Devil’s Advocate versus Rakesh Bhanot on Non-Native Speaker Teachers of English

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

So the sixth victim on the hot seat is Rakesh Bhanot

Rakesh Bhanot has been involved in teaching/teacher education for over 40 years and has delivered workshops/seminars in over 30 countries. He has contributed to a range of publications and is the founder editor of the journal Language Issues. He lives in London and is thinking about starting a blog.

Chia:              Hi, Rakesh, really good to have you here.

Rakesh:          Pleased to be here.

Chia:               I hear you have a rant that you want to share with us.

Rakesh:          Well, firstly, I am not, and do not feel like, a victim. Secondly, what I have to say is hardly a rant; it’s common sense.

Chia:               Ah hah! You might not feel like a victim now…but when I am done… (she rubs her hands together in glee…)

So what is this common-sensical thing that is irking you?

Rakesh:          Let’s just get this out of the way: the Devil often falls into her/his fire. So watch out!

However, here is my position: put bluntly – since I am a blunt Northerner from Lancashire as well as from North India – non-native teachers of English are better than so-called native speakers of English. I can and will qualify that as you approach the cliff edge of the eternal fire.

Chia:               Wait, first of all, as this is a touchy subject, I would suggest we clarify the terms Native Speaker and Non-Native Speaker before proceeding into eternal fire.

Rakesh:          Giving dictionary definitions may or may not help you here. My big fat dictionary describes a  Native Speaker (NS) as ‘someone who has spoken a language from earliest childhood’. That begs all sorts of questions: how early is early? what about a person who grows up in a multilingual society? etc.

Chia:               Let’s just say that someone who spoke the language from, say as early as 5, and was educated in English at school, even if they were multi-lingual? Does that sound like a good definition to you?

Rakesh:          Such parameters can help but life is more complicated than that. For example, I did not speak any English until I arrived here in the UK aged 10 and yet I have taught English in many institutions – both public and private – that claim/ed to employ only NSs.

Chia:               Do you think these institutions saw you as a NS?

Rakesh:          I don’t think they saw me in those terms; they simply saw me as someone who was popular with their students in spite of the fact that I do not look like a (stereo)typical Englishman or a British person. What mattered to them was that I could deliver a professional ‘service’ and what mattered to the students was the ‘feeling’ that they could understand what I was saying; often more clearly than the NSs they had rejected because they could not even understand the accent of the so-called NSs. Shall I elaborate?

Chia:               Hang on…let me pick up on your point about students not understanding the NSs’ accents…

Is it not part of language acquisition to learn to understand the NSs? Why are we protecting them from that?

Shouldn’t such exposure be part of letting students get used to listening to NS accents?

They probably couldn’t understand NS accents only because they are not used to them… Is it not our job to provide them with more listening practice then….if that is the case…

Rakesh:          Well, Ms Devil, you have opened up another can of worms that I am rather pleased about. I agree with you that learners should be exposed to different NS accents. However, if the learners cannot understand the NSs because their regional accent is so far removed from a variety of English that they need to learn for the geographical context in which they live, then one has to ask why.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. When I taught in Spain in the early 1970s, I was twice pushed into a classroom by the director of the school and told to go in and say that I was a native speaker (sic.) of English to the students.

Technically, I am not a NS since I had no knowledge of English until I was 10 and I did not speak English at home, and never did so while my parents were alive, but for the students who had paid good money to learn English I was a ‘better’ teacher since, to begin with, they could at least understand what I was saying. In fact, I remember my opening remarks on both occasions was to confess to the students that I was not a NS of English and received such a positive response from them to the effect ‘thank god, we can understand what you are saying‘.

Chia:               But you still haven’t answered my question, Rakesh. What if these students come to the UK and are unable to understand what NSs are saying?

And if you argue that they might never need to come to a NS country, then what if they watched English language TV programmes, Hollywood films, etc and can’t understand a thing? They would turn around and blame the teacher for not preparing them well. After all, what use are English lessons if the students can’t come out of it understanding the English?

Rakesh:          Exactly, if the students cannot understand English when they have been exposed to it then there is clearly there is something wrong.

You have accepted that there are many kinds of English and many sorts of  NSs who speak with a variety of accents. There is not a norm as was perhaps the case when RP was the ‘accepted’ standard. Most language learners go in with an expectation that they will learn the variety of the target language that will enable them to communicate with the majority of its users.

If I am learning English in, say a part of China, to come to London to live and work or study and I am being a taught by a NS with a heavy accent from Glasgow that I cannot understand because it does not seem similar to what I have seen or heard on the Internet or in films, then I maybe a bit peeved. You do not employ a Geordie or a Scouser with heavy regional accents because they may come across it at some time in their lives; you employ a teacher whose accent may help you communicate with lots of different people.

Clearly, if you are teaching ESOL in Glasgow for local residents who have to get by with the locals, it would make sense to learn some of the local dialect but I think most people want to learn English which will help them deal with situations more widely.

Chia:               So what you are basically saying is that having a NNS accent could cater to their needs and their wants more?

Rakesh:          No, I am not saying that at all. Look, everybody has an accent and some accents are more distant to what may be considered the norm. The issue is not about NS or NNS or regional accents or dialects…. it is about clarity and compensability.

Chia:               But you must admit that you are the exception to the norm, Rakesh.

Many NNS teachers of English do not necessarily have such clear and comprehensible pronunciation.

They speak with heavily accented English which their students then learn off them…

In Japan for example, many Japanese teachers of English can’t really distinguish the /r/ and the /l/ themselves, and as a result, they are not only unable to model the sounds correctly, they are not able to teach students to recognise and produce the different sounds correctly either.

Rakesh:          Yet, you and I both know Japanese speakers of English who have no problems with those sounds. So, it’s not a question of NS or NNS but more of the ability to master (sic.) the sounds of English and the ability to help the students to communicate. In some ways, the whole debate around the NS ad NNS dichotomy is a false one. Would you agree?

Chia:               Sure, there are NNSs who can pronounce English sounds, but statistically speaking, there are more NNSs who CAN’T pronounce English sounds than NSs, wouldn’t you say?

And that is the same for knowledge of the language on the whole too…lexicogrammar and all…

As Naom Chomsky suggests, it is the NS in whom the idealised speaker-listener state is inherent… NSs know what sounds right and what sounds wrong by intuition. They can use this intuition to help them with their knowledge of the language, and to guide students…

Rakesh:          I think you may be slipping into the fire already especially when you try to claim that NSs have a superior knowledge of grammar as compared with NNSs. Studies, anecdotal evidence, reports from NNS teachers of English who do training courses with NSs etc. all clearly show that NNSs have a much better knowledge of the English language than their NS counterparts – even when the NS have degrees in English.

As for Chosmsky, not only do his critics dismiss his ideas about the ‘idealised speaker listener state’, even Chomsky himself is not sure about how his ideas have been (mis)interpreted. Some/most NSs may be advantaged in dealing with sounds but nowadays there are many multi-media ways to provide role models of sounds. In short, NSs may have a small advantage but often they have many shortcomings when compared with NNSs who know about the English language in much more depth.

Chia:               Hang on a second, I did not say that NSs have a superior knowledge of grammar. In terms of talking about language and knowing how grammar works, yes, many NNSs know a lot more because they had to learn it as a second language and thus had to analyse it and contrast it to their L1s.

But as we know, talking about language, and using the language are two completely different things. NSs may not be able to talk about language (until they have had some training and some development) but they already instinctively are able to use it. They are naturally competent as it is their first language. The knowledge about grammar can be picked up by reflecting on how they use their language.

Rakesh:          That does not make the NSs better teachers! Yes, instinctively, NSs can use the language better but we are not talking about an ability to use the language BUT an ability to teacher/ to help others to learn. They are different skills.

One of my ex-employers, the late Peter Fabbian who was the Director of the London School of English, once said to be in not much diplomatic terms that anyone who has not been through the pain of learning a second language to some degree of fluency should be let loose in front of language learners. I guess this brings us to another important distinction, viz. the debate is not so much about NS v. NNS but ‘mono-lingual teachers (who only speak their own language) versus bi/multi-lingual teachers ( those who have made the painful journey of learning another language).

Chia:               But one needs to be able to use and manipulate the language well before they can help learners to do the same.

For fear of sounding like a broken record, I must state again that simply by nature of being NNSs, there is a higher statistical possibility that they are not able to use the language well and lack the ability to intuitively know what sounds right and what sounds wrong. And overuse of clichéd idioms, for example, is how an NNS could come across quite badly.

Matters of pragmatics, discourse, and styles (within particular genres) are difficult ones for NNSs to get their heads round, and often come with repeated experiences of interactions with other NSs. They are thus less able reflect upon how language is being used and help their learners with it.

Rakesh:          In my 40+ years of experience in ELT, I can honestly say that many NNS teachers of have actually spent/had to spend time reflecting  on the nature of the English of the language they are teaching and that many NSs simply try and get away with having the status of being NSs without an in-depth knowledge of how the language works. Many are unable to explain the basic rules of English grammar.

The issue is not one of whether NSs have an automatic advantage as teachers over NNSs but whether a particular individual has the professional ability to help others. We can argue all night who can do this better.

Let me ask you a question: if you wanted to learn, say Arabic, would you prefer an Arabic speaker who has no knowledge of your language learning needs as a speaker of English  or would you prefer a an English teacher who has made the journey and someone who knows what difficulties/challenges lie along the way? Would you not prefer to be able to ask questions in your own language from the outset? Think before you answer.

Chia:               That’s an interesting question, Rakesh. And it leads me nicely to the devil’s next argument.

Most students would say they want a NS as their teacher.

Schools all over countries like Japan publicize the fact that they only employ NSs as their selling point.

Are you saying we ought to ignore the expectations and wants of the learner/client?

Rakesh:          Many learners have little or no idea about how best to learn unless they have some experience. The myth of the native speaker being a better teacher has a history (and form) and one can trace it quite precisely; when and where it started. There is no scientific basis for it. If you repeat something for long enough and market it people will buy anything.

If you want to read a scholarly account of this and other myths/ fallacies about language teaching then I suggest you look at the work of someone like Robert Phillipson (Linguistic Imperialism OUP 1992 but there is new edition available) .

There are other fallacies e.g. that English is best taught monolingually; that the earlier English is taught the better; the more English is taught the better the results; that if other languages are used in teaching English it will damage the standard of English being learnt.

Phillipson demolishes each of these fallacies ‘created’ for post imperialistic neo-imperialistic motives.  Go back to what kind of teacher you would like to have for yourself and forget the pseudo-scientific nonsense propagated by those who wanted to continue the ‘rule of England by controlling the way English was taught’.

Good teachers are not born; they are made and the accident of speaking a language from birth does not make you a better teacher

Chia:               Of course, the term ‘better’ is very subjective as well.

Part of being a teacher is helping learners to use the language and communicate more effectively.

But there’s also the learners’ expectations and presumptions as well. Take for example, the cultural element that learners often expect from an English course. I have met so many learners who say they want to learn about the English culture and how English people see things.

Now, you could say that it’s because I work in a language school in London. But I also know of many language schools in Japan who, as I said before, use the NS teachers they employ as a selling point, advertising the fact that they can ‘transport’ the learner to England and teach them about the quaint English culture (bowler hats and cups of tea are featured in their publicity material).

Photo by Jasonoutthere, Photobucket

When I was learning Japanese, I wanted to know all about the Japanese culture – its history, its pop culture, how the people think and see the world etc. If I had learnt Japanese from a NNS, I would only get their perspective of the Japanese culture. I wouldn’t be getting the ‘real thing’, would I?

Rakesh:          Two queries re the above: ‘helping learners to use the language and communicate effectively’ is something different from just being a NS and not if NSs have this ability. I would trust someone who has done this (i.e. learnt English to high level) to have these skills.

Secondly, most people want to learn to speak/read the language and culture, albeit a key part, is not why people join language classes.

Which and whose culture? Middle class white British culture or the modern day multiculture?  This touched on what for me is the key issue in this debate that is never touched on. The debate about NS v NNS is really a euphemism, a mask which really disguises the true nature of what is happening and the insidious way in which owners of language schools and the learners themselves collude with the blatant racism that goes on and will go on.

When learners say they want a NS, they are often saying they want a light-skinned person who fits their stereotype of what they think Englishness is. It is nothing to do with being a native speaker! Generations of brown skinned and black-skinned Brits growing up here in the UK are ALL NATIVE speakers of English but they are not seen as Natives! They are seen as foreigners!

Don't we all want Doris Day as our English Teacher?

Chia:               But, Rakesh, just to play Devil’s Advocate, calling someone with cultural capital discrimination is like saying that a student who wants a Business English teacher to have the social and symbolic capital, having been in a habitus of the Business English field, is classist.

Rakesh:          NO, maybe I did not make my point clearly…one example of a colleagues in Bradford is poignant. Abdul – name changed –  born and brought  locally MA in Applied linguistics/academic publications to his name   experienced teachers of ESL and EFL is asked to teach two Saudies who look like  him in appearance  but these students say they don’t want him even before he has opened his mouth since they reject him as not being English enough. BTW I have not experienced this personally in 40 years BUT these incidents happen to the very few brown and brown skinned people who dare enter the ELT profession.

When Language schools, whether here or in Japan, say they employ only Native speakers, what they mean is that they do not employ people like you and me   they employ only light skinned teachers  who have certain types of features.

Let me try and sum up what I think I am trying to say:  There are good teachers and bad teachers; true, not all NSs are automatically good  and vice versa  However , many are like driving instructors who cannot drive or have never driven  how dare they teach a language which they did not have to learn!

On a pragmatic basis if I wanted to learn another language and I have tried to learn many and failed in learning most.  I know what kind of teacher I would prefer and that is someone who is an expert speaker. Call it near native if u like and someone who knows about my own cultural and linguistic needs.

The arguments fallacies about the superiority of NS teachers was formulated at a time prior to the availability of tapes videos so the point that NS provide good models of pronunciation is redundant

Chia:               So you do agree that NS pronunciation targets are desirable then?  ; )

Rakesh:          Not necessarily. It depends what you need the English for. Given that most interactions in English are between NNSs, the kind of accents you may wish to instill in your students learner will depend on where they are going to use English.

Chia:               I would really like to ask you how you would suggest we go about changing the minds of students and language schools who think that NS teachers are better than NNS ones. But that might be the stuff of another blogpost… Perhaps we could invite comments from the readers about this?

Rakesh:          Yes. The whole issue of the inverted  racism that students have about NNS teachers is another can of worms and worth a separate debate.

Chia:               Certainly stuff for another DA! Fancy coming back in the future and being a ‘victim’ again? ; )

Rakesh:          Yes, I’m game for a laugh.

Chia:               Anyway, thanks a lot, Rakesh! You’ve certainly stood up for all the NNSs in the world and for all the injustices they have had to deal with in their professional lives!

Photo from ELTpics (Flicker) by @dfogarty

Epilogue: Rakesh’s views are his own and do not represent any organisation he is associated with. Chia was certainly just playing DA. Rakesh and Chia are still best of buddies!

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Author: chiasuanchong

I am a freelance communications trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. With 13 years of experience training students from all over the world to communicate better in English (and in particular, Business English), I am also a professional blogger, materials writer and intercultural trainer.

43 thoughts on “Devil’s Advocate versus Rakesh Bhanot on Non-Native Speaker Teachers of English”

  1. Hi Chia and Rakesh,

    Very interesting debate, indeed! Reading all your great arguments made me wonder if, despite all the studies and researches carried out on this issue, arguing for or against NNS teachers is a personal matter in the sense of a NS teacher might always think it’s best for learners to have NS whereas NNS teachers might also think that learners benefit better from someone who has undergone the excrutiating process of learning a second language. Am I going to far or being too shallow in my analysis? But that’s really what I’ve noticed in institutions where I’ve worked.

    1. Hi Thiago! Really good to see you here! How are things?
      It is in a way a personal matter, but personal because it embodies all our prejudiced evaluations that often underlie our sociocultural beliefs and attitudes. Many of us are conditioned to believe that learning a language from native speaker is better, and do not stop to examine the origins and reasons for their beliefs. Too many NNSs that I know of have been going around feeling inferior or insecure for way too long, and this has to be addressed.
      C

    2. Just to answer your point, Thiago… I was a language school owner/director for many years and my preference was almost always for non-native speakers, not because of any inherent superiority over NSs, but simply because the Natives who turned up on my doorstop had little experience and fewer qualifications. Having said that, when NSs who had both experience AND qualifications to offer, I hired them happily, so at the end of the day, I think there are good teachers and bad teachers, whether or not they are NSs or NNSs is somewhat irrelevant!

  2. Hi
    It,s nice debate. Both argued in their best. As a ELT faculty one should think about the clarity whether it is from NS or NSS as English language has reaching many ever before.
    Wide debate is invitable in this regard

  3. Hi Chia and Rakesh,

    Just popping by to stoke the debate: Language teaching in primary and secondary schools is usually the domain of non-native speakers, isn’t it? This is certainly the case here in Germany. ;o)

    Stephanie

    1. I believe you are absolutely right, Stephanie. There are more NNS teachers of English than NSs, and yet there is still this prejudice out there… Perhaps it’s time those who haven’t realised start to see the foolishness of their prejudice?
      C

  4. Good read 😉

    Personally, the whole NS Vs. NNSdebate is a bit of a waste of time and energy (sorry)! What I care about is whether a teacher is “effective” in promoting student LEARNing or not. Period/Full Stop…

    There is no one way to LEARN, there is no one way to TEACH…and both the NS “camp” and the NNS “camp” have their share of effective, less effective and, well – you know, ineffective practitioners. I know lots of great NNS teachers – and, you know what, they are not great teachers because of their NS/NNS “status”. The same with NS teachers! Teachers are effective / great because they care, they are “themselves” and they put in the hours (to help their students and to grow themselves).

    The whole idea of the either/or debate – is a bit, and I’m showing my love of Star Wars here, “Sith-like” – a game of “absolutes” that does little to advance student learning and success – where we should be putting our energy…

    T..

    1. You are absolutely right, Tony.
      The real issue should really be whether the teacher is effective or not, whether he/she be native or non-native.
      But by being a NS or NNS, the teacher comes with a different set of experiences and a different relationship with the English language. That is of course not to say that NNS teachers all have the same experiences learning English, but the fact that they have been through a journey that they are expecting their learners to take does count in their favour, I’m afraid.

      More importantly, Tony, there are still many who do not see language teaching/learning as clearly as you do, and still have the misguided view that NS teachers are better than NNS teachers.

      I believe the time is now to start making a change.

      Our industry is ready to have NNS teachers or even NS teachers with as foreign-sounding a name as mine be recognised as legitimate and worthy of a look-in…so to speak…

      Wouldn’t you agree?

      C

      1. Yes, sadly I do have to agree ;-( This is often down to the fact that (still) schools, colleges and universities have this (misguided) preference for “prestige” or “status” and place this over n’ above “what matters” in education. How does that old saying go – “You cannot eat prestige”! As you both noted and others have mentioned in the comments, there really is no solid evidence that NS teachers make for better teachers – it’s what a teacher does with what s/he knows and understands that makes the difference.

        However, if more institutions placed student learning and success at the heart of their decision-making they would surely start to look into what it is that enhances and improves the student learning experience – whether a teacher has NS or NNS “status” just doesn’t seem to matter.

        If institutions still choose to play the smoke n’ mirrors “games”, they have themselves to blame – but, the question is “who is really at the sharp end of such misguided thinking?”

        T..

        1. Absolutely, Tony! I like that – you cannot eat prestige!
          Indeed the students’ learning and development should be at the forefront of any decision making, but unfortunately some find other factors easier to manipulate or measure, while others just care about getting the business and not what to do with it after.
          I’m lucky that I work in a school that employs expert users of English, regardless of their ethnicity, skin colour, biological construct or home language as teachers, trainers and DOSes. But I’ve experienced less than favourable comments from CELTA assessors from Cambridge and sometimes from learners…
          C

  5. as stephanie says above in france too english in primary and secondary schools are taught by “non-native” speakers.

    david bellos in his book ‘is that a fish in your ear’ has a chapter on this and relates the history of Soviet Russia which demanded that its translators at the UN be ‘native’ Russian speakers.

    one approach if the school insists the learner demands a “native
    speaker” is to ask the learner to speak over the phone to two or more people and pick one whose voice they prefer.

    another way on the level of discourse is to jettison the terms “native” “non-native” when talking about knowing a language. and stick to what people really mean i.e. nationality, skin colour etc.

    ta
    mura (a brown, welsh-srilankan)

    1. Thanks for your comments, Mura.
      It is saddening to constantly hear of stories where schools, students or less-informed people talk of ‘demanding for NSs’ whether it be teachers or translators.

      I’m not sure about the approach where the learner picks the voice they prefer though. Often our judgements of accents are based on our sociocultural experiences and the influences we have had. We might find an accent easier to understand simply because we are more used to it (perhaps we have heard it a lot in films?) and we might prefer a particular accent because it brings to mind particular imageries or experiences that we had with people with similar accents (these people could be people in films too).

      It is indeed funny that although it would be terribly incorrect to say that we require a blue-eyed white male to teach us English, it still seems perfectly fine to some to request for a Native Speaker Teacher.
      Sigh.

      Chia (a slanty-eyed Singaporean Londoner who definitely considers herself a native speaker despite having been challenged on this issue many a time)

      1. hi again
        the thing with choosing from voice was my clumsy way of saying that it is difficult to spot if someone (who feels at home with english) has learnt their english from birth, school, as an adult, etc.
        additionally we live in a multilingual world so maybe being “native” may not be a perceived advantage in the future?
        ta
        mura

      2. Wow, this post has brought up a lot f memories and emotions. It’s funny that you mention blue-eyed white males…that fits my description, but I didn’t start learning English until I was about 15. I moved to Australia at the age of 17 and to Japan to teach EFL at 25. My school was one of the few Japanese language schools that actually employed experienced and qualified Japanese teachers as well, along with completely inexperienced and unqualified native speakers that looked good on marketing posters. The often very young NSs had to ask the Japanese teachers grammar questions on an almost daily basis, yet got much lower pay and fewer benefits because they didn’t look the part. I did, and therefore collected all the associated benefits. I didn’t feel very good about that…

        At 32, I’ve been teaching for seven years and only recently have manage to overcome my self-consciousness about not being a native speaker. The pressure to always be able to answer students’ questions is much higher or NNSs because they feel they need to make up their ‘deficiency’ by working twice as hard, or at least that’s how I used to feel.

        I better stop before this turns into a novella but thanks again to Chia and Rakesh for a very thoughtful debate.

        Cheers,

        Guido

        I remember telling my students that I wasn’t a native speaker and that if I could learn how to be a competent language user, so could they. A few days later, the manager of my school pulled me aside and told me to stop telling people that I wasn’t a native speaker because it was bad for business. Mums were worried that their 3-year-old kids were learning non-standard English…my motivational story had backfired!

  6. Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    A great blog post by Chia Suan in conversation with Rakesh Bhanot debating the great debate, whether native speaker teachers are superior to non-native speaking teachers.
    Rakesh gives some great answers and well done to Chia for starting this discussion.

  7. Is it me or does Rakesh appear to be applying the same discrimination he complains about to certain regional accents, and isn’t this slightly contradictory as their are many NNS with regional accents? (I’m assuming he’s one of them) As a NS from the north west of the UK I’ve also come across discrimination and experienced the air of RP superiority which still exists in the EFL world, (although I do remember being told on my Ih TEFL course 20 years ago to “teach your own accent”).

    The whole debate about “ease of understanding” with regard to different accents is a wide and complex one. I was interested to hear at a TESOL Spain congress, from a speaker teaching in Greece, whose research into this subject revealed that ‘scouse’ was one of the easiest accents for Greek students to understand, certainly on a par with RP, and possibly even easier.

    Although it probably isn’t P.C. to admit it, I think there is a kind of vague idea of the existence of an accent which will be understood by ‘the majority’, this being, in my opinion, somewhere around what the aforementioned congress speaker called ‘Tony Blair English’. Those NS of us who don’t have this accent are subjected to discrimination, not from our students, but from colleagues, usually from the south of England whose accents are naturally closer to this artificial ‘standard’.

  8. I would have thought that the question of whether a speaker can be defined as a native speaker is relatively unimportant as long as their English is good enough to help their particular learners. There are cases where native speakers might not have good enough English language skills to help particular learners if they are not specialists in certain areas. For example, it would be almost impossible to teach EAP if a teacher did not have experience of studying at university level.

    1. That is so true, Patrick. Whether one is native or not is as irrelevant as the colour of the teacher’s skin. The skills and experience of the teacher should really be taking centre stage… And that is the message that needs to be broadcast outside the world of TEFL!
      C

      1. Thanks for your reply. Contexts are very different and a teacher who might be veryt effective in one context might not be in another unless they have a period of adjustment. I think there has been a problem of trying to overgeneralise teaching practices from one context to others.

        1. Indeed, overgeneralising is a dangerous thing. And the different teaching contexts is definitely an issue that is often overlooked as well!
          Thanks for your very insightful comments, Patrick! Look forward to hearing from you again!
          C

  9. NS vs NNS – the bottom line is ‘What do your clients look for?’. I find that learners usually want someone who can bridge cultural gaps, encourage communication and correct as and when necessary.

    1. The needs of our clients are indeed the most important thing, but sometimes our clients might turn around and say they want a native-speaker teacher, partly due to being ill-informed as to the merits of having a NS teacher, and partly due to ignorance. Wouldn’t it then be our duty to debunk that myth?
      C

  10. Fantastic debate! Thanks Rakesh for standing fo us, all NN teachers of English around the world. I think the point is that there are good and not so good teachers everywhere. And I am very glad to see fellow Non Native Speakers to be employed as teachers of English even in the UK. Times a’changing!

  11. I really loved the debate. Thank you Chia and Rakesh! It’s really disheartening, however, to see that in a world where everyone argues against discrimination and injustice, NNSs are still struggling to convince they can be equally effective as teachers. And if this is a non-issue as some people say, why do we still need to define ourselves as NSs or NNSs? Even the new term “bilingual teachers” doesn’t seem to help much, I’m afraid; it just makes discrimination a bit lighter. There are great teachers and average teachers. There are teachers who know better grammar but teach it awfully and teachers who are instinctively able to use the language but bore their students to death. There are those who are lifelong learners and those who wouldn’t “waste” a single hour for professional development. If we need terms to define ourselves, let’s adopt the ones that really matter 🙂

  12. Hi everyone!
    First of all I would like to congratulate Chia for bringing up this interesting subject and Rakesh for his truthful, courageous remarks. I believe that problems can be solved and quality can be improved if people can discuss important issues openly and respectfully. I completely agree that it is the quality of teaching as well as the skills and ambition of the teacher that matters more than a title. Being a NS doesn’t necessarily make one a perfect teacher as much as having a certificate of teaching if one doesn’t have the quality and the required skills. I agree that “nothing comes out of nothing” and I hope that the supervisors in the language institution and schools will treat teachers according to their knowledge, skills and hard work. Being a NS shouldnt be the cover to make teachers feel that they are immune from going through the excruciating job of developing skills or attending any educational training programmes. In the same way, a hardworking NNS shouldn’t feel that whatever he/she does will not be respected or equally evaluated , as he/she is NNS. Bottom line, Good teachers of language NS /NNS should be treated likewise.

  13. I’ve found it fascinating. It’s a real eye-opener. I’ll post a few more lines as soon as I’m done with my classes.

  14. I’ve just made a mental note: never enter a debating ring against either Chia or Rakesh unless you are as heavily armed with arguments as R. Dawkins when taking on creationists! 
    OK – I too would like to contribute my two cents:
    a) I have to say that I find myself leaning towards Rakesh’s side, firstly because he paid me $ 100 to say so and secondly because I believe NNS have an enthusiasm for the language that NS often find hard to match. It all has to do with Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance theory; to a NNS the high level they have managed to attain in the L2 is like a mountain top they have managed to conquer. Think about what is going on inside his/her mind: ‘Either I have been wasting my time/efforts all these years ( = I am stupid!), or it was well worth it because the L2 is so wonderful!’ No prizes for guessing which of the two options the (vain) human brain is going to plump for!  This enthusiasm is bound to have a positive impact on students! (In fact, only a few days ago in Istanbul Ken Wilson quoted research findings which show that ‘enthusiasm’ is the Number 1 trait students would like their teachers to have!)
    b) Where Chia is 150% right is that (unfortunately) NS have a huge competitive advantage in the market (see the ‘selling point’ argument). The thing is that being a NS creates a ‘halo effect’ (in this case the often mistaken belief that one’s perfect command of the language automatically translates into good teaching skills etc. etc.)
    The following extract comes from my own article ‘The Halo Effect’: “So, what about our field? Are there any elements which can create a ‘Halo Effect’? Yes, there are – two of them: a) Your passport and b) your accent. Let me explain. I believe that if would-be employers receive 2 identical CVs, one from a native speaker and another from a Greek teacher, there are many cases when only the former will be short-listed. I believe that if two Greek EFL teachers go through an interview and one of them has a native-like accent while the other one does not, then the former is far more likely to be hired, even if the latter has better qualifications/more experience. And I am certain that (ceteris paribus) native speakers are on average better paid when it comes to private lessons. Now, I do not have any hard evidence for all this, but I am prepared to bet good money that all 3 hypotheses are true. Anyone for research?”
    [to read the entire article click on this link: http://www.tesolgreece.org/pdf_docs/The_Halo_Effect%5B1%5D.pdf%5D

    1. Hi Nick,
      Thanks for your comments.
      You probably already know this, but I’m totally on Rakesh’s side in the debate…I was only playing Devil’s Advocate (as the title suggests).
      It is a pity that some people still think that being a NS is more important that one’s ability to teach, and in a way, I understand what you mean about ‘passport and accent’.
      I’m a NS but do not look like the typical English/American, nor do I have an English/American passport. Although my accent tends towards an Estuary English one, people from this part of the world can clearly tell that there’s something foreign about my accent.
      So it’s not just about speaking English as a first language. It’s about the expectations learners and schools have of you.
      Having said that, some research has already been done of the learners’ perceptions of this issue by Renata Wilmott. She presented her paper at the IATEFL Glasgow conference this year and here is my summary of it.

      C

  15. Most of the debate about native and non native teachers of English is of commercial interest.Both native and non native teachers can be of great service if they have got what it takes to be good teachers. In the end, it is the learners who make judgments about the quality and effectiveness of the teachers.

    1. Thanks for your comment!
      I must agree that at the end of the day, it’s what they’ve got that makes them great teachers, and not whether they are NS or NNS!
      Hopefully the learners will realise that.

      C

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