A while ago, I read a post in one of the Facebook groups I visit, claiming that Hiring a Native English Speaker is not Discrimination. In brief, the author claimed that Native English Speaking Teachers (NESTs) are better teachers “because English comes naturally” to them, and that hiring any teacher who is not a native speaker makes no sense. A mastery of idiomatic language and a “wide” and “expressive” vocabulary were argued to be important advantages that NESTs enjoyed, and the claim was put forward that NESTs “often demonstrate very different teaching techniques [presumably communicative language teaching?] which are better accepted by the students than if a non-native were to use them”.
I have learnt over time, and in ways that have not been uniformly pleasant, that it is best to simply ignore views that are seriously flawed. That said, it is my strongly held conviction that racism needs to be vigorously challenged, and it is with this conviction in mind that I would like to make the following remarks.
So, what’s wrong?
The article suffers from the usual range of problems encountered in racist discourse: lots of claims that are not empirically substantiated (how do we know that “students generally feel more comfortable speaking in class when their teacher is a native speaker”?), terms that are not operationally defined (what is a “more expressive vocabulary”?), and occasional absurdity (who or what is “international TEFL”, and when did they commission a survey?). However, in this post I want to address three fundamental misconceptions that run through the article, which -in my opinion- reveal a surprising disconnect from the scholarship that has informed English studies and education since at least the 1990s.
Native speaker of what variety?
The first of these problems is that the article appears to be premised on a rather simplistic dichotomy between NESTs and non-NESTs, which is simply untenable in face of the vast diversity of English. “I wouldn’t expect a Russian to teach Chinese”, the author claims, but such thinking quickly runs into problems if we think about the many different varieties of English spoken in the world. By the standards of the article, NESTs from Manchester (UK), might not be suitable teachers for American ESL classes. Similarly, and perhaps more controversially, learners who are preparing for study at a university in India should be taught by native speakers of Indian English. And what about social variation? Are we prepared to argue that anyone who was not born into the UK upper class is not qualified enough to teach the Queen’s English? Though intuitively appealing to the lay public, such a line of thinking does not hold up to scrutiny.
Furthermore, while a case could be made that “a better command of idiomatic language and slang” can be of value if one wants to integrate in a specific linguistic community, it is far from self-evident that this is what all English language learners want to do. This leads to my second point below:
What about English as a Lingua Franca?
Another fundamental misconception in the article is a belief that rashly, and wrongly, assumes that all learners need English in order to communicate with native speakers. This is often the case with language learning (e.g., one generally learns Italian to communicate with Italians), and in such cases it is plausible that learners might want to benefit from specific insights of teachers who lived in that community long enough (but note that this is not quite the same as native speakers). English, however, is a special case because of its role as a global lingua franca, i.e., a contact language between people for whom it is not a native language.
To use a personal example, I am writing this blog in English to reach out to an audience which today has included visitors from Spain, Malaysia, Germany and Saudi Arabia, as well as a few Brits and Americans. I wouldn’t be surprised if native speakers turned out to be a minority among the readers of this blog. In the literature, it has been claimed that English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) encounters account for most of the English language communication nowadays, and there is considerable evidence from corpus-based studies [e.g., 1, 2, 3], that (British or US-American) idiomatic language is not a prominent feature of ELF exchanges. If anything, one suspects, such slang probably hinders effective communication.
Because English is now a global language, learners generally need to do more than mimic a specific variety (a task for which a NEST might prove useful as a model). Rather, they need to foster strategies and repertoires that will enable them to successfully communicate in English across contexts. This involves, among other things, accommodating to unfamiliar accents and lexis, requesting and providing clarifications as necessary, and behaving in ways that are sociolinguistically appropriate in diverse settings. Having these strategies and repertoires, and being able to model them effectively, is conditional on education and exposure to linguistic diversity, rather than accident of birth. In this sense the NEST/non-NEST dichotomy is, at best, a red herring.
It’s all about race, not language
Finally, I wish to take issue with the attempt made in the article to hide behind learner preferences in order to justify discriminatory practices. For example, in the article it is suggested that certain techniques “are better accepted by the students” if employed by native speakers.
Hidden behind this claim is what Adrian Holliday describes as an “implicit neo-racist imagination about superior and inferior cultures of teaching and learning”. It is an imagined advantage, because it is not based on solid empirical evidence (if anything, research has increasingly questioned it). And it is racist because research has repeatedly shown that such perceptions conflate linguistic and ethnic background with teaching authority. Eljee Javier, for example, discusses situations in which learners expressed reservations about, and schools have discriminated against, native speakers who look non-native, e.g., English teachers of Asian ethnicity who were born in Canada. Other research has suggested that learners are often quite happy to be taught by non-Native speakers who look native, i.e., white.
The question that we are faced with, then, is how should a language school cope with erroneous and unfair preferences of their client base. An argument can be made, and indeed has been made, that a school is a business, so it needs to be sensitive to market demands. A different view, which is closer to my own values, is that education -including language education- should be about challenging racist beliefs, not accommodating to them.
To sum up, the claim that the preferential hiring of NESTs is not discriminatory was based on the arguments that NESTs are better language models, and that communicative techniques are more readily accepted when employed by NESTs. Of these, the first argument is incompatible with current understandings of the global nature of English, and the second one is pedagogically dubious and ethically problematic.
The position taken here is not that non-native speakers are better, or just as good teachers as native speakers of English. Rather, it is that the very concept of Native vs. Non-Native teachers should be irrelevant to teaching discourse, just as dichotomies between male and female teachers, or between attractive and plain-looking ones. To quote Adrian Holliday again, these labels “really have not always been there, and we really don’t need them”.
While the profession is becoming increasingly aware that the NEST/non-NEST dichotomy is unhelpful, it is disheartening to see that some language education providers persist in making claims such as “the quality is better when the person is a native”. Not to put too fine a point to it, a language course that is underpinned by this kind of thinking will not expose you to better language; it will expose you to noxious values.
Image Credit: The LEAF Project @ Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0