Native-speaker English teacher or non-native – which is best?

 
A thoughtful article by Andrew Woodbury about non-native speaker v native-speaker English teachers caused an enormous comment thread when it was posted on Teaching English British Council’s Facebook page this week.

Commenters were attacking and defending both sides of the native speaker/non-native speaker teacher argument. Some of the points being…
 

ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST

– A good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of their country of birth and native tongue.

– Holding UK/USA/Australian/Irish/whichever “English speaking” passport does not make you a teacher, never mind being a good teacher

– Non-native speaker English teachers are better at teaching grammar because they have had to study it. They often study several components in a degree or masters (linguistics, phonetics, psychology, the history of English, second language acquisition) rather than just a one-month TEFL teacher training course

– Native speaker teachers can use/explain idioms and phrasal verbs in the right context

Was this created by a native-speaker English teacher or a non-native? 🙂


——————————–
 

2005 RESEARCH STUDY

 
Something that wasn’t mentioned that I think is of value to this debate is some research by Benke and Medgyes (2005) quoted in Second Language Learning and Language Teaching by Vivian Cook (Hodder Education, 2008, p 186 – 187). Incidentally, if you study a higher TEFL qualification like the Trinity Diploma, I strongly recommend that you get hold of that excellent book.

The research featured the opinions of Hungarian students regarding their non-native speaker and native speaker English teachers.

The students stated that…

The non-native speaker teacher:

  • assigns lots of homework
  • prepares conscientiously
  • corrects errors consistently
  • prepares learners well for exams
  • assesses my language knowledge realistically
  • relies heavily on the coursebook

 
The native-speaker teacher:

  • focuses primarily on speaking skills
  • is happy to improvise
  • provides extensive information about the culture
  • is interested in learners’ opinions
  • applies group work regularly in class

 
One funny comment included in the findings was from a 16-year-old: ‘Native speakers are sometimes not very accurate and they can’t spell – especially Americans’ 🙂

——————
 

1992 RESEARCH STILL VALID?

Peter Medgyes’ earlier research in 1992 (also V. Cook, p 187) highlighted the disadvantage of native speakers:
 

  • are not models of L2 users
  • usually cannot talk about L2 learning strategies from their own experience/li>
  • are often not explicitly aware of the features of the language as much as non-native speakers are
  • cannot anticipate learning problems
  • are not able to exploit the learners’ first language in the classroom

In fairness, I think that there is a huge difference in the professionalism of the TEFL industry between 1992 and the present day, so that there are many native-speakers now who have been resident in the “foreign” land and have learnt the L2 to a very high level, which counter a lot of the 1992 findings.

 

PERSONAL OPINION

 

STUDENT PREFERENCE

In my experience, native-speaker teachers are hugely preferred by students because they (probably mistakenly) believe that this will give them a shortcut in their language learning. Let’s be honest, ALL students are looking for the fast-track approach to effective learning, aren’t they?
 

ACCENT MODELLING

Many students, not all, but many, want a “good model” for their accent and they feel that the native is the best option for this. However, I can count on the fingers of one hand, the students I have taught that have truly made an effort to “lose” their accent. I don’t even agree that students should attempt to “lose” their accent. As long as there are no comprehension problems for the listener, what is the benefit?
 

BORN TO TEACH

I feel that the best teachers are born to teach. Or rather, they are socialised to teach. This could be from the socialisation they receive in early childhood from a parent, carer, grandparent or whoever. The nurture aspect of how things are consistently explained and simplified for you in an empathetic manner is something that I think cannot be taught to the same effectiveness within an adult education qualification.

 
So, my opinion is that it doesn’t matter if you are native or non-native – the questions should be…
do you enjoy teaching and do your students enjoy the lessons and are therefore motivated?

are you an effective teacher that objectively help learners progress?

are you dedicated to your profession so that you target and fill in any knowledge gaps (e.g. grammar for natives) through further self study, with the aim of providing a complete resource for all of your students?
 

 

Bren Brennan

About Bren Brennan

Bren initially trained here at SGI and then joined the staff in 2005. Since 2006, he has taught abroad in Budapest, Berlin and now at Mondragon University in Spain. He returns to teach at SGI London every summer and completed the SGI Trinity DipTESOL in 2011. He also regularly writes posts for students here.
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4 Responses to Native-speaker English teacher or non-native – which is best?

  1. Hi Bren,
    Very interesting and balanced reply to Andrew’s post. I’m running TEFL Equity Advocates and I was wondering if we could place it there as a guest post (either as it is now, or in a slightly revised form).
    I especially like the point you’re making about accent modelling. I’ve been thinking about writing a post on it myself. I think it’s time we debunked the myth that students will pick up the accent of their native teacher, or that indeed they should acquire a native accent (whatever that is supposed to mean). If you fancy writing about it for TEFL Equity Advocates, please get in touch via the Contact section on the website.
    You might also like the post Michael Griffin wrote: Equity without myths or stereotypes. He reaches similar conclusions to the ones you expressed in this post: http://teflequityadvocates.com/2014/06/01/equity-without-myths-or-stereotypes-by-michael-griffin/
    Best,
    Marek

  2. Samantha says:

    Hello Bren, thank you for the post. I found it to be a well crafted summary of all the positions on this debate with a just conclusion. I just didn’t like the inclusion of the 16 year old’s over-generalization about Americans, even if it was meant as a joke. As a teacher in high school, my colleagues and I are always careful to not perpetuate stereotypes and generalizations about cultures, nor do we express a preference for one form of English over another. I am an American in Italy considering SGI for the diploma course and am disappointed to see such a comment here.

    • Bren Brennan Bren Brennan says:

      Hello Samantha,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      I”m sorry that you didn’t like that particular sentence. However, I did not create it. It is a genuine comment from the research by Benke and Medgyes (2005) which is quoted in the book, Second Language Learning and Language Teaching by Vivian Cook (Hodder Education, 2008, p 186 – 187).

      You may be interested to see the thoughts (on video) of Scott Thornbury and 2 other well-known ELT conference speakers on the topic of Native Speaker v Non native speaker teachers here…
      http://teflequityadvocates.com/2015/01/15/a-call-to-action-luke-meddings-hugh-dellar-and-scott-thornbury-on-the-nest-vs-nnest-debate/

      You may also be interested/relieved to hear that I have nothing at all to do with the delivery of the TESOL Diploma programme at SGI… apart from being an ex-student.

      Incidentally, next week, there will be a long video interview on this blog with Naz who is the director of the Diploma course. She answers many FAQs about the course, so it should be quite informative.

      Best,
      Bren

  3. Pingback: How to start teaching English after a TEFL Course | Teacher Training Blog

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