Contributor Opinion: The Native Speaker Delusion

Native speaker

Contributor Opinion: The Native Speaker Delusion

If the title has shocked you, then I’m glad. If as a native English speaker (NS) you feel slightly offended, then I apologise, but I might have to continue being blunt.

It’s a delusion to think that any NS is by definition linguistically and instructionally superior to any non-native English speaker (NNS). And the ELT hiring system is largely based on perpetuating this delusion.

In fact, the two terms fail to describe the complexity and diversity of English speakers, and their continued use in the ELT industry antagonises teachers by creating a false dichotomy. It buys into cheap prejudices and stereotypes. It dupes students and parents into thinking in binary terms. All NNS = bad. Any NS = good.

It’s time we faced this delusion head on and put to rest, as Michael Griffin did in this article, the old question: “Native or non-native: who’s worth more?” posed by the great Peter Medgyes two decades ago. Instead, I propose that we start talking about what it means to be a good English teacher.

We should accept what most teacher trainers will tell you: your mother tongue makes you neither a bad nor a good teacher. Like the colour of your hair, it’s irrelevant. We need to speak out in favour of a new ELT industry, one that values professionalism, experience and qualifications instead of a mere accident of birth.


Why are we delusional?

If there’s one person we can trace our NS delusion to, it would probably be the eminent Noam Chomsky, who in the 1960s devised the concept of an “ideal speaker-listener […] who knows their language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors”. Obviously, that infallible and omniscient ideal was a NS.

It’s no surprise that the NNS started to be considered inferior (see Robert Philipson’s 1992, “native speaker fallacy”), or as Alan Firth and Johannes Wagner put it “a defective communicator, limited by an underdeveloped communicative competence”. This view has largely remained in place in ELT despite severe criticism from numerous linguists who came after Chomsky. For example, Thomas Paikeday calls NS “a figment of linguist’s imagination”, while Alan Davies refers to the NS as “a fine myth”, which is actually “useless as a measure.” For who is a NS indeed?


Who is a NS?

Imagine a recent immigrant to the UK, for example. They got their passport through marriage, but their English is only conversational at best. Are they a NS?

What about a Pole who’s spent years in an English-speaking country, went to university there, and speaks flawless English, but has only got a Polish passport. Would they qualify to be a NS?

Consider also somebody born of English speaking parents, who’s never lived in their parents’ homeland, speaks English only at home and did all their schooling in a non-English speaking environment. Are they a NS?

How about a French speaking Canadian from Quebec? Born in a mostly English speaking country, but their first language is French, not English.

Tricky, isn’t it?

It gets even trickier. Most ELT job ads (approximately 70% to be specific; see my own and Ali Fuad Selvi’s studies) require the candidate to be a citizen of one of the 7 countries deemed to be English speaking. Some go as far as listing NS as a qualification. Know of an MA in ‘nativeness’ anyone?


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And this is not all. Some schools will hire “anyone who shows a genuine interest”. As long as they are a NS, of course. No experience or teaching qualifications required. This reminded me of Ruecker and Ives’ work which showed that ELT job ads tend to emphasise benefits (e.g. travel, exotic countries, good lifestyle, etc.) rather than experience, qualifications, or professionalism.


By the way, by NS the recruiter does not mean C2 level on CEFR. They want the passport. So the recent UK immigrant with conversational English and the French Canadian is qualified to teach. The Pole, despite their flawless English, is not.

In fact, this policy excludes a huge number of NSs from India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and 51 other sovereign states that have English as an official language, but are not from the privileged 9, or “the inner circle” countries (see Kachru’s work for details). As a result the concept of NS has often been linked to race (for example, see Kubota’s study). For a concrete example of race-based ELT hiring policies in South Korea see this post by Michael Griffin.


Giving up the delusion

As David Crystal put it in this interview:  “It is metalinguistic knowledge, combined with fluency, that ultimately produces the most efficient language teachers. Fluency alone is not enough.” Nor being a NS, I’d add.

Being a NS doesn’t guarantee infallible linguistic intuition or perfect pronunciation. No such things exist. In fact, official 2013 IELTS test results show that candidates whose first language was English scored 7 on average (9 is considered native-like or proficient).

There are wonderful, but also horrible NS teachers, as there are wonderful, but also horrible NNS teachers. The reasons are various and vastly more complex than the black and white simplistic dichotomy that dominates ELT hiring policies and discourse.

It offends me as a NNS that my dedication, passion and years of study turn out to be irrelevant because of my passport. It should offend any NS that their dedication, passion and years of study are less important than their passport.


Becoming sane

As Peter Lahiff points out in this article, it is clear that the term NS is an unsound recruitment criteria. First, it doesn’t reflect the complex reality of English speakers and creates a false dichotomy. It also marginalises 80% of all speakers of English as inferior. Finally, it tells us little about the candidate’s linguistic competence, let alone their teaching skills. Several other much more inclusive terms have been proposed over the years and I hope that at least one of them sticks: mono/multilingual English speaker, proficient speaker, expert/fluent language user.


I can see numerous benefits of dropping the delusion. First, EU-based schools would stop breaking the law and risking being taken to court (yes, advertising for NSs is illegal, and yes, there are legal precedents).

Second, professionalism would be valued more. Competitiveness and with it quality of teaching would increase, which in turn could only be for the benefit and contentment of students.

And finally teachers on both sides of the divide could finally shake hands, embrace and be what they’re best at: English teachers.

Idealist, hold your horses there! What about the omnipresent and all-powerful market demand for NSs?

I hear you. It’s a topic for a whole new piece, but to do your doubts justice here, can’t the industry reshape the demand? Isn’t it pathetic that we subjugate our whole industry to the demands of those who know the least about learning languages?

I’m not saying students should have no say. To the contrary. But we’re not afraid to question numerous other misconceptions about learning languages students come to us with. After all, they come to us, because we’re the experts. So why not question the NS delusion too? And tell students they’re finally getting their money’s worth: the best of both worlds, English teachers – both NS and NNS – chosen based on merit, qualifications, experience and demonstrable language proficiency, rather than a mere accident of birth.

And do you really believe that all students always prefer any NS to any NNS? I know, you’ve heard them say it. But in my career, I’ve heard them say otherwise. They told me they want GOOD teachers, regardless of where the teacher’s from. And here’s the evidence.


How can we make this happen?

James Taylor wrote a very motivating article where he argued that we all have a responsibility to tackle NS favouritism and outlined in detail what each of us can do to support equality. Every action, however small, matters. Each of us could:

  • discuss equality and traits of an ideal teacher with your students
  • suggest or give a workshop on the topic in your school
  • question your employer if you notice NNSs are not treated fairly
  • support #TEA campaign at and on Twitter @Teflequity

And above all, be open-minded and never look down on or up to somebody just because of their mother tongue. Value your colleagues for who they are as teachers and individuals, because there is a lot we can learn from each other.


  • Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Davies, A. (1991). The native speaker in applied linguistics. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Firth, A., & Wagner, J. (1997). On discourse, communication, and (some) fundamental concepts in SLA research. Modern Language Journal, 81, 285–300.
  • Kachru, B. B.(1982). The Other Tongue. English Across Cultures. Urbana, Ill. University of Illinois Press
  • Kiczkowiak, M. (2015) NEST only. IATEFL Voices 243.
  • Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: Who’s worth more? ELT Journal, 46, 340–349.
  • Paikeday, T. (1985). The native speaker is dead! Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Paikeday.
  • Phillipson, R.(1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
  • Selvi, A. F. (2010). All teachers are equal, but some teachers are more equal than others: Trend analysis of job advertisements in English language teaching.WATESOL NNEST Caucus Annual Review, 1, 156-181.
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  • Amanda B says:

    As an NS myself I agree with much of what you say. I’ve seen far too many NSs who not only lack metalinguistic knowledge, they devalue all NSs when competent NNSs realize how little they know.
    I do question your emphasis on qualifications. CELTA is certainly reasonable, but I’m not sure that a masters in ELT is necessary for most jobs. Experience and demonstration of knowledge seem much more important.
    Also, having worked in the textbook industry in a NNS country, I believe that NS editors are invaluable. NNS workers do great work, but I have seen many issues ignored and defended by NNS with moderate competency. Perhaps because too many NS editors in the past eroded the trust of NNS workers. Still, in publishing, details such as punctuation are very important, and they are often not explicitly taught to NNS in EFL environments.

  • Hi Amanda,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I agree that experience and demonstrable knowledge are important. As are qualifications, I would say. CELTA, DELTA or MAs in TESOL do give you some indication of what the prospective teacher might be capable of. I also think that our industry would certainly benefit from a greater emphasis on professionalism and qualifications.
    When it comes to publishing, I think the industry should choose whoever is best for the job. The L1 factor should not be a consideration at all. Some NNS might have problems with punctuation, but equally there are numerous NS who are horrible at it too.

  • Nicky Sekino says:

    I am a Japanese man who was born in and raised in Japan. Therefore I am a non-native speaker of English. I have seriously studied the language for decades and because of that I have attained some fluency in the language.

    I have been offered a job with a condition that I will pretend to be a Japanese American in the class. I can think of two reasons for the request.

    The first one being inferior complex of the Japanese people. Some Japanese think they are inferior to English speaking people. (There are academic papers that discuss this position.) Hence, they love to be with Americans.

    The second one being the notion that non-native speakers cannot teach learners of English who have high skills of English.

    Well…my class has being progressing fine. But I have this internal strife that I am cheating on my students. I am acting as if I am someone else rather than me. Then again, another question comes to my mind that if the students would still be supportive of my class if I were Japanese. Isn’t it a possibility that they are supportive of my class because they think I am an American?

    The class will be over soon and I will not know the answer.

    Oh, why did I accept the offer? I need a job.

  • Hi Nicky,
    Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experience.
    This is unfortunately where ELT hiring policies have taken us: it’s pure madness. Luckily, I’ve never been in a position where I’d be requested to pretend I was a NS. I’m not sure I would have done it, to be honest.
    I’ve never been to Japan nor taught there, but my guess would be that the majority of students would be OK with their teacher being a NNS. They might have some initial prejudices, but after a couple of classes, as long as they are learning and improving, I don’t think they’d complain. At least not the majority.
    I always openly tell my students I’m Polish, and they’re fine with it. They actually find it quite motivating that I’m proficient in English and on top of that speak 5 other foreign languages. It’s quite motivating for them I suppose.
    Another thing is the origin of the prejudice against NNS. I don’t think the students woke up one day and decided that their new teacher had to be a NS. Part of the reason might be negative previous experience, but I also think that ELT industry has played a very important role in propagating the idea that NS is best.

  • Richard Hand says:

    To continue on this subject, to learn any language probably doesn’t require the teacher to be a “NS”. When a musical instrument is learned, does it have to be taught by a world-class musician? When I learned French in school I was taught by an English speaker who grew up in India and her French was very good. However, later in my schooling and again in university, native French speakers instructed me and I have to admit it was almost like learning a new language again. The accent, intonation, syllable and word stress took on a different dimension, not to mention the expressions and idioms.

    However, I never regret having an English speaker teach me a foreign language at the beginning because it acted as a comfortable transition to making vocal sounds that I hadn’t made before, such as the French “r”, as well as helping me “stick” to learning a new language by having English as the common denominator between teacher and student, although this can go awry if not handled properly during lessons. On the other hand, I’m pleased that I did eventually have native speakers to help me perfect French.

    From my own experience of teaching at language schools in other countries, due to availability many institutions have a domination of English NNS from that country with a smattering of English NS. Students benefit from this by learning grammar and vocabulary from the NNS, and then being able to develop pronunciation from the NS.

    A frequent question from my students is, “Will I ever be able to sound like you when I speak English?” If they are heavily accented from their own language I answer, “Probably not exactly,” but it’s important for students to remember that even English NS have varying accents. Compare the dialect of New York City with Glasgow, Scotland. Same language but with a pronunciation that’s quite dissimilar.

    Native English-speakers have become attuned to dialects because there are so many and have become used to it, especially in larger centres, so students should not be self-conscious in that area as there are others who sound exactly the same and are understood. Instead focus on expressions, slang, intonation and most importantly, vocabulary. The rest should fall in place with perseverance.

  • Thanks for your comment, Richard.
    I also agree that being, or not, a NS has no influence on how good or bad a teacher you are. I’ve had both horrible and fantastic teachers from the two groups. As you mention, probably the ideal situation is to have been taught by both NS and NNS, as each might be able to bring something different and new to the classroom.
    When it comes to pronunciation, the key is intelligibility, I think. Trying to sound like a NS is neither a fair, nor an achievable goal for most learners. And since English has become a global language, it is also questionable whether sounding like a NS is actually a desirable goal. Of course, this will depend on individual student’s needs and preferences, but it’s definitely important to point out to them that there is nothing wrong with having a foreign accent as long as your intelligible. After all, we all have an accent.

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