A recent discussion between English teachers on social media got me thinking. Is it racist to use the term ‘native English teacher’?

Anyone who has browsed the job listings on websites like TEFL.com and teachaway.com will have noticed that many schools often advertise for ‘native English teachers’. But what does this term mean exactly, and does the obsession of learners and schools with going native mean they lose out on some really great teaching? Isn’t selecting someone for a position on the basis of their nationality a form of discrimination, or even racism? It’s a sensitive topic to say the least.

What is a native English teacher?

stereotype English teacher

A native speaker of English is usually someone who was raised in an English-speaking country. It can also be someone who was brought up in a non English-speaking country but whose parent (or parents) is a native English speaker. Many students believe that it is better to learn from a native speaker because they have an innate understanding of how the language works, as well as a ‘perfect’ native accent. As a result, in the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) world, natives are usually in high demand, and even with a bare minimum of experience can get a job practically anywhere in any continent.

The disadvantaged majority

But for every English native speaker who decides to teach a bit of English and does a short TEFL course, there are ten non-native professionals who have studied English for almost their entire lives, completed arduous and lengthy training programs and gained years of classroom experience. Isn’t it a little unfair that while they might get looked over for a job in favour of a native with absolutely no experience or qualifications?

Yes and no.

Qualifications VS Expertise

First, I would say that like in any other line of work, simply having some qualifications and experience is not enough. I have been playing football for 32 years, but it doesn’t mean Barcelona should sign me up. There are some great teachers who have done very little training and don’t have much experience, just as some teachers have lots of degrees and have worked in the business for decades but aren’t capable of inspiring their students.

There is also a simple, basic fact, even if it’s uncomfortable. Almost always, native English teachers speak better English than non-natives. I have probably met and worked alongside hundreds of native and non-native teachers, and with perhaps four or five exceptions, all the non-natives would make several minor (or major) mistakes in a ten-minute conversation. Many of my students had learnt poor English at school that they couldn’t reverse. Not only that, a non-native’s use of the language can (almost) never be truly ‘authentic’ or perfect. If you are speaking in your second language, you will naturally tend to use phrases and words that are closer to your native language, it’s inevitable. (Mind you, I sometimes find myself using Hungarian phrases in English, my native language!)

Nobody’s perfect

Of course, the counter argument is that natives make plenty of mistakes and often don’t speak perfect English. This may be true, but not only do (educated) native speakers generally make far fewer mistakes, even the mistakes they make are somehow ‘authentic’. They are the mistakes you can expect to find if you move to London, or New York.

This is why it’s not racist to advertise for a native speaker. Yes, in some rare cases a school that requests a ‘native teacher’ really means ‘some white person, any white person’. This approach is, of course, utter nonsense and totally racist. But being a native speaker relates directly to the skills of the profession. A teaching degree says that you have some expertise in teaching, of course. Being a native speaker is, or should be, a guarantee of your total expertise in the language. The only things you are more of an expert in than your native language is possibly breathing, eating and walking. It’s that basic.

Why hire a non-native, then?

Schools and learners know this, which is why there is such a big demand for native teachers. Personally, when learning languages I have always tried to find a native Italian, or French, or Hungarian person to learn from. We want to learn from a true expert. But then why should non-natives even bother? And why do non-natives sometimes get so angry about native teachers?

Well, firstly, being an expert in English does not make you an expert teacher. Right this moment, across the world there are native English speakers struggling through lessons, talking nonsense and making thousands of teaching mistakes because, to be frank, they have no idea how to teach – they just got a job because they are native. Very often, students would be far better off with a non-native who is a great teacher, not a clueless native. By focusing too much on natives, school scan miss out on some incredibly talented people.

Secondly, especially at a lower level, it can be a great advantage to have a non-native speaker. They are usually easier to understand, often have a far better understanding of grammar rules and actually know what it takes to really learn the language, not just drink it in from birth.

Thirdly, there are only so many native English teachers to go around. If you don’t have a native teacher, you can still learn a heck of a lot from a non-native. And schools can create a fantastic environment for learning English even if they don’t have native speakers.

Lastly, it can sometimes be really hard to learn entirely in the target language. Nowadays, people try to teach almost exclusively in the target language. For example, when I learned Hungarian my teacher  almost always spoke to me in Hungarian. This is definitely good for learning, but it is hard work and sometimes depressing. In the long-term, listening to Hungarian all lesson every lesson was great. But for the first two years I hated it – “What is my teacher saying?” and “I don’t understand what you want! Tell me what you want!” Having someone who knows and speaks your first language can stop you from speaking the target language, but it can also be a huge help at times.

So what?

So what might schools do differently? Of course, the market dictates, and if a student demands a native, it is difficult to say no. At the same time, many students also love having a non-native, especially if they are educated about the possible benefits. I think one great method is to have two teachers for a class – one native, one non-native. This way, you have the best of both worlds.

Personally, I do think that mastery of the language is incredibly important. I would only hire a teacher with ‘just’ B2 or C1 level English if I had no one else. Otherwise you risk your students learning too many things that are simply wrong. However, if a non-native can reach C2 level – absolute proficiency – then they are pretty damn good. Why not change your advert from ‘native required’ to ‘native or near-native required’? You might just find you open up the field to a great bunch of incredibly talented teachers who could raise the level of your school.


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