“Native” & “Non-native” English Teachers in China: Contrasting Opinions


This article will investigate the attitudes of service and sales staff, parents, students and teachers towards native-speakerism in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) industry in China. It will briefly review literature on the subject, consider survey responses from 1123 respondents at a language teaching organization (LTO) in China and attempt to explain the results and consider the implications. I will argue that if we (as an industry) hope to change parents’ and students’ preferences for “native English teachers” we must first change the views of our own staff. Additionally, as they have a key role in setting customers’ expectations about language learning, sales and service staff are of paramount importance in any attempts to change consumer preferences. Yet, until now, these groups have not been part of our professional discourse on this matter nor have many attempts been made to better understand their beliefs.


It is not the aim of this research to give legitimacy to the terms “native speaker” and “non-native speaker”. These terms are used here with the goal of “raising critical awareness” of this “neo-racist ideology” (Holliday, 2014) in the hope of helping to end such discriminatory practices in the near future. The acronyms “NEST” and “non-NEST” are deliberatively avoided and the terms “native English teacher” and “non-native English teacher” are given in parentheses as use of these terms may “further fix the concepts as definable and measurable entities” (Holliday, 2014:3) which would be counter-productive to the aims of this research.


Review of Literature

Native speakers

What is a native speaker? Vivien Cook writes, “an individual is a native speaker of the L1 [first language] learnt in childhood… individuals cannot change their native language any more than they can change who brought them up” (1999, 185). Beyond learning the language at a young age, “the concept of what it means to be a native speaker of a language is becoming ever more difficult to define” (Lee, 2005:01). A short list of the attributes of native speakers might include

  • being able to produce spontaneous and fluent discourse (Medgyes, 1992)
  • being able to speak without a foreign accent (Scovel, 1988)
  • using their native language routinely (Bloomfield, 1933).

It goes without saying that all of these attributes can be (and routinely are) learned post-childhood by “non-native speakers” and thus “that the only immutable difference between a native speaker and a non-native speaker of a language is childhood acquisition” (Oanh & Walkinshaw (2014, 2).


“Non-native English teachers”

While it is difficult to pinpoint any differences in the abilities and attributes of native and non-native speakers, it is much easier of find examples of inequalities that exist between the two groups (Canagarajah, 1999). These inequalities appear to stem from the stereotype that native speakers make better teachers than non-native speakers (Merino, 1997). However, in recent years there has been a backlash towards such attitudes. A growing number of articles have appeared that make the case for equality as well as to “prove that non-native teachers have some advantages [over ‘native English   teachers’]” (Merino, 1997, 69). Medgyes (1992:346-7), for example, lists six such advantages

  • “Only non-NESTs can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English
  • Non-NESTs can teach learning strategies more effectively
  • Non-NESTs can provide learners with more information about the English language
  • Non-NESTs are more able to anticipate language difficulties
  • Non-NESTs can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners
  • Only non-NESTs can benefit from sharing the learner's mother tongue”

Unfortunately, even this list relies on stereotypes. The primary assumption above is that “native English teachers” are monoglots and unable to use speak the same L1 as their students. If “non-native English teachers” can learn English to a high level, it seems plausible that “native English teachers” can learn their students’ L1 and use it to help facilitate learning.



While the differences between “native English teachers” and “non-native English teachers” are more imagined than real, inequalities between “native English teachers” and “non-native English teachers” are more real than imagined. In many countries it is believed that native speakers as essential to language teaching (Liaw, 2012). Adrian Holliday (2014) calls this “native-speakerism” and says that “native-speakerism is an ideology that upholds the idea that so-called ‘native speakers’ are the best models and teachers of English because they represent a ‘Western culture’ from which spring the ideals both of English and of the methodology for teaching it” (Holliday 2014:1). Employers have been shown to prefer “native English teachers” over “non-native English teachers” (Ali, 2009). For example, an investigation into higher education institutions in the UK found that 72% made hiring decisions based on perceived native / non-native speaker distinctions (Clark & Paran, 2007). In China, salaries for “non-native English teachers” are often less than half of those offered to “native English teachers” working in the same institution. This is the case in the LTO in which the research was conducted, where Chinese (non-native) teachers get paid approximately half of the salary of the “native English teachers”.

So why do these inequalities exist and persist? Holliday says that “customers demand it” (2008) and Silvana Richardson (2016) has said that this market demand “is used to justify current discriminatory recruitment practices.” But why do customers demand it? After all, “Clients of a professional service are not necessarily the best judges of the service they receive” (Barnett, 1992:17).


Sales and service staff

In 2001, John Walker wrote that “we actually know very little about TESOL management in practice.” In researching this article it became apparent that this is still the case, at least in terms of the roles of sales and service staff in LTOs. This is surprising given that LTOs are “essentially service operations” (Walker, 1999:16). So what do we know about the sales, marketing and service staff in LTOs? In my experience, teachers often have a somewhat hostile attitude towards non-teaching functions. Joseph & Joseph (1997) go so far as to say that marketing conducted by education institutions “is used by people with self-seeking motives” (1997, 15). These self-serving individuals may be the same people John Walker had in mind when he wrote that “overpromising [customers]…sets up unrealistic expectations and actual encounters may result in customer disappointment” (2001, 192). Indeed “providing clients with accurate information about the service that they are paying for is the key to treating them as competent adults” (Walker, 2001:193).


If this is true, how does one explain the president of “the largest online English language education platform in China” going on record to say in a promotional video that “The most direct way to truly improve one’s ability to use English is to have one-on-one lessons with native English speaking teachers” (Huang, 2016)?  This would not seem to hold up to John Walker’s standard of professionalism for administrative staff, who “should be knowledgeable enough about both the provider’s service…to be able to [accurately] inform, advise and council students” (1999, 17). Can we blame students and parents for swallowing this hyperbole?  

Before attending language lessons, students’ expectations about language learning may lack validity due to their lack of knowledge or experience (Joseph & Joesph, 1997). And, while it is true that students continually come into contact with all manner of school staff during their time at an LTO (Walker, 1999), the fact remains that the staff responsible for setting customer expectations are sales staff, not teachers. Clearly this means the views of sales and service staff are likely to leave a strong impression on parents and students. So what do sales staff think about native and non-native English speaking teachers?


Previous studies

Early studies of perceptions of “native English teachers” and “non-native English teachers” (Arva & Medgyes, 2000; Benke & Medgyes, 2006; Reves & Medgyes, 1994) examined teachers’ views (Liaw, 2012) while more recent studies have explored students’ perceptions (Behnke & Medgyes, 2005; Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2005; Liang, 2002; Mahboob, 2003; Cheung & Braine, 2007; Pacek, 2005). Until now, few (if any) studies have included the views of sales and service staff or parents towards “native English teachers” and “non-native English teachers” and compared these with attitudes of teachers and students in the same context.




This research was conducted at a privately owned for-profit language teaching organization with over one hundred schools in China which teaches both adults and young learners. Around two thirds of teachers in the LTO are expatriates and one third are Chinese. Teachers are generally discouraged from speaking the students’ L1 (Chinese). Sales and service staff play an important role in communicating with parents and students outside of the classroom and are responsible for setting expectations during the sales and after-sales processes.



This research set out to discover the views held by different stakeholders in a typical LTO towards native-speakerism and measure which group (teachers, parents and students or sales and services staff) expressed the strongest native-speakerist views. It will assess how important different groups consider native-speakerism in comparison with other teacher traits, assess the perceived strengths and weaknesses of “native English teachers” and “non-native English teachers” and find out to what extent customers are willing to pay more money for a course taught by a “native-English teacher”.


Sampling and Procedures

In February 2017, 1123 completed survey responses were received from

  • 323 sales & service staff
  • 151 adult students
  • 97 parents of young learner students
  • 552 teachers (273 of whom self-identified as  “non-native English teachers”, 279 self-identified as “native English teachers” and 247 of whom were Chinese)

Parents, students, sales and service staff were all sent a survey in their L1 (Chinese). This allowed members of these groups with limited English proficiency to voice their opinions. All teachers were sent the survey in English.

The survey contained multiple choice questions with spaces for comments. Respondents were asked to identify the importance of different qualities in teachers on a six point Likert scale (from “1 = not important” to “6 = very important”). The following teacher characteristics were adapted from Walkinshaw & Duong’s (2012) “Language Teacher Characteristic Framework” based on Brown’s earlier (2001) work. The characteristics were:

  • Teachers’ qualifications
  • [Friendly] Personality
  • Teachers’ attitude (or “enthusiasm for teaching”)

The following areas were also included:

  • Being a native speaker
  • Relationships with students (related to “affect”, Krashen, 1987)
  • Appearance (added to reflect discriminatory hiring policies in China)
  • Can speak Chinese, the students’ L1 (an ability more useful to vocabulary learning than L2 definitions, (Schmitt, 2008))
  • Nationality (to reflect Chinese visa policy)

Participants were also asked which group (“native English teachers” or “non-native English teachers”) was better at:

  • Teaching grammar
  • Teaching pronunciation
  • Teaching vocabulary
  • Teaching learning strategies
  • Providing a model of English
  • Anticipating students’ difficulties
  • Empathizing with students

These were based partly on Medgyes’ six non-NEST advantages (1992).


Results & Discussion

The results for sales and service staff have been combined as have the results for parents and students to make the figures below more readable. The relative importance of eight characteristics in teachers are shown in Figures 1 and 2. The perceived strengths of “native English teachers” are shown in Figure 3, while the perceived strengths of “non-native English teachers” are shown in Figure 4. Figure 5 shows the extent to which parents and students would be willing to pay more for a “native English teacher”.


Figure 1: Answers to “Which of these characteristics is most important to helping students learn?”. 1 = not important, 6 = very important

Figure 1: Answers to “Which of these characteristics is most important to helping students learn?”. 1 = not important, 6 = very important

Figure 2: Rankings for which characteristics by different groups (with the importance of ‘being native speakers’ highlighted)

Figure 2: Rankings for which characteristics by different groups (with the importance of ‘being native speakers’ highlighted)

Figure 3: Answers to “Which of the following are ‘native English teachers’ are better at?”

Figure 3: Answers to “Which of the following are ‘native English teachers’ are better at?”

Figure 4: Answers to “Which of the following are ‘non-native English teachers’ better at?”

Figure 4: Answers to “Which of the following are ‘non-native English teachers’ better at?”

Figure 5: Responses to “I would pay more to learn / for my child to learn from a NET”

Figure 5: Responses to “I would pay more to learn / for my child to learn from a NET”


Characteristics of good teachers

Parents, students and sales and service staff most commonly rated being a native speaker as a “very important” characteristic for good teachers, although none of these groups rated this as the most important factor (Figures 1 & 2). Most groups chose “attitude” as the most important factor (except for sales and service staff who though “personality” was more important) (Figure 2). Sales and service staff believed ‘being a native speaker’ to be more important than other groups.

It is interesting to note that the lack of importance every group attached to teachers’ ability to speak the same L1 as their students. Research has established that judicious use of students’ L1 is beneficial for language learning (Schmitt, 2008). Parents were the only group to rate speaking students’ L1 as “very important” (while adult students rated this as “not important”). Perhaps parents considered this important so that they could communicate with the teachers rather than for any pedagogical reason.

Overall, the group which expressed the strongest native-speakerist views (i.e. ranked being a native speaker highest and ranked speaking students’ L1 lowest) were sales and service staff.


Pros and cons of “native” and “non-native English  teachers”

Parents and students reported that “non-native English teachers” are better than “native English teachers” at teaching learning strategies, anticipating language difficulties, empathizing with students, teaching grammar and teaching vocabulary (Figure 4). Sales and service staff expressed similar views (except for teaching vocabulary). This reflects research. Seidlhofer (1996) found that “non-native English teachers’” knowledge of grammar allows them to give more comprehensible explanations. Arva & Medgyes (2000) also found “non-native English teachers” to be more sympathetic to students’ difficulties in learning a new language. All groups strongly agreed that “non-native English teachers” were better able to empathize with students as learners.

“Native English teachers” were only unanimously identified as being superior in teaching pronunciation and being a model of English (Figure 3). Walkinshaw & Oanh (2014) similarly found that Vietnamese and Japanese students considered pronunciation to be the biggest advantage of learning from a “native English teacher”. Paradoxically, students are often unable to tell the difference between native and non-native pronunciation (Chiba et al., 1995; Kelch & Santana-Williamson). Some experts (e.g., Kirkpatrick, 2010; Modiano, 1999) also argue that “non-native English teachers” are a more realistic and thus better model of English for students. Only 9% of the teachers surveyed here agreed.

Parents, students, sales and service staff considered “native English teachers” to be easier for students to understand. This contrasts with Benke & Medgyes’ (2005) work which indicated that students find “non-native English teachers” easier to understand.

While students, parents, sales and service staff generally agreed that being a native speaker was an important trait for teachers, they also reported “non-native English teachers” were better at more aspects of teaching than “native English teachers” (Figures 3 & 4). This would seem to echo the research of Todd & Pojanapunya (2008) who found Thai students expressed preferences for “native English teachers”, but contradictorily displayed more positive feelings towards “non-native English teachers”.

Again, the group which expressed the strongest native-speakerist views (i.e. ranked being a native speaker as strongest in most categories) was sales and service staff.



Only around one third of the parents and students surveyed “strongly agreed” that they would pay more money for a “native English teacher” (Figure 5). This appears to go some way towards refuting the “customers demand it” (Holliday, 2008) argument but does not refute it entirely. 80% of parents tended to agree they would pay more for a “native English teacher” than a “non-native English teacher”. Only 2% of parents strongly disagreed.



In this research, the strongest native-speakerist views were expressed by sales and service people, not by parents and students. Silvana Richardson has said that “just because the market demands something does not mean that the market cannot be made to perceive things differently” (2016).  However, changing customers’ preferences for “native English teachers” is unlikely to happen if we cannot even change the preferences of our own staff. Changing customers’ perceptions is likely to be twice as difficult when LTO’s sales and service staff possess even stronger native-speakerist views than the customers we hope they might influence. Changing the views of sales and service staff through training, research and professional discourse should therefore be a priority in attempts to end native-speakerism.

John Walker, writing about service in LTOs, has said that “individual service staff may be focused on their particular area of the service provision and may have little opportunity to appreciate the process of the overall service of which they are a part. This can lead to compartmentalized thinking and an inability to identify with the wider strategic goals of the organization” (1997, 22). This problem may not only exist at the school level, but also at the industry level. It seems likely that in going about their day to day work, sales and service staff are inadvertent purveyors of native-speakerism. In my experience, service and sales staff are often excluded from our professional discourse, tend not to attend industry conferences and thus have, to paraphrase Walker, an inability to identify with the wider strategic goals and current issues of the TEFL industry.

While the native / non-native construct may be imagined or artificial (Brutt-Griffler & Samimy, 2001), there is nothing imaginary about the differences in salary and opportunity afforded to teachers in either group. If the TEFL community wishes to redress this imbalance, it should include sales and service staff in this discourse. Such inclusiveness seems especially appropriate in a movement aimed at eliminating discrimination.



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