The whole world seems to be afraid. Every day I read about countries, including my own, tightening their borders and trying to protect what they believe is theirs. Wars and rumors of wars, terrorist attacks, financial crises and racist practices are constantly on my news feed. In the TEFL industry, full of people that I consider progressive thinkers and people open to other cultures and ideologies, the issue of native vs. non-native speakers has become our own stinky bit of prejudice that can’t simply be ignored.
I’ve been aware of the issue for years, but it wasn’t until going to the iELT 2016 conference in Barcelona, Spain, that I looked at this problem straight on, and even looked at my own behaviors as a TEFL employer and teacher. Over the last few weeks, I’ve conducted a number of interviews with teachers, students, parents, employers and center managers to get some different perspectives on the issue, and to try to come up with some things we can all do to help with these unjust hiring and compensation issues in the TEFL industry.
Some Interviews with High Level Teens
Probably the most interesting set of interviews that I conducted were with two of my high level teen classes. I am a teacher in Hoi An, Vietnam, which is a small tourist town in the central region. In many ways it is a traditional place, but with so many tourists coming through the town every day, citizens of Hoi An definitely have a unique perspective on things. One of the teen classes is an intermediate level general English class, the other is a relatively new IELTS class.
What I found interesting interviewing them is that their attitudes are echoed throughout the other perspectives. The first concern that these students had was about pronunciation. They didn’t believe that a non-native speaker could possibly have a good enough level of pronunciation. I, of course, asked which type of pronunciation they were referring to, as English is the first language of a number of countries. They weren’t sure about this.
I then asked, as English is the current lingua franca of the world, why a specific pronunciation was beneficial. They weren’t sure about this either, but had a few things to say about which accents were easier or more difficult to understand. They felt there should be more of a standard for pronunciation.
The next concern they had about non-native English teachers was culture. They believe that language and culture are inseparable and that to learn a language, they would need to learn about the culture as well. I echoed my question from earlier about which culture they were referring to. One student mentioned a Scottish teacher who had told him how the men in Scotland sometimes wear skirts (kilts). He thought this was very interesting, but when I followed up with why this was specific to the English language, he didn’t really know. It was just something interesting.
The last issue they brought up was about trust. They just couldn’t believe that anyone could know the language as well as a native speaker. They were worried that they might be tricked or taught something incorrectly that would come back to haunt them.
Now some of these students want to be teachers themselves someday. I asked why they were taking the IELTS test. They know how hard it is and what it would mean to get an 8 or 9 level. I asked whether they would trust a teacher who had achieved that score but wasn’t a native teacher. I also asked how they would feel if, after working for years and years to perfect their English, students didn’t trust them. This seemed to make them think, but the theme of trust came up again.
In general, these teen students thought that it was more interesting studying with foreign teachers (inclusive of non-native Europeans). They thought the methodology was better. They had negative attitudes towards studying with Vietnamese teachers or teachers from other Asian countries, but were open to studying with non-native speakers from European countries, because they believed the languages were similar and the accent was less of an issue.
These are young students who don’t really have an informed opinion. While some of their comments made me cringe, I could at least understand their rationale. What is more disturbing are the adults in the industry, who definitely should know better, using the same rationale and making the same arguments.
The Myth that Native-Speaking Teachers Know the Language Better
I say myth, but in many cases this is probably the case, right? Over a few gins one night after the iELT16 conference, I had a conversation with one teacher who put it this way. He explained that while it’s nice to pretend that we are all on an equal footing, it simply isn’t the case. He brought up the 10,000 hour theory: that if you study or do anything for 10,000 hours, you basically are a genius in that field. He asked, as a native speaker, how many hours I had probably written, spoken, listened to, or read English vs. someone for whom English was not their first language. I conceded that this teacher had a point, but was instantly reminded of many native teachers I’ve known throughout the years whose own language was riddled with mistakes and who were simply very poor at teaching.
This conversation is similar to a recent conversation I’ve had with a parent at our school who was upset that his child was studying with a non-native speaker. Now, the teacher in question came from a mixed background, but his mother was Malaysian and his father was from India. During my initial interview with him, I though that he was British. The parent, no matter how much I tried to defend the teacher’s fluency and command of the language wouldn’t accept this. I even offered for the parent, who spoke with what I would judge as a B2 level of English, to observe the teacher and see for himself.
This parent said that they spent a lot of time working with people from England. While they had worked very hard to learn English, they admitted to some failings of communication with their coworkers. The parent felt that if they, who had worked so hard to achieve their level of English, couldn’t speak fluently, that it was impossible for someone else to do so. Eventually, this parent withdrew their child from our center and I was left feeling conflicted.
My wife and I worked in Korea for a year in a hagwon alongside a number of Korean English teachers. A few weeks ago, when I mentioned I was writing this article, we discussed the teachers that we remembered. We both had examples of teachers whose grasp of English, not just grammar, was as good as, if not better than, our own. That said, we both had a few examples of teachers who we co-taught with and not only made, but taught a lot of mistakes. I remember students sometimes saying that the other teacher had taught them that certain expressions were appropriate that definitely were not. I was left in an awkward position of trying to correct these mistakes without undermining the other teacher’s authority.
Having said that, I’ve also had the same experience taking over classes from some native English speaking teachers. For example, an American teacher covering my class who had spent the last few lessons teaching my students “funner” as the correct comparative form of the word. Personally, I don’t believe it’s native or non-native that is the issue here, but trust and qualifications.
The Myth that Native Teachers Equal Quality: Issues of Trust.
Simply put, there are too many English centers out there who have tried to hoodwink their customers by providing unqualified teachers who don’t have a high enough level of English to teach it properly. In every country where I have taught, I’ve had students and fellow teachers who have brought up this issue. I believe it is practices like this that have definitely contributed to the idea that native teachers = quality. It’s not that parents or students would necessarily have an issue with a non-native teacher, it’s that they can’t necessarily trust their level of English. If you yourself don’t know the language well, but are going to invest a large amount of money on yourself or your child, the temptation is to go with a teacher who looks the part and fits the stereotype of an English speaker.
The industry has confirmed these biases and made them even worse by using the terminology “native speaking teachers” in their brochures and job postings. One of my friends, who was running a large English program that placed English teachers in state schools in Hanoi, completely left the industry after having to deal with this prejudice first hand. He watched as the company tried to replace experienced teachers who didn’t look the part, with inexperienced white teachers from countries where English was the L1. He tried to fight this, but in the end the company defended their practices as necessary to keep up with competitors.
In some cases, this led to issues of racism and not just prejudice against non-native speakers. Teachers for whom English was their first language, but who were of Vietnamese descent, were replaced because of parent complaints about the teachers’ appearance–not the teachers’ performance. To keep the shareholders happy, the company made the requested changes and didn’t defend their teachers.
As has been discussed in other TEFL Tales posts about this issue, there are a lot of ways in which non-native speaking teachers have an advantage in teaching English. They are more empathetic to students’ learning needs, having gone through the same language learning process themselves. They are often better at grading their language in the classroom to help students. Also, in the cases where the teacher has an internationally recognized advanced or fluent level of English, they likely do know more grammar and vocabulary than someone on their gap year.
The truth is that, in many countries, the emphasis in the TEFL industry isn’t necessarily on quality or measured improvement, but on appearance and perception of quality. It is my belief that the difference is in the general English ability of that country. As the level of English improves, it’s easier for students and parents to distinguish between what really works for the advancement of students’ English learning and what is merely surface value.
What Can We Do to Fix This?
Most of the people I interviewed seemed to think that attitudes towards this issue were changing, but that it would take a long time to fix the prejudices completely. In the meantime, there are some things that we can all do to help.
Schools need to have a system in place to measure the effectiveness of their classes and to show them to parents. This is really something that a professionally run school should be doing regardless of the non-native speaker issue. It means, at the very least, having in-house student assessments that are properly linked to international standards. It means educating parents as to the program goals and showing that the class, with the specific teacher, is reaching (or exceeding) those goals. It might also mean, having the ability to show parent and student satisfaction rates for certain teachers.
Also, centers and other language learning institutions, should be responsible for staying clear of racial bias and using terminology that will exacerbate the problem. Many of the countries where the TEFL industry is thriving don’t necessarily have laws to protect the equal treatment of employees, especially foreign employees. Therefore, it is up to schools to dig deep and try to offer true quality not just perceived quality. This will benefit them in the long run.
Parents and students
Many times, both parents and students are too quick to jump to conclusions about a teacher. Sometimes this isn’t even an issue of the teacher’s language background. If the teacher is “different” than what they had in mind, they are quick to complain. I always advise students to give their teacher a chance for a few weeks before changing. Usually, if it is a good teacher, after a few weeks the complaint dissolves. I advise parents and students to try and judge on real quality and not just surface appearance. What are your goals for yourself or your child in this class? Are they achieving them with this teacher?
I’ve spent a lot of time considering this, and I feel that one of the main issues is the terminology. In Korea, Japan and Vietnam, the term usually used to describe myself was “foreign teacher”, meaning that I was not from the country I was teaching in. I really disliked this term as it made the distinction that while living and working in the country, I was detached and apart from it. Originally, I was quite happy changing to the distinction of “native English speaker”.
In the past year or so, I’ve seen how damaging this distinction of native vs. non-native English speaking teacher can be and how it divides and sets apart teachers simply because of their country of origin. So, what is a better way to put this? I’m tempted to propose that the industry start using the term fluent English speaking teacher, but fear that companies using blended classes with teachers whose English is not fluent would be reluctant to put the distinction on brochures. Why not though? Let’s start saying fluent English speaking teachers vs. competent users and make the pay distinctions based on that.
To do this properly, and get students on board, means that there will need to be more emphasis on internationally recognized qualifications. It means that non-native English speaking teachers’ level of English should be judged by internationally recognized tests like IELTS. It means that all teachers should be judged by their experience and by their teaching qualifications. It means that teaching qualifications like TEFL or CELTA or certTESOL need to be more discerning about who graduates from their programs and who carries the qualification.
Non-native English Speaking Teachers
Lastly, the responsibility also falls on the group that is being victimized. In most historical precedents of groups fighting for equal rights, it is the opressed group that makes the most impact. I don’t like that this is the case, but things aren’t going to change overnight. If you are a non-native English speaking teacher, you will probably deal with more adversity than a native English speaking teacher. You can either be upset about this and accept it, or you can try and fight it. These are my suggestions for how to do that.
The most important thing is to get proper qualifications that prove you are both a fluent speaker of English and a qualified teacher. This is more important for you than for a native English speaker, whom employers will assume have a command of the language. Make sure that the tests you take are internationally recognized tests like IELTS, which I believe is the most difficult to fake your way through. This means making sure that your TEFL or other teaching qualification course is accredited. I always give preference to courses that are over 120 hours and have a practical teaching component. If there isn’t a practical teaching component, do an internship somewhere to get experience and references.
Lastly, be confident and have a thick skin. One advantage for native English speaking teachers is that they don’t have people second guessing their grasp of the language. They are confident when using the language and students respond to this.
If you are a non-native English speaking teacher, you are probably going to encounter prejudice at some point in your career as a TEFL teacher. Be prepared for this and have a thick skin for when employers or students wrongly bring up issues. Your best defense is delivering the best lessons that you can and being an effective teacher. It’s hard to argue with success and excellence in teaching.
If you find this issue engaging and there is something you’d like to add, please write a comment here or on the TEFL Express Facebook or Twitter accounts. I’d love to hear from you, even if you disagree with me completely. Also, if you’d like to read some other posts about this issue from the TEFL Tales blog, you can find them by clicking on the button below.