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Qualification required: Native English speaker

02 Mar

Join our team of friendly gynecologists! If you’re female, we’re looking for people like you! A degree in medicine is preferred, but not required. Apply today and begin a new rewarding career!

Let’s hope we will never see job ads like that in the medical field. No one in their right mind would think that just being female will make you a good gynecologist.  So why do so many TEFL job ad writers think being a native speaker makes you a good teacher? Seriously. In the above announcement replace “gynecologists”, “female”, and “medicine” with “teachers”, “native speaker”, and “teaching English” and you’ve got the meat of far too many ELT job announcements.

This is a serious issue in our field, generally not among the teachers themselves (thankfully!) but among the people recruiting the teachers (and hence paying the salaries). For some reason recruiters, especially in private language-training centers, have come to confuse teaching qualifications and birth certificates. This is one of the biggest shames in our field if you ask me because being a native speaker is NOT a sign of one’s ability to teach the language well. It is not even a guarantee that the (native) English taught will correspond to the English that will be encountered outside of the classroom. I, for example, am American but the vast majority of my trainees don’t do business with Americans. They use English with Chinese, German, Indian, Scottish, and Brazilian suppliers and colleagues. My American-ness is not of any added value here. I don’t know much about those countries’ business cultures, I don’t speak with any accent other than my own American accent and my native English certainly differs from that of a Scot or an Indian. So why is it fair that I would likely be preferred over a Polish or Hungarian EFL teacher with similar qualifications? It isn’t fair. Period.

Nowadays, native speakers no longer are the majority users of English. So why do recruiters specifically seek out native speakers over non-natives with equal qualifications? To be honest, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a way for recruiters’ to hide their own lack of knowledge of the field’s teaching qualifications. Between the CELTA, DELTA, Trinity DipTESOL, M.A.s in TESOL, and the whole gamut of sketchy “TEFL certifications” out there it’s no wonder that it’s just easier to slap “seeking qualified native speaker” on a job ad and leave it at that. The lack of clear professional qualifications within our field has led to an ersatz discriminatory qualification of “native speaker.”

I just ran a quick search for “TEFL job ads” and clicked on a few random ones that were posted on a few popular ELT sites. Here are some of the requirements I found (get ready to cringe):

  • Native-level intonation, accent, and pronunciation  (Which native accent?)
  • Requirements: teaching experience, degree in any field, British, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Irish, South African or South American Passport holders (what a clever way of avoiding saying “native speaker”. At least it technically leaves the door open to dual citizens!)
  • We are looking for CELTA / TEFL qualified native English teachers to join our team
  • We are looking for native speakers of English to join our friendly teams
  • Qualifications required: Native English Speaker, some knowledge of Spanish

Of course some of the ads from which these examples are taken also mentioned teaching experience and/or teaching diplomas so at least they’re not stopping at “native speaker” as the only qualification. It’s the fact that “native speaker” is included as a qualification that irks me. Sure, arguments can be made that native speakers bring their cultural background and that they have intimate knowledge of their home culture. Sure but so do non-native speakers and if the learner is a French guy who is going to work mostly with Chinese businesspeople, what use–culturally speaking–is a teacher from England?

And I’m not claiming that ONLY teachers with recognized certifications or diplomas make good teachers. There are plenty of good teachers who got to where they are through experience, reflective practice, and participating in continuous professional development opportunities such as conferences, workshops, and webinars. It’s a damn shame that these people may automatically have their CV sent to the bin (or is that “have their resumé sent to the trash can”?) because they weren’t born in the right country.

TESOL France recently issued a message to employers who send announcements out on their Jobs List discouraging them from using “native speaker” in their announcements, explaining that trained, professional non-native teachers can be just as effective (if not more so) than native speaker teachers. This measure was unanimously applauded by the ELT teaching community on Facebook (which is rich in both native and non-native speakers 🙂 I hope other organizations who provide job ad services also practice this, even if they don’t yet have a formal statement on the issue. We as teachers can also be stewards for fair recruitment policies by addressing the issue with our hiring managers, by encouraging our schools/companies to seek out high-quality teachers who can show proof of their training and/or development, and by explaining why this is more important than the hollow requirement that one be a native speaker to teach a language.

I do have an idea as to why “native speaker” has wrongfully come to be seen as a qualification. It follows in the footsteps of why use of learners’ L1 became a taboo for much of the 20th century. But that, my friends, is for the next blog post!

P.S. There was a great post written recently on this same subject by Marek Kiczkowiak on his blog teflreflections.blogspot.nl. I see that it has been removed because it’s awaiting publication in the TESOL newsletter and in the Winter 2015 edition of the TESOL France magazine “Teaching Times”, which is fantastic. He says a link to the article will be published on his blog at a later date, but in the meantime, you can still read the many comments on the original post.

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20 responses to “Qualification required: Native English speaker

  1. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    March 3, 2014 at 1:17 am

    I applaud TESOL France in its position, of course, It’s certainly no new discussion and sadly still continuing. Mine (http://fourc.ca/nnest/) and Cecilia Lemos’ (http://cecilialemos.com/2010/11/16/nothing-more-nothing-less/) are just a couple posts that come to mind on the subject, and Valeria Branca’s on the absurdity of transferable skills from one industry to ELT (http://valeriabfranca.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/i-work-in-finance-hence-im-able-to-teach-english-in-brazil/) reminds me of your opening.

    You mention, “So why do recruiters specifically seek out native speakers over non-natives with equal qualifications? To be honest, I don’t know.” I don’t think the answer’s that challenging. Students. When I worked in Seoul, the school almost never hired anyone they thought the students wouldn’t find credible i.e. nnests or even Koreans who grew up in one of the English-speaking countries. Business drove decisions.

     
  2. Barbara Bujtás

    March 3, 2014 at 5:44 am

    Ha! How about this: I get a call on a Thursday afternoon. A voice wants to hire me for a 100-hour adult course starting next Monday. EU-funded courses run by companies you’ve never heard of, obviously they have no staff at all, they call anybody who has ever put up an ad, (even a dog claiming it can teach English), the groups are mixed-ability, mixed-age, mixed-level. No training, no job interview, no info.

     
  3. Ebefl

    March 3, 2014 at 8:05 am

    Your analogy at the start doesn’t really work. A woman has no special knowledge of female anatomy by virtue of being a woman. An native English speaker has explicit knowledge of the entirety of English grammar. That is, they can judge and produce correct English without perhaps being to explain why it I correct. A woman doesn’t automatically know the workings of the female anatomy or how to deal with problems relating to them just by being born a woman.

     
    • Marek Kiczkowiak

      March 3, 2014 at 8:32 pm

      I agree with you that the analogy isn’t an exact one, but for me it does the trick. Another one I’ve heard is that you don’t have to be from Mars to teach astronomy, do you?
      A native speaker might have the tacit or implicit, not explicit knowledge of the language – hate to pick you on words but I feel this is an important distinction. The ideal speaker-hear NS is linguistically a very outdated concept (first introduced by Chomsky, but since discredited by many). There are many arguments against viewing the NS as an infallible and omniscient source of L1 knowledge (e.g. there will always be words you don’t know, some NS dialects could be considered incorrect – the double negative, etc.). The problem I see with it is that it assumes superiority and looks down on non-native language as always lacking and deficient.
      I do agree that a NS has an instinctive knowledge of what is correct and what not. However, such knowledge can also be achieved by a non-native speaker. Once you get to C2 level you are to all intents and purposes on a level of an educated native speaker.
      The final objection I have is that the mere proficiency in a language (whether native or non-native) has very little bearing on the success of your students and your teaching abilities. It certainly does not make you a good or a bad teacher. It might be a necessary criterion (I don’t think you actually need to be on C2 level to be an excellent teacher), but definitely not the sufficient nor the ultimate one. Teaching is so much more than just language competence.
      What do you think?

       
    • Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

      March 4, 2014 at 8:01 pm

      I wonder though – a woman, by virtue of having the anatomy, is able to produce all womanly functions and knows when something isn’t right. She just can’t produce explanations for why.

       
  4. Marek Kiczkowiak

    March 3, 2014 at 8:42 pm

    Great post.
    It is an oxymoron to view being a native speaker as a qualification and it boggles the mind why some still view it as such.
    The only thing I can add to your article is a call to everybody, NESTs and NNESTs alike to stand up and speak out against it. The status quo isn’t going to change out of its own whim. We must do something to help it. And each and every one can do something.
    Actually, natives only ads are illegal within the EU (an extract from my article):
    ‘Article 21 of basic rights charter of the European Union prohibits any discrimination based on nationality and/or ethnicity. Indeed, a European Commission Communication from 11.12.2002 (COM (2002) 694 final) states that “advertisements requiring a particular language as a ‘mother tongue’ are not acceptable.”
    On 23 May 2003, in answer to a question from German MEP Jo Leinen’, the European Commission stated: “the term native speaker is not acceptable, under any circumstance, under community law.”
    There are also law precedents in most countries. In the UK two different language schools were sued on two separate occasions for advertising native–only positions, and both of them lost. In Holland, the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights has twice declared (e.g. opinion 2007 – 135, Dutch description: http://www.mensenrechten.nl) that “the selection criteria of a native speaker is not proportionate” as it “leads to indirect discrimination on the base of nationality and race.”’
    So go out there and let the employers know. They shouldn’t be getting away with it!
    As pointed out here, my article is temporarily unavailable on my blog, but if you’d like to read it, please feel free to email me, and I’ll send you a copy: marek_kiczkowiak@hotmail.com
    There’s a FB support group which you can join: Budapest NNEST. At the moment we’re conducting a research into the attitudes of students and recruiters towards native and non-native speaker teachers. If you’re interested in helping out, please circle the two on-line surveys in your school.
    Questionnaire for recruiters (anyone in your school who is or has been responsible for interviewing and contracting new teachers): https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/DXFRPXY
    Questionnaire for students: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/RXRPK8B
    Thanks! 🙂

     
  5. Laura Patsko

    March 3, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    Hear, hear, Christina! Great to see more teachers generating discussion of these very important issues.

    I think Ebefl’s comment deserves closer attention. Female anatomy aside, neither of the following bold assertions (and I quote) are defensible:

    1. “An native English speaker has explicit knowledge of the entirety of English grammar.”
    2. “[NS] can judge and produce correct English without perhaps being to explain why it I correct.”

    Re: the first one, as Marek points out above, explicit and implicit knowledge are very different things. Moreover, English grammar is not a fixed, stable system in terms of time or geography, in any English-language communities, whether ‘native’ or ‘non-native’. A ‘native’ English speaker could only loosely claim to have thorough knowledge of what is admissible in his/her own variety, and even this is often disputed. People’s intuitions are not infallible. While I accept that a ‘native’ speaker has a particular knowledge of his/her ‘native’ language which is not the same as the knowledge a person has who has studied/learned/acquired that language later in life, this should not imply authority or superiority.

    Similarly, re: the second point, ‘correct’ is a very difficult term to actually apply without resorting to prescriptivist grammar books. Views on ‘correctness’ are also variable across time and social boundaries.

    I feel a degree of sympathy with your gynaecology analogy because there is no system comparable to language in the way it is acquired/learned/known/used, so it’s extremely difficult to choose an appropriate analogy. But I think the principles underlying your choice are clear – mere accident of birth is not sufficient qualification for transferable expertise.

     
    • Marek Kiczkowiak

      March 4, 2014 at 11:33 am

      Very well said, Laura. English is an official language in more than 50 countries. Can you imagine the number of dialects and varieties there are?
      Because of this widespread view that a NS is somehow always correct, when they do make a mistake (see Chris comment below) most people will tend to say: Oh, well, just a slip. But when a non-native makes a mistake – no matter how proficient, we usually tend to blame it on their lacking language skills. A bit hypocritical, isn’t it?

       
    • EBEFL

      March 10, 2014 at 2:00 pm

      Hi Laura, I think in retrospect ‘explicit’ was the wrong term to use here. I think perhaps ‘detailed’ is what I was going for but explicit implies, as you note, that they could explain things, -which obviously isn’t the case.

      You wrote:
      While I accept that a ‘native’ speaker has a particular knowledge of his/her ‘native’ language which is not the same as the knowledge a person has who has studied/learned/acquired that language later in life, this should not imply authority or superiority.

      I wonder what name you would then give to ‘particular knowledge’ a native speaker has if it is not superior? On a human level it goes without saying that one person is no more superior than another, but I have a surperior understanding of, all things being equal, a non-native speaker in terms of grammar. Or would you argue that they just have a ‘different’ understanding of grammar that is neither more or less accurate to mine?

      You note that ‘correct’ is a difficult term to apply, but so are ‘native speaker’ and ‘grammar’. It seems to me that we either make assumptions about what these things usually mean in terms of a general understanding of these concepts or we find ourselves unable to talk about them at all.

       
      • Laura Patsko

        March 15, 2014 at 12:44 pm

        Hi EBEFL,

        In short – yes, I would argue that “that they just have a ‘different’ understanding of grammar that is neither more or less accurate to mine”. Difference does not imply superiority, as you rightly say yourself. So-called ‘native’ speakers (another slippery term, as you also mention) may be able to answer others’ questions about what is inside their heads; but those who have learned a language later in life can also answer different questions in a way that a ‘native’ speaker could not. There are many perspectives on language and I don’t think ascribing superiority to one group of speakers makes any sense, regardless of how/when they learn/use that language. This leads us to be very prescriptivist, which might be convenient and easy for us as language teachers, but I don’t think that makes it appropriate.

        I also agree that there are many terms that are difficult to apply. Obviously, we use terminology (like all words, really) as a shortcut to understanding, to avoid defining each and every word we use as we use them. That’s the beauty of lexis! But with complex, sensitive ideological arguments such as ownership of language and authority on correctness, I don’t think we can “make assumptions about what these things usually mean in terms of a general understanding”. Those assumptions about general understanding are precisely what gets us into these discussions in the first place! (e.g. the assumption that ‘native’ speakers ‘know’ what is ‘correct’ above all other users of a ‘language’…)

         
  6. Chris Ożóg

    March 4, 2014 at 6:46 am

    @Ebefl – you evidently don’t work closely with native speaker trainees in training or development courses, do you? I can tell you now, from vast experience, that a very large majority of native speaker trainee teachers know virtually nothing about how English works and what they do think they know is in fact completely false. Here’s one from the other day in a session on connected speech: “we don’t use contractions in American English” (really!!??). Here’s another, from feedback on making sure your boardwork is accurate: “my spelling is very terrible” (that ‘entirety of English grammar’ taking a bit of a battering there, eh? Goodbye non-gradable adjectives). One more from my current group: “what’s a phrasal verb?” (oh dear).

    In response to that last question, here is Omar from Syria: “it’s a verb made of more than one word that can have a completely different meaning”. Not bad, and he a poor non-native speaker with his obviously superior knowledge and expertise in a language he learnt, putting to shame the three native speakers above (1 US, 1 UK, 1 SA), and having people like you imply that he is somehow the lesser English teacher here. It may be time to reconsider.

    I applaud the author of the article and cannot put it any more clearly than this: being a native speaker has no bearing on your ability as a teacher (and is often detrimental).

    Chris

     
    • Marek Kiczkowiak

      March 4, 2014 at 11:36 am

      Some great examples, Chris.
      Do you think you could help us out with the research I mentioned in my comment above? We’re looking into how NESTs and NNESTs are perceived by students and recruiters. There’s one on-line questionnaire for each group. It only takes 10mins to fill in. Would really appreciate if you could spread the word about it in your school. Here are the links:
      Questionnaire for recruiters (anyone in your school who is or has been responsible for interviewing and contracting new teachers): https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/DXFRPXY
      Questionnaire for students: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/RXRPK8B
      BTW, how’s Dubai?
      Cheers

       
    • EBEFL

      March 10, 2014 at 2:05 pm

      Hi Chris, you wrote:

      you evidently don’t work closely with native speaker trainees in training or development courses, do you? I can tell you now, from vast experience, that a very large majority of native speaker trainee teachers know virtually nothing about how English works and what they do think they know is in fact completely false

      I think your assumption is probably due to my use of the word ‘explicit’. The point I was making is that NS have a implicit vast and complex understanding or the language they speak. You seem to be talking about explicit knowedge of grammar rules and things like that or regional variations. Being able to explain what a phrasal verb is isn’t what I was getting at. (see the comment above for details)

      I’m sorry to have confused you.

       
  7. RebuffetBroadus

    March 4, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Wow, some great comments and ideas here. Tyson, thanks for posting those links. This definitely is not a new topic and you’re right that one of the simple reasons for the discrimination comes from the clients’ demand for native speakers. That means it’s partially up to us, as Marek mentioned, to start trying to change things. Easier said than done! One place to start is with the announcements our companies send out. We can tactfully encourage our managers/HR people to drop the “native speaker” line from their ads and explain why it’s not fair and excludes a whole pool of talented teachers. The harder part is getting the message across to clients though. How often would we want to tell a client he’s being unfair and discriminatory, at the risk of him taking his business elsewhere. That being said, if they are not jerks, hopefully they’d be open to discussing the matter and possibly even to seeing your point. Part of the issue is, like Marek mentioned, this false idea that the NS is an infalliable source of knowledge about their own language and that it is impossible for a NNS to reach that same level. It takes education and training out of the equation, which as Laura mentioned, can make a big difference of language level among NS of the same language.

    I agree that the analogy is maybe not 100% parallel to the NS-NNS question, but what I meant by it is that just because a woman is born a woman doesn’t mean that she automatically understands the workings of female anatomy, nor is she automatically able to provide medical advice on questions of female anatomy. To do so requires training. It is the same with NS. It is not just because they are born English (or any other native English-speaking nationality) that they automatically understand how the English language works. Yes, they can use it, but that is a different set of skills from teaching it. Chris made a very good point with her story, which illustrates that perfectly!

     
  8. RebuffetBroadus

    March 4, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    Yes, Tyson exactly! That was where that analogy was going 🙂

     
  9. EBEFL

    March 10, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    oh a just remembered this post. Seems like i produced quite a few responses…that’s always good. I’ll need a bit of time to reply tho.

     

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