Native Vs Non-native Debate at IATEFL Poland, Wrocław 2018
1 Who are we?
I have a background in teaching and teacher training, plus a long experience as both a publisher and a writer of materials and methodology titles. My role today is as the publisher of the various editions of Péter Medgyes ‘The Non Native Teacher’ (Macmillan 1994, Hueber 1999 and - with new content - Swan Communication 2017).
I am a teacher, teacher trainer among others with Pilgrims and University of Oxford, senior lecturer at the University of Gdańsk, Poland, and author of coursebooks and resource materials. For the last 12 years I have been the editor of Humanising Language Teaching website magazine www.hltmag.co.uk . I am a non-native speaker of English. However, because of my professional and private lives, I don’t feel I am a native speaker of Polish any more, even though I live in Poland.
Hania (Hanna) Kryszewska
The planned Twitter post from Mary Glasgow happened while the person responsible (who understood the implications of the wording) was on holiday. It shows the need to make those not directly involved in the language teaching world more aware. It was withdrawn.
The wall poster in a Spanish university city (Elche 2017) illustrates the quandary for even the best-intentioned language school owners: many parents and company training managers believe ‘native speaker’ is best. This is often reinforced by advertising. Again, there is a need to educate potential ‘users’ on the need for appropriate training and qualifications, and to encourage a professionally responsible attitude towards advertising.
The TESOL Spain (plus TESOL France and others) statement shows what teachers associations can do to inform people about the EU legal framework - but this needs ‘actual example’ reinforcing and ongoing personal communication.
There have been moments when I have really enjoyed being non-native, like as a trainer at Pilgrims (Canterbury, UK) working in a team of native and non-native expert trainers, when invited to give plenaries and workshops worldwide, or best, when being the only female non-native speaker of English working with male, white native speakers trainers. But there have been moments when it hurt, like when told by the authorities of a Russian university that did not wants a non-native ‘expert’, let alone Polish. Another instance was when back in the late eighties, when I started my teacher training career, my native-speaker colleague told me: “ Hania, pity you are not English You would go far…”. But the worst was when a wealthy mum wanted be to give her 10 year old daughter one-to-ones. I agreed but when she introduced me to her daughter, Marta, she told her I was English and did not speak Polish.
I was speechless, but tried to live the lie. It did not work…. I felt I was not being myself.
In my opinion non-native teachers share one more common value, which usually isn’t taken into consideration. Literally each of them has an experience of learning a foreign language themselves. They know how difficult it can be, they have practiced all techniques and the whole process on their own - they know what it like is. And finally, they also know how motivating and beneficial it is to accomplish this process. Because of that, they can stand as a real life example for their students, according to thought “I was just like you one day, I started from nothing. Look how far I have gone, I know how to do it and I can help you to be as successful as I was. I know how difficult can it be, because I’ve been there too!” While on the other hand native teachers very often have never accomplish to master any foreign language.
Last summer I went to UK to work as an English teacher on a summer camp for teenagers. I was there together with 4 friends of mine from Poland, all females in their 20s, experienced and qualified to teach (all with master degree in teaching English from Warsaw University). We were carefully recruited out of other candidates and I had to admit that generally choice of academic staff was delightful. Our performance was successful, both in terms of feedback delivered by DOS and students. We were usually very happy about our lessons and eventually we ended up with extremely positive appraisal. By the end of our stay one of my friends shared a thought that she still doesn’t understand why they have chosen to hire us if they had so many native speakers around. I was shocked, but the rest of our friends strongly agreed. They obviously underestimated their qualifications and it took us time to explain why we are better choice for teachers than “any” native speaker.
I so often hear within this argument that native teachers don’t know the learners L1 while non-native teachers hold the advantage as they share learners L1 thereby relating better to students’ background and to what it is like learning a foreign language. This is making a huge assumption and generalization those native teachers, professionals who make a living in ELT, have not learned the language of the country or countries they have relocated to. Most of us have. Now I’m not talking about the “vacationer” or “backpack teacher” trying to make a few extra bucks while in town. I agree that they are a blight on the profession. But most trained and educated professionals move in order to live in the country they teach in, so most, certainly have some level of local language level or are at least learning it. This argument would then mean that non-natives have no advantage teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) as they lose the common L1 advantage and therefore are equal to native teachers. This is an absurd argument which all comes down to qualification and what the individual brings to the classroom.
In the debate over NT vs NNT it frequently happens that we overlook the qualifications of teachers. Additionally it is almost impossible to define who is native. Is it someone born, brought up and educated in a country where English is the first language? What happens if someone is born there, but brought up in a country where English is not the first language? Are children of native speakers who have been born and raised in a non-native country also native speakers? What about children how acquired the language naturally during the co-called critical period, but don’t have native-speaker parents? I personally would not know where to put myself within these two categories, having been born in Yugoslavia, and completed four years of primary and secondary education in London. At one language school where I taught I was asked to deny my Yugoslav background and simply say that I’m a native speaker.
Because of these complexities my colleagues and I have undertaken research to ask teachers’ their opinion of which factors are important for being a good teacher in various contexts (e.g. elementary school, university-level teaching, company trainings, language schools etc.). The six factors we are interested in are:
- having English as your first language
- having a high proficiency in English
- having a university degree in teaching English
- having a short training like CELTA
- having experience in teaching English
- belonging to a teachers’ association like IATEFL
If you’re interested in taking part in the research please complete the questionnaire in the following link:
In private schools (language or general), native speakers are too often employed merely because they are not Polish. There are reasons behind that. Firstly, regardless of their teaching qualifications, natives are to be flashed as a school’s competitive edge. Secondly, natives serve to relieve painful language learning memories of the fee payers, that is... the parents. Their experience is mostly that of having low-qualified, Polish-born teachers, as administrators of the grammar translation method as an excruciating, but the only way to linguistic perfection. So, on one hand, no matter how bitter these memories are, parents still want Polish teachers to do the coursebook. On the other hand, parents want their children to be taught by anyone except the potential causers of their trauma, so they entrust the native speakers with the task of making their gap-filling-trained offspring speak. Personally, I think this has to do with the teacher’s low social status in Poland – a poorly-paid coursebook page-by-page administrator cannot possibly inspire anyone to become curious of new things, let alone talk. Few lucky schools’ headmasters have the wisdom to consult a university to find an inspirational native speaker or have the courage to try and change the fee-payers’ prejudices and support an equally, if not more mind-opening non-native. In order to make the change happen, our school (STO 2, Gdańsk) launched a series of “Parents’ Academy”. We offer our fee payers an opportunity to learn what to expect of non-native and native teachers, in the light of the state-of-the-art approaches to language teaching. However, the poor attendance seems to tell us that Rome wasn’t built overnight.
The real issue, the only line we need to draw is the one that separates the competent and informed teachers from the rest. Relying on someone’s passport as the sole criterion to determine whether one is fit to teach is, at best, perilous.
Picture this: a busy staffroom somewhere. A NNT teacher has a nagging language query, and typically, asks the NT, who is often just as baffled, has no idea how to answer the question, but doesn’t say so, perhaps can’t say so, s/he’s the NT, after all, the only reliable language expert in the room. So the NT, for fear of losing face (and authority? Power?) cobbles something together and s/he’ll just mumble ‘It doesn’t quite sound English to me’, or ‘My intuition tells me it’s not used this way’, or ‘it must be American usage (or British, or Australian, depending on the NT’s background)’.
I’ve seen this happen hundreds of times, and I bet, so have you. It’s often said that NT have an edge over NTT because they have a superior command of the language. While this may well be true, there are numerous exceptions. But if language is considered by NNT a gap, there’s a formidable tool that can enable to bridge it.
Next time a NNT has a doubt about the language, I’d like to suggest they go on line and get their answers from corpora. After all, a NT’s ‘intuition’ pales next to millions of data… Consulting a corpus has the enormous advantage of 1) going straight to the horse’s mouth and 2) eliminate the middleperson (the NT) and empower themselves. So, in essence; wouldn’t a somewhat more pro-active attitude help the NNT’s cause, and help the ELT world get rid of yet another useless, outdated, and simply ridiculous, dichotomy?
There are those expectations of learners, too. They expect you, teacher, to be a walking dictionary and grammar book. When asked a question like: “Teacher, what is the difference between continuous and continual?”, or “ Why do you say My back is killing me. I have been planting trees when you are lying on sofa and no longer planting trees”, a NT can just say: “I don’t know… I am not sure… We just say it”, while a NNT must know the answer. Otherwise he or she comes across and incompetent.
Two contrasting scenarios - not really arguments, in themselves, for or against anything, as suggested by 'debate':
1. Extract from imagined (translated, obviously) conversation between Spanish (let's say, but feel free to choose a different nationality) parent and their young son or daughter, who they've sent on a summer English course in Britain:
"And do you like the school, and the lessons?
"Yes, it's fun, much better than at home."
"And what's your teacher like?"
"Oh, she's really nice. She's Polish ..."
An understandable reaction, maybe, and probably one more widespread among parents and other stakeholders than among learners, teachers or their employers.
2. As long ago as the early 1990s, one - at least - language school owner in Poland had the extremely unfashionable policy of NOT employing native-speaker teachers, partly to avoid the bureaucracy involved but also, more interestingly, because "they didn't know enough about English". And the school didn't have trouble attracting customers.
However, it is worth remembering that Pilgrims Teacher Training was a pioneer in the approach to NNT in employing them as teacher trainers (rarely language teachers) as early as mid 1980ies.
11 Evolving English
The ongoing spread of English as an international language/ lingua franca means that learners need to be exposed to a variety of forms for receptive comprehension and intercultural communication. This has implications for the content and design of teaching/learning materials, as well as the need for all teachers (whether native or non-native speakers of the language) to be aware themselves of these receptive demands. However, to be realistic, this needs to be appropriate to the range of potential contexts for the learners as users. e.g. Service English (hotel staff, taxi drivers), employees of international companies (emails, phone calls), in-country and ‘foreign’ tourism.
However, in the production area, both teachers and learners need clear production models. It seems logical that these should use some kind of native-speaker ‘norm’ (as would be done when teaching other languages) and the provision of good audio material which makes a clear distinction between reception (a wide range of types of register and types) and production models (something on which to base one’s personal spoken utterances).
We need to bear in mind the role of culture in ELT, because it should be as important a component of the instruction we provide as are the pronunciation models, formal standards, and diverse varieties of English we seek to expose our students to. As so often happens in these sorts of discussions, I assume we will come to the conclusion here that we need both NTs and NNTs; this is especially true if we consider the teaching of culture and intercultural competencies. The question of how we teach culture and intercultural awareness/skills is the more difficult one, in my mind.
The Regional English Language Office (RELO) facilitates exchange programs for American citizens who are qualified professionals in the field of TESOL, not merely native speakers. (We also work with other U.S. Government funded programs that send young, enthusiastic recent university graduates to serve as teaching assistants, through programs such as Fulbright. And in reverse, we sponsor programs facilitating professional development and exchange for local teachers, as well.) In fact, some of these U.S. citizen exchange participants did not grow up with English as their home language, but nonetheless, they contribute greatly to these programs, both as TESOL professionals and as cultural ambassadors. Occasionally, there has been disappointment when an English Language Fellow or Specialist funded by a U.S. Embassy is clearly a NNT; I hope these sorts of discussions will reduce the chances of that reaction in the future.
Preparing students for their future multi-cultural work environments, civic participation, and social lives is difficult, but if we model the collaboration between NTs and NNTs, along with other inclusive measures, as a profession we will be better equipped to pass these skills on to our students.
I live in a little town. The ideal solution would be work with Polish NNT and have one NT to work with the learners once a week. It is a good solution as learners don’t have enough money to participate in the English speaking world so they need somebody from the ‘real world’ where English is spoken
These are the best options for practising speaking
Dagmara Kubala (reconstructed from notes)
I strongly disagree with this idea. This voice perpetuates the myth NT vs NNT and there is a great price at stake…
Having taught in Brazil for 16 years, I have worked with some amazing teachers who weren’t born in a native English-speaking country. I have learned and improved as a teacher due to their experience as well as from teachers born in a native country. For me, it comes down to qualifications and ability. If the teacher, no matter their place of birth or nationality, is capable of teaching the subject, they are a good teacher. Period. Every teacher deserves the chance to make the same pay (which they do in Brazil) and have the same opportunities to apply for a job. I feel this whole argument masks the larger problem which is the level of English the teacher has. For example, research has shown that 75% of Brazilian English teachers have a B1/B2 level. For Brazilians, this is sufficient to teach my kids English. Yet, when I ask if they would like me to teach their children Portuguese with my B1/B2 level of their language, they say no way. Is this not a double standard? The bottom line is the issue of higher levels for English teachers is not being addressed and hence not improving. It all comes down to qualified or non-qualified as a speaker, as an educator and as a professional regardless of origin.
16 Intercultural aspects
Much of the discussion about global English seems to ignore the close connection between language and culture(s), and the fact that communicative confusion is often as much the result of the misinterpretation of the speakers’ respective norms. e.g. the use of first or second names, the ‘politeness’ of enquiries about family, the presumption of shared political or social views.
Materials designers should pay more attention to these aspects, which affect both native and non-native speakers of the language, and all teachers (and learners) should be encouraged to use their personal experiences to enrich what is being presented.
Sometimes being a native speaker or “native speaker” may be a back door or a shortcut to becoming a teacher. I personally used this opportunity while my stay in Indonesia some years ago. It was my very beginning of a teaching career and I was neither experienced nor qualified. Though I already lived there and I got a job offer from one of the international kindergartens from the neighbourhood. I was happy to gain some experience and working there was a great adventure for me. It’s worth saying that we both knew what my background is and in the beginning it wasn’t a problem at all for the owners of the place, principal and parents. After few months the school found itself in a poor financial position and they had to take some steps. I was told that they want to finish our cooperation, which was completely fine for me, but I was rather shocked with arguments they brought. The reasoning wasn’t about my salary, which was much higher than for local staff, but they said I am not qualified to do my job! So it wasn’t an issue when they needed a western face for a better marketing, but it became extremely important when it was a good reason to fire me. It’s worth mentioning that most of the local staff wasn’t qualified to teach either. The lesson I’ve learned from this story is that based on “native speaker myth” the type of person you appear to be, based on you roots and outer look, is one thing and being a real teacher with full background and knowledge is completely the other. And, of course, they may not come together at all.
I dislike the categories or labels ‘Native” and ‘Non-native’. For me they belong to the past, and in the 21st century when English is a Lingua Franca, we need to do away with these terms and replace them with new ones, if such terms are at all necessary. These days of inclusion in education, the terms N and NT denote exclusion which is not on. You may be an expert and yet if you are non-native you are ‘foreign’. How does that fit in with the international/ cosmopolitan globalised communities that go beyond boarders and in what language were the first words you spoke.
It is also all so much about perspective. Now more and more Ukrainian and Russian English teachers apply to be employed in Polish schools as language teachers. Polish directors of studies and potential colleagues of the applicants appreciate their expertise but express doubts when it comes to their pronunciation as they perceive it is too Eastern European. Yet they themselves do not have a perfect pronunciation either, also tainted by their mother tongue. What would you call this phenomenon when a NNT is prejudiced against another NNT?
I am the Head of Pilgrims TT in Canterbury, UK, and I have a long experience of interviews for a teaching/ training post. I can see often see that native teachers or trainers assume they will get the job, and that it is theirs for the taking. There is some air of arrogance about them.
On the other hand, non-native trainers bring empathy, as they have gone through the whole process of learning a language at different levels and in different age groups. Also NN trainers understand various educational systems.
So basically the NT vs NNT is a non-debate for me. My role and duty is to provide a team of experts and provide diversity. It’s a non-discussion
Jim Wright, Head of Pilgrims
I remember, in my first year of teaching, the difficulty I had in teaching the Present Perfect. When I asked local teachers for advice I was surprised to learn that Brazilians do not use it in their language although they know the Past Perfect. With this in mind, I was able to improve my own personal teaching skills. I think if we develop and find more ways to work together and share our strengths, we would do much better than continually labelling each other over our differences. I was blessed to have a teacher’s room that was a place to share and grow from each other’s advice rather than find fault and complain about irrelevant issues.
Also you need to look at the reality of the teaching profession and the life out there. After all, you will be working with native and non-native teachers.
Jim Wright, Head of Pilgrims
22 Round up
Let me remind you all of the places to continue this discussion: Péter Medgyes, The Non Native Teacher, Swan Communication 2017, ISBN 978-1-901760-11-8
There is also a short video from the author: https://youtu.be/8JXB7-BBX-tQ
And, of course, in HLT magazine www.hltmag.co.uk
Notes from this debate will be published in Humanising Language Teaching website magazine in the December 2018 issue, the IATEFL Poland Newsletter and on the N and NT website.
20 Years of HLT
Jim Wright, Principal of Pilgrims, UK
Native Vs Non-native Debate at IATEFL Poland, Wrocław 2018
Hanna Kryszewska, Poland