Friday, 17 April 2015

Native and Non-Native English Speaking Teachers: Labels that should be dropped

Christopher Smith 

University of Sheffield ELTC

At the IATEFL Conference 2015 in Manchester I heard and took part in lots of discussion about native and non-native English speaking teachers. These are fairly common terms, but to define slightly, the former is an English teacher whose first language is English, and the latter is one whose first language is something other and who has learned English as a second language to a proficient level. So a teacher from Southern England, speaking something akin to the Queen’s English, would fit the mould of ‘native’ while a teacher from Brazil, with a Portuguese accent would seem to be non-native.

This simplistic dichotomy would fit many teachers, but there is a grey area that becomes a little more difficult. How would you classify a teacher from Wales, whose first language is Welsh, but is bilingual in English? How about a teacher born in the UK but brought up in an Urdu speaking family? How about if that family first moved to the UK when the teacher was 5, or 11, or 18, or 25? At some point there would need to be a line drawn in the sand to mark the difference between native and non-native. Where and how would this be drawn? Actually that’s a trick question. In my opinion we shouldn’t be asking it at all.

The distinction between native and non-native is a troubling one. In my experience in Japan, students would often be proud to have a native teacher, a bit like having a Dyson rather than a cheaper generic vacuum cleaner. At IATEFL, Higor Cavalcante reported adverts for English teachers that specified a preference for native speakers, which he rightly argued is prejudiced. Later, Martin Parrott commented on native and non-native teachers, and said that in his experience non-native teachers were often better. That statement shows 2 things which are fairly common in ELT. Firstly, there is belief or assumption, often unstated, that native English speaking teachers are inherently better than non-native teachers. Secondly, there is a well-intentioned movement to explain that non-native teachers are just as good, if not better.

If we look at that first assumption, it starts to break down under analysis. Recalling the first character, the Queen’s English speaking teacher from southern England, that teacher might fit everyone's image of a native speaker. However there are many varieties of English that have difficult accents, use dialect words or are filled with slang. Furthermore, being a native of the UK does not magically bestow an explicit knowledge of English and the corresponding ability to teach it. Being a ‘native’ does not automatically mean that person is a language expert or that their language is better then someone for whom English is a second language.

In fact, when we analyse it we start to see that the distinction between native and non-native is not actually a linguistic description, it is based on where you were born. This is something Donald Freeman mentioned in his IATEFL plenary. He said “nativeness is a geopolitical, it is not a linguistic idea; we cannot really define nativeness linguistically” (sic); the idea of nativeness is actually a term bestowed on those who were born and raised in an English-speaking country, so it is a result of geographical and political factors and is not directly dependent on linguistic ability. The implication is that although the ‘(non-) native’ term is an attempt to describe language level, it is actually a reference to a person’s origins. If we are categorising teachers into native and non-native, if one group has better access to jobs than the other, and if this distinction is based on the country of birth or residence, then this distinction is unfairly discriminatory and possibly even racist.

If we look at the second of Parrott’s ideas, the explanation that non-native teachers are often better, I have heard lots of anecdotal evidence as to why. For example, they have been through the whole process of learning English as a foreign language and can relate that to students; they may feel like they have a lower status than native teachers and so therefore work harder; they may have a better explicit knowledge of English than a native-speaker. These are all arguments I often hear in the debate, but the very existence of the debate is part of the problem. By maintaining labels of ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ we are grouping all teachers into one of two camps. By using these terms we are perpetuating a dichotomy that helps create an atmosphere whereby some teachers can be discriminated against because of where they are from.

The criteria which should be used to judge an English teacher are their teaching ability and their expertise in English, not their origins. Here at the University of Sheffield ELTC, the director of teacher training, Will Nash, explains that when recruiting potential teachers for training or experienced teachers for jobs, whether someone is ‘native’ or not is not a consideration. What matters is whether they are an expert user of English. This is a much more comfortable definition because it is purely linguistic and does not carry any nasty connotations. I would propose in the wider TEFL world, we stop labelling teachers as native or non-native altogether.

For example, if you work in a language school and you have a request for a native-speaker teacher, please explain that you don’t label teachers in that way and all the teachers are English experts. If you are advertising for a job, please don’t ask for “native English speakers only”.

Equally, if you are in a conversation discussing the relative merits of native and non-native teachers, remember that no matter how well-intentioned everyone may be, the act of labelling teachers in this way maintains a division which does not withstand scrutiny, which is not based on linguistic ability and which may help perpetuate discrimination. If you disagree, imagine that same conversation discussing the relative merits of male and female teachers, or of teachers with different skin colours. The discussion just wouldn’t happen. I think the same principles should apply and the conversation should explain that teachers should not be judged by their origins but their expertise in English.

Christopher Smith