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Do non-native English speaking teachers connect better with their learners?
I was recently lucky enough to attend many informative and inspiring lectures, talks and workshops at KOTESOL 2012. In the week following the conference I spent a great deal of time thinking back on the presentations and drawing up a list of tips and activities I that I feel I can effectively implement in my context. Upon drawing up this list it was impossible to hide the fact that the presenters who had contributed the most to it were primarily non-native English speakers. 

I also happen to have spent the past three weeks applying for jobs and, I think it would be fair to say, almost every single one of those jobs specifies they are looking for a native English speaking teacher. This presented to me a massive, glaring disparity in that the non-native speakers, who I gained the most practically useful information from (and I consider myself reasonably well qualified/knowledgeable/engaged in the world of ELT) would not be considered ‘qualified’ for these jobs! This seems absolutely ludicrous to me, so I want to present just a small number of reasons I can think of, from the top of my head, as to why I would hire an equally qualified and experienced non-native proficient English speaker over me:

1)      Empathy

I don’t consider myself as ever actually having ‘learnt’ to speak English. Sure, I acquired the language, and thanks to my M.A TESOL I can roughly explain how this happened, but personally I wouldn’t regard it as a conscious effort on my part (other than my brief inability to pronounce ‘s’ resulting in a couple of speech therapy sessions!). The closest I have come to learning to speak English are my failed attempts at learning German at school and my quite reasonable attempt at learning Spanish when I lived in Mexico. Don’t get me wrong, I learnt a lot from those experiences that I can, and do, apply to my teaching now, but it is hardly comparable to a person who has learnt English from scratch. When I can’t understand why a student is finding it so difficult to understand a concept, a NNS may offer both empathy and solutions based on their experiences of learning English. They may even be able to offer empathy in places I never knew empathy was needed.

2)      Knowledge

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you will know that grammar knowledge is not my must confident area. Without wanting to get to into the in’s and out’s (check out my blog here if you’re interested) I simply never explicitly learnt grammar rules at school and, although I’m trying my best to catch up now, my knowledge is simply nowhere near that of a proficient NNS. Although I think there are much more effective ways of teaching grammar than explaining specific rules I also never say never, and some students (rightly or wrongly) expect this explanation from their teacher as do many co-workers. The non-native teacher has definitely got the upper hand here by having a range of options available to them when it comes to teaching such aspects of the English language.

3)      Use of L1 in the Classroom

Again, this is a topic I don’t want to into the specifics of now, but I firmly believe L1 has a very important role to play in the classroom. It does present a problem for me though. As my Korean isn’t exactly fluent beyond ordering a round of Cass in my local hof (Korean pub), I’m not always sure if my students are using L1 as I intended or if they are discussing the outfit girls generation were wearing on top of the pops last night (Korean equivalent of!). Although I admit this is only valid if the teacher speaks the same language proficiently, which a native English speaker can learn to do, it is still something I encounter day to day.

4)      Lingua & Cultura Franca

This is my favourite. English has become a global language, native English speaking countries no longer have the firm controlling grasp on it that we once did. It is used as a medium for communication across hundreds and thousands of cultures around the world, this is important for several reasons:

          i)   Students need to become accustomed to non-native accents.

          ii)  Students need to become accustomed to deciphering culturally loaded language use.

          iii)  Students need to be accustomed to interacting with those they may hold negative stereotypes about.

Also, the culture of native English speaking countries is readily available pretty much everywhere you look, however a NNS may present a rare opportunity for students to interact with a very different culture to their own that isn’t all over the mass media. There is also the fact that if the NNS has lived in an English speaking culture they are likely to know which parts of the culture are most likely to confuse students and need further explanation.

5)      Understanding

This may seem a repetition of my previous points, but that’s fine because, as any language learner will tell you, repetition is a good thing! Why did the non-native presenters leave me with the most practically useful and usable tips to take into my classroom? Because they understand the process of learning English, they understand the little things that could have made their lives easier when they were a learner and that can make our students lives easier now.

So there it is, five reasons why I wouldn’t hire me! Of course, I’m not saying all native speakers should be out of a job, but I am saying non-native English teachers should be given the respect in this industry they deserve. I simply do not think it is right that non-native speakers be disqualified from a job based purely on where they were born or where they went to university. Hell, what even is a ‘native speaker’? (see @Josettelb ‘s awesome blog here for a further run down of this particular issue).

Let’s hire people for the job they can do and what they can bring to the classroom, not on this ridiculous pre-conceived notion that ‘native speakers’ are magically better at teaching English, be it conversation, exam preparation or whatever else.

What do you think? Have I missed some important reasons as to the benefits non-native English speaking teachers provide? Do you disagree with me?

I would LOVE to hear your thoughts, especially if you have had experiences with learning from both native and non-native teachers!

Don't forget you can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

 


Comments

Sara Jacklin
29/10/2012 06:11

Isn't it strange that non-native English teachers are discriminated against in S Korea, yet in the UK I don't ever remember any of our foreign language teachers being native French/German/Spanish speakers

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29/10/2012 06:34

A wonderful blog post with debate about NNTs 'vs' NTs. I found the fact the Korean educators were trying to get robots in the EFL classroom. There is always a need for NTs, no matter the debate about ELF or Global English, as parents or learners would be willing to pay for the exposure to nativised version of English (whatever that might be).

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Anne
29/10/2012 07:09

Ah, the old NST, NNST debate.

I really like your question, "What even is a 'native speaker'?" It's an important question and it's why I disagree with you.

I don't really think that one is better than the other or that you (especially YOU, Alex) should be passed over in favor of these L2 English users.

I think that your study of Korean provides you with both empathy and understanding for your students. As a teacher, you are also a learner and as a language learner, you know how difficult it is to learn a new language and how dumb students can feel surrounded by input that they can't always comprehend.

As far as knowledge goes, especially grammatical knowledge, that was learned by Korean teachers and can also be learned by you.

I agree with your lingua / cultura- franca point. However, I wonder if you can't facilitate that in any case - using linked classrooms or online resources.

The debate is still on and probably will be for a very long time. I totally agree that so-called "non-native speakers" should be treated with more respect in the field and I love that you raise that point. Why not level the playing field and hire people based on linguistic qualifications rather than accent or country of origin?

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Bob
29/10/2012 07:43

All very valid points but what do the students want? This argument almost always forgets their wishes and leads to the rather patronising conclusion that they don't know what is good for them.

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30/10/2012 00:49

Excellent piece. My wife is Korean and worked as an EFL teacher in our school, and the discrepancies in treatment and pay between Korean and foreign teachers was an unspoken cause of friction in the relationships between the two groups. Since we were at a hagwon, it followed the standard model of unqualified foreign teachers paired with highly qualified (some MA TESOL, most with BAs in Ed or Early Childhood Ed) Korean teachers who were paid much less and expected to work much more. At the very least, this disparity should be corrected, but I don't know where or how this would even begin to be addressed.

Bob has a point, but I would add, what do the parents want? You can enter into a dialogue with your students on these issues to find out how they feel and to share how you feel about this to get beyond the "they don't know what's good for them" argument. I would be curious about how students respond to these arguments, but I don't expect anything to change in less than a generation unless parents demand it or the government decrees it.

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Manpal
28/11/2012 23:31

I think another thing to consider is that certain schools are not really looking for qualified teachers. They specifically request a native English speaking teacher (NEST) because they are the 'window dressing' needed to make their school seem legit (hagwons) or because decisions made by politicians mandate that they have a NEST at their school (public schools). In either case, I don't think the decision to specifically hire a NEST is based on the belief of NESTs having superior teaching skills but rather due to operational necessity.

I wish you would have talked to me before writing this post because I could have told you 13 more reasons why I wouldn't hire Alex Walsh.

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AlienTeachers
28/11/2012 23:47

It would be reasonable to say my week isn't complete without a spot of cyber-bullying from Mike or Manpal! Thanks for completing my week! :-)

BTW I heard you're job hunting? I know the coordinators at Gangnam OofE ya know? Want me to have a word?!!!! :-p

On a slightly serious note, cheers for reading and contributing mate.

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