NES vs NNES is a predominant issue in the TEFL community. It is the debate between Native English Speaking Teachers (NES) and Non-Native English Speakers (NNES), mostly fueled by parents and language center owners who did not know better and assumed that white, blue-eyed Westerners were god sent individuals who are best suited to teach English to their children.
Don’t believe me? Take this article by Forbes, one of many examples where parents believe native speakers are better suited to teaching English for their kids. This has led schools and language institutes to satisfy this urge by hiring more native English speakers.
Horrible hiring practices
Research has shown that almost seventy percent of vacancies posted on TEFL sites is for native English speakers. In countries like Korea, things are even dire for a non-native English teacher as almost every recruiter will reject a resume that does not state native English speaker on it and would rather hire an inexperienced white-looking teacher rather than a qualified and experienced nonnative English teacher.
To sum up most English teaching adverts, you just basically need to be white. Without degree? No worries. Have zero experience? No problem. Just. Be. White.
A rampant practice of recruiters is to require applicants a recent photo. Yes, as if requiring a passport copy is not ridiculous enough! The sad truth is, it sometimes doesn’t really matter even if you come from the magic 5 countries (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) if you look different, and by that I mean not white. Parents will be mad: why is woman of color teaching their kids English?
Believe it or not, an American friend of mine was offered way less money because, according to his school’s HR, he looks Asian. In any other country, this can be squarely classified as discrimination and stereotyping.
Flawed arguments aka justifications
Anyone questioning these practices often hears the following three arguments, or should I say justifications:
- Native English teachers are preferred by the students
- Native speakers are necessary to learn good English – whatever that means!
- A native English teacher can help a student understand the culture better
Let’s take a look at why all these arguments are flawed.
1. Native English teachers are preferred by the students
This argument has been repeated so often that many take it as the truth although there has not been any study that has backed this argument.
In contrast, students have confirmed that they value traits like respectfulness, a clear voice, and good communication skills over nativeness.
Meanwhile, other studies on the subject have proven that students don’t prefer native English teachers over nonnative English teachers.
2. Native speakers are necessary to learn good English
This is easily the most ridiculous argument of the lot. English is the official language in approximately fifty countries including little known countries like Gambia and Lesotho. This means there is a wide variety of dialects and accents; with many of them unintelligible to native speakers from elsewhere. In a lot of these dialects, a person might say something that is technically incorrect.
However, recruiters seem to ignore this significant fact and assume there is a single native speaking standard that is superior to anything a nonnative English teacher can provide.
David Crystal, a respected linguist, said it well during an interview. “With only around 2 percent of the population of England now speaking some sort of RP (an accent that has in any case changed its phonetic character markedly over the past 50 years), and with most NS teachers of English all over the world now using a range of accents – modified RP, modified British regional, American, Australian… – the notion of a single correct accent is as outdated as the Empire out of which it arose.”
Additionally, the belief that proficiency in the English language amounts to a great English teacher is quite wrong. Concerningly, this trivializes other aspects necessary for a teacher such as experience, qualification and personality.
This is not to say that proficiency is not needed. It is important that a school can make sure that the prospective teacher, both NES and NNES, can deliver a clear and understandable model, but proficiency should not alone be used as the sole factor to hire a teacher. There is way more to being a successful teacher than that!
3. A native English teacher can help a student understand the culture better
There is no denying that there is a link between language and culture, but I would venture as far as to say that there isn’t a native English speaker culture.
As I mentioned above, English is the official language in around fiftyty countries, is owned by neither the British nor the Americans so where exactly is this culture or is it just another shtick to beat nonnative speakers with?
More significantly, being NNES affords a few advantages for a teacher. They can anticipate any future issues a student might experience, be a better model and understand a student on a deeper level.
It’s high time to end this madness
It is the 21st century but why is this obsession with native speakerism (wait, is that a word?) isn’t going away?
The responsibility for changing this issue starts with us. We have the power to shape the industry and bring about parity between native and nonnative speakers because the real answer to the comparison between the two is neither is better. Both have their bad apples but by choosing teachers based on aspects like qualifications, personal traits, and experience rather than skin colour and mother tongue, we can choose great English teachers for our children.
To end on a positive note, many movements have been trying to take action on this rampant discrimination. TESOL France condemned the discrimination in a strongly worded letter and many professionals in the industry such as Jeremy Harmer as well as the British Council have given their support to the TEFL Equity Advocates.
It is high time WE stand up against these malpractices by speaking out rather than assuming that this is something that cannot be changed.
And to employers and recruiters, how about investing in real education and in great teachers?
Peace and love.