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Native Vs Non-Native: My Opinion and Experience

by Steven Nickodemski

I had a nice, well-dressed 30 something stop by our language academy the other day, CV in hand asking to see me.  A simple cold call, the old-fashioned way, I don’t mind as I know how difficult it can be when you’re looking for a job. An impromptu chat, what’s the harm, right? This couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

We start chatting, native North American, perfect English, double degree, Master’s in business, and something else, irrelevant to teaching, all in all, a very well-educated, polite young man indeed. Then as we were chatting, I started scanning his cv for any teaching experience, he had none. I think okay, maybe he’s interested in doing a teaching certification since he can’t find a job anywhere doing what he studied. After all, an MBA is not cheap. I worked as a Financial Management Specialist and Logistician for twenty-three years before I became an ESL teacher, so I can surely empathize with his plight.

I speak English good, English good?

I offered to give him contact information for local CELTA and Trinity CertTESOL courses, all the while thinking to myself that he would appreciate the help, then he says, no worries, he’ll look it up.  Hmmm, at this point, I’m not getting a warm and fuzzy feeling (I like warm and fuzzies, they make me feel good.) Then, I popped the final question. “Is teaching something you think you would like to do?” His answer, “Not really.” I told him, sorry, but I’m looking for a teacher who enjoys teaching and above all young learners. Young learners? What’s that? I said kids, from six to twelve years old. Wow, it was like the earth fell out from underneath him, his face went pale. Kids?! No, that’s not something I would like to do at all, but I still would like a teaching job, and I speak English good, English good? I couldn’t resist English well; you speak English well. I was at the end of my rope at this point. Now, I consider myself a very patient man, after all, I teach teens, I’m invincible, right? My head was spinning; I couldn’t believe what our well-dressed native English speaker was saying. I politely told him I didn’t think he would be a good fit in our academy. After all, we’re a language academy, and we have standards, or do we? Keep reading; this get’s better.

I say standards because as many of us know, private language academies are not regulated and can do as they please, hire who they please, teach what they please, and charge what they please. They cram as many bodies into a classroom and teach away. They have native English speakers, so they must be doing it right. Yeah, sure they are. Now that I have your attention read on.

Is it me? Was this nice young man for real? Unfortunately, the answer is yes

He’s native, hence he must be the better-qualified teacher.

Now, I happen to be a native English speaker, and I am very aware that that there exists what many in the industry call Native English Speaker Privilege, or NESP as I like to call it. (I think I just invented a new acronym!)  Now, NESP runs rampant within the ELT community; employers are advertising employment for native English speakers only; advertising and promoting that all their teachers are native English speakers, and if, and this is a big if, they do manage to hire a non-native English speaker they change their name, so it sounds English! Maria becomes Mary. Enrique becomes Henry, and so on. Believe it, because it’s true and I have seen it done. Now, our poor B1 student nor their parents don’t know the difference. This is because our non-native English speaker possesses a CEFR C2 either from Cambridge or Trinity, A CELTA, DELTA and a Masters in TEFL and several degrees related to teaching and speaks with the most beautiful British English accent you can imagine. Whereas the native speaker, let’s call him William, holds a degree in philosophy, but he’s native, hence he must be the better-qualified teacher. William has NESP, and our William can pretty much find a job anywhere. It’s good to be William. William, armed with a 3-day online TEFL from a non-accredited fly-by-night TEFL mill, can get a well-paid job almost anywhere.

Now, let’s move on to Maria (rebranded Mary) had been papering the city (virtually) for months with her CV and subsequently received only one phone call for an interview. Now, of course, she jumps on the offer and accepts the position. Fast forward a few months, uber-qualified rebranded Mary, currently working for a beautiful little language academy has accepted an offer much lower than her counterpart for the same position, works harder, knows more and has zero problems explaining the passive voice or relative pronouns to her students. William, on the other hand, hasn’t a clue what a relative pronoun is and has to ask rebranded Mary for grammar help or skips the grammar all together in the lesson. Okay, is this starting to sound familiar? It should because it’s happening at an English academy near you.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not demonizing the native English teacher nor am I glorifying the non-native English teacher, I’m merely stating what is happening at some English academies.

Just because you are a native speaker doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach English while on the flip side of the coin, just because you are a non-native speaker doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t know how to teach English.   

I explain to our students, but mostly parents, that what we provide is quality English classes, whether it is from a native English speaker or not. We have an obligation to our students and parents to teach to a higher standard for the simple fact that we are not regulated and since we are not regulated we must prove ourselves by hiring quality language teachers, native or non-native.

I use the pencil analogy with potential students.  I hold up a pencil and tell them; If I sold you this pencil, you can hold it, look at it, write with it, it’s beautiful and writes like a dream, it’s a quality pencil. When I sell you a service like English, you can’t take it home; you haven’t a clue that you, your son, your daughter is getting a quality product, you must trust me to give you what you pay for.

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