A resounding YES.
That’s how the article entitled “Do native English speakers make better teachers?” in the South China Morning Post starts. It goes on:
Native English speakers are naturals in the language… Students [in Hong Kong] who hear less-than-accurate English pronunciation in the class end up speaking the same way outside the classroom. Unlearning wrong pronunciation requires a huge effort.
South China Morning Post
This topic has certainly been an issue for anyone teaching ESL or EFL. Particularly if you, like me, are a non-native English Teacher (non-NEST). The last time that I can recall now that this was an issue happened in 2016. I was attending a conference in Guadalajara, Mexico. After the first day of plenaries and wonderful sessions, an American man, whom I met some months earlier in the USA, was talking about a program he offered non-NESTs in the midwest. He told me how important it was and then slipped:
You know, André, your English is perfect but you still have an accent
The American guy
Standing next to me was another American whom I had just met and she was around my age, much younger than that guy. She said nothing. I guess I was looking for approval or something because what he said to me sounded like a flaw. In fact, it sounded like something so negative that I tried to justify or deny it.
Funny. On many other occasions, other Americans told me that I had no accent at all. What they meant was that I sounded like them and that Americans would probably take me for one of them in their country. For some reason, I liked to hear that.
I blame it on this ‘pervasive ideology within ELT, characterized by the belief that “native-speaker” teachers (NESTs) represent…ideals both of the English language and of English language teaching methodology‘, as discussed by Adrian Holliday. This ideal is reinforced by basically every level of ELT. Publishers will only offer the American English or British English editions of their books. Job ads will seek NESTs, many times with no qualification, to fill teaching positions around the world. And the worst part, they get paid more for it.
Is it really such a bad thing to be non-native and to have an accent? I honestly think now that I have been brainwashed for most of my professional life. Speaking perfect English occurs regardless of accent. A good example of that is Marek Kiczkowiak (and his interviewer, the great teacher Rodrigo Correia) advocating for non-NESTs and fighting against native-speakerism in this interview for Talking EFL. As a matter of fact, Marek’s video generated this incredibly fitting first comment:
You got that right, Ola Maria. I had the pleasure of meeting Marek in person at the InnovateELT conference and both his short plenary and session were fantastic. Most of what we, non-NESTs, wanted someone to tell us when we were starting our careers was covered by him. He talked about myths, salary differences, ways to tackle native-speakerism, and how to do it in class by teaching English as a Lingua Franca (ELF).
I left the conference reflecting on the whole thing and couldn’t stop thinking about a couple of situations that happened to me. About two years ago I was part of a board of coordinators assessing new teachers for a teaching position at the school I worked. There were five of us, all non-NESTs, observing prospects giving a demo lesson. This American guy comes in, let’s call him John, and starts teaching. We ask him:
Us: Which level is the lesson for?
John says: Basic.
He carries on not knowing what to focus on, speaking quite fast and using difficult words, teaching from vocabulary that didn’t make sense to verb to be, making basic grammar errors, and, quite frankly, delivering one of the most uninteresting classes I had ever seen.
The other situation was Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa’s lecture. She says that one of the potential disadvantages of learning a language as an adult is that you might not have a native-like accent. She doesn’t see it as a problem, though. She is speaking from the perspective of what people generally believe. She says that since our tongue is a muscle and that we stop hearing certain sounds if we’re not exposed to them in early childhood, we might settle for pronouncing the words the best we can as long as the receiver understands our message, after all, the goal is communicating. In theory, we could force ourselves to learn a native-like accent just like we can learn how to run a marathon if we really want to.
That brings me to Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant. My wife and I went to the one in Victoria, London some weeks ago, after returning from Barcelona. We have always liked Jamie’s shows and recipes. It’s more like comfort food rather than ultrasophisticated gourmet pricey food. Jamie is not Italian and many times neither are his chefs. Nevertheless, they can make quite authentic pasta and, perhaps, add a little twist here and there. I remember having had a spaghetti alla bolognese in Bologna and this time I ordered a Tagliatelle alla Bolognese in Jamie’s restaurant and, to be honest, Jamie’s was better. My wife’s spring carbonara was even better. Only one dish topped these three in Italy. It was a pappardelle al ragù in Siena, quite likely the best Italian dish ever made on this planet.
Maybe. To be fair, I’m pretty sure I can find Italian restaurants all around the world with local staff (non-Italian), making amazing dishes. Now, how absurd would it be to demand that all Italian restaurants were opened by or hired only Italian people? How absurd is it to assume that every Italian can make better pasta than anyone else in the world? This is exactly how absurd it is to think that only NESTs can teach English well or better.
Back in Guadalajara, I remember tasting the local tacos on the street and thinking:
Wow, they’re great. But I think I can make these ones better.
I love cooking and love Mexican food. Don’t get me wrong, many tacos were way better than the ones I can make. But not all of them.
I may use some different ingredients here and there, may not have the same type of avocado, but I am confident I could welcome real Mexicans to a feast and they’d love my take on their food. The funniest thing is that if Italians chose to stick to their native ingredients, their trademark dish would not even exist. According to historical records, tomatoes are native to America, carrots originated in Persia (current Iran), and pasta was most likely brought to Europe from Eastern Asia. Had these cultures not met, so long for spaghetti alla bolognese.
If I could go back in time to that moment when the American guy said that I had an accent, do you know what I’d have said?
So do you. So does everyone. And that’s totally fine
I suppose the message I want you to leave with is that being a native speaker does not matter more than being a trained teacher. And that having an accent should not make you less appreciated. I honestly think that some native speakers have a far more difficult accent to understand than mine or Marek’s or Rodrigo’s.
So, whenever someone says that native speakers make better teachers, ask them this
“Native to which country? To which state? To which city or region? A native Californian or Londoner? Dubliner? Nigerian? Australian? Canadian? Indian? Texan?”
Think about all the advantages non-NESTs have:
- They’re at least bilingual and can draw comparisons between their mother tongue and English
- They have actually felt in their bones what is like to be a language learner
- They might not be as trapped in their own linguistic bubble as NESTs
- They may have studied the language they’re teaching more comprehensively and systematically
May both NESTs and non-NESTS coexist and be judged by their teaching competence rather than by their nationality or accent. May we reach a point where these terms are emptied of meaning and stop being used to categorize people according to something that really doesn’t matter. May we simply address teachers of the world as ESTs.
If you want more info on the topic, check Marek’s page on the button below and follow @mattielloconsultoria and @edcrocks on Instagram (we’ll post a debate on this topic there tonight in the upcoming edition of Chá Pedagógico)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make penne alla bolognese for lunch.