Non-Native Discrimination - The Stain On Our Profession?

by Chris Kelly

Discrimination is an ugly word. Nevertheless, when 70% of the jobs advertised on require native speakers (Kiczkowiak: 2014) and many of the rest of them express a preference for such people, there is really no other way to describe it. The real question, then, is not whether or not discrimination exists, as that much is evident, but instead, whether or not that discrimination can be justified. In order to answer that question, I draw on my own personal experiences as well as my own research into the matter.[1]

Recruiting the Natives

My first contact with the “native versus non-native” question was on my CELTA. My goal as far as CELTA was concerned was to take the course, get the certificate and find a job. I didn’t care about achieving a high grade, I just wanted to pass. All the more so considering how few people do any more than “just” pass the course. However, two people in my teaching group of six joined the 3% or so of candidates who achieve CELTA Pass A, and apart from both being excellent teachers, they had one other thing in common – they were both non-natives.

So far so good. My limited experience had shown me that being a native speaker didn’t automatically make you stronger than non-natives. However, then I started to apply for jobs. Language schools from Spain to Italy to China to Guatemala were all looking for teachers, but the vast majority of them were specifying a requirement for native speakers. I applied to only two schools and was swiftly accepted by both. Of course, this was wonderful for me, but I couldn’t help but feel like something of a fraud when it emerged that my CELTA A colleague was struggling to find employment anywhere. I had absolutely no experience of teaching prior to CELTA, whereas she had several years of experience (including teacher training experience) and a stronger CELTA than me, not to mention a PhD in Linguistics. Why was I being chosen over a teacher who was clearly superior to me?

Blame the Students?

The reasons that language schools give for being so heavy-handedly in favour of native speaking teachers are plentiful, but by far the most common of these is that “students want native speakers”. Now here, two questions must be asked to decide whether the discrimination is justifiable. Firstly, is this truly the case? Secondly, even if true, is there any real value in having a native teacher over a non-native one?

In the survey which I carried out on the first question, it is true that students had a general preference for native teachers. However, not only was this preference a very slight one, but those who had been taught by a non-native teacher at some point since high school were unanimous in saying that they thought the difference in teaching was little or nothing. It also became apparent that students thought of “non-native teachers” being synonymous with the local school teachers.  The strength of feeling against these teachers (who are rarely CELTA-qualified and usually have an intermediate level of English) should not be confused with a general feeling against non-native teachers. With this in mind, it is somewhat annoying that many language schools exacerbate the problem by going out of their way to advertise the fact that they only use native-speaking teachers for reasons of quality.

This being said, I suppose that it would all be quite justifiable if the evidence shows that native speakers are better suited to teaching the language than their non-native counterparts. A commonly used argument is that native speakers have more of a natural instinct of what is right and wrong, and when to use particular words or phrases. This might be true to some extent, but whilst this can potentially be useful in teaching advanced vocabulary, it is far less useful in terms of grammar. Native speakers may know what is “right” and “wrong” in grammar, but generally speaking, non-natives are better placed to explain why things are the way they are, and what the rules are behind the “why?”. In any event, it is foolish to over-generalise. I have heard countless natives make countless errors regarding the meaning or use of words, and likewise heard many non-natives who have a broad, deep knowledge of the English language and never use words in the wrong context.[2]

Another argument used in favour of native teachers is that students want to hear how “real” English sounds and want to hear “real” accents. The question which must be asked here is: “Why?!”. In a world where conversations in English are increasingly between non-natives, why should students feel the need to have a native accent? And just what constitutes a “real” accent? English is an official language in dozens of countries and in each of these countries the accents and colloquialisms vary widely from place to place and among social backgrounds and educational backgrounds. Do students who live and work in Prague really want to adopt my Glaswegian accent? Does that benefit them in any way? I think not.

The idea of “culture” is another argument made in favour of native speakers. It is true that some students want to learn more about other cultures whilst learning the language, but it is patently obvious that there is no such thing as an “English-speaking culture”. With so many different English-speaking nations, in so many different continents, it would be ludicrous to claim that there is one culture. Even if we narrow it down to the “British culture”, what does this mean? In my opinion, there is no such thing. Students are often interested in the background of their teacher, but this is true regardless of whether the teacher comes from London or Lithuania.

Something else worthy of mention is the professionalism of teachers. Although I have stated before that it is dangerous to generalise, generally speaking teaching is the actual profession of a non-native English teacher. For native speakers it can be a profession, but it is more often than not a temporary diversion. The result of this is that while many take their jobs seriously, there are also many native teachers who frankly, do not. The general rule in my experience is that a non-native teacher is more likely to be professional and to be motivated to continue their development.

Ask the Teachers

With all of this in mind, I surveyed (native) colleagues on the question of who makes a better teacher, natives or non-natives. The results are very clear-cut. An overwhelming majority felt that there was no real advantage in being taught by a native. There was a slight suggestion that native speakers may be more suited to higher-level students, and non-natives to lower ones, but the consensus was clearly that both “types” of teacher are as good as each other. Interestingly, the only dissenting voices (who both made it clear that the difference is minimal) were fairly newly qualified teachers. Perhaps it is the case that they have not been exposed to working with many non-natives and their views may change over time. Of course this is mere speculation, but it would parallel the attitudes of students.

Level the Playing Field

My experience and the evidence at hand lead me to one conclusion. As long as non-native speakers attain a level of English which is considered to be high enough for the situation, they shouldn’t be discriminated against. As far as TEFL goes, among the more highly regarded schools in Europe, CELTA qualifies you to teach. Once you have this qualification, your country of origin really shouldn’t matter. If the applicant for a position is reliable, knowledgeable and has good communication skills, then it doesn’t matter where they are from. At the end of the day, we are teachers, and as such should be judged on teaching ability, not on the land of our birth.

Author’s Bio: My name is Chris Kelly and I have been working at Akcent IH in Prague ever since I completed my CELTA here 2 years ago. In that time it is fair to say that I have taught every level and every age group. Originally, I come from Glasgow and when I’m not working, I enjoy following a variety of sports including football, ice hockey and tennis.

Kiczkowiak, M. Native English-speaking Teachers: always the right choice? (accessed 27/5/16)

[1] research carried out involves a survey of both students and teachers regarding the question of native speakers, and is admittedly a small sample size.

[2] For a deeper analysis of why generalisation can be foolish, see D Baines, “Cheeky Postcards: Lessons Learned From Being a Trainer on TEFL Courses”