Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Natives and non-natives - justified discrimination?

Recently the BESIG discussion forum has exploded into life, which is a very welcome development. I belong to three such forums, BESIG, IATET and EULETA, and all three seem to come and go in waves, usually until someone complains about "all these messages cluttering up my in-box". I've never been able to work that one out - surely an active discussion forum is infinitely better than an inactive one, and even the apparently irrelevant postings sometimes generate wonderful debates.

(I also come and go with the forums - sometimes I read everything, get involved in discussions and look forward to the next nuggets of wisdom; other times I'm too busy and barely have time to delete all the stuff cluttering my in-box - but that's more about me and my workload than the quality of the discussions.)

Anyway, a week or so ago on BESIG there was a great little debate about natives and non-natives that came out of nowhere - someone had posted a job ad that specified it was for native speakers only. And the floodgates opened. I didn't get involved in the debate because I was deep in deadline hell (still am actually), but I do need to get some things out of my system, so here goes.

I've spent almost all my teaching career in the natives-only sector. When I started here in Poland in 1996, there was a stereotype that Polish people couldn't teach English as well as us. Apparently Polish teachers of English were too obsessed with grammar; they explained rather than elicited; their lessons were boring and ineffective.

That at least was the message I got from my employers and my students. No idea how accurate the stereotype was. At the time I didn't question it. I'll come back to the issue of stereotypes later.

Then in 2003 I moved to International House, where I was briefly Director of Studies. (I left after 4 months because I was told there was no money to pay me from May to September - this being just after my daughter was born. Not a good time). Towards the end of my time there I was interviewing a teacher for a position in the school. She was wonderfully qualified and experienced, and very impressive. (I discovered today, by coincidence, that's she's become a sucessful course book writer).

But my boss (Polish) vetoed my decision to give her a job. Because the teacher was Polish. The customers won't like it. They have certain expectations, you know.

Again, I accepted that. The customer's always right. Can't argue with the market, and all that.

Next I moved on to the British Council (doubled my salary and had no responsibility - good career move). Another institution dominated by native speakers, but also one that takes equality and discrimination very seriously.

In my first year I attended a conference in Glasgow for BC teachers. One of the sessions I attended was entitled I want a proper British English teacher. The presenter explained that some clients had complained about non-white teachers in the teaching centre (I think the teachers in question were British of Asian origin), so the centre manager explained to the client No, we will not change your teacher. It's alright - all our teachers are fully qualified native speakers.

In other words, the customer isn't always right. The presentation was about standing up to discrimination. Hear hear!

But that got me thinking. The manager (rightly) came down hard on racial discrimination. But he replaced it with discrimination based on nationality. On the surface, the manager was being thoroughly modern and liberal and anti-discriminatory, but under the surface, his message was No, don't worry, they're not nasty foreigners. They're Brits (or Americans or others from the inner circle).

In other words, criticising one type of discrimination while indulging in another. No wonder the client was confused, perhaps.

Before I get into trouble, I'm absolutely not saying one type of discrimination is less bad than another, or one type justifies another type. I disagree with all kinds of discrimination. Discriminating against British non-whites is wrong, and so is disciminating against non-British non-whites. And so is discriminating against non-British whites, for that matter.

It's also illegal, by the way. Probably - good ol' Wikipedia assures me that discrimination based on nationality is covered under anti-discrimination law. (I can't been able to find any evidence of this in actual statutes, but I haven't looked very hard).

You could argue that this is politcal correctness gone mad, and some people have argued exactly that. Surely if you want to learn a language, a native speaker is better than a non-native? Stands to reason, right?

Well, not necessarily. For me as a learner of Polish, I'd probably be better off asking a non-Pole to explain the grammar. For most natives, their own grammar is too deeply entrenched to be available for analysis and explanation. (OK, I know I should get over my obsession with grammar - but that's just what I'm like as a learner). Non-natives have the bemefit of knowing the language from the outside - how it works, what's difficult to get your head round, etc. They also have experience of learning the language. And, very often, they know their learners' language too. Some pretty big advantages.

The much more important issue, however, is that we're dealing in stereotypes. I said a non-Pole might be better at explaining Polish grammar to me, but I can't say all non-Poles would be better than all Poles. That'd be ridiculous.

Equally, perhaps there are many non-native English speaker teachers who have poor English (perhaps) or who can't teach according to a particular methodology.

Perhaps ...

Even if that were true, it would be wrong to deduce that because teacher A was born in country B and not country C, she can't teach English as well as teacher D (who was born in country C).

You can't judge individuals based on stereotypes. Treat each individual on their own merit.

The teacher I wanted to recruit at IH had wonderful English and a better grasp of methodological theory that I did at the time. The only justification for not employing her was the stereotype.

And what of the customer being always right? Well, they're not. We don't tolerate racist customers or pander to their prejudices (I hope). And I think we need the guts and the confidence to stand up to customers who demand a particular flag on their teacher's passport.

Sure, you might lose a few customers. Maybe lots of customers. But if you have a strict policy of recruiting absolutely the best teachers, whatever it says on their passport, you may find the customers who stay are happier and recommend your school to other potential customers.

Anyway, I'm aware this is a hornets' nest, so very much looking forward to your comments.


  1. Great post Jeremy.

    It reminds me of a business English video project I worked on twenty or so years ago. A production company had been contracted by a publishing house to write the script. All the main characters were male and I objected – where were the women? The guy running the production company told me that that would compromise the video’s authenticity. To reflect the real world of business (as it was then), the decision makers should be men.

    I was very pleased when the (male) video producer from the publishing house overruled him. His argument: our goal was educational and if that meant presenting an idealized world to improve the world, so be it.

    I think the issue here is similar. It can be argued that the customer is king and schools need to select teachers to satisfy their clients’ expectations. But those expectations will reflect the world as it exists today. If our goal is to educate our clients, selecting teachers who can lead us to a better future makes more sense.

  2. I think the starting point should be that jobs that advertise for someone with a CELTA or Trinity Cert TESOL should not have further restrictions on people being native or non native speakers, especially if they are a school, like IH, that is quite happy to train non native teachers in said CELTA and charge them the same as native speakers. All this is dependant on visa restrictions, however.

  3. Alex - an excellent point.

    I guess, though, that it would be hard to claim this as racism in court as it is based on language rather than ethnicity. The argument is that non-native speakers are not as skilled in the major requirement for the job as native speakers. We may disagree, but as yet it is still a common belief (even amongst learners, who eschew highly skilled teachers of their own nationality in favour of untrained, unqualified farm-boys from Nebraska).

  4. Thanks a lot for these great comments.

    Vicki: Good point. I can't imagine anyone trying to claim business is an all-male world nowadays, so sounds like progress. Mind you, perhaps my view of the world of business has been infleunced by all those high-powered businesswomen in course books!

    Anyway, good for you for standing up for common sense with that video.

    I'm not sure we, as teachers (and writers/editors) can do much to make the world a better place, but I suppose if we stop trying we become part of the problem.

    Alex: Yes, there are issues with visas, and other forms of 'justified discrimination'. When I joined the British Council I assumed it was a British-only institution, like (the senior elements of) the British Embassy or the British Army. Part of my job description is to present a favourable image of Britain - as a BC teacher I'm a type of cultural ambassador. So you could argue that a Brits-only policy is justifiable. But then it'd also have to exclude Irish, Americans, Canadadians and South Africans (to name some of the nationalities I've worked with in the BC).

    Darren: By all means schools could justify discrimination based on language proficiency. A teacher whose English isn't good enough shouldn't really be teaching the language. Or rather, not at high levels - I could probably do a reasonable job at teaching you beginner-level Polish, even though my own level is around upper-int.

    As for whether it could be proved to be racism in court, I'm not so sure it'd be a problem to prove it. I'd love to see a test case, where a super-profient non-native took a language school (preferably one of the bad ones) to court after being refused an interview or a job. The school would have to prove that the teacher's language really was flawed in a significant way. Could be interesting. But of course that's easy for me to say, in the comfort of my cushy native-speakerland.

    I didn't mention the 'untrained farm-boys of Nebraska' in my original posting - sounds dangerously close to more stereotypes to me. But I get your point.

    When I started in 1996, I was completely clueless. So lets' replace your farm boys with me in 1996. My lessons were rubbish. And yet, I was told, and I believed, that I had more to offer than non-natives.

    Well, perhaps, thanks to the methodology I'd picked up in my month at IH Picadilly I was actually better than a small number of dodgy-methodology non-natives. But there's no way I was better than most, let alone all, non-natives. And yet the market demanded native speakers ...

    Anyway, looking forward to more great commnets.

  5. Hi Jason,
    Just odd bits and bytes:
    1. I once had a Polish EFL colleague here in Munich whose English was so amazing I was sure she'd grown up bilingual. Nope. Fabulous role model to the Poles here.
    2. Academic level bilinguqlism seems far more attractive in a trainer, at least to my clients in ESP, than "just" having a native speaker with the necessary background. They like to have their trainer be their translator.
    3. I'm a bit unsure, and perhaps you could clarify, but I believe The British Council here in Munich only hires British nationals. Would thst simply be because they can afford to? Or would it be to preclude colo(u)r blindess? ;)

  6. Hi Jeremy,

    I think that the idea that being a native speaker is a qualification to teach is a rather misguided one. There is a lot of discrimination in Germany based on the idea that only native speaking teachers are capable of teaching English to Germans, and that this is what is marketed to the customer. I think that this is a misnomer for a number of reasons, and under certain circumstances, Germans might be better able to teach English than a native speaker.
    (1) A German person teaching English would have learned it as their second language (L2). If they have had this experience of learning a second language, which many native speaker haven’t done because of idea that English (their L1) is the only necessary language, then they are more competent to guide a beginner student though the same learning stages.
    (2) Native English speakers do not always understand the most common problems Germans students face when learning English. A German person teaching English can explain things certain things better to the beginner student, and in the process prevent common translation errors from becoming fossilized.
    (3) Most students need International English for communication to other non-native speakers, so it is very helpful to hear other accents, rather than exclusive exposure to native speakers all the time. Native English teachers tend to overcomplicate forms of communication, which are often only applicable when communications with other native English speakers is required.
    (4) Many students need teacher’s who understand their education system and their special needs. A German teaching English would probably understand the customer’s needs better than a native speaker who has little or no experience of the German education system.
    The only advantage of a native speaker is that advanced level students can certainly benefit from more instruction in the idiomatic aspects of the language. I would suggest that non-native teachers are very strong in the beginner to intermediate levels, but they may not have an extensive enough grasp of the language to deal with more advanced students. Certainly if these non-native teachers have done a CELTA they have shown their language competencies and they should be given a chance to work in the profession.

  7. You are quite right Jeremy... I, too, was rubbish when I started - and I am neither a farm boy, nor from Nebraska. I didn't even have the benefit of a CELTA until I picked one up after a year of 'teaching'. Throwing more stereotypes into the mix doesn't help anyone. Apologies.

    I think this debate will be moot in years to come, as English speakers lose their (already extremely shaky) status as owners and guardians of the language. But anything we can do to hasten equality of opportunity I'm all for, from Gdansk to Omaha!

  8. Hello Jeremy

    I may have been the NNST who instigated the debate :) on BESIG after that 'infamous' job ad. I think I did reply 'why on Eearth it has to be a native speaking teacher':( or it may have been a teacher from India and I followed on from there. :)

    There is a shortish something on this dichotomy in the latest issue of IATEFL Voices. I may try and find it and copy it here.

    Belgrade, Serbia

  9. Dear Jeremy

    With my wicked sense of humor to top it all, I have to add that sometimes non native speaking teachers also are prone to loads of language atrocities.

    The dichotomy aforesaid must not 'lull' the nonnative speaking teachers into thinking that in the times to come, they /me included/ will rest on the laurels.

    I may try and scour U -tube for a brilliant Larry Henry's britcom which would be perfect for this debate. I've seen it on BBC PRIME and I laughed my heart out in two short sketches in which Larry Henry has the role of a dentist -to -be applying for a job in UK reputed dentist's office and in another one a hair-stylist to be applying for a job with the film director directing 'Romeo and Julliette' or the like. In both cases Larry Henry claims racial discrimination for not getting a job in his hilarious way. :)

    I hope you can watch these too and by the same token establish a trivial comparison with NNST vs NST debate and what IMHO non-native speaking teachers must never do.

    Belgrade, Serbia

  10. Dear Jeremy

    During that very debate I did resort to humor again by saying that by ONLY NATIVE SPEAKERS equation it would mean that Herbert Puchta, Claudia Ferradas, Kari Smith or the like will never stand a chance of getting any decent ELT job but the pro-native- speaking -teachers debaters seem to have shunned the replies to that one coming 'off my cuff' :)

    Belgrade, Serbia

  11. Sorry all for taking so long to reply. I'll try to deal with all these great comments now.

    Anne: Thanks for the bits and bytes (but not sure who Jason is!) I agree that bilingualism is really important and useful - it's so crazy that it's still seen in some circles as inferior to monlingualism. I have no idea about the British Council in Munich, I'm afraid - in fact, there doesn't seem to be one, unless my internet search skills are failing me. If they do hire only British nationals, perhaps they're spies or something, so they have to be Brits. Or perhaps it's just a coincidence that all their teachers are Brits and they haven't made enough of an effort to dispel the rumour that they discriminate in their recruitment. No idea, but it'd be interesting to find out more.

    Rory: What can I say - all really important and valid points. I'm actually feeling a bit sorry for poor old native speakers now - after all of us ganging up on them and saying that non-natives are better. But I guess the point to keep coming back to is that we shouldn't judge people by the group they belong to / have been assigned to. Native speakers can be great teachers. Non-natives can be great. And both can also be rubbish, and everything in between.

    Darren: Absolutely. I'm not sure if many farm boys read this blog, but if they do, I'm sure your apology is welcome.

    Natasha: Glad you got involved here, and indeed glad you started off the debate by spotting the discrimination in the job add. It's also nice to see you sticking up for the natives (or rather reminding us natives why we still have a role in the teaching of our language!)

    Thanks for reminding us about those great Lenny Henry (not Larry!) videos. A good reminder to keep a sense of perspective in this debate.



  12. Gosh, Jeremy, so you still remember that minor incident? It’s really gracious of you to say all these flattering things about me. (I’m not sure I’d describe myself as having a good grasp of methodological theory!)
    In other words, I am the non-native teacher Jeremy wanted to employ at IH all those years ago. I’ve since had a diverse, exciting and enjoyable career, and I’d like to say this: I’ve had to fight discrimination again and again, and again. Being a non-native ELT professional is a bit like being a woman sixty years ago: whatever you do, you must do twice as well as a ‘native’ to be thought half as good. And many of your native-speaker colleagues, although they won’t usually say it to your face, believe the discrimination is reasonable and justified. So it’s reassuring to meet someone like Jeremy from time to time!

  13. Wow, Marta. It's great to have you here, and sorry for using you as an anecdote. That 'minor incident' made a lasting impression on me - you taught me to question my prejudices and my acceptance of others' prejudices.

    And hearing your comments here, you make me realise how important it is to stand up against the status quo.

    If you'll excuse me using you as an anecdote one last time, I hope other non-native English teachers find your comment and take inspiration from your success!


  14. Marta

    right you are! I enjoyed reading your post. You are right about our having to prove ourselves and bend almost double in doing so.
    Thanks God,there is EIL and/or ELF out and about and situation is on the up.

    Belgrade, Serbia

  15. Dear Marta, Jeremy, all

    I ve recently read an article about the so - called IMPOSTOR'S SYNDROME some nonnative speaking teachers suffer from, which added to my woes :) but then again it also encouraged me

    Here is the link. Hope you like it!




  16. Dear Jeremy and all

    Hey, there is more on the topic/issue. 'Stereotype threat' below is well worth reading. I stumbled upon it while reading about human rights issue and I thought the same sort of thinking sets in in employers' minds in our NNST/NST debate. This text below deals with racial issue and I hope it just serves to transfer it to our debate.

    Belgrade, Serbia

  17. I work for a British Council that hires both native and non-native speakers…which is really good. However, the pay is different. The local teachers are paid less than the expats, it's quite a big difference. Is this even allowed?