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Challenges in ELT: The non-native issue

Type: Article

Oxford TEFL Prague teacher trainer Karin Krummenacher tackles ‘Goliath’ - the issue of discrimination against non-native teachers in the ELT profession.

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Why the labels ‘Native’ and ‘Non-Native’ are not useful

Do you know what a Delaware accent sounds like? I do. I’m a Swiss teacher trainer at Oxford TEFL in Prague, one of the top destinations for teacher training, and I see many American trainees come and go. However, a quick trawl through my trainees on my social media accounts reveals I don’t actually know anyone from Delaware. On my friends lists there are people from Maryland and Philadelphia and even some contacts from New Jersey, so everything around Delaware but not Delaware itself. So how is it that I know what a Delaware accent sounds like? Well, strange as it may seem, the answer is that I can identify it through contact with my non-American colleagues here in Prague. Allow me to explain …

In the Czech Republic, your willingness to sound like and pretend to be from a random place in the States (such as Delaware) can be crucial if, as a non-native English speaker, you want to be an English teacher. There are some employers who simply won’t interview non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs). Then there are employers who will interview NNESTs, employ them, then make them lie about their place of birth and their lives.

Unfortunately, this phenomenen is not limited to Prague. Language schools around the world are part of a big issue that has recently gained importance in public debates but is sadly far from being solved. The wall in front of NNESTs in the job market and in the industry in general is huge. It can feel like fighting an enemy who is superior in every way; like being David trying to tackle an enormous Goliath. Honestly, I can’t blame anyone for bailing on this battle, or for asking themselves: Should I even try?

Tackling ‘Goliath’

I do believe that we ought to try, however, and that Goliath can be tackled. And after a few wrestles with him, I discovered he is in fact not one big enemy. He’s actually several small Goliaths, and some of them aren’t as hostile as others. These Goliaths can be divided into four groups:

  1. Students/Parents
  2. Employers
  3. Colleagues
  4. Ourselves

In the past, a lack of qualified teachers often led to employment of teachers with rather limited proficiency in English (Saraswhati, 1991). One of the contexts affected is the Czech one, where after the Velvet Revolution many former Russian teachers were pushed into teaching English. There is no doubt that a high proficiency in the target language is key to being an effective and successful teacher and the only way to compete on the job market. But standards for teachers at Czech language and state schools have risen in terms of language proficiency and mostly eliminated this concern.

While this historical relic explains why some less progressive language schools still argue that their students ask for native speakers, it also shows that these customers don’t necessarily make informed decisions. Especially when they end up with a teacher only pretending to be from Delaware to get their paycheck at the end of the month! Studies are inconclusive as to whether or not students prefer native English speaking teachers (NESTs), but they also show that professionalism and personal qualities are more important to students than the teacher’s native language. Generally, I believe students need to be better informed about teachers’ education and backgrounds and how being a ‘native speaker’ is not necessarily a sign of quality and is also a label that’s very hard to define. Language schools need to ask more questions. If someone asks for a NEST, they need to clarify why. Sometimes this will narrow it down to ‘I want my classes to be carried out in English’, which is a very reasonable request but has nothing to do with NESTs.

Unfortunately, there are many language schools actively advertising NESTs. Naturally, this makes being a NEST seem like an outstanding quality, otherwise it wouldn’t be mentioned in every single ad, right? A quarter of all cars sold nowadays are white. They aren’t white because white is better (in fact, they are more difficult to keep clean). They are white because the big brands’ advertisements show white cars. And while this might be a conspiracy between carwash owners and the automotive industry, it still not half as concerning as the way language schools treat the discrimination issue. People buy what they are sold. Obviously, schools are businesses and need to stand out. However, I don’t believe selling their courses as being taught by native speakers is the way to go. While this seems to work in the way that sales of white cars works, it is straightforward discrimination and contravenes EU Law (Article 21 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights). NESTs are being presented like a dancing bear in the circus or a panda in the zoo. While language schools argue that it is not their choice (‘our students want natives’), it is still very much their choice what and how they advertise, and it’s definitely their choice to discriminate against applicants based on their place of birth.

I work with many language schools that employ teachers from our training courses, and I have started to refuse to pass on discriminatory job ads. As an English teacher I stopped working with schools who ask their teachers to create a fake identity for their students – pretending they’re from Delaware or somewhere – a long time ago. However, people usually work because they need to make money, and not everyone can abandon their school for a higher cause. The change needs to come from within in the industry. And a good starting point is you and your colleagues. Have a look around. Are you predominantly surrounded by NESTs? If so, why is that? And have you ever asked your DoS about it? If you are a Caucasian, native English speaking teacher with a name that reflects your heritage (like Smith or Jones), chances are you have never been discriminated against, and you might not even have noticed that there is an issue. And you might say, well, that’s nice and all, Karin, but if I am not affected, why should I really care? And you know what: that’s fair. But the point is, you are affected. That teachers are chosen based on their places of birth and not based on their qualifications devalues your qualifications as well as mine. If you have invested in any sort of qualification as a teacher, you are affected. So if you want to be taken seriously, and see yourself as more than the dancing bear of EFL, you are affected.

However, there is a fourth Goliath for NNESTs. And this one is our worst enemy. It’s ourselves.

In our heads, we NNESTs still believe ourselves to be inferior. I’ve seen teachers with years of experience dismissing their own expertise because they ‘don’t know all the phrasal verbs’. We suffer from all sorts of syndromes (e.g. Medgyes, 1994; Suarez, 2000; Llurda, 2009; Bernat, 2008). When we do things right, we do them right despite being non-natives. And if we do things wrong, we do them wrong because we are non-natives. If a native doesn’t know how to pronounce a word, they put it down as a gap in knowledge. Which is reasonable. If a non-native doesn’t know, they immediately question their entire career. Which is unreasonable and unhelpful. As I said, language proficiency is essential. However, it is wrong to a) make teachers feel like they should be perfect and b) make it a NNEST issue.

Addressing issues of imperfections in proficiency can provoke rather sensitive reactions, especially as employees are expected to be sufficiently capable and independent. To avoid loss of face, language development courses should be seen and presented as professional development rather than a response to someone’s performance. And with a growing English as Lingua Franca industry, with slang and colloquial language spreading with lightspeed through viral videos, working on our language proficiency is something every teacher should be concerned with, native or not.

And finally, I believe we should get rid of the labels NNEST and NEST as soon as possible. Let me show why by having a look at some widespread perceptions of teachers in our industry. We could call them stereotypes.

Perceptions: being a NEST vs being a NNEST

NESTs are seen as natural models of the language. Often they’ve taken a four-week initial teaching training course, which doesn’t always equip them with the highest language awareness. Many freshly qualified teachers are in it for the short run. They want to travel, and they teach during their gap-year to fund that. They are perceived as exotic (it’s much cooler to have a new friend from Toronto than to be taught by the lady from next door), and they know modern slang, idioms and colloquialisms.

Meanwhile, NNESTs usually have a high language awareness because they learned English themselves at some point. Many have university qualifications in teaching and have invested many years in their education. They are in it for the long run. They are locals, they share the students’ first language and they can explain cross-cultural references effortlessly. Many say NNESTs are hard-working, and that might be because they need to make a living from it. In summary:

 Native English Speaking Teachers  
 Natural models Short-term (gap year) Exotic
 CELTA/Trinity Cert Qualified Less strict correction/marking Making some money while travelling
 Poor language awareness High ability to ‘wing it’ Know slang, idioms, collocations

 

 Non-Native English Speaking Teachers   
 Learned the target language themselves In it for the long run Share L1 with students
 University qualifications Locals (cross-culture)    Need to make a living from teaching
 High language awareness Hard-working Interested in teacher development   

 

The reality: being a NEST vs being a NNEST

The tables above show clear labels, clear strengths, no questions asked. So far so good, but let’s look at me for a second. I believe I’m a natural model of English, and I came into the industry through a short initial teaching training course. I’m exotic (how many Swiss people do you know?). I know the slang and colloquialisms used by my friend from North Carolina (who’s spent a decent part of his life in a fraternity) just as well as the idioms my forty-something colleague from Yorkshire uses. However, I did learn English myself and, due to my job, have a very high language awareness. I’m in it for the long run: it’s my career, and I need to make a living from it. I don’t speak my students’ L1 very well, but I identify their L2 transfer issues from German in a heartbeat. Now, who am I? A non-local, non-native English speaking teacher trainer from a non-EU country in the Schengen zone? That sentence is a gateway to an identity crisis on a silver platter. Not only does it look terrible on a business card, but also I no longer wonder why we get all kinds of syndromes! 

The distinction between native and non-native when hiring teachers or advertising jobs is not useful and feeds a huge misconception of values assigned to labels that aren’t even close to illustrating the complexity of a person’s origin.

Distinguishing between qualified and unqualified teachers, however, is useful and necessary for the industry to be taken seriously. As Silvana Richardson put it at IATEFL in 2016: ‘Unqualified teachers devalue all of us.’

What now?

So, what can you do? NEST or NNEST: Join TEFL Equity Advocates. Give a workshop at your school to raise awareness. Bring the topic up in your next teachers’ meeting. Speak out for fair treatment and promote equality. The state of the industry isn’t only harmful to NNESTs, but to everyone with a qualification and a career in this industry. And most importantly, don’t take the way things are as a given. Take a stance. 

Karin Krummenacher

Teacher Trainer at Oxford TEFL Prague

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Hi elisis,

    Thanks for your feedback. Yes, this is a really important issue that needs to be confronted. The quote you highlight comes from back in 2003 and nearly 15 years on, this is still something that needs to be tackled in ELT. This is why we are doing our best to keep on raising awareness.

    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • Thank you for posting this !
    ....when a German MEP, Jo Leinen, asked the EC whether the words “native speaker” could be used in a job advertisement, 0n 23 May 2003 the EC ruled the following:
    In its answer to Question E-0941 the commission states that the term native speaker is not acceptable, under any circumstance, under community law. The Commission also states its intention of continuing to use its powers to fight against any discrimination caused by a requirement for native speaker knowledge in job advertisements.

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