Marek Kiczkowiak of TEFL Equity Advocates Takes on Native Speakerism

By Bryn Bonino
July 23, 2020
Marek TEFL Equity Advocates

TEFL teacherpreneur turned branding strategist, Bryn Bonino, recently interviewed Marek Kiczkowiak, who has been in the English language teaching field for over ten years and has worked at language schools and universities in seven countries. Marek now runs TEFL Equity Advocates & Academy which, through the publication of weekly videos and a range of online courses, helps English teachers worldwide tackle “native speakerism” and teach English for global communication.

Hi Marek, I’m so happy to be talking to you. How did you conceptualize your advocacy-focused website?

It all kind of grew organically. First, I never started with the idea of making money or selling a product. I wanted to help other English teachers who, like me before, faced native speakerism, or the idea that all those perceived as “native speakers” are superior linguistically and pedagogically.

So, it all first started as a blog. I was writing articles trying to help others tackle the problems native speakerism creates for us in ELT. For example, how to find a job when three-quarters of all job ads in the private sector are for “native speakers” only. So, I wrote guides helping “non-native speakers” get the TEFL jobs they should be getting.

But I also started noticing that apart from the bias in recruitment, native speakerism leads to many other biases. For instance, there is the idea that “native speakers” are better pronunciation models, which of course influences how we teach English.

But of course, there is only so much help you can offer in a short blog post. That’s when I decided that to really help English teachers tackle native speakerism and teach English for global communication, I needed to create online courses. And that’s how the TEFL Equity Academy was born. 

In your experience, where does the demand for native-speaker teachers come from? Do you think it’s the students or is it the school administrators? It seems like it would be easier for schools abroad to hire local teachers, wouldn’t it?

I think it’s a chicken and egg question. Probably, there was some demand to start with – in some countries maybe more than in others.

However, by continuously using “native speakers” as their unique selling points, language schools have just further fueled and perpetuated the initial demand. So now, many have no choice but to continue offering “native speaker” teachers.

Think about it like this. You have heard everywhere that iPhones are better. You’ve seen tons of ads for iPhones highlighting their superiority. So, you head to the nearest iPhone store. But when you ask for one, the shop assistant tells you that they no longer sell iPhones. You can get a Samsung. Or a Huawei.

You’d be really disappointed, right? And probably wouldn’t take the other phones, right?

And it’s not because they’re worse phones. In fact, the quality is the same or, in some cases, even better. The problem is, you’ve been promised something else from the very beginning.

It’s the same with language schools. Look at publicity materials. Who do you see? White, Western-looking young people (yes, there is terrible racism in ELT). Look for a private English teacher, and what do you see?  People using the fact that they’re a “native speaker” as their only selling point.

Search for improving pronunciation, and you’ll find that you’ve got to speak with a posh “native speaker’” accent; otherwise, you’ll sound unprofessional. Or uneducated. So no, we shouldn’t be surprised that some students do indeed expect to be taught by a white, Western-looking “native speaker” from Britain or the US.

Having said that, there is no evidence that the majority of students prefer “native speaker” teachers regardless of anything else. And just the question of “Who do you prefer, a ‘native’ or a ‘non-native’ teacher?” is the wrong question to ask. But that’s perhaps a topic for another interview. 😉

You bring up so many good points here. I’m wondering, do you think there is any benefit to hiring a native-speaker teacher? Can you tell us what you’ve found in your research and experience?

First, while we tend to view “native speaker” teachers as superior, there is no evidence to support this. For example, it’s a myth that students will learn better pronunciation with a “native speaker.” Students will learn better pronunciation from a teacher who is trained to teach pronunciation.

Another common myth is that learning with a “native speaker” is better because students can learn about the target culture, and of course – as the myth would have it – only a “native speaker” can provide such insider knowledge. Even if it was possible to define what the “culture” of a language spoken officially in 60+ sovereign states is, it is also not true that any “native speaker” by definition is a better informant on this “culture” than any “non-native speaker” can ever be.

I could elaborate on these myths further, but I think you get a point. What I object to here is hiring teachers based on their mother tongue, passport, or race, or any other irrelevant criteria. Teachers should be hired solely based on their ability to do the job, based on their qualifications and experience.

There is no evidence anywhere that your mother tongue correlates in any way with being a good or a bad teacher. This applies equally to those perceived as “native” or “non-native speakers.”

To leave you with some final food for thought, imagine you’re looking for a construction worker. A few women apply, but you reject them straight away, because women are supposedly not strong enough to be construction workers. Quite sexist, right?

Now change men for”native speakers,” and women for “non-native speakers,” and construction worker for English teacher.

Every time I write “non-native speaker,” I feel like I have to put it in quotes. And in our previous conversation, you explain the term as a form of discrimination, like racism and sexism. Do you think that we should collectively push for another term to be used?

I’m not sure if another term will change anything. It’s a bit like saying that we need to stop calling women women to fight sexism.

However, what I think is very important is that we all realise is that just as there is an important distinction to be made between sex and gender, we should differentiate between an NS (native speaker) and a “native speaker.” Let me explain.

It’s, of course, true that we’re all NSs of one language or another. In other words, we all have at least one mother tongue or native language. Just as we are born with a certain sex that is genetically determined.

On the other hand, there is the image of a “native speaker” that we have in ELT that comes loaded with stereotypes. There are certain things we think those perceived as “native speakers” do better. We ascribe certain stereotypical characteristics to those perceived as”native speakers.” Similarly, some of us also attach stereotypical roles, social norms, characteristics and abilities to gender.

Are there certain countries where it’s better to work as a non-native TEFL teacher?  Are there certain countries that seem to be the worst offenders?

Absolutely! There is a small number of countries (South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, China) where only those who have a passport from what are perceived as “native-speaking” countries will get a work permit as English teachers. So there is no point in even trying.

There are other countries, such as Japan, Italy or Spain, where there is a huge demand for “native speakers” and many language schools pride themselves on only employing them. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to get a job there as a “non-native speaker.”

Finally, there are countries or regions where there is hardly any prejudice against “non-native speakers.” Flanders, in Belgium, is one such place. I’ve been here for four years, and it’s a great place to work as a “non-native speaker” teacher. 

In your work, you speak about ways to push back against native-speakerism. I know that probably sounds like music to many teachers’ ears. Can you tell us about the products that you offer related to this? 

My courses are designed to achieve several things. First of all, there are courses that clearly debunk the idea that those perceived as “native speakers” are better teachers. It’s important that both “native” and “non-native” speakers understand this if we are to move forward.

There are also courses aimed specifically at helping “non-native speakers” get TEFL jobs. For example, I show them how to respond to job ads for “native speakers only” and get hired.

Finally, there are courses that show English teachers how to teach English for global communication. This helps us move away from the idea that English is somehow owned by the English, or that students need to speak like “native speakers” to improve their English.

What’s your vision for TEFL Equity Advocates? As you continue to do your work, do you see a time when you’ll have to pivot your purpose?

My vision is to help English teachers tackle native speakerism and teach English for global communication. I hope that one day we’ll all work in a profession that will no longer judge teachers based on where they were born or which language they learned as children, but based on their ability to teach the language. 

Guest author, Bryn Bonino, is a former educator and has graduate degrees in Latin American Studies and Intercultural Education. She currently works as a branding strategist and also runs the website Teach English In Rome where she helps TEFL teachers find work in Rome that they’ll enjoy doing.

Read Bryn’s previous article on how to leverage storytelling to grow your online teaching business.