Questions about native or non-native English speakers as English teachers

  • Should non-native English speakers be allowed to teach EFL / ESL? YES
  • Can a non-native English teacher be a successful English teacher? YES
  • Is being a native or non-native English speaker a factor when teaching English? NO

Questions about non-native English speakers as English teachers are common. This article is open-ended and states the reasons for my answers. Hopefully, I will spark a bit of a debate as well.

On what are my observations and statements based? I have a degree in English language and literature. I have worked for a TEFL/TESOL training organisation since 2002.

I base my native versus non-native conclusions on over a decade of watching native and non-native students take the TEFL courseWe only accept non-native English speakers onto the TEFL course who have either attained a degree from a university in one of the six English speaking countries or have passed an official English exam that would grant them entry into one of these universities. We speak to them as well to make sure that their English is acceptable for an English teacher. The point I’m making is that the non-natives who attend the EBC TEFL course have a very high level of English.

The non-native English speakers’ advantage

The non-natives have two virtually guaranteed advantages over native English speakers. First, their spelling and understanding of English grammar are usually better. Both of which are essential for being a good English teacher. They have also learned English as a foreign language. Therefore, they can relate much more closely to the teaching process. They have lived through the English language process. A native English speaker does not have this experience.

The native English speakers’ advantages are that they have a much higher comfort level and (in most cases) a deeper vocabulary, including formal and colloquial terms. The fundamental problem is that they know how to construct sentences but cannot explain why. Explaining language structure is part of all language teaching because no one can communicate in any language without understanding how its components fit together, aka grammar.

In addition to teaching English grammar to native English speakers, we sometimes have to tune up their spelling. The gaps in their grammar and spelling skills are not their fault. Almost all Anglo-Saxon education systems teach little or no grammar and prefer content over form (construction and spelling). There are pros and cons to this, but there are also some situations where linguistic inaccuracies might lead to fatal consequences.

Why do some people have a “native English teacher only” attitude?

I will start with two points:

  • Why are certain countries obsessed with having a native English speaker as an English teacher?
  • Why I am frequently told by English language learners (ELLs), “You must give me a teacher with a British (or American, Canadian, etc.) accent.”

The underlying meaning of the first question is “I want the best.” As we all know, “the best” is relative. I can only speak for Spain because that is where I am based. The Spanish have an unspoken distrust of their countrymen about foreign issues and skills. When they choose an English teacher, their logic seems to be, “If I cannot speak English properly, then you cannot teach it properly because we are both Spanish.” It is a cultural issue and not a knowledge issue. I would be interested in hearing about other motives behind the statement “I want a native English speaking teacher”.

An example of the second point is “Give me a teacher with a British accent.” My standard reply is, “Which British accent do you want?” Britain has many accents and dialects. Some are easier to understand than others. A few of them require a lengthy period to build up understanding. As such, a British accent is as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. English language learners (ELLs) do not seem to understand this. They think that all people from Britain speak classic BBC newscaster English (Sir Trevor McDonald comes to mind). It is the same in other countries as well. For example, the northeast coast American accent is very different from the southern states. Native English speakers often have difficulty understanding people’s accents from other regions in their country.

Is the type of English accent an issue?

A non-native English teacher will have an accent relative to their mother tongue. However, if they speak with clarity, understandably, coherently and create sentences that make sense, why should they be treated as inferior to native English speaking teachers?

Many non-native English speakers are perfectly understandable when they speak English. Of course, they have an accent but so does someone from Mobile or Boston in the USA; Newcastle, Glasgow or London, in the UK; etc.

There is a big difference between learning English and acquiring an English accent from my observations. They are connected, but they are not the same. Language use must be understandable. The question is, what is the correct way? For example, people say bath in the north of England with a short “a” sound. In other parts of England, people say bath with a long “a”, which sounds like “barth”. Which one is correct? Does it matter as long as the speaker is understood?

The non-native speaker may or may not lose out in this area. One of our EBC TEFL course graduates is Rafaela. She is Spanish and now an English teacher in the UK. Rafaela has a clear and understandable accent. However, there is still an inescapable trace of Spanish in it. Her teaching practice students and English speaking classmates had no problem understanding her. Another of our students was John from Glasgow in Scotland. John had a very thick Glaswegian accent, and very few people understood what he was saying, including native English speakers.

Throughout my time on the EBC TEFL training course, my observations are that non-native English speaking teachers can be just as valuable as native English speaking teachersAccent should not be an issue unless it interferes with understandable pronunciation. This statement applies to native and non-native speakers alike. Native and non-native English speakers must understand English’s communicative and technical aspects.

Some closing questions for you

I now take a big step out of the box and pose some closing questions.

English is now the accepted language of international business, air traffic control and other prominent international areas. It is also taking over in diplomacy, edging French to the sidelines. The onslaught of English into the international community demands that non-native English speakers learn it.

  • Should non-native English speakers who have excellent English abilities be encouraged to teach English?
  • Should native speakers try to hold on to the English teaching monopoly?
  • As an English teacher, does having a native English accent mean anything anymore?
  • Does the ability to communicate clearly, correctly and understandably in English supersede that a person has a non-native English accent?
  • The six primary English speaking countries are multi-cultural and ethnically diverse, so what is a native English accent?

I hope that you have enjoyed this article and found it helpful. I wish you the very best in your English teaching career.

Regards, Jim Ross, COO, EBC.