The native versus non-native teacher dichotomy – Challenging Mental Models

I saw a post recently on Facebook advertising a position for a native speaking teacher in a Brazilian language program. The post appeared on the page of a closed group for English teachers in Brazil. The reaction to the post was immediate. People wanted to know why the program was only hiring native speakers and questioned this practice. The person in search of this native teacher justified the restriction saying that it was for advanced groups, that the program already had non-native teachers, and that this specific job ad was to fill the slots for native teachers. Soon after, a group participant joined the discussion defending the practice of hiring a native teacher because, after all, given the same experience and qualifications, of course a native teacher is better than a non-native one. Needless to say, a long discussion ensued, with many people reacting against the job ad. I requested that the Facebook group administrators adopt the practice of many teacher associations, such as TESOL, which will not post ads for jobs that are exclusive to native teachers. And so they did.

 

Obviously dissatisfied with the outcomes, the same person who had defended the job ad (a Brazilian, by the way)  posted a question on the same Facebook page, asking members to give their opinion about whether they thought that, given the same experience and qualifications, a native speaking language teacher was always better than a non-native one. About a third of the people answered what I believe to be the best practice: that they would engage the two candidates, native and non-native, in a comprehensive teacher selection process, involving resume analysis, interviews and demo classes, and then would select the one most suited for the job. However, I was surprised that many answered that they would definitely hire the non-native teacher because they are usually better at teaching English to Brazilians than native ones. This means they wouldn’t even consider the native one, not even for an interview. I believe that this reaction against native teachers is as pervasive as the usual negative reaction against the non-native ones. What we as professionals have to uphold is that we have equal opportunities, not that we have a reserved market and exclude all native teachers.  Coincidentally, just as I was writing this post, I came across Silvana Richardson’s brilliant plenary at IATEFL on this topic and this was exactly her conclusion – we have to fight the native versus non-native dichotomy and join forces to seek equality. As expected, a few people said they would hire the native teacher for conversation and advanced classes, and the non-native teacher for beginners. This is still a long-held belief that I will discuss below. Yet a few other people said that, given the same conditions, they would definitely hire the native teacher, no doubt about it. A native speaker of English (at least judging by the name and the comment) said they would never learn Portuguese from a non-native speaker beyond the basic level.

 

A few days after this experience with the Facebook exchanges, our program held our graduation ceremony and one of the graduating students gave a speech. He started his studies with us in the Teens course, at the age of 11, and had just concluded the Advanced Course, at the C1 level. When he opened his mouth to speak, we were all flabbergasted. Not only did he have a beautiful, strong voice, he also had no noticeable accent. His English was perfect. This guy had never lived abroad and had only had one native teacher during his five years studying with us, and yet he didn’t have a noticeable accent! This coincides with the recent findings of Levis, Sonsaat, Link, and Barriuso (2016), which showed that having a native teacher did not result in students’ higher attainment of pronunciation as compared with the control group, instructed by a non-native teacher. The authors conclude:

“…the results offer encouragement to nonnative teachers in teaching pronunciation, suggesting that, like other language skills, instruction on pronunciation skills is more dependent on knowledgeable teaching practices than on native pronunciation of the teacher.”

All this got me thinking about why in this day and age, with all the world Englishes and the absolute lack of evidence that having only native teachers leads to better attainment in the language, the native speaker fallacy (Phillipson, 1992) is still so alive. Based on the comments on Facebook and others that I have heard or read in the past few years, here are what I find to be the three main reasons behind these mental models, that is, “the images, assumptions, and stories that we carry in our minds of ourselves, other people, institutions, and every aspect of the world” (Senge et al., 2012, loc. 2278).

 

  1. First of all, I believe it has to do with one’s idea of what the role of the teacher is. If one believes that the teacher is the sole owner of knowledge and that it is their role to impart this knowledge to their students, then maybe a native speaker might be better equipped to do this because more years, months, days, and hours of contact with the language will lead to more knowledge to be transferred to students. It is the deficit model in which the teacher has something that the student does not have. Within a different paradigm, one in which the teacher is seen a mediator of learning, the person responsible for providing affordances in language learning, then the idea of the native speaking teacher as the ideal teacher becomes senseless because the teacher will provide the students with resources to facilitate their acquisition of the language, one of the resources being the access to different models of the language, native or non-native.  We must recognize that nowadays we are not short of resources to expose students to English in all its varieties, by way of songs, videos, podcasts, movies, TV series, online games, you name it! In this sense, the native speaking teacher as a model to students becomes irrelevant.

 

  1. Second, it has to do with students’ and teachers’ beliefs and mindsets about language learning. What is behind the idea that a non-native teacher cannot be as effective as a native one is the belief that one cannot learn a second or foreign language well enough to teach it effectively. It’s as if there is a threshold that we believe we can never cross. Medgyes (1994) relates this to an inferiority complex, a belief that non-native teachers’ knowledge is always inadequate and that they will never measure up to the standards. How can we non-native teachers, excellent language learners ourselves, defend this idea?

 

  1. Third is the discussion of who owns English and who is, after all, a native speaker of English. As is mentioned repeatedly in every article, talk or discussion on this subject matter, English has crossed borders and nationalities and, as a lingua franca, belongs to the whole world. As it is the main language of communication in professional and academic circles internationally, it does not belong to its native speakers anymore. I would argue that a highly proficient, C2 level non-native teacher like many I know might be better equipped to prepare students for international communication in English than a native one. Native speakers tend to take the language for granted. They are not curious to know what speakers of other varieties of the language use because they tend to value their own variety better. They might not notice nuances in the language of different speakers that proficient non-native speakers notice. That’s what good language learners do – notice. For example, an American teacher in my program always corrected non-native teachers when they said “television” with the stress on the third syllable, explaining that this was Portuguese interference. The right way to say it was to stress the first syllable (/ˈtel.ɪ.vɪʒ.ən/). Watching BBC one day, I heard the presenter pronouncing the word with the stress on the third syllable (/ˌtel.ɪˈvɪʒ.ən/). I mentioned this to the American teacher and she was surprised. As an American, she would probably not watch BBC and even if she did, she would probably not notice the difference in pronunciation the way I did because we tend to take our native language for granted. I might not be a native speaker of English in the strict sense of the word, but maybe I’m more cognizant of English as an International Language than my American friend is.  In fact, Chia Suan Chong provides five reasons why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally (Chong, 2016).

 

As a community of practice, we proficient, qualified and experienced non-native teachers of English in Brazil and around the world have to join forces to fight the beliefs, mindsets and mental models examined above. As Peter Senge et al. say in the book Schools that Learn (Senge et al, 2012), mental models are tacit and exist below the level of awareness. Unexamined mental models limit people’s ability to change. Thus, we have to examine and challenge these mental models if we want to change. I hope my three challenges above help keep this conversation going.

 

 

References:

 

Chong, C.S. (2016, March 18). 5 reasons why native speakers need to learn to speak English internationally [Web log post]. English Teaching Professional.

Levis, J. M., Sonsaat, S., Link, S. and Barriuso, T. A. (2016), Native and Nonnative Teachers of L2 Pronunciation: Effects on Learner Performance. TESOL Quarterly. doi: 10.1002/tesq.272

Medgyes, P. (1994). The non-native teacher. London, UK: Macmillam Publishers Ltd.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: OUP.

Senge, Peter, et. al (2012). Schools that Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares about Education. New York: Crown Busisness.

Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 28 years, where she is currently the Academic Superintendent. Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She blogs at isabelavillasboas.wordpress.com and is a member of the NNEST-of-the-month Blog team.

10 Comments
  • T. Veigga
    T. Veigga
    Posted at 12:39h, 16 abril Responder

    Love this, Isabela!
    I just think we have to be careful when saying someone’s English is ‘perfect’ because they show no visible accent. First because we all, native or non-native English speakers, have accents. Secondly, many learners are not going to be able to reduce their L1 accent, but as long as they are intelligible, that’s what should count. At times, some pronunciation models are unattainable. Accents are also part of our identity. Someone may have perfect English with a Brazilian accent.
    Thanks for writing this!

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 19:45h, 18 abril Responder

      You are absolutely right, Thiago! I wanted to make the point that you don’t need a native teacher to have great command of spoken English and used the wrong adjective. My point was to relate this to the article that specifically addressed pronunciation, but my choice of words may be misleading and paradoxical with my other arguments. Thanks for the heads up.

  • David Deubelbeiss
    Posted at 13:09h, 16 abril Responder

    Isabela,

    Very comprehensive post full of thoughts to chew on.

    One thing I think worth mentioning and which is a valid reason many students and school admins want a native speaking teacher is that of culture. Students want to know about the foreign/contact culture, interact with a foreigner and learn the cultural components of language in this way. It’s a strong reason why a native speaker might be a preferred candidate by a school. That said, this push factor is decreasing. Every country is getting many more bilingual teachers (both in language and culture) in their ranks, maybe having lived abroad but also still very much part of the local culture.

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 19:41h, 18 abril Responder

      Dear David,
      Thank you for reading my post and for your comment. You are absolutely right about the cultural background that the native speaker can bring to the classroom. However, as you mention, non-native speakers can also bring this to the classroom when they’ve lived abroad, like more and more have nowadays. Another way that a non-native teacher can mitigate this is to bring guests to the classroom or engage students in skype conferences and the like with native speakers of the language they are learning. Technology can be a great ally. Now I’m preaching to the converted! However, one might still question: Whose culture?
      Best wishes,
      Isabela

  • Claudio Leopoldino de Mattos
    Posted at 22:11h, 16 abril Responder

    Good evening!!!
    I liked so much your approach to this subject of Native x Nonnative debate. I am almost finishing my master course in Linguístic imperialism Phillipson (1992) and totally agree with your food for thought words. It is important to decolonize the ELT community to this bad practices in our society.
    Hope to keep in touch with you,
    Claudio Mattos, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 19:36h, 18 abril Responder

      Dear Claudio,
      I’m glad you liked my approach to the subject and that you found it useful, given your expertise in this subject-matter. Please do keep in touch and share with me what you’ve been reading and writing on this topic. I encourage you to watch Silvana Richardson’t plenary, as she touches upon recent research on this topic. Also, if you are ever interested in attending the TESOL Conference in the US, they have a NNEST interest section. We also have a blog where we publish interviews on this topic: http://nnestofthemonth.wordpress.com.
      Best wishes,
      Isabela

  • Cary Wasserman
    Posted at 18:09h, 17 abril Responder

    As a native English teacher, having only just encountered the BRELT group, I’m very interested in a link to the post (or school, and Facebook group) you mention. I`m also going to post this there.

    I have taught English in Brazil for the last 17 years in both São Paulo and Poços de Caldas. With two exceptions, one in each city, my experience has been congruent with your interpretation –

    “many answered that they would definitely hire the non-native teacher because they are usually better at teaching English to Brazilians than native ones. This means they wouldn’t even consider the native one, not even for an interview. I believe that this reaction against native teachers is as pervasive as the usual negative reaction against the non-native ones.”

    In São Paulo I was hired based on an immediate need – specific requests by potential students for a native teacher. All other schools where I made inquiries, from supersized franchises to local startups, either denied having openings or interest, in spite of many years of graduate work at a major university and an MA in English as well as having other professional skills. I did, however, succeed in learning that the pay in all cases was laughably low for teaching in the schools, though my job inquiries never reached the point of wage discussion. By referrals and a single ad in a popular magazine, however, (the proverbial tiny classified ad from a long-ago late night TV commercial that became a joke), I immediately secured several students at the prevailing independent teacher pay for conversation classes – i.e. with relatively fluent advanced students – which was up to ten times the pay at the schools.

    I believe an unspoken rationale for the prejudice against native teachers does relate to pay scales. In Poços one of the schools managed by an American straight-out asked why I would even consider working for what his school paid. One that did hire me that specializes in “native” teachers (some explanation required) proudly states remuneration consistent with a Brazilian teacher’s association, meaning that at the exchange rate the pay is roughly equivalent to a U.S. minimum wage earner flipping burgers. Students that I’ve had in both cities have remained students for years. Riots would ensue in the US if professional public school teachers were offered such an unlivable pay scale.

    Why would they not even consider an interview with a native speaker? I discovered that with few exceptions potential interviewers and the school’s owners – for conversation courses! – either knew little or no English, and so relied on exams that were cobbled together from various sources with sometimes little understanding of how they should be answered (it was not infrequent that questions might have multiple correct answers and require only one). Those that are fluent tend to discount the non-specific language experiences natives have in common that can spontaneously come to mind in conversations – the mental furnishings and models that start at the youngest ages that tests can’t meaningfully evaluate
    but that play an important part when communicating with native speakers but that go unnoticed communicating with, in this case, other Brazilians.

    There are many additional points to address in your post beyond noting that students can range widely in capability, age, and need, but I’m only going to mention two. The student you cite (“a beautiful, strong voice, he also had no noticeable accent. His English was perfect” – does this include commonly encountered expressions and writing?) may have begun at an optimal age and with high motivation for his attainment. From my experience, he is atypical.

    Further, I would discount without further qualification (background, regional experiences e.g.) your experience with the American teacher. It is not necessary to watch BBC in the US because there are many British programs (most recently Downton Abbey, and Upstairs Downstairs previously) that have been extraordinarily popular there broadcast even on public TV. Some of the British accents come close in pronunciation to some American accents.

    We may in fact, as you say, “take our native language for granted,” i.e. until we hear something at odds with it. If her students are learning one of the American accents (there is variety even from network broadcasters, which with some exceptions is a purified language school-type accent) from her then the British emphasis sticks out, and can be hard to correct, even if, technically it is not wrong, and can be understood. Some students, like some natives, unconsciously incorporate idiosyncracies in pronunciation and expression from anywhere they’ve lived or anyone they’ve talked to; others do not. It is a matter of consistency. The less consistent, the more the communication becomes about the manner of speaking than the content of the speech.

    As to “they would never learn Portuguese from a non-native speaker beyond the basic level,” knowing as much as I’ve learned about Portuguese I fully agree, but with the caveat of why I would be engaging the speaker. In pointing out varying characteristics that make the language difficult, particularly for fluent comprehension (one is spoken word compression and its potential transcription) I’ve found almost complete agreement with Brazilians in confronting them with issues that are second nature to them. Reading and translation, however, is a far simpler matter.

    • Isabela Villas Boas
      Isabela Villas Boas
      Posted at 19:31h, 18 abril Responder

      Dear Cary,

      Thank you so much for reading my post so thoroughly and expressing your thoughts on the points in which it converges with and diverges from your opinion and experience. You are definitely right that teachers in Brazil make far less than they should, but I don’t think that you can convert it into dollars nowadays and compare to wages in the U.S. because the exchange rate has been atypically high. We also have to consider the overhead that language teaching organizations have to pay to the government, which results in teachers actually earning half of what they cost to the institution. However, you are right that this is far from fair.

      I would just like to clarify a few points that may not have been totally clear due to my goal to keep the writing short. In the case of the student, I was particularly relating his excellent pronunciation and flow of speech in the graduation speech, the only sample of his production I had, to the fact that he had only had one native speaking teacher in five years, with a view to supporting the findings in the article that I cite within the same paragraph, namely, that a non-native teacher can be as effective as a native one in coaching students to acquire excellent pronunciation in English.

      Regarding the different varieties of English, what I had in mind was an English as an International Language (EIL) framework, and the fact that, within this framework, native-like command of the language is not necessarily the target for everyone. However, when it is, I do agree that we need to meet the students’ needs and work on accent reduction and consistency in pronunciation according to the variety chosen.

      In addition, differently from you, my experience with native speakers is that they tend to unconsciously “impose” their variety on students. But again, this is my experience. I guess I would probably do this if I were to teach Portuguese if I didn’t monitor myself carefully enough.

      Anyhow, without going into further details, as I’ve already written a lot, my major goal is to advocate in favor of equity in the language teaching profession, both in terms of opportunities and in terms of pay. Thank you once again for contributing to our discussion on this topic and sharing your thoughts and experience. We always have to look at issues from different angles and you have definitely brought a different angle to the table.

  • Cary Wasserman
    Posted at 00:07h, 20 abril Responder

    Thank you for your response, Isabela. I share your major goal of “equity in the language teaching profession, both in terms of opportunities and in terms of pay,” even though, as I think I’ve indicated, I sense we may be coming at it from opposite directions: you, from a non-native position with somewhat of a monopoly in terms of organized teaching opportunities, myself, as a native feeling unfairly discriminated against in that context, while also having other opportunities within the realm of privately contracted instruction. I say monopoly in the sense that given the difficulties for even a Brazilian to start a competing business in a physical plant it can be effectively insurmountable for a foreigner. About that exchange rate and comparable wages – this is yet another matter too complex for a forum such as this, beyond noting that prices and cost of living are increasing far faster than wages.

    I would note also that in “the idea of the native speaking teacher as the ideal teacher becomes senseless” you give the sense of delineating a false equivalence – presenting the non-native teacher as coming to the task with unlimited potential resources available; the native speaking teacher standing alone armed only with intrinsic nationality. Although situations vary – teaching individuals with clearly defined interests vs groups with varied aims and backgrounds, the native has all of those resources in addition to easier access to heuristically generated topical materials that can provide insertion into and discussions about important national dialogues. But there are meaningful differences between the two that may have started with their earliest educational experiences that contribute to an understanding of what mastery of a language means, what is “correct” or “bad” English in encounters with vernacular, non-textbook expression in writing, or ordinary usage in random speech encounters in daily activities.

    Within the scope of prescriptive learning, in some instances a bi-lingual Brazilian may more easily smooth an introduction to English, and native teachers may vary as widely in capability as the students do for innate talent for incorporating a new language. You mention imposing an accent, granted, in quotes, but that imposition can really be the essential repetition that grounds unfamiliar phonemes and rhythms, or among those with lesser abilities at sonic differentiation helps them begin to hear essential differences that can make a word sound right and also be the right word in the right context.

    Teachers who share the student’s language can more readily allow subtle discrepancies to pass that can be decisive for meaning. This is where Chia Suan Chong can be misleading in her example of the insensitive American in an international meeting, because it really poses a concern, in teaching, for the instructor to be more insistent about preparing students for what they are likely to encounter – i.e. not necessarily the most linguistically proficient representative of a company. Its for this reason that I tend to stress precision, as much as possible, for both pronunciation (stress patterns within a rhythmic structure – so difficult to manage in Portuguese) and enunciation (phonemic clarity, that to an American can make a Brazilian sentence seem like one very long word).

    About rapid speech – it seems noticeable at first to non-natives of every language and is only overcome with familiarity. Another rationale for natives in Brazilian programs. Its true as well in the US for Southern Californians and Manhattanites (NYC).

    • Marek Kiczkowiak
      Posted at 05:09h, 18 julho Responder

      Hi Cary,
      I just wanted to respond to the last part of your comment. I think the point Chia is making, and other English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) researchers, is that many students will not necessarily be using English exclusively with ‘native speakers’. They’re much more likely to use it in very diverse settings with speakers of various L1s. This means that we might need to rethink which English we actually teach. While traditionally it would make a lot of sense to insist on conformity with ‘native speaker’ norms, it is much more questionable if we take the ELF perspective into account.
      As Chia points out, there is quite a lot of evidence that ‘native speakers’ of English, especially the monolingual ones, are actually the worst at communicating in ELF settings. Frequently, they’re the least understood too. There are also studies that show that speaking with a ‘native’ accent does not necessarily lead to intelligibility in international settings. In fact, most suprasegmentals, which we so often insist on teaching in pronunciation classes, are not necessary for intelligibility. In other words, you can speak a very syllable timed English and be perfectly communicative. On the other hand, you can speak a very stress-timed one, and not be so.
      If we’re on the topic of pronunciation, recent studies show that a focus on Lingua Franca Core syllabus improves students’ intelligibility and comprehensibility more than a focus on the traditional pronunciation syllabus based either on General American or Standard British English.
      This is not to say that we should not teach ‘native’ features of pronunciation. They might still be useful for some students. But definitely ELF research should lead us to rethink which English we teach. If it’s an international language, we can’t insist only on ‘native speaker’ models. Each teacher will need to make their own choices, but I also think the students should be informed about the global nature of English and what implications this has on teaching and learning of English.

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