English teachers – native or non-native English speakers?

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

This is an open-ended article stating the reasons for my answers. Hopefully the article will spark a bit of a debate as well.

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

The native versus non-native conclusions I have drawn are based on over a decade of watching both native and non-native students take the TEFL course. We only accept non-natives onto the course who have either attained a degree from a university in the six main English speaking countries or have passed an official exam that would grant them entry into one of these universities. We also speak to them as well just to make sure. The point I’m making is that the non-natives who attend the course and I’ve observed have a very high level of English.

The non-natives have two virtually guaranteed advantages over native English speakers. Their spelling and understanding of English grammar are usually better. Both of which are skills that are essential for being a good English teacher. They’ve also learned English as a foreign language and therefore can relate much more closely to the teaching process. They’ve lived through the process whereas a native English speaker hasn’t.

The native English speakers’ advantages are that they are have a much higher comfort level and (in most cases) a wider vocabulary as it will include both formal and colloquial terms. The fundamental problem is that they know how to construct sentences but cannot explain why. This is basic to all language teaching as no-one can communicate in any language without understanding how its components fit together, aka grammar.

In addition to teaching them grammar and how it works, we sometimes have to tune up their spelling as well. Having said that, it’s 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.

Two points:

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

The underlying meaning of the first question is that “I want the best.” As we all know, “the best” is relative regardless of what you are dealing with. I can only speak for Spain as that is where I am based. The Spanish have an unspoken distrust in their own countrymen when it comes to foreign issues and/or skills. When choosing an English teacher, their logic seems to be, “If I can’t speak English properly then you can’t teach it properly because we are both Spanish.” It’s a cultural issue and not a knowledge issue. I’d be interested in hearing about other motives behind the “I want a native English speaking teacher” issue.

An example of the second point is “Give me a teacher with a British accent.” My standard reply is, “Which accent would you like to learn?” Britain has a lot of different accents and some dialects as well. Some are fairly easy to understand, others require a sometimes lengthy tuning in period. As such, a British accent is as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. ELLs don’t seem to understand this. They think that all Brits speaks classic BBC newscaster English (Sir Trevor McDonald comes to mind). It’s the same with other countries as well. Northern east coast American is very different from the southern states. Native English speakers often have difficulty understanding the accents of people from other regions in the same country.

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

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

From my observations there is a big difference between learning English and acquiring an English accent. They are connected but they are not the same. Words must be pronounced in a way that they can be understood, but what is the correct way? In the north of England people will say “bath” with a short “a” sound. In some parts of the south east it will be pronounced with a long “a” so it sounds something 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 trainees, Rafaela (she’s Spanish and now an English teacher in the UK) has a very clear accent when she speaks but there is still the inescapable trace of Spanish in it. Her practice students and English speaking classmates had no problem understanding her. Another of our students, John (from Glasgow in Scotland) had a very thick Glaswegian accent and initially very few people understood what he was saying, English speakers included.

My observations throughout my time on the training course are that non-native English speaking teachers can be just as valuable as native English speaking teachers. Accent should not be an issue unless it interferes with understandable pronunciation. This applies to native and non-native speakers alike. To state the obvious, in order to teach, both groups must understand the communicative and technical aspects of English.

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’s taking over in diplomacy as well, edging French to the sidelines. The onslaught of English into the international community demands that non-native English speakers learn it.

  • Shouldn’t non-native English speakers who have excellent English abilities be encouraged to teach it or should we native speakers try to hold on to the English teaching monopoly?
  • As a teacher of English, a truly international language, does having a native English accent really mean anything any more?
  • Does the ability to communicate clearly, correctly and understandably in English supersede the fact that a person has a non-native English accent?
  • Given the priceless multi-cultural and multi-ethnic make up of the six main English speaking countries, exactly what is a native English accent?

Jim Ross.

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