One flew east, one flew west, and NNESTs flew everywhere.


The challenge of being a non-native English speaker in a native English speaking world

I recently came across EFL teacher James Taylor’s blog post about NNESTs’ struggle to be respected as English teachers by students and employers. In his guest blog post, James lists a number of advantages of being a NNEST over a being a NEST. Wow! I’d never given much thought to the issue of NNESTs (non-native English speaking teachers opposed to NESTs — native English speaking teachers), and yet I have belonged to this group most of my life! Needless to say, James’ words sound really encouraging for NNSTs, who struggle to have their views heard in an industry dominated by native speakers. Below is the myth revolving around this issue:

Myth: Native speakers make better models for learners because they have been speaking the language all their lives.

Truth: Well, it depends. “Not all native speakers have the same command of their language,” argues Michael Lewis.  (2002. p. 43 ). When discussing the  use of ought vs. should by native speakers, Lewis  claims that “some speakers may seem to have a choice between ought and should, while for others there is either a different choice or no choice at all,” and he goes on to say that “sometimes, ironically, education interferes with the natural choice.” Lewis also argues that native speakers can get confused, too.  I bet we can all remember an occasion when we didn’t know exactly what to say or write in our own mother tongue!

However, there   was a time here in Rio de Janeiro when NESTs were the norm in most language schools. I remember a Brazilian teacher who  pretended to be Canadian in an attempt to gain his students’ trust — That was back in the mid-eighties. Apparently, it made sense, though. Very few people had the chance to travel  or study abroad. There was no Google and resources were scarce, so it was the NESTs who opened the door to a new culture and a language that not many people mastered back then.

The good news is that things have changed for the better here in Brazil. Fortunately, being a NEST  is no longer the only requirement to get a teaching position. Many things have changed and businesses cannot employ anyone without a working visa, so the backpackers and adventurers who used to teach English in language schools and companies are long gone. Nowadays most institutions seek candidates who have a college degree in English, education,  humanities, and other teaching qualifications. In other words, its teachers they are seeking and I think it’s fair to both NNESTs and NESTs. However, I’d strongly recommend that foreign teachers in Brazil get acquainted with the Brazilian political, cultural, and social contexts before they apply for a teaching position here. These factors, along with our rather strict employment policies,  can become an issue for foreigners, who also need to adjust their teaching styles to meet the needs of students from a different culture.

Knowledge of the language one teaches is essential, but teaching skills and classroom management are just as important when you need to face a class of 20 rowdy young learners. In this aspect, both NESTs and  NNESTs are in the same boat as they need to acquire these skills through training and  professional development. Anyone can build up experience and become a better teacher along their career paths regardless of their mother tongue.

If you want to read James Taylor’s guest post and follow the TEFL equity campaign visit:

Further reading:

Lewis, M. (2002) The English Verb. An Exploration of Structure and Meaning. Thomson Heinle

Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a B.A. in Linguistics from USP and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 25 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in visual literacy and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Language Studies and is conducting research in the role of images in the construction of identity.

  • Marek Kiczkowiak
    Posted at 15:32h, 02 julho Responder

    Hola! Como vai?
    Im the founder of TEFL Equity Advocates and I just wanted to say thanks for sharing James post here, and the link to the page.
    I ma glad things have changed, and hopefully, with a little bit of persistence and commitment, more and more schools will start adopting equal hiring policies.


    • Teresa Carvalho
      Teresa Carvalho
      Posted at 22:24h, 02 julho Responder

      Hi Marek! Thanks for taking the time to read my post. Only after going through your blog and James’ guest post did I realize how unfair things used to be when I took up my first teaching job back in the 80s. What amazes me is that we never bothered to question it because it was how things were supposed to be. Period. It’s important for us teachers to share our stories so that those teaching in similar contexts— or perhaps in different contexts, start asking themselves ‘why’ and ‘what if…’ until they can finally break out of this paradigm. Just because something is acceptable and is working, it doesn’t mean that other paths cannot exist. Awareness is key. Exactly because I was too young and unaware of other possibilities, I never questioned these things. Our acceptance plus past Brazilian economic factors helped create the myth that NESTs are better teachers than NNESTs.It has changed and in my opinion there’s room for both. I have been teaching Portuguese as a foreign language for some time now and it’s just as challenging as teaching a foreign language, so my admiration goes out to all NESTs out there who make an effort to see their own language and culture in a different light to be able to teach and inspire others.

  • Marjorie Rosenberg
    Posted at 09:54h, 23 fevereiro Responder

    Thanks for this Teresa. I think that often we are all in the same boat and if we pull together to steer it in one direction, we have a much higher chance of success. In Austria I have been working as a native speaker but always in institutuions which have both native and non-native speakers of English. We used to meet regularly to chat about the advantages and disadvantages of each and it was interesting to compare notes and realise how similar we all are.
    As I mentioned in the webinar that James Taylor gave, I think the big question is really ‘What makes a good teacher irregardless of what one’s passport says’.

    • Teresa Carvalho
      Teresa Carvalho
      Posted at 13:01h, 23 fevereiro Responder

      Thanks Marjorie. I couldn’t agree more and it’s nice that teachers are discussing it. When I started teaching, no one would openly discuss these things.

  • Priscila Mateini
    Posted at 00:46h, 24 fevereiro Responder

    Hi Teresa, Actually it’s my third time reading your post but sorry for not leaving any comment before. I couldn’t agree more with you and other comments. I believe “there are rooms for everybody” but Equality must be discussed for sure. Even though, the work policies have changed, many people still facing discrimination in some parts of the country. We all live in a globalized world, so it doesn’t matter if you are native or non-native Teacher. I reckon we should be more worried about how qualified we are and, what makes you a good teacher and on. That’s the difference of hiring a qualified teacher or a native speaker who never have been to the classroom before. Therefore, it has concerned many teachers as we could see on James Taylor’s webinar.

    • Teresa Carvalho
      Teresa Carvalho
      Posted at 10:20h, 27 fevereiro Responder

      Thanks for your comment, Priscila. You’re right. Qualifications, language knowledge, and experience matter more than one’s mother tongue.

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