Native English speaker = better teacher?

“I want my English teacher to be a native speaker” is a common attitude when people are looking for an English class. But is a native speaker a better English teacher only because they were born in a certain place? An estimated 80% of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) teachers worldwide do not have English as their first language; are all their students getting a raw deal? Of course not!


When I think about this topic, I remember my own experience of learning Spanish at secondary school. My best teacher was an Englishman who lived round the corner from me (viva Señor Lanzon!!) and my worst one (anonymous) was more Spanish than a plate of paella. This non-native teacher ran the class better, organised an annual trip to Spain, knew how to manage our disciplinary issues (more or less) and taught interesting and dynamic lessons Spanish was not his first language, but as a student I learnt a lot more.


In the end, the most important thing is not nationality, but the training and enthusiasm that each teacher brings to their lessons. ´Lessons with a native-speaking teacher´ are publicised everywhere, but in many cases they are given by a native speaker but not a teacher. David Beckham is also a bona fide native speaker but could he teach a coherent lesson? I doubt it. Many students want an English teacher with a ´British´ accent to imitate, but which one? ´Queen´s English´ (or Received Pronunciation) is spoken by less than 2% of the British population, and there are an estimated 56 accent types in the UK alone.


Moreover, being taught by a non-native teacher can have many advantages. The non-native probably learnt English in a classroom too, so can plan classes using past experience of what worked and didn´t for them; the native teacher can´t relate to this in the same way. Also, English is an international language nowadays, and students must learn to understand a variety of accents other than just those of English-speaking countries.


In fact, I´m far from the only one talking about this issue: there is an ever-strengthening movement against non-native speaker discrimination in my teaching association IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language), as many of its members possess excellent qualifications and experience but are not native speakers. For example, last April I was in attendance at Silvana Richardson´s much-lauded plenary at the 2016 IATEFL conference, which debunked the myth that native teachers are always superior to non-natives.


In my current job at IH Riga, not all English teachers are native speakers of English, but all are qualified English teachers with enthusiasm for teaching and improving their teaching practices. In fact, we receive weekly teacher training, and this constant professional development allows us to improve and evolve continually, without ever stagnating or resting on the laurels of our professional practices.


That, in the end, is what makes lessons more interesting, and increases student motivation.  So my message is clear regarding any search for an English teacher:


Ask for professional training, not just their passport.


11 thoughts on “Native English speaker = better teacher?

  1. What this ongoing debate has failed to acknowledge so far, in my opinion, is why large numbers of students want native speakers. I’ve even read claims that this isn’t actually the case, but if we adhere to the old adage “follow the money,” it’s clear that they do in large enough numbers to affect the policies of big companies.

    We also really need to get past this habit of listing the “strengths and weaknesses” of native and non-native teachers, because I think it reinforces exactly the sort of thinking that leads to discrimination in the first place.

    In the countries that I’ve worked in where being a native speaker (or more accurately, not a local teacher) is important, I’d suggest that most learners’ experience of a non-native teacher is during public education. In this context, you’re often talking about a situation where communication isn’t the aim of the course, rather acquiring grammar and passing tests is the goal. It’s not surprising that they come to associate locally trained teachers with this sort of teaching, and so when they want to learn to actually communicate in English, look for something different.

    But if we agree that students and schools don’t have the right to demand a native speaker, do they have the right to demand that teachers have a particular standard of English? And if so, what can teachers and institutions use to demonstrate those standards? The obvious answer would be qualifications, but even this can be a minefield. There are plenty of qualified English teachers in some parts of the world who struggle to hold anything more than a basic conversation. Demanding a CELTA would offer some standardization, but someone with a masters degree in teaching English from a non English speaking country might rightly point out that it’s a bit ridiculous for them to have to take a 4-week entry-level course in order to prove their level. From the school’s point of view, it’s fairly straightforward; just interview them. But in terms of changing the opinion of customers, you need to be able to be able to demonstrate that local teachers are just as effective as foreign ones.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Joe,
      We say it so often in ELT that students want ‘native speakers’ that it’s now become a self fulfilling prophecy I think. And it’s just taken for granted that this is and must be true.
      However, if you look at research, there’s actually very little evidence for an overwhelming and unconditional preference for ‘native speakers’ among students. There’s a lot of evidence, on the other hand, that shows that students appreciate ‘non-native speaker’ teachers, are often critical of ‘native speaker’ teachers preparedness for the job, and that learners value skills and qualities which have nothing to do with teacher’s L1 far more than ‘nativeness’.
      Mind you, this doesn’t mean students don’t want to have classes with ‘native speakers’, nor that they prefer ‘non-native speakers’. Most students would in fact like to be taught by both groups as they see and appreciate the different qualities each brings to the classroom.
      So while there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence for the market demand, I’m yet to find solid research evidence that would show most students prefer ‘native speakers’ regardless of everything else, which might give some justification to the current recruitment policies in ELT.
      As far as your point about qualifications and proficiency is concerned, I definitely think that demanding a min proficiency level is a good idea. Of course, this opens a whole can of worms about what that level should be and who gets to decide.


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