20th March 2018

Breaking the Myths between Native & Non Native English Teachers

By Bryan Holmes

Native English-speaking teachers are often seen as a premium product, being there’s an assumption they are masters of the language both grammatically and phonologically. This belief leads some employers to deem that native English speakers (NET) are best suited to teach ESL learners. As a result, prospective non-native speakers’ teachers (NNEST) are often confronted by job posts which only advertise for a native English-speaking teacher. An employer’s decision to hire a native over a non-native teacher is unfortunately based on a marketing strategy rather than empirical evidence.

That said, firstly, we need to define what a native speaker is. Cook defines a native speaker as “The first language a human being learns to speak is his native language; he is a native speaker of this language” (cited in Cook, 1999, p. 185), so does this suggest NETs know how to teach a language? Not necessarily. This week’s blog will attempt to dispel some of the myths which exist between native and non-native speakers while scrutinising the generalisations of being either of these.

A benefit of being a native speaker is that we have an innate awareness of grammatical rules and the unconscious knowledge of meaning. Additionally, we can use the language in a variety of social settings and have acquired the ability to use it creatively, although this could be argued against (Stern, 1983). Based on this assumption, does this make me a better teacher, if so why? Supposing a NEST and a NNEST both hold an MA in TESOL, a Cert TESOL, and advanced qualifications, not to mention the same amount of teaching experience; what can the native English speaking teacher do better than a non-native teacher?

In fact, a non-native instructor would have spent far more time learning its systems (grammar) and how to use it. Another advantage is instructors who learnt English as a second language tend to know the difficulties and typical mistakes made by ESL learners. In my experience as a native English speaking teacher, this didn’t come naturally, it took years of practice and further education to teach English effectively. Unsurprisingly, non-native speakers tend to focus on accuracy of forms, whereas native speakers generally relate language usage to their former experience, but is this the best model? Is it attainable to achieve this style of linguistic competence or is it essential?

Though, this could be an advantage since language usage isn’t always accurate e.g. (I’m Lovin it, ‘Mc Donald’s slogan’). Perhaps another point to consider is that native speakers tend to make clear distinctions between formal and informal register, and they may be inclined to pay more attention to communicative competence? However, in my experience I’ve seen both native and non-native teachers focus on improving fluency and accuracy. It’s important to remember that many non-native speakers spent time working, studying abroad, or have been exposed to numerous authentic contexts e.g. films, music, books, which is why making biased generalisations shouldn’t be a deciding factor when hiring a teacher. Rather, employers and learners should look at professional qualifications and experience. Ask informed questions regarding grammar and phonology, lesson planning, and classroom management. When I interview teachers, being native or non-native isn’t a factor. I’m interested in your capability as an instructor not where you’re from. You can learn more about this debate here.

If you're interested in having your say on this issue, we do welcome submissions for guest blogs. If you're in Hong Kong you may be interested in meeting some of our teacher trainers who hold regular teaching workshops at English for Asia.

Bryan Holmes is teacher trainer and the part time course director for the Trinity CertTESOL English for Asia. His qualifications include the Trinity CertTESOL , MATESOL, and Cambridge DELTA. He has a special interest in phonetics and phonology and has been teaching for 10 years.