Native Vs. Non Native Teaching: Does Native Speakerism Matter?

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“Of course, why wouldn’t I?”

A language trainer called me a while back, enquiring into new courses. “I know I usually teach a foreign language, but would you consider me for teaching English too? I have all the relevant qualifications”. I was confused. “Of course, why wouldn’t I?”

A few days later I read a news article by Gerald Nikolai Smith headlined “Teacher sues over native-speakerism”, which features a case brought to Court by a language trainer who was not considered for an English teaching position – on the basis that English is not his/her/their first language.

I found this article interesting, because it had never crossed my mind that this was a reason for rejection. I am a native English speaker, living in England, so call me naïve, blind, ignorant or privileged to this matter if you want but it at least explains my confusion about the phone call.

I am not a language trainer or translator but work for a company that specialises in arranging language training courses. I receive requests for both foreign language and English language trainers. When I receive a course request, my first thought has never been “Oh, a new French course request, I need a native French speaker living in France. Instead, I just think: “I need to call Z, they can teach French and would work well with that student”.

Because overall, as a company, what does matter to us is that the language trainer is engaging and dynamic. Someone who can structure a lesson well and create a great rapport with their students. Who can break down tricky subjects into bite-sized, digestible and understandable chunks. From the very beginning I was always taught that the most important thing is getting the right match. Sometimes I feel like I work at a dating agency! Yes, there may be some specific requests issued by our clients that are reasonable and so may affect who we contact, such as “lessons need to be in X location” or “language trainer needs extensive knowledge on Y subject areas” but other than that, we’ll be in touch.

But...

Our company has in the past received requests to have native speakers, as it can be the belief that not having one may in some way put the student at a disadvantage. One could argue: would a non-native speaker understand local idioms? Culture? Accents? Would they be able to take the English version of a slang comment and know the exact foreign alternative to use instead? Could having, for example, an Italian accent when delivering a English lesson impact the student in learning? Could not growing up in that native country mean there is a portion of the language that is still undiscovered to you? How can a tutor convey all of this across to a student who wants to fully understand and immerse themselves in the language and culture of their preferred country, if the language trainer has only ever been a “visitor”?

As many linguists out there already know, and as the court case has highlighted, of course you can. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t born there. Living and working there for X amount of years is enough. Spending years understanding the grammar and sentence structure rules, completing the courses and obtaining the teaching certificates is enough. You know how to compare and contrast the English language with a foreign language, find the similarities and differences, flip it, reverse it. AND THEN go on to explain all of that to another person, in a clear and simple 1hr lesson. You are qualified in that language for a reason. You have the knowledge and the experience and students should be all ears.

I’m not a linguist. Teaching a student is not something I can do. The other day I was asked to carry out user-experience review of a new Kudos module, headed “Reporting Unspoken Ideas and Commands”. An English tutor teaching English to a person who knows and speaks English. I didn’t get it. Because I have never needed to go into that much depth with my English – I just know that you say it in this way, “because you do.” It was then passed on to a colleague who was a non-native English speaker, who was able to relate to the grammar and give appropriate feedback. Read paragraph 3 again. I am a native English speaker, living in England, so call me naïve or blind or ignorant or privileged to this matter if you want.

How do accents play a part with native speakerism?

Everyone has an accent of some sort. I’m from the South West of England. I’m not Kerry from This Country, but sometimes I get twangy. If you’re being told you must sound like Mary Poppins, then you are being set an unrealistic goal. That is not real life. Some of us do say “everyfing” and “all-ryte” and “lush”, and language trainers from Newcastle, Swansea,  Belfast or Edinburgh may have their own local expressions or pronunciation.

Our Kudos modules teach you that what you read in a book may not be what you hear in real life. You are not the Queen and neither your language trainer nor employer should expect you to come away from your lessons sounding like her!

Sometimes, too much native-ness can be a disadvantage.

What are the cons of accepting native speakers to teach English?

In terms of marketing, there may be an argument to say: “I’ve just travelled half-way round the world for my course in the UK – and I don’t expect to be taught by someone who was raised down the road from me back in South America.” But then, do we get upset if the chef in our local Spanish Tapas bar was born in Southampton? It’s certainly an argument, but a weak one.

If a large, Swiss-based language school thought it was ok to exclude applicants for not being a native speaker, then it’s up to the smaller (but ever growing!) companies like Dialogue to further embed our values and put the record straight. We’re a company whose values are strong. We are conscientious. We are not machines, but individuals and we will always celebrate that.

At the end of the day, what every student should come away with is a clear understanding of HOW to use the language, WHY you use those words, WHEN to use them and WHAT they mean.

And that WHO teaches you this is competent in doing so, regardless of their mother tongue.

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