Professional Development

for English Teachers

The Curse of Native Speakerism

Many moons ago, I used to work in the EFL department of a university here in London. Among my colleagues was a wonderful teacher called Kasia. Originally from Poland, she’d moved to the UK, met someone and ended up settling. Kasia came into the university set-up via one of our CELTA courses, on which she performed so well that she was offered summer school work, after which she secured a more permanent contract.

One particular term, she had an evening FCE class she was doing two nights a week that I ended up having to cover for some reason that now escapes me. Having knocked up a lesson, I went into class and introduced myself, before saying “Right. So Kasia told me that you’re on page . . . “. Before I could finish my sentence, though, one student had interrupted with a terse “WHO?!”. “Kasia”, I replied. “Your teacher. Blonde hair. Younger than me. Smiley. Remember?” “You mean KATE?” another student ventured, at which point I suddenly realised what had happened here, and decided it was best to go along with it. “Yeah, sorry. KATE, I mean. My bad.”

The next morning, I phoned Kasia and ran her through what had happened. After getting over the mortification she felt at having been found out, she explained that she felt she’d decided to anglicize her name as there were three Polish students in the group and she was worried they’d complain if they realise they’d “come all the way to England only to find themselves studying with a teacher from back home!” In other words, to combat the imagined problems she was worried she might encounter, Kasia had invented an English identity for herself and was (clearly quite successfully!) busy passing herself off as a Brit.

I was reminded of this story recently when I came across a video by a well-known YouTuber who runs a channel called Learn English with Ronnie. With 3.85 million subscribers, she clearly has considerable reach and it’d be nice to believe that with greater appeal comes great responsibility, yet in the video I saw, she suggests that one of the reasons why students of English may be struggling with their fluency is because they’ve had ‘non-native speaker’ teachers! There is, of course, a grim irony in the fact that Ronnie is essentially claiming that ‘non-natives’ are apparently unable to learn to speak English fluently, and yet uses her videos to drum up business teaching . . . yep, ‘non-native’ students! Presumably, she’s softening them up for failure further down the line!

If this was the only example of so-called ‘natives’ weaponising the accident of their births to give them some kind of bogus edge in the labour market, it wouldn’t be worthy of note, yet it really is just the tip of a very large iceberg indeed. Adverts specifying ‘native speakers only ’remain common even in countries where such discriminatory recruitment is illegal.

The insanity of this can be shown in a brief anecdote: a very well-qualified and incredibly fluent, competent Czech friend of mine who’d lived in the UK for years found he got endless knockbacks when applying for jobs in Asia due to the prevailing ‘natives-only’ policy. After the Brexit referendum, he decided to apply for citizenship here, did his test and got his passport . . . and suddenly found that being able to put British in the nationality section of application forms started opening doors that had previously been closed. Overnight, he had become ‘a native speaker’!

Social media is awash with adverts for courses that offer to ‘help you speak like a native’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. It’s no wonder that so many students claim to want ‘a native accent’ – without having any real awareness of the incredible diversity of accents that people who grow up speaking English as a first language actually possess.

Then there’s the fact that big publishers clearly prefer ‘natives’, a trend that’s so ingrained in the market that even successful publishing houses based in countries that don’t use English as a first language often insist that writers anglicize their names – or adopt ‘English-sounding’ pen names. And, of course, when I say ‘English-sounding’, it’s important to note that in ELT materials this all too often means that things like Mike, John, Jane and Kate are fine, whilst Kwab, Yusuf, Sahara and Maleeka don’t get a look in, despite all four of those being the names of English friends of mine. It’s not just that natives are held up as somehow naturally superior – it’s that some natives (white, English, upper and middle class) are seen as being more native than others!

This is all the upshot of native speakerism in its pure, unadulterated form. I think I first encountered this concept in an article by Adrian Holliday in the ELTJ back in 2006. Since then, the term has become more and more widespread as a way of describing the tendency the ELT industry has to divide teachers up depending on where they (or their parents ... or their parents’ parents!) were born, and then privilege one group of teachers over another on this basis.

The impact that this has is colossal. Students come to see certain teachers as worthy of more respect and deserving of higher payment than others; school employment policies are biased in favour of ‘natives’; the perception develops that ‘authentic’ language cannot come from those outside of the English-as-a-first-language arena, and so on.

However, perhaps the most pernicious and damaging effect is on the actual psychological wellbeing of teachers whose mother tongue is not English and lest we forget, this means the vast majority of English-language teachers around the world! Imagine how you’d feel if you’d spent years and years learning a language to a high level, done a degree in linguistics and pedagogy in your own country, and then maybe even done an internationally recognised entry-level qualification like a CELTA only to find that your skills set was still seen as inferior to that of someone who’d picked up English simply because of where they’d grown up, who quite possibly didn’t speak any other languages, and who had maybe only done (at best) a one-month training course to become a teacher. The battering your confidence would take in such a situation is horrendous and yet this is what native speakerism inflicts upon most of the world’s teachers of English. Feelings of doubt and insecurity dog you; you feel that no matter what you do, you’ll never be good enough; you commit countless little acts of self- erasure.

This might involve changing your name, as Kasia did, either because you feel that this will make your life easier or worse because your boss insists you do so. You might also be asked to pretend you’ve studied or lived abroad in an English-speaking country, as though the talents you bring to your classes aren’t valid unless this has happened. You might find yourself team-teaching with teachers born in countries where English is a first language and discover that they’re getting paid more than you are for doing basically the same job. And if you grew up in an English-speaking country, but don’t have a stereotypically English name or face, you might be asked to provide evidence of where you went to school to determine whether or not you fulfil the native speaker requirements for a teaching position – as though there were no other way to prove your linguistic proficiency. Given all of this, it’s a testament to the resilience of many teachers that they don’t end up internalising all of this bias and prejudice or lapsing into self-loathing.

To add one final insult to all this injury, so-called ‘non-natives’ often feel trapped: speak out and people may well then accuse you of having a chip on your shoulder, of using your nationality as a way of guilt-tripping people into listening to you. Stay silent and become complicit in perpetuating a system that’s far too slow to change.

So what can be done to right things? One person who’s spoken out about these issues more than most is Marek Kiczkowiak, who runs TEFL Equity Advocates. Be sure to check out his work and his ideas. If you’re interested in being part of a change for the better, here are five other things well worth bearing in mind:

  1. Remember good teachers are not born – they’re made. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, you’re still learning, and the accident of your birth gives you no special talents that equip you to teach the language you grow up speaking. These talents are learned over time and are never perfected.
  2. All of us have different Englishes. The idea that there’s some mystical dividing line that separates the linguistic competencies of ‘natives’ and ‘non natives’ is nonsense. I’ve met plenty of folk born outside of the English-speaking world whose grasp of the language would put many who grew up with the language to shame, and countless ‘natives’ would struggle with an exam like the Cambridge Proficiency. While we all share much common ground and can speak in language we all understand, every single one of us has our own peculiarities and quirks.
  3. If you’re a so-called ‘non-native speaker teacher’, recognise that you possess talents ‘natives’ would take years to acquire if they were teaching in your context. Celebrate these achievements, and make the most of the opportunities they provide you with. Oh, and if you’re a ‘native-speaker teacher’, educate yourself about what the people the industry has trained you to feel superior to actually bring to the table and be humbled.
  4. Unless there’s a very specific reason for using terms like ‘native-speaker teacher’ or ‘non- native speaker teacher’ (such as, for instance, the fact that you’re writing a blog post problematising the concepts behind them!), stop using them. Reject the stark dichotomy they suggest, and instead just talk about . . . teachers! If you really need to divide teachers up into little groups, how about experienced and less experienced teachers? Or monolingual and bilingual teachers? Or teachers of adults and teachers of under-18s?
  5. Call out native speakerism when you encounter it especially if you are what the market would classify as a ‘native’. In the same way that racism can only really be tackled by white people learning more about the impact it has on black lives, native speakerism will only really die once more of us are aware of the way it blights the lives of many of our colleagues. When you see an advert for natives only, question why it’s deemed necessary; when students claim they want to ‘speak like a native’, point out that this is a highly problematic concept; oh, and don’t promote yourself simply on the basis of where you were born.

Hugh Dellar

Hugh is a teacher, teacher trainer and the co-author of the Roadmap series with over 25 years’ experience.

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