Racially diverse students reading together in a classroom setting

“Exclusively hiring native speakers is not discrimination” Seriously?

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.

In summary

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

35 thoughts on ““Exclusively hiring native speakers is not discrimination” Seriously?”

  1. Well said. The problem is a result of misplaced but seductive quasi logic ‘you should be Russian to teach Russian’ along with plain ignorance on the part of employers and the lay observer. The answer?
    Will be a long time coming, I fear.

  2. Very well-stated and readable summary of the arguments against native-speakerism. I hope it makes the rounds of social media. I’ve sometimes thought that ELT (broadly speaking) is the last living remnant of a colonial mindset. But attitudes are changing and more and more people (including native speakers of prestige varieties of English) are finding these racist views offensive. This kind of post is an important part of changing the wider public discourse.

  3. Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts, and for helping to publicise this post! I am inclined to agree with Ray, that times are indeed changing – but maybe there are different rates of change in the academic world that we inhabit, and outside it.

    Part of the problem, I think, is that we (i.e., educators working in the critical tradition, broadly construed) have not always been successful in communicating our concerns. One is tempted to adopt a ‘holier than thou’ attitude in cases such as these (I am guilty of this too), and I am left thinking that it’s not always the most productive way forward.

    1. Another problem that is more practical. In many parts of the world the ‘TS’ in NEST are not Teachers. Dubious employers in order to trick vulnerable clients employ any native they can find. The reasoning is that pupils will have access to and contact with a NS who has idiomatic knowledge etc., but it is really an advertising con and a person employed cheaply to teach, possibly a tourist. As for the NEST vs non-NEST, there is more circulating on the good effects the introduction to TEFL of aspects of ELF would have. Athens, Sept’ 2014 conference proceedings soon out.

      1. Unfortunately, that often seems to be case in Greece (and, I imagine, in many other places that are attractive to tourists, and little regulation). As for the proceedings, I’m looking forward to them!

  4. Very surprised that it is still necessary to debunk the notion of NESTs as being better EFL teachers. It is a myth difficult to get rid of and Achilleas you are doing a great job in trying to do so. However, just to add to the discussion, Swiss teacher training colleges cling to the notion of “culture” as an important part of their training. Culture includes such ‘broad’ terms as music, fashion, nonverbal communication etc. It goes without saying that NESTs are being the preferred choice also in teacher education. In practice, trainees learn about the history of English literature instead of how to teach English. – Don’t get me wrong: Knowing about literature is fine with me but it should not be valued higher than basic teaching skills. Despite the fact that English is used more commonly as a lingua franca between L2-speakers of English, the notion of ‘culture’ in ELT is just another pretext for the supremacy of the NESTs.

    1. Thanks for yours, Urs. I completely share your feeling of surprise. I think that it’s because we live and work and study in places where race doesn’t matter so much that we sometimes forget the inequalities that run deep in the profession.

      Interesting thoughts about culture. This resonates a lot with my own pre-service training, which included a healthy-sized literature component. As you said, nothing wrong with that, but I don’t think it made me a better teacher.

  5. I don’t think it has anything to do with discrimination or racism, it’s more about culturalism. It is usually better to learn from a native of that culture than from someone who is not (and not AS familiar).

    1. Thanks for adding your thoughts to this discussion. Cultural awareness is, indeed, an important component of language education, in some settings at least.

      That said, I’d hesitate use the ‘culture’ argument as a means to justify discriminatory hiring. There are, in my view, at least three problems with this line of reasoning:

      1. It is underpinned by a monolithic conceptualisation of ‘culture’, which all the native speakers are thought to equally possess. But it is far from certain that a native of, say, Edinburgh can teach me much about the finer points of life in the American mid-West.

      2. It assumes that learning about culture is an important goal for all language learners. For learners who want to integrate in an English-speaking community, this may be true, but there are many cases where this need is not quite so evident (e.g., Greek engineers who want to communicate with Indian construction crews in UAE, Erasmus students who want to study in English-speaking universities in Continental Europe).

      3. It is premised on the assumption that cultural awareness depends on heritage, rather than exposure. One might argue that a NEST who has been expatriate for several years is no more familiar with ‘English culture’ than local teachers; and certainly less familiar than local teachers who were trained in English-speaking countries.

      None of the above should be read as denying the cultural capital that NESTs can bring into a language classroom. However, if we accept the premise that English is a global language, rather than the language of the British Isles, North America and the Antipodes; and if we accept the principle that we learn English to communicate with people around the entire world, that would seem to suggest that the cultural background that any teacher, and any learner, brings into our classrooms is equally valuable.

      1. Interesting points. I think in response to #1 that we are not a “monolithic conceptualization of culture” that’s true but to a very small extent. A culture is a system of values & behaviors widely held by a particular group of people. While this may not account for everyone, it certainly speaks to the majority of people within that culture. Other there would be 7 billion individual cultures on this planet – but we are sometimes grouped by our culture in order to help define what group we belong to.

        in response to #2 – Learning about the culture helps one to understand the content of which something is said. For example, if I tell someone to “break a leg” before a big performance (a widely used American term) someone outside of the American culture may not understand the meaning or cultural context in which that statement was made. Learning about another culture may not be your goal but it certainly helps when learning the language, particularly the informal/slang phrases & euphemisms.

        As for your 3rd point, there is a HUGE difference between culture & exposure. Cultural does widely depend on heritage NOT exposure. I can grow up in an all White, Anglo-Saxon rural environment but that doesn’t make me any more acculturated as an African American city-girl. In other words, insight into another culture makes me no more a part of that culture than me changing my brown skin to white.

        Hope that all makes sense!

  6. What a complete load of nonsense!

    What the hell has racism got to do with teaching English?

    Have you even bothered to speak to any of the thousands of ESL students that for some crazy reason always request a ‘NEST’??

    Have you asked yourself WHY they make that request in their own countries and abroad?

    Leftist liberal poison. It just doesn’t stop.

    1. There are lots of good arguments in favour of employing NESTs. Of these learner preference is probably the flimsiest excuse, but I can see how it be useful to anyone wishing to transfer responsibility for their questionable hiring decisions.

      1. I think you need a dictionary. Look up the words reason and logic. Let me break it down into very simplistic terms so that you might be able to better understand.

        Let’s suppose I own a brick laying company. Some of my workers lay standard walls. A few of my workers happen to be able to lay stronger walls. Their reputation for laying strong walls spreads via word of mouth. Some of my customers are happy to pay a premium to employ those workers, as they feel that having a stronger wall is a good investment in the long term. The customers could pay a lower price for what looks like exactly the same wall. Is that a questionable decision?

        Most would see the sense in building a stronger wall, if they have the means to pay the premium that comes with a higher standard of craftsmanship. As I said, reason and logic.

        I would only like to point out one thing, that in my time as a teacher I have experienced discrimination by students. I once had a student that for some reason thought I was not a native speaker. His attitude towards me was not positive at all. Until one day he heard me talking outside the school and realised that I was in fact a native speaker. I was very upset because many of my colleagues, who are not native speakers, happen to be excellent teachers. I explained to the student that it was very unfair of him to automatically assume that a non native speaking teacher is somehow not as capable as a native speaking one.

        Discrimination and racism are strong words. I feel that people today are to quick to throw such terms out there, without fear of being called out on them to justify the usage of such terms. When they are questioned they throw their arms up in the air and cry out in horror. How dare anyone question my point when I included words like racism and discrimination!?!

        I will leave you with two more words; supply and demand. As I said before, students request native speakers. Therefore schools are forced to employ them or lose business.

        I am sure you will try to come back with some other nonsense in a feigned attempt at backing up your views. That’s just the way subsidised liberals roll. I would bet my last five euros that a non native speaker would not be able to explain my use of the word ‘roll’ in the previous sentence. The students ask, believe me they always ask. Do they need to know such things? Probably not. Unfortunately you seem to have forgotten that all human beings are curious beings, and that most certainly includes language students.

      2. Re your hypothetical bricklaying scenario: In many countries, choosing manual labourers on account of their nationality is considered discriminatory, no matter what your hypothetical customers might think about said bricklayers’ reputation. The appeal to customer preference has been tested a number of times in court, e.g., by airlines who were keen on letting chubby and middle-aged flight attendants go. In all cases of which I am aware it has failed to impress.

        As for supply and demand, that is neither here nor there when it comes to discrimination. I am sure there is a strong supply for younger, more attractive and flirty teachers. I would not be surprised if there are schools out there whose hiring policies are influenced by such considerations. However, I would be most puzzled if you argued that the laws of supply and demand make such hiring practices less unjust, and I am equally perplexed to see you arguing for their relevance to racial discrimination. At any rate, we have already established that accommodating to client preference is good business sense. The question posed is whether it is also an ethical way to maximise profit.

        I appreciate the fact that this is topic about which you have strong views, which is why I have so far tolerated a number of remarks phrased in ways that are not conducive to a productive discussion. It is also why will let you have one last word on the matter. As for me, I stand by the last paragraph of my post, and I trust the readers of this blog to judge whether your arguments have refuted or proved my point.

  7. Choosing manual labourers on account of their nationality?

    It never ceases to amaze me the way you lefty liberals can so effortlessly poison anything at the drop of a hat. A perfectly innocent hypothetical scenario, and you come up with manual labourers, nationality and ‘chubby’ flight attendants. I applaud you sir, your ability to taint knows no bounds.

    Ethical ways to make profit?

    What planet do you live on?

    It’s not really a topic I have strong views on. The reason for my apparent hateful tone is purely and solely directed at people that are more often than not paid to spread this type of leftist liberal propaganda.

    If you really have any reasonable desire for a productive discussion, then you wouldn’t have purposely ignored key facts and the reality of business itself.

    In your perfect leftist utopia, thriving language schools would find themselves going bankrupt due to so called ‘ethical’ hiring policies.

    Nurseries and playgroups typically hire more women than men. Does anybody complain about this? No. Why? Because it is generally accepted that due to a woman’s maternal instinct she CAN generally speaking handle the job with slightly more finesse than her male counterpart. Am I saying that men can’t handle taking care of young children? No. As a father myself I can tell you that men are fully capable of being just as patient and caring as any woman. Yet, nurseries mainly employ women. Is that discrimination? According to your leftist fuzzy logic it is.

    Who would you hire to sell cars? An experienced middle aged man or a pretty young woman?

    The middle aged man knows infinitely more about the product, but for some strange reason the young woman closes more sales.

    However you decide to twist my comments, unfortunately your leftist dogma can’t change the simple fact that business is business. The ESL school that chooses to only employ non native speakers would not last very long in today’s economic climate. Nor would any other business that chose to completely ignore the fundamental basics of viability.

  8. It’s hard to know where to begin with comments like the above, and I don’t think there’s much point even trying; I can’t see that anyone who thinks that ‘pretty young woman’ is a suitable example will ever be persuaded of the offensiveness of some of the other points *deep breath*… So, moving on… excellent post! It’s so easy to become disheartened by blog posts like the original one you referred to (and by comments like the above) which is why it’s so important to keep writing things like this post, to stop us all from sinking our heads into our hands in despair. So thanks for sharing your thoughts. Well said :)

  9. Couldn’t agree more with Katy’s comment above. Bob’s comments completely miss the point: if as a man you were turned down for a job in a nursery, despite being fully qualified to do it, only on the basis of being a man, it would be a clear example of discrimination. The fact that more women work in nurseries (if this is actually true) has much more to do with the fact that in the past men were not supposed to take care of children. It was a women’s job. Clearly a chauvinistic point of view. I think we would all agree that if a nursery job said: MUST be female, it would be discriminatory.
    As far as ELT goes, choosing teachers based on their mother tongue reduces the value of professionalism, experience and qualifications. You don’t choose a history teacher, because they’re very old. Nor do you choose a football player for your team, because they’re from Brazil. It’s time that ELT recruitment policies refelcted the fact that being proficient in a language (or a native speaker) is not the only, nor the most important trait of a successful teacher. There are great and horrible teachers in both groups.
    By the way, great article, Achileas. I really enjoyed reading it. Do you mind if I republish it on my website: http://www.teflequityadvocates.com?

  10. Really fabulous article, Achilleas. I’m curious whether you have thoughts on what NESTs can do to help combat this bias. Personally, I recognize that the “culture” I bring to the classroom is limited to my specific background and that many non-native speakers would be as or more qualified for the positions I’m offered — but I receive preferential treatment because of my accent and the color of my skin. I wish there were concrete steps that people in my position could take to help educate our students and administrators.

    1. You can find some ideas here, Noodle: http://teflequityadvocates.com/get-involved/what-can-i-do/ and in this post by James Taylor: http://teflequityadvocates.com/2014/06/08/get-involved-by-james-taylor/
      It’s always great to see a NEST who would like to get involved :) I run TEFL Equity Advocates, a website which is dedicated to advocating equal employment policies for nNESTs. Feel free to get in touch through there: http://www.teflequityadvocates.com

  11. Couldn´t agree with you more Achilleas, unfortunately this false dichotomy about NEST vs Non NESTs has been supported by part of the educational market who mistakenly believe that good teachers must only possess superior language skills, disregarding pedagogical skills, which are just as important. Down in my country, Chile, some language students have a preference (at first) for the attractive native english teachers, but then they realized that they can not explain some grammatical features that derive from the chilean spanish context. On the other hand, chilean EFL teachers can put themselves in the students´shoes and understand their specific interests and needs. Therefore many program directors have come to realize that both NEST (where ever they are available) and non NESTs are needed and complement each other quite well, non NEST are usually placed more in beginners level and NEST are highly appreciated at higher levels (advanced conversation).

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rodrigo! I agree with what you have said about NESTs and non-NESTs strengths complementing each other. Personally, I’d like to go a step further and do away with the dichotomy entirely, but when used sensibly, as you’ve done in this comment, I can see how it can be useful.

  12. Hi Achilleas,

    Thanks for the great post. At first, my initial reaction to that text was ‘ok, this is so shallow and wrong in so many ways we should just ignore it’. Then I read your post and right now I couldn’t be more grateful for that text, as it gave you the inspiration to write this brilliant post.
    As a non-native English speaking teacher, this makes me angry. However, I’m not ‘just’ a teacher, I am a human being. I’m a mixed-race person from Latin America. I am also a chocolate lover. And I happen to have a black car. The fact that I own a black car should be as relevant as the country I come from when I look for a job. It unfortunately isn’t. While employers don’t really care if I like chocolate or if I’m allergic to it, the color of my skin is a big deal. My hair texture is a big deal. My passport is a big deal. If that isn’t discrimination, I really don’t know what it is. In the end, finding a job should be about my qualifications and my personality, but that’s not how it happens. It’s about passing as a native speaker, physically (because everyone who’s a native speaker of English is caucasian, you know) and in the way I speak (no foreign accent, please).
    Let me tell you a quick anecdote I heard the other day. I have a friend teaching in an English speaking country. At the language school she teaches, there are 2 non-NESTs, my friend and a colleague. Both are from Brazil. One day, a student from Brazil looked at her next teacher’s name and asked the secretary ‘Where’s this person from?’, ‘Brazil’, she said. The student said she hadn’t travelled miles away to another country to have lessons with a Brazilian and demanded to go to a different group. The Brazilian teacher, who happens to be a white woman, ‘changed’ her name and the staff would refer to her as her nickname, which was quite neutral and didn’t give anyone a clue where she was from. How long should we hide?
    I hope more employers see this post and think about their roles and what they want to sell. Everyone wants to make money, but I do believe we as educators can dispel certain misconceptions about language teaching and earn money with dignity.

    1. Great comment, thanks! One of my doctoral supervisors would often use the term ‘people-who-teach’, rather than ‘teachers’, to emphasise that our identity is much broader than our professional role. One’s mother language is, doubtless, a central to one’s identity (just like race, social class, political views), but it’s not clear why it must also be important in terms of professional role.

      Thanks also for sharing that anecdote about the teacher from Brazil. Sadly, it seems to be a common experience.

  13. Great article. I am a teacher of English too, from Chile. I just want to add that in our profession we are in a way “competing” not only against a dichotomy but also “against” native speakers. I agree with the point that this dichotomy itself is irrelevant but somehow some people with power have made it relevant. In any case, it may be useful to consider that in a way English language is different from other “knowledge domains”, so to speak. I mean, the concept of native speaker is there, and it seems to be pretty real, at least provisionally; theory is different from reality but that´s another topic. There is no such thing as a “native architect” or a “native engineer” because professions are not linked in any sense to culture, birthplace, exposure, use, etc.
    That being said, there is no such thing as a “native teacher”, which means there are no “native teachers of English”, only “teachers of English” and “native speakers of English”. When we try to hire teachers of English it doesn´t matter if they are native speakers or not because a “teacher” of anything is not made out of anything unreachable for anyone, such as birthplace. This leads to what you said, that this dichotomy is irrelevant.
    From another perspective, I don´t see this is as a threat but as I said, great article, and very useful for possible discussions on the matter.

    1. Thanks for adding these thoughts, Rodolfo. There are undoubtedly questions of power that come into play in creating and sustaining this dichotomy. I was intrigued by the post by Adrian Holiday (follow the links from my post), where he argued that this dichotomy had not always been in place (Others, such as Robert Phillipson, would perhaps argue otherwise). This seems to invite reflection as to why this distinction came to be important, and what it might be like if we could put it aside.

  14. Hi,

    Thanks for the article about english teacher native speaker. Its useful to improve the english ascent. I got the details from [link removed]

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving an advert to an agency promoting ‘native-speaker’ services. I will try hard not to infer anything about the quality of instruction offered by the teachers you advertise, on the basis of your reading comprehension skills or your spelling.

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