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Is it always preferable to employ only native English speaking teachers?

Is it always preferable to employ native English speaking teachers?

Image courtesy of Flazingo Photos

There are widely-held perceptions that numerous language schools refuse to hire non-Native English Speaker Teachers (nNESTs). In this guest article, teacher, teacher trainer, and founder of TEFL Equity Advocates, Marek Kiczkowiak, shares his thoughts on how this can have negative effects on students and teachers alike, and looks at an alternative, more egalitarian hiring model, that emphasises qualifications and experience, regardless of their mother tongue.

Dear Student,

I would like to tell you a few things about your English teachers which you might not have been aware of. As a teacher, I really care about your language progress and I would like you to understand what characteristics make certain teachers unforgettable, so that you can make an informed choice and pick the best language school.

It is very common for language schools to advertise only for and hire exclusively native speakers (NSs). I am sure that you have come across (or perhaps even studied in) institutions that boast having only native English speaker teachers (NESTs), who will teach you the ‘real’ English. In theory, this sounds fantastic. After all, who wouldn’t like to speak like a NS? In practice, however, there is a catch. Numerous non-native English speaker teachers (nNESTs), that is teachers for whom English is not their first language, have been rejected out of hand, not for lack of qualifications or poor language abilities, but simply for not being a NS.

It is very likely, then, that among those rejected nNESTs there were numerous teachers with higher qualifications and more experience than the NEST who was hired. The recruiter might have based their choice on the assumption that all nNESTs speak ‘bad’ English. While I certainly agree that language proficiency is very important for a successful teacher (I certainly wouldn’t like to be taught by somebody who doesn’t speak the language well enough), I agree with David Crystal, one of the ultimate authorities on the English language, who in this interview said that “Fluency alone is not enough. All sorts of people are fluent, but only a tiny proportion of them are sufficiently aware of the structure of the language that they know how to teach it.”

In addition, there are language tests (e.g. IELTS, TOEFL, CPE) which can be taken to prove a teacher’s proficiency. And there is no doubt that you can reach native-like level in a language – people did that even in the dim and distant past when teaching (and certainly language schools) was almost non–existent, or simply backwards by our standards. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. Born, bred and baptised in Poland as Józef Korzeniowski, he only emigrated to England in his late teens. Yet, he still managed to outwrite most of his contemporaries, introducing the English to the beauty of English.

So yes, of course, a successful teacher should be highly proficient in the language. There is no question about that. You need a good language model. However, it is a mistake to assume that only a NS can provide it, and to dismiss any nNEST out of hand.

What is more, being proficient in a language is not the only characteristic of a good teacher. For if it were, there would be no need for teaching courses and university degrees in pedagogy. Successful language teaching is so much more than merely knowing the language and I think this should be reflected in the way language schools hire their staff.

So, if as a student you want to know whether a particular school is worth investing your money and time in, ask them how they recruit teachers. On the whole, more trustworthy and renown schools select successful candidates based on logical and measurable criteria which are independent of and irrelevant to being a NS or not. For example:

  1. Qualifications
  2. Years and variety of teaching experience
  3. Language proficiency
  4. Personal traits

As a teacher, the best staff rooms I have worked in, and the best language schools with the happiest students, all have a healthy mix of NESTs and nNESTs, an opinion confirmed by many Academic Directors such as Varinder Unlu, who works for International House London. This is because the two groups can bring different characteristics into the classroom, learning from each other and improving as teachers. So while NESTs might be experts in language use, nNESTs have many important strengths which should not be overlooked.

For example, having mastered the language themselves, a nNEST can serve as an excellent learning role model. They can give you numerous tips that will help you learn faster based on their practical insights. They might also be more aware of the difficulties you are having since they have been through them too. And empathy and understanding are vital for successful teaching to take place. Many nNESTs have also studied the language on university level and can therefore bring a deep understanding of its mechanics.

I suggest then that as a client you question how your school chooses its teachers. Do not be swayed by slogans such as: We employ only NESTs because we care about your progress.

If they did, they would be employing the best teachers out there: native and non–native alike. And you have the right to receive the highest quality of education. So get involved and support equal teaching opportunities for all teachers.

Best regards,

Marek Kiczkowiak, TEFL Equity Advocates