
As David Crystal expressed in an interview with Kiczkowiak, “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.”
Taking an objective and balanced view when hiring teachers is essential to keep professionalism in its place.
According to Stanton, there are five pillars of improving the situation.
“There are several things that governments in Latin America can do to strengthen the quality of English language instruction, including: 1. Set proficiency goals for teachers and certify their abilities; 2. Develop a policy response for teachers who do not meet certification requirements and cease hiring teachers who do not meet standards; 3. Support English teacher training institutions to adopt and implement higher standards; 4. Invest in strengthening English teachers’ pedagogical skills as well as language skills and content knowledge; 5. Collect robust data on English teachers and classrooms to inform strategic policy decisions,” Stanton said.
“They took the time to become the professionals they are in this ELT field; it’s not based on Lady Gaga song lyrics, ‘You’re born this way.’ It’s professionalism.”
“All English teachers should be qualified to teach since content knowledge alone does not mean someone will be a great instructor. Just because someone is a Nobel prize-winning biologist doesn’t mean they would be an effective high school science teacher,” Stanton said.
“Several companies rely on the ‘native teachers’ shenanigans in order to market their business,” Galvão said. “I myself have several wonderful colleagues who were born and raised in English-speaking countries. However, they are great because they studied. They took the time to become the professionals they are in this ELT field; it’s not based on Lady Gaga song lyrics, ‘You’re born this way.’ It’s professionalism.”
The Real Business Interest: Boosting Professionalism Via Training and Certification
English learners will increasingly demand language schools have properly certified teachers rather than focusing solely on hiring native speakers.
Academic research and discussions with professionals in the field support the idea that professionalism matters far more than a teacher’s native tongue. An effective teacher is more than just a recognized accent and the ability to speak English. A better approach is to focus on qualifications, professionalism and experience.
“My company is a Brazilian company,” Galvão said. “We are very proud of that. And for that, obviously, we first look for teachers locally. We focus on merit, on experience and academic achievement, and above all, character — because there’s one thing you can’t learn in school.”
She feels the best way to attract qualified and committed teachers is by providing them proper training such as TEFL/TESOL courses.
English learners will increasingly demand language schools have properly certified teachers rather than focusing solely on hiring native speakers. Businesses, schools and language learners all need to embrace a mindset where training, certification and professional development considerably outweighs just being a native speaker.
“We need to continue talking about this issue,” Galvão said. “Not only within our community but, more importantly, outside of it. We need to educate our clients. We need to teach them not only English but how the business works. By having more educated students, they’ll be better able to make informed decisions based on merit and the quality of work, not on citizenship.”
She goes on to say that they need to start thinking about the student.
“The regular student wants to communicate, full stop,” Galvão said. “I work with business English students, and for them, they need to do their work well. They might not have the most fabulous grammar or will never sound like a native, but they make billions for their companies, so is it not working? They need someone who will take them to the next level in communication, not English, communication. And you don’t need to sound native to be compelling, isn’t that right?”