08 Nov To Be or Not to Be Native – That’s (Still?) the Issue. 3 Provisional Conclusions
Author: Ilinca Stroe, International House Bucharest
21 October 2019: “Hi! Do you have any recommendations for a native English speaker that works with kids?” The request was posted on a +15,000-member Facebook group for expats living in Romania and it immediately rang a bell. An unpleasant one. Those of you who, like yours truly, are CELTA-qualified non-native teachers of English and at some point looked for TEFL jobs abroad will know: dozens and dozens of job ads requesting, particularly in competitive markets like Italy or Spain, “native speakers only” in block letters, putting you off, making you feel unwanted, rejected by default, worthless, downhearted…
Unsurprisingly, the Facebook post drew prompt reactions: it was discriminatory to favour native speakers over non-native ones, to signal the latter were not eligible for hiring, to deny them equal opportunities, to preclude them from even applying for the job. Comments poured in, overflowing with indignation on both sides – for people did take sides:
Pro native arguments claimed that native teachers of English
- are better at “spoken discourse, phonetics and phonology”
- are better able to teach “English that is correct grammatically and with the correct sentence structure”
- can teach and explain vocabulary better
- are better at familiarising students with English-related cultural differences
- are constantly needed to clarify language points for their non-native colleagues
Pro non-native comments maintained that non-native teachers of English
- are perfectly able to “speak English like a native, including the accent”
- are better at spelling in English
- are better language-learning role models for their students
- are more empathetic and supportive about their students’ language learning efforts
- can teach and explain grammar better
In the end, someone finally stated the commonsensical obvious: anyone can teach English properly as long as they have a solid grasp of the English language and good teaching skills. And the debate stirred by the job ad – which, by the way, had been posted by a Romanian – subsided. But a few thought-provoking points did surface, and so a few conclusions are worth drawing:
1) As a consequence of English teaching employers’ previous policies, there seems to be a certain amount of rivalry and resentment between native and non-native teachers of English. Both categories have been competing for the same jobs on the same labour market, and it’s high time we admitted the former were indeed favoured over the latter, for decades. It gave schools a competitive edge to advertise courses taught by native teachers – it simply was “good marketing” to sell “nativeness”.
But nowadays, when course books embrace dozens of “Englishes”, when the “native English” myth has been dismantled by the reality of a plethora of native accents (from Kiwi to Highlands) and the global demand for English teachers shows that non-natives are also needed to fill the vacancies, the questions we all need to ask are these: How can that rivalry become complementarity, to the benefit of our students? How can we become respectfully aware of each other’s strengths and make the best of them so that we really serve the English learners who entrust us with their progress?
2) Non-native English teachers who feel discriminated on grounds of their “non-nativeness” (i.e. non-English mother tongue) should know they do benefit from legal protection. In the European Union, that is. As early as 2002, the European Commission ruled that “the phrase ‘native speaker’ is not acceptable, under any circumstances, under Community law”, and “advertisements requiring a particular language as a ‘mother tongue’ are not acceptable”, as they affect the free movement of workers.
Indeed, there has been visible change in the way English-teaching employers in the EU now phrase their ads: the “native speaker only” requirement is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past (without, however, disappearing for good – check out https://www.eslbase.com/jobs/spain/, for example). It has been replaced by more reasonable and fair demands such as “native level” English proficiency. The question is, How can we extend this non-discriminatory, inclusive attitude to other non-EU countries? How can we make sure non-native teachers are also welcome and treated fairly in markets outside the EU (China, South Korea, etc.)?
3) Whether native speakers of English (particularly Brits nostalgic about the language’s imperial, colonising past) like it or not, the philosophy of English teaching and learning has changed dramatically. Most learners nowadays are not interested in reading Shakespeare (or even “The Guardian”) in original. They’re not desperate to get to speak English in RP/BBC accent. And they don’t crave to master and show off native words or phrases from the Australian bush or the upland Wales. They just want to be able to communicate in plain, decent and accessible English, and to get information in it.
Hence the recent trend to promote (teach, learn, speak, read and write in) “English as a lingua franca”. Is it “simplified” English? Does it miss out on a lot of native English’s charming idiomatic peculiarities? Perhaps it is, and perhaps it does. But it works. For learners of all nationalities, it does the trick: it gets them through their university admission exams, their multinational company jobs or simply their English-language entertainment preferences (pop music, quizzes, media stories or TV series). And that’s definitely a learner-determined mission that both native and non-native teachers of English can and should rise up to – irrespective of their mother tongue or country.