Published 13th January 2017
Before we start, take a minute and think about these questions:
If you were learning English, what first language would you want your teacher to speak?
Can a non-native speaker teach English as well as a native speaker?
Regardless of how you answered, by thinking about these questions you will have uncovered your view on the Native English Speaker Teacher (NEST) and the Non-Native English Speaker Teacher (NNEST) debate. This has been a debate for many years in the EFL field and if you haven’t heard of it, here it is in a nutshell:
There seems to be an ingrained belief that a native speaker teacher is a better teacher than a non-native speaker teacher.
Why? Presumably, because they have the advantage of speaking English as a first language. But this is a simple idea that needs to be unpacked. Let’s look at why being a speaker of a language doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher of that language.
Speaking ability ≠ teaching ability
As we all know, being able to speak the language does not necessarily mean that you are able to teach the language. That would be like saying that if you can swim you can teach someone to swim, or if you can walk on a tightrope you can teach someone else how to do it. Teaching does not come naturally to everyone. Teaching is not just a lot of explaining. It is guiding and modelling and demonstrating, especially when it comes to something as tricky as English. Teachers need to utilise many different teaching techniques to ensure their learners learn as best they can.
Teaching is not an ability we are all born with, even when it comes to something like speaking a language. This is why there are many brilliant native English-speaking teachers out there, but there are some very average ones too – and the same can be said for non-native English-speaking teachers.
NESTs didn’t learn the language formally
Growing up speaking a language and learning it naturally is very different to learning it as a foreign language. This means that while NESTs have an intuitive knowledge and feel for what’s correct and what’s not correct when it comes to language, they are not taught grammar rules or linguistic explanations. NNESTs have learnt all the formal rules related to English language usage, and they can probably explain a grammatical point or rule better than NESTs, purely because they have been taught it.
What’s more, having to learn English as a second or foreign language means that you understand the process your learners are undertaking in learning a foreign language. You are able to empathise and offer advice from a personal perspective.
NNESTs have a lot of training
This point of view also neglects to appreciate the education and training that many non-native teachers go through in order to become teachers. Not only have they had to become proficient in the language they are teaching but they have also had to undergo extensive teacher training. Because of their non-native status, NNESTs have to prove themselves more than NESTS, both when it comes to language proficiency and teaching qualifications.
NNESTs are good role models
By the very fact that they learnt English as a foreign language and are now teaching the language, NNESTs are examples of excellent language learners. They are proof to their students that no matter how challenging it might seem, learning to speak English at a native-like level is possible. Through their experience, they can model good language learning techniques which helped them learn the language.
Research has shown us that our learners benefit from speaking to their classmates, as language learners of a similar level will make similar mistakes and provide appropriate corrections. An NNEST teacher has an insight into their learners’ minds which native teachers can never have.
What does this mean for NNESTs?
As you can imagine, NNESTs have borne the brunt of the situation. There is a clear bias in employers in employing NESTs. For years many job ads have openly advertised Native speakers preferred or the US, UK citizens preferred. In fact, there has always been a general favour for TEFL teachers from one of the big seven: the UK, Ireland, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. This has probably served to put off many teachers from applying for numerous jobs. At the same time, this has possibly resulted in less qualified or experienced native teachers being employed over NNESTs.
Read more: TEFL Opportunities for Non-native Speakers
This bias is not only evident in employers, though. Some parents and students hold this belief, too, so if you are a NEST you may find yourself favoured over an NNEST for no particular reason other than customer satisfaction. Some schools believe that if they can advertise as having NESTs, parents will be wowed and immediately send their children to the school. Adult learners, too, show themselves to prefer to have NESTs as their teachers.
What is the current popular opinion?
This is one of those things that shouldn’t be the way it is. While you may not be able to do anything to change the current situation if you are a NEST bear these thoughts in mind when dealing with other teachers at your school. Just because they are NNESTs does not mean they are any less qualified or any less talented than you at their job.
And if you are an NNEST, don’t let the job ads get you down. There is no reason why you can’t find a job in TEFL and any TEFL employer worth their salt will appreciate you, your qualifications and your experience. The tide is turning in EFL and soon this will hopefully not be an issue anymore.