The "Native" / "Non-Native" English Teacher Debate (with Dave Weller)

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What are the real differences between "native" and "non-native" English teachers? How did we end up with these distinctions in our industry? And what should we be doing about discrimination? We meet with Dave Weller to discuss the issues surrounding "native" and "non-native" English teachers such as attitudes of parents and teachers, the responsibilities  of language schools and how to change opinions.

 Us with Dave Mid-podcast

Us with Dave Mid-podcast

 Pre-podcast beers with (from left to right) David Weller, Tracy Yu, Ross Thorburn

Pre-podcast beers with (from left to right) David Weller, Tracy Yu, Ross Thorburn

Our references for this episode....

Ross' research about opinions on "native" and "non-native" English teachers in China

Watch Silvana Richardson IATEFL Plenary “The ‘native factor’, the haves and the have-nots”

"Native" / "Non‑Native" English Teachers ‑ Different Perspectives and Responsibilities (with Dave Weller) - Transcript


Tracy:  Hello, everyone.

Ross Thorburn:  Hi, folks.

Tracy:  Today, we've got our regular podcast guest...

Both:  Dave Weller.

Ross:  Hello, Dave.

Dave Weller:  Hello, everybody. I was trying not to say hurrah again.


Dave:  Regular listeners will know what I mean.

Ross:  Dave's here this week to talk with us about a rather controversial issue...

Tracy:  Which is native English speaking‑teachers versus non‑native English‑speaking teachers.

Ross:  Today, we've got three questions. The first one is what's all the fuss about? Second...

Tracy:  What do the parents and the students think about it? The third one...

Ross:  What can managers and schools do about it?

What’s the “Native” / “Non native Teacher” debate about?

Ross:  Guys, what's the debate about?

Tracy:  Based on my understanding, just schools, parents, teachers and students feel a different mode of English ‑‑ native or non‑native...They've got advantages and disadvantages. So it seems more people, native English‑speaking teachers and have a better model of English.

Ross:  As well as that, it seems like there's a bit of a tendency in the industry that native speakers who are teachers will tend to get paid more. Native speakers who are teachers will tend to be given more opportunities.

Dave:  Actually, I read about a study that looks at higher education institutions in the UK. They found over 70 percent of them made hiring decisions for staff based on whether they were native or non‑native speakers.

Ross:  That doesn't surprise me a lot. It's almost like our whole methodology and approach to teaching language, doing everything in the students' L2, is almost based around having native‑speaking teachers, right?

Dave:  Definitely. It goes really deep. Again, there's different levels of it. It's fine if it just stayed as an opinion, but once it turns into action, policy and systems, that's where discrimination kicks in. It becomes distinctly unfair and entrenched within our industry. Despite being what a lot of people think of as a very nice and liberal industry, it hides quite a lot of trade dark secrets.

Ross:  Interestingly, if you do any reading on this, you find that it becomes very difficult to define what a native speaker actually is. One thing that you can't deny is that the person grew up speaking English, but when you start to look at other criteria, they're very, very woolly.

It tends to be things like they can be creative with language, they don't have a foreign accent, they're aware of the culture of the language. All these things, which clearly, it's possible...

Dave:  Of course. Non‑native speakers have that as well.

Ross:  Ultimately, you get to this point where, really, the only difference between the two is that one of them grew up speaking English, and one didn't. Which, if you're learning English from someone, is pretty irrelevant, isn't it, what language or what they did in their childhood. Who cares about that?

Dave:  Precisely. All you really care about is how good they are as a teacher, how well then can connect with you in the classroom, they can motivate you, and all the other things that go into making up a good teacher.

This whole argument actually needs to be rephrased into clearer lines. Silvana Richardson mentioned in her IATEFL that we need a new word for non‑native speakers. For me, that word would just be English teachers.

There's no point devolving that word into finer detail. You should actually go back up the chain. We're all English teachers. Just some of us have different skills and backgrounds than others.

If we were to do that, it would solve a lot of these problems. When you talk about a teacher, you can, "OK, which language can they speak and at what level?" That way, you can say, "Well, in the old parlance, there's this native‑speaking teacher who can speak a little bit of the learner's L1, but not to their level.

"Then there's a native speaker who can't speak any. Then there's a non‑native speaker who is local to the area. Then there's a non‑native speaker that isn't local from the area."

Ross:  Part of it is linguistic determinism. The Sapir‑Whorf hypothesis, made famous by the recent movie ‑‑ "Arrival." This idea that because of the language that we use, that we have to describe the teachers as native and non‑native teachers or speakers, that's the thing that we end up focusing on.

If we changed it, and say, we called them monolingual or bilingual teachers, then which of those would you have a preference for?

Dave:  I agree to a point, but this is why I might be against that. I can't say everything goes as you plan. Then in 20 years' time, you actually might get a reverse situation where there's prejudice against native speakers because of the bilingualism versus monolingualism.

All I think you should do is revert back to the phrase teachers and then what skills does that teacher have.

What do parents and the students think about “Native” / “Non- native Teachers”?

Ross:  Interesting in that the research I've done on this and the survey where I looked at parents, students, teachers, and sales and service staff, and asked every group, I had a bunch of different attributes in there.

For example, attitudes, qualifications, personalities, relationship with students, being native speakers, what people look like, their nationality, and their ability to speak the student's L1.

The number one thing was definitely not being a native speaker. That ranked about number three or number four in people's preference. The native or non‑native speaker is...people use that as a proxy.

It's something that if you don't know anything about the industry, then you can relate to that very, very easily, but if you're a parent and you don't know anything about language learning, you're not going to know what qualifications the teachers should have.

It's very difficult to see what the teachers' attitudes are or their personalities, if any, or of those things. It is quite simple to check. Is this person a native speaker or not?

Dave:  I find it fascinating. To go back to non‑native speakerism for a second, I was reading some of Adrian Holliday's work. He said that it started out as almost a marketing ploy from various aid agencies back in the '60s to propagate the idea that native speakers were the best model.

In which case, that obviously links up to the idea that Silvana Richardson said in her plenary that we can change the perception in the industry. All it takes is a little time.

With research that backs this up ‑‑ research coming out that actually says that it's not just OK, but beneficial to use L1 in the classroom ‑‑ you put those things together, then this is the way forward to actually eradicate bias in our industry.

Ross:  Let me play you that quote from Silvana now.

Silvana Richardson:  Employers always have choices. Collusion with inequality and prejudice is a choice. Discrimination is a choice. As Rajagopalan says, "In our neoliberal world, who will dare challenge what the market dictates?"

The answer to this is, just because the market is demanding certain things, it does not mean that the market itself cannot be made to perceive things differently.

Ross:  Do you think that's true? Is that realistic though, that the market can be made to perceive...

Dave:  Of course, it is. Yeah, definitely. If you look on an individual on a mass scale, how many times have we changed our minds over the course of our professional development over the last 10, 15 years?

Precisely, it's the same thing with the industry. Industries change, ideas change, views change. It happens usually, I would argue, from the ground up rather than direct from above, especially in an industry such as ours which is quite fragmented and has no overarching body to dictate the standards.

Tracy:  I still think there is a huge market, because you just look at the education companies doing online or offline. The business...they create the scenario, and having native English teachers is the better choice.

Ross:  In that case, do you think it's an easier or difficult or a long or short task to change the way that Chinese parents and students see local teachers?

Tracy:  It's going to be a long way. I have to say all the non‑native teachers need to work really hard, because if you constantly made the mistakes, and you constantly misspell the word, and you constantly use the utterances or expressions that people don't normally use, and use those language to teach your students, there is a problem.

Ross:  It's so unfair, because I see a lot of really bad native‑speaking teachers [laughs] who don't get picked up on making teaching mistakes or methodological mistakes.

Dave:  Or even language mistakes of teaching language which is highly improbable, possible but doesn't often get used. They end up teaching...It's, maybe, not going technically wrong, but you'll hear people teaching language that never gets used.

Ross:  They're from one particular part of the Deep South in America and they use a phrase that only them and their family and the people in that village use and are like, "I've never heard it before."

I don't see them getting picked up on those mistakes. They tend to get a free pass because they're a native speaker. That's really unfair.

Tracy:  A lot of teachers or parents always say, "Oh, I want my student or my child to speak Standard English," or "All the students should learn Standard English."

Dave:  There's no such thing anymore, is there?

Ross:  I don't think so. Is that a cultural concept that exists in China? There is a standard Chinese, but there's no Standard English.

Dave:  Let's play devil's advocate just for a second. I can clearly understand what they mean though. Even though we're looking at it from a technician's point of view, we're looking at it from a point of view of professionals in the industry. What parents's almost like the shadows on Plato's cave, to take it deep for a second.

The concept of a horse, despite all horses can look slightly different...Again, they're using that term as a proxy of an English that will be understood around the world. No matter where they go, it'll be effortless to be able to communicate with other English‑speaking teachers and not be hindered in any way through pronunciation or grammar or phrase. That's shorthand for what they're trying to say.

Ross:  Indeed, but is it not also the case that a very, very small percentage of learners will learn English or an accent or something to the point where they're at that level of, "Oh, I want to sound English" or "I want to sound American," but, really, for most of the students I've taught, even after years, they sound Chinese, because...

Dave:  Maybe your students, Ross.


Dave:  Sorry, that's such a flippant answer. No, I completely agree with your point. In fact, I'd even add to that and say, it's not about increasing their level. It's about teaching the skills to grade their language if they do encounter another non‑native speaker who has trouble understanding their accent, maybe because they're from a quite different culture. Again, you're arguing against a perception and a belief.

What can managers and schools do about “Native” / Non-native Teacher” discrimination

Ross:  Can we talk for a minute about language schools and, maybe, what language schools can do about that? I've got another Silvana quote for you. Do you mind if I play this briefly?

Dave:  Please do.

Silvana:  This is part of the California/Nevada's position paper opposing discrimination against non‑native English speaking teachers. It says, "Teaching job announcements that indicate a preference or requirement for a native speaker of English trivialize the professional development teachers have received and teaching experience they have already acquired.

Such announcements are also discriminatory and ultimately harm all teachers ‑‑ native or not ‑‑ by devaluing teacher education, professionalism, and experience.

Ross:  To what extent do you guys agree or disagree with that?

Dave:  100 percent. Again, I really speak with authority from my background, which is as a native speaker. Again, it does trivialize my experience and the amount of work I've put in over the last 15 years of professional development, studying...

Ross:  Getting qualifications and things...

Dave:  Precisely. The extra work I've put in ‑‑ thousands of hours ‑‑ and then to be reduced to being called, "He's a native speaker. He'll do."

Ross:  It still happens so often. Tracy, you had something like that a few weeks ago over organizing a teacher training thing here. Again, you've obviously got your diploma, you're studying your MA, you've been a tutor and a course director on accredited courses.

The people running the course said, "Oh, can you make sure there's a native speaker or foreigner for at least half the course?"

Dave:  Who's just finished a 40‑hour online course, perhaps.

Ross:  Or maybe not even that. Isn't it fascinating that that still persists?

Tracy:  They even didn't care about what qualifications or experience they have. Also interesting, the person from the organization even asked me, "Can you tell me more about this trainer?"

I said, "OK. Maybe I can ask this person to send the CV, send the training, teaching experience." She said, "We really don't care about it. Just tell me his age, which country he's from, and also if he's white or black."

Ross:  What about on the flip side for a minute then, Dave? As someone who used to be a director of studies before in a school where you had to make hiring decisions, where's this balance? Were you ever in some tough situations there?

Dave:  [laughs] Yes.

Ross:  How did that work out then?

Dave:  The thing is, as a manager ‑‑ anyone who's been a manager, I'm sure, can relate to this ‑‑ you have to pick and choose your battles. That was the one that I'll actually go to bat for.

If you had several candidates and various degrees of discrimination in different things as one that Tracy mentioned earlier about someone's skin color, also about non‑native speaking teachers, you just go and not actually ask if these persons' qualified, they're capable, they've gone through the interview process, and that they would be a good fit for this team, they'd be a good fit for this country, and they'd be a great fit for our school.

Then you'd put your foot down. You'd have an argument, almost, with the culture of the school. If you won ‑‑ sometimes you did, sometimes you didn't ‑‑ often, unfortunately, it depended on how badly the school needed teachers, and how many classes waiting you had, how many students waiting to start class.

Unfortunately, it was usually the deciding factor. Once the teacher arrived, whereas the students after a few lessons, would be delighted with the experienced teacher, the parents would turn and become delighted and insist on having that teacher as a future teacher for their children.

What’s does the future hold for “Non-native English teachers”?

Dave:  It's always sad that we actually have to do this, or that it's something that we do have to get passionate about. Do spread the word on.

I'm very optimistic about it. I like to think there are enough people out there that people will go back, spread the word, and take small actions. There will be this groundswell of people that do this.

Ross:  All right, Dave, thanks very much for coming on. It was a pleasure talking to you again.

Dave:  It's a pleasure to be here, as always. Thank you.

[background music]

Tracy:  Thanks, Dave. Bye, everybody.

Ross:  Bye.

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Transcription by CastingWords