Non-Native Teachers · Thoughts

On Native and Non-native Teacher Equality


It feels cheap to start this article with a list of caveats, but it also feels necessary. During my career as a teacher (9 years in so far, so not a lifetime, but far from negligible), I have experienced teaching in a number of different types of institution alongside both Native and Non-native Speaker EFL Teachers. In the last few years, I have worked both explicitly and implicitly to promote equality amongst Native and Non-native Speaker teachers.

I run training programmes for both Native and Non-native teachers alike, and they graduate with the same qualification based on all the same criteria, and they are permitted on the programme according to the same criteria too.

I take every opportunity to endorse the notion publicly when I speak at seminars, not only promoting equality of pay and opportunities but also talking openly about how, in my experience, very often Non-native Speaker Teachers are better than the Native Speaker counterparts that are available in the recruitment pool, at least where I operate. I will elaborate on this later.

I run two language institutions and in both of them I hire Native and Non-native Teachers with equal opportunity and pay them on the exact same scale. In the interest of transparency, I must confess that there are more Native Speaker Teachers on my books than Non, but that has much more to do with the employment pool and the country’s visa situation than it does my preference.

I appreciate that these first few paragraphs sound a lot like, “I’m not racist, but…”, but this has become such a sensitive debate of late, that I feel some context is necessary if I’m going to offer anything at all other than an unequivocal and resounding agreement with the motion. Honestly, some of my best employees are Non-Native Speakers…

There is currently a fairly large movement in favour of dropping the terms Native and Non-native from the EFL industry in the name of equality for teachers. It’s tough to talk about, because the reality is that there is a very real lack of equality, and that should not be ignored or forgotten, especially when engaging with such a debate. It’s also difficult because there are numerous different shades of meaning to the phrase when uttered by different people. I will take the liberty of giving a brief definition that I think can be agreed upon as the “standard” or “widely accepted” definition, but I already know before I write it that is going to tick some readers off. Also, I give the definition fully aware of the difficulties and grey areas it contains and the questions it raises.

Native Speaker: Any person raised using the language as their primary language (first language, mother tongue).

Non-native Speaker: Any person who learned the language later in life after they had already established their first language.

Again, yes I am aware of both the overlaps that these definitions create and the gaps that they leave. Some of the questions raised might seem easy and answers might seem obvious at first, but with a little longer to mull them over they reveal their complexity; such as the question of what to do with bilingual speakers or what to call a person who was raised on a certain language and then moved away from their birthplace and subsequently lost that language, before returning in later life and relearning it.

I am also abundantly aware that many readers will consider these definitions overly simplistic, or perhaps even plain wrong—certainly outdated—for what has become a rather complex debate. However, I feel that there is considerable value to reminding ourselves that this is most likely how the terms are viewed by laypersons, people who are not active members of the EFL teaching industry/community.

To address some of the complexity for a moment, in the country where I live and teach, effectively three tiers of teachers have emerged as follows:

Native English Teachers: basically, teachers from 5 Native English Speaking countries, England, America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand (N.B. this leaves out countries like South Africa, where there is a huge population of Native English Speakers, according to my earlier definition)

Non-native Expat Teachers: teachers from countries other than those five listed as Native, but from outside of the host country itself

Non-native Local Teachers: teachers native to the host country itself

It is interesting to note, I think, that in the country I live in, there is already a gaping inequality between locals and expats, and it is this that shines through far more than the divide between Native English Speakers and Non-native English Speakers. For the most part, the Native English Teachers and the Non-native English Teachers are (especially with recent policy changes allowing the latter to get visas and working permits as English Teachers just as easily as the former) treated pretty much equally. Meanwhile, Non-native Local Teachers are probably paid on average (though it’s an average with a vast spread on either side) one third of the salary their expat colleagues receive. To go any further into that discussion is perhaps a digression for another time.

What is relevant here though, is how this country identifies its Native English Speakers for the sake of policy. The country has, perhaps, recognised the complexity of the matter and the sheer impossibility of the task of addressing each candidate individually, and chosen to go with a geographic categorisation.

Of course, this approach fails immediately as there are many people living in any one of the 5 selected countries who are citizens of that country, born and raised within its borders but to, for example, immigrant parents and raised on a foreign language. Based on the immigration regulations, these individuals should be eligible for permits and visas as English teachers, though there is a strong possibility that their level of English would be nowhere near sufficient to teach.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people in the world raised by Native English Speaking parents from one of those 5 countries, but born in a different country after their parents emigrated. They might even be raised in an insular expat community, speaking solely English and never learning the language local to the country they are raised in. The country I live in has a fairly large contingent of this very example, in fact.

While the second group is damned, if they have citizenship of the “non-native speaking” country rather than the native, there is a process to weed out those members of the first group. Applicants from the 5 given native speaking countries are not immediately granted their permits; they must first have a Skype interview with an immigration officer. Now we have a new problem entirely. What is the criteria being used here? I know many employers in this country choose their teachers on whether or not they “have a nice accent”. I know a number of born and raised Geordies and Edinburgh natives who have been turned down for work on these grounds, and they fully fit the bill according the policy’s categories. Will they be turned down for visas as well? The areas become very grey and the waters extremely muddy.

These anecdotal examples give some idea of the difficulties in determining what makes a Native Speaker. It is perhaps partly because of these challenges, as well as for the matter of inequality, that the debate at present is not how to decide who is a Native Speaker and who is not, but rather whether we should continue to use the terms at all.

The consensus amongst those bringing the motion is generally that teachers should be assessed as individuals on grounds of competence, and where they were born or when they learned English should have no bearing. At its core, this is exactly how I feel, and it is exactly how I approach teacher recruitment. All of my teachers have to meet certain standards—and I tend to think that my standards are quite high—and as long as they do so it is of no interest to me where they are from, how long they have spoken English or how they learned it.

So, do I think we should get rid of the terms Native and Non-native? It’s a difficult question. In principle, I don’t actually think there is anything wrong with having terminology to differentiate between people of different backgrounds. Of course, if we are to have these terms, then they need to be clear, and so it is my opinion that rather than throwing them out, we work together to settle on better defining them.

The fact is, that while those arguing against continued use of the terms might want to disagree with me, there are differences between the ways that native speakers of a language generally use the language and the way that non-native speakers do. Many are willing to concede this point, but assert that it is inconsequential, that there are differences between any two native speakers’ use of the language as well. Of course, that cannot be denied.

For many, the differences between two native speakers are thought to be mostly matters of different dialectic standards for pronunciation and vocabulary, while the differences between native and non-native speakers are expected to be more about inaccuracies in grammar and diction. Even this is not really quite so clear cut. Many native speakers of a language are not fully versed in the grammar rules of their language and many use quite poor grammar in everyday speech.

A huge number of Native Speakers of English speak what is generally called “Bad English”, but no one questions their status as native speakers. On the other hand, non-natives, by virtue of their approach to learning and the teaching styles prevalent in their schools, are often explicitly aware of the rules and norms of grammar in the language. This is a phenomenon thoroughly studied and heavily documented.

This is to say that the kinds of error are different. While there are many native speakers who use poor grammar and have limited vocabularies, nine times out of ten, an error made by a non-native speaker is an error no native speaker would ever make simply by virtue of being raised within the language environment and thus developing a subconscious recognition of the general rules of the language.

With all of this in mind, a common suggestion is just to be completely impartial and refer to everybody by their individual proficiency, perhaps based on a system such as the CEFR for Language.

I am a huge proponent of the CEFR for Language as a foundation for assessing proficiency. As an employer and as a teacher/assessor, it is proficiency on this sort of scale that matters most. However, applying this across the board will only highlight the distinction we have been discussing. While the CEFR treats every individual on his or her own merits, meaning that native speakers and non-native speakers will be assessed on exactly the same grounds, with large enough numbers of each, distribution undeniably supports the distinction. Non-natives will fall all across the scale, depending on when and where and how they learned the language, while natives of a language, for all their non-standard use of grammar and dialectic deviations, will almost always land within the top two bands.

There is at the very least an academic interest in labelling these two groups to see why they achieve differently and how pedagogy can be developed to give non-native speakers a greater likelihood of becoming more proficient. As a tool for research by education theorists and linguists, I don’t think many would fight the use of the terms native and non-native.

So perhaps the problem only arises when the terms are used to discriminate and give different opportunities. If a job vacancy asks for only Native Speaker Applicants, is that a problem? Of course, we cringe at the thought of seeing vacancies for only white applicants, only heterosexual applicants, only male applicants, only single applicants, only ‘pretty’ applicants—the list of discriminations that we have consigned to the past (at least amongst civilised, liberal society) goes on and on. Is the Native/Non-native problem the next discrimination to be overcome?

Of course, one notable difference is that on this matter, unlike the others, we are—or at least, we should be—talking about standards of proficiency. There are no valid grounds to think that there are differences in proficiency between blacks and whites, straights and gays, bachelors or husbands, etc.. Of course, as discussed already, many would say that there is not in fact an inherent difference in proficiency between natives and non-natives, as many non-natives become extremely proficient speakers, easily as proficient as their native counterparts. There are likely millions of non-native speakers of English who would be assessed as C2 speakers on the CEFR for Language.

The problem is that while we no longer expect to see discrimination against black people, women, gay people or old people, we don’t suggest that the words black and white or male and female should be abolished. There is no point denying the inherent differences, we should just not allow judgements to extend beyond those inherent differences—i.e. the difference between a black person and a white person is colour and nothing more. There is no point pretending that they are the same colour, but absolutely nothing can be assumed about their abilities, intelligence or otherwise from that information alone.

The same then should be true for Native Speakers and Non-native speakers. The problem however is the one I identified at the start of this piece. We have thus far struggled to define the terms clearly. There is no real confusion over what a white person is or what a straight man is—although I absolutely recognise the complexities that each of these areas have as well (e.g. mixed race, bisexual) they simply are not to be explored in this piece. The real problem that we have with Native and Non-native Speakers is that we can’t yet decide definitively who they are.

The way I see it, there are two things that need to happen and neither one of them is scrapping the terms altogether. The first is working collaboratively to reach a clear definition of what we mean by Native Speaker and Non-native Speaker. This will not be easy, nor will it be a smooth process with so many different perspectives weighing in. The second is to stop using this criteria in the recruitment process for teachers and, for that matter, professionals in general. Instead, where language is a factor—and perhaps one could ask, where is language not a factor?—we should be focused on what the candidate is capable of doing now, rather than where they come from and what their learning process was.

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