Business Leadership & Entrepreneurship

Native English Speakers – Are they the ideal English Teachers?

Dec 4, 2019
Reading Time: 5minutes

Students and teachers alike often believe that the only correct English teacher is a Native English Speaking Teacher (NEST) or referred to as a Mother Tongue speaker

Sadly, the term doesn’t define teachers or their abilities very well. As I’ll discuss below, just because you are a native English speaker doesn’t equate to better tutoring.

Post summary:

  • Why are there not enough native English teachers?
  • What is a native ‘English speaker?’
  • Why is a NEST thought as better? 
  • Concerns with native English speaker teaching.
  • What can non-NESTs offer?

Why are there not enough native English teachers?

The Teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) industry is preparing millions of people globally to speak, read, and write English. To achieve the level required, thousands of teachers and tutors are involved in helping them to do it. 

If native speaker status is a pre-requisite for teaching, then 80% of the world’s English teachers would be considered unqualified to teach English.

And yet, many job ads for teachers demand NESTs. How will NESTs serve an industry worth $35.5 billion in 2019?

Sadly, we see a growing number of schools and online tutoring platforms that refuse to accept non-native speakers. Is it the case that a teacher’s passport is the most essential qualification they will ever get? 

Yet, in some countries (including the UK and the EU), it’s illegal to discriminate on nationality when hiring.

So what’s going on?

What is an English native speaker?

In several parts of the world, teachers from Malta, Pakistan, India, or South Africa who grew up speaking English are not considered “native speakers.” 

Unfortunately, this translates into a struggle to get visas or work permits as English language teachers. 

Most (accepted) internationally-employable English teachers originate from the BANA countries – Britain, Australasia, and North America. Specifically, Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA.

Native English Speakers - Are they the ideal English Teachers? 1

However, consider all the varieties of English out there, including the local dialects, and the fact that several British English accents are notoriously hard to understand, even for Americans

Merely being a NEST does not mean your English is ‘standard,’ ‘better,’ or ‘understandable.’ 

Compare that to a non-NEST who may be higher educated and a more high-grade communicator, with a broader vocabulary and crystal clear Oxford English Dictionary enunciation.

Which would be better?

Why is NEST thought of as better?

The primary argument is that a native speaker will be a model of the language. That their English will be more idiomatic, the teacher will have a richer vocabulary, and they will use ‘the’ standard model of pronunciation. 

Students wishing to live, study, or work in the country their teacher originates from, typically see a native speaker as some role model – how they should act and speak in the said country. 

Native English Speaking Teachers then are employed to foster high-level communication or writing practices. The idea is that they will have a more comprehensive vocabulary, including both formal and colloquial terms. 

Below are the two most common issues surrounding teachers and tutors

  1. Why the obsession with having a native English speaker as an English teacher?
  2. Why are students asking, “You must give me a teacher with an Australian/ British/American/Canadian) accent?”

The underlying theme of the first question is, “I want the best.” As we all know, ‘the best’ can be subjective – is the ‘best’ knowing more English words or the best at teaching?

When choosing an English teacher, the logic seems to be, “If I can’t speak English well, then you can’t teach it correctly because we are both non-native speakers.” 

It’s a cultural issue and not a skills issue.

Concerns with native English speaker teaching

The fundamental problem with native English speakers is that they know how to construct sentences but cannot explain why. A fundamental requisite to all language teaching, as no-one can communicate in any language without understanding how its components fit together, aka grammar of a language.

In addition to teaching a native speaker grammar and how it forms, non-native speakers sometimes have to correct a native speaker’s spelling as well. 

It’s a common symptom. 

Almost all English education systems teach little or no grammar and prefer content (what is written) over form (how it is written – construction and spelling). 

Concerning the accent issue, again, this is relative – Britain has a lot of different accents and dialects. Some are reasonably easy to understand; others require a sometimes lengthy learning period. 

The same with US accents, not all Americans have a Northeast coast or Californian accent; the southern US states are remarkably different. 

As such, a ‘typical’ British or American accent is as obscure as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Students don’t seem to quite understand this. 

Students believe that all Brits speak classic BBC newscaster English or sound like Hugh Grant in some British romcom. That Americans sound like the friends on ‘Friends.’

Native English Speakers - Are they the ideal English Teachers? 2

Even native English speakers have difficulty understanding the accents of people from other regions within the same country.

Every non-native English teacher will have an accent that is relative to their mother tongue. However, if they enunciate clearly, write coherently, and form sentences that make sense; why should they be inferior compared to native English speaking teachers?

Many non-native English speakers speak perfectly understandable English. 

Yes, they have an accent, yet so does someone from Boston or LA in the USA; Liverpool, Glasgow or London in the UK. 

Even in the Blu Mint Digital offices we all communicate in English – Americans, Brits, Estonians, French, Swedish, Swiss – and we ALL sound different.

What can Non-NESTS offer?

A non-NEST will probably have learned English themselves. They have demonstrable experience in providing greater empathy and more useful first-hand tips. Plus, they have previous experience of the challenges of learning English. 

Non-native speakers have two guaranteed advantages over native English speakers. 

  1. Their spelling and understanding of English grammar are usually better. Both of which are skills that are essential for being a good English teacher. 
  1. As mentioned, they have learned English as a foreign language and, therefore, can relate much more closely to the teaching process. 

They’ve lived through the process, whereas a native English speaker hasn’t.

This awareness of common language-learning difficulties becomes particularly relevant when teaching students of their own mother tongue. 

Given the difficulty non-native English speaker teachers can have finding students to teach or employment, they are often the most committed and well-trained teachers you will come across. 

Greater awareness will lead to more exceptional teaching for all

English is now the (mostly) accepted language of international trade, business, air traffic control, and other prominent international sectors like news and popular culture. 

Even within the diplomacy sector English is gradually pushing out French. The advancement of English into the international community demands that non-native English speakers learn and adapt to using it.

Even the most American and British language diehards will acknowledge that language evolves, and this includes mixing both dialects into daily life – whether speaking, content writing, or reading. And this is because of the adoption by non-native speakers that English is now needed globally.

You could argue, we are all now learning a new, International English, whether native or non-native.