Athens University Main Building

Non-Native Speakers of English need not apply

A while ago I wrote a post where I argued that the preferential hiring of Native Speaking English Teachers is discriminatory, and having made my case I thought that there would be no reason to revisit the issue. In part, this is because such discussions have a way of quickly becoming unproductive, especially when carried out online. More importantly, I think that there is a danger of focussing too much on the perceived differences between the two groups of teachers (native and non-native speakers), and thus perpetuating a distinction which is, in my opinion, unhelpful.

I think that, fortunately and despite occasional counter-examples, instances of discourse that supports ‘native-speakerism’ (: the preferential treatment of native speakers of English) are not as frequent as they used to be in the past; and that there is greater awareness, in the profession, of what constitutes discrimination, as well as less willingness to tolerate it. It has also been my experience that embarrassing attempts to legitimise unjust practices are usually dealt with by the teaching community swiftly and appropriately.

This is why I was genuinely stunned to learn about the casual and crude discrimination practised by the University of Athens and the Greek Institute of Educational Policy (Ινστιτούτο Εκπαιδευτικής Πολιτικής), who are jointly responsible for developing the new Foreign Language Curriculum for Senior High Schools. According to the job advertisement (in Greek only), they were interested in contracting four ELT methodology specialists, who will create learning materials, reading comprehension tasks and grammar awareness testing activities, ranging from B2 to C1 level of the Common European Framework of Reference (p. 3). The person specification expressly excluded non-native speakers, as it was stipulated that being a native speaker of English was an essential qualification (p. 4, my translation) :

Essential qualifications:

  • A humanities degree
  • Native speaker of English
  • Proven professional experience in creating learning materials for teaching and learning English, and/or assessing linguistic proficiency (in print and/or in electronic media)
Person specification from RCEL website, stipulating that non-native speakers will be excuded
Extract from the job specification for ELT methodology specialists (p. 4)

Elsewhere in the same document, a position was described for an ELT methodology specialist who will be responsible for creating listening tasks. They too, must be native speakers of English (p. 6). Then, on pp. 16-17, there’s a position for two voice actors (male and female), who not only need to be native speakers, but also have to speak with “a British pronunciation”.

Oddly, these native-speakerist specifications appear to be specific to the positions associated with the English language. The positions for French and German language specialists seem to have been written with a very different professional profile in mind, as seen in the extract below (p. 14, my translation and emphasis).

Essential qualifications:

  • A first degree from a Department of French Language and Literature
  • A Masters degree in French Language Teaching or Translation, or a PhD focussing on French Language Teaching
  • Linguistic proficiency at a native-speaker level
  • Proven professional experience in creating learning materials for teaching and learning English, and/or assessing linguistic proficiency (in print and/or in electronic media)
Extract from a job specification for a French language specialist
Extract from a job specification for a FLT methodology specialist (p. 14)

There are multiple reasons why this advert is so frustrating. One is that it is signed by academics who have often described their work as “counter-hegemonic”, “pluricentric”, and promoting a “multilingual, heteroglossic and polyphonic” ethos. What these impressive words index is an ideological position that allegedly challenges native-speaker privilege, and which is sometimes referred to as ‘critical applied linguistics’. It is unclear to me whether this discrepancy stems from lack of awareness about how language and politics come together in critical theory, or if it is an instance of hypocritical applied linguistics. Just as disturbingly, it reveals a disconnect from scholarship on applied linguistics (Isn’t English an international lingua franca and are there implications for nativeness?) and pronunciation research (What is a “British pronunciation” anyway, and why is it preferable?). This lack of scholarly sophistication is surprising for a research cell that purports to specialise on ELT methodology.

Most importantly, it is disheartening to be confronted with structural inequality that is so deeply ingrained and so blatantly expressed, when one does not know how to effectively address it. In instances like this, one can always rely on Widdowson for a pithy and apt bon mot. In Defining Issues in English Language Teaching, he writes that “applied linguistics is not in the business of recommending, but of pointing things out” (p. 180). What I have tried to point out, in this post, is that as the profession is slowly making its way towards a more inclusive practice, there are institutional enclaves that seem entrenched in racist ideologies. Because such institutions exercise power, they pose a significant obstacle to the continuing democratisation of ELT.


Featured Image: The University of Athens, by Badseed @ Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

14 thoughts on “Non-Native Speakers of English need not apply”

  1. Wonderful article, Achilleas, as always. It takes me by surprise that this kind of discrimination happens not only at a country where English is not the official language, but at a reputable institution such as the University of Athens.
    This shows that, although our industry is genuinely changing and moving towards more equal opportunities, there is still a lot we need to do to educate people in that matter.

  2. hi

    i am subscribed to two jobs lists for English language teaching, one of them has a policy of not having ads that ask for native speakers.

    in the one with no policy there was an advert stating – “Must be of anglophone birth”

    and in the list with the unfair discrimination policy that line did not appear

    so i wonder about the issues with overt and covert unfair discrimination, i.e. to what extent someone applying for a job from the list with an unfair discrimination policy might feel that it was better to have seen the overt unfair discrimination advert instead of the amended one? thereby saving them the time, cost and psychological pain of not getting the job?

    that is not to say that such policies should not be promoted, just that i think that the issue of overt vs covert unfair discrimination has not been discussed much?

    ta
    mura

  3. Very interesting article but sadly, not surprising. The same applies in other countries, thus discriminating on locals which to me is far worse in any country where unemployment desperately needs to be addressed..
    What I found even more interesting in your piece is the part about the ads concerning the positions for French and German language specialists. Again, not surprising as it is exactly the same here!
    This raises so many questions! Totally puzzling and worth looking into.

    1. Yes, I agree. It’s interesting that, while these beliefs appear to be increasingly challenged in the ‘centre’ of the Anglophone world, they seem to persist in the ‘periphery’. I also find it odd that the French and German ads were not quite so native-speakerist. I had always thought that ELT was more politically sensitive compared to equivalent fields in other languages. Maybe I was wrong…

  4. It would be interesting to find out where/who started the ‘native-speaker-only hiring tag’. This might perhaps shed some light in something which clearly doesn’t make sense.

      1. Thanks for the link! I love Adrian Holiday’s narrative! Not that I’ve read or heard everything he says but I recently wrote a piece on the cultural appropriateness of CLT today, and his views were some of the more refreshing out there.

    1. I know, and I am reliably informed that so do they. I strongly think that, given my somewhat tenuous academic status at the moment, it is not in my best interest to further escalate.

  5. Hi Achilleas,

    In Croatia, this kind of wording might suggest the ads were written with a specific person (or people) in mind, possibly someone who the university and/or edu policy institute have worked with previously, and want to make sure they work with again.

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