The curse of native speakerism

Many moons ago, I used to work in the EFL department of a university here in London. Among my colleagues was a wonderful teacher called Kasia. Originally from Poland, she’d moved to the UK, met someone and ended up settling. Kasia came into the university set-up via one of our CELTA courses, on which she performed so well that she was offered summer school work, after which she secured a more permanent contract.

One particular term, she had an evening FCE class she was doing two nights a week that I ended up having to cover for some reason that now escapes me. Having knocked up a lesson, I went into class and introduced myself, before saying “Right. So Kasia told me that you’re on page . . . “. Before I could finish my sentence, though, one student had interrupted with a terse “WHO?!”. “Kasia”, I replied. “Your teacher. Blonde hair. Younger than me. Smiley. Remember?” “You mean KATE?” another student ventured, at which point I suddenly realised what had happened here, and decided it was best to go along with it. “Yeah, sorry. KATE, I mean. My bad.”

The next morning, I phoned Kasia and ran her through what had happened. After getting over the mortification she felt at having been found out, she explained that she felt she’d decided to anglicize her name as there were three Polish students in the group and she was worried they’d complain if they realise they’d “come all the way to England only to find themselves studying with a teacher from back home!” In other words, to combat the imagined problems she was worried she might encouner, Kasia had invented an English identity for herself and was (clearly quite successfully!) busy passing herself off as a Brit.

I was reminded of this story recently when I came across a video by a well-known YouTuber who runs a channel called Learn English with Ronnie. With 3.85 million subscribers, she clearly has considerable reach and it’d be nice to believe that with greater appeal comes great responsibility, yet here she is – from 4:08 to 5:18 essentially suggesting that one of the reasons why students of English may be struggling with their fluency is because they’ve had ‘non-native speaker’ teachers! There is, of course, a grim irony in the fact that Ronnie is essentially claiming that ‘non-natives’ are apparently unable to learn to speak English fluently, and yet uses her videos to drum up business teaching . . . yep, ‘non-native’ students! Presumably, she’s softening them up for failure further down the line!

If this was the only example of so-called ‘natives’ weaponising the accident of their births to give them some kind of bogus edge in the labour market, it wouldn’t be worthy of note, yet it really is just the tip of a very large iceberg indeed. Adverts specifiying ‘native-speakers only’ remain common even in countries where it is illegal. The insanity of this can be shown in a brief anecdote: a very well-qualified and incredibly fluent, competent Czech friend of mine who’d lived in the UK for years found he got endless kickbacks when applying for jobs in Asia due to the prevailing ‘natives-only’ policy. After the Brexit referendum, he decided to apply for citizenship here, did his test and got his passport . . . and suddenly found that being able to put British in the nationality section of application forms started opening doors that had previously been closed. Overnight, he had become ‘a native speaker’!

Social media is awash with adverts for courses that offer to ‘help you speak like a native’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. It’s no wonder that so many students claim to want ‘a native accent’ – without having any real awareness of the incredible diversity of accents that people who grow up speaking English as a first language actually possess. Then there’s the fact that big publishers clearly prefer ‘natives’, a trend that’s so ingrained in the market that even succesful publishing houses based in countries that don’t use English as a first language often insist that writers anglicize their names – or adopt ‘English-sounding’ pen names. And, of course, when I say ‘English-sounding’, it’s important to note that in ELT materials this all too often means that things like Mike, John, Jane and Kate are fine, whilst Kwab, Yusuf, Sahara and Maleeka don’t get a look in, despite all four of those being the names of English friends. It’s not just that natives are held up as somehow naturally superior – it’s that some natives (white, English, upper and middle class) are seen as being more native than others!

This is all the upshot of native speakerism in its pure, unadulterated form. I think I first encountered this concept in an article by Adrian Holliday in the ELTJ back in 2006. You can read the piece in its entirety here. Since then, the term has become more and more widespread as a way of describing the tendency the ELT industry has to divide teachers up depending on where they (or their parents … or their parents’ parents!) were born, and then privilege one group of teachers over another on this basis.

The impact that this has is colossal. Students come to see certain teachers as worthy of more respect and deserving of higher payment than others; school employment policies are biased in favour of ‘natives’; the perception develops that ‘authentic’ language cannot come from those outside of the English-as-a-first-language arena, and so on.

However, perhaps the most pernicious and damaging effect is on the actual psychological wellbeing of teachers whose mother tongue is not English – and lest we forget, this means the vast majority of English-language teachers around the world! Imagine how you’d feel if you’d spent years and years learning a language to a high level, done a degree in linguistics and pedagogy in your own country, and then maybe even done an internationally recognised entry-level qualification like a CELTA only to find that your skills set was still seen as inferior to that of someone who’d picked up English simply because of where they’d grown up, who quite possibly didn’t speak any other languages, and who had maybe only done a one-month training course to become a teacher. The battering your confidence would take in such a situation is horrendous – and yet this is what native speakerism inflicts upon most of the world’s teachers of English. Feelings of doubt and insecurity dog you; you feel that no matter what you do, you’ll never be good enough; you commit countless little acts of self-erasure.

This might involve changing your name, as Kasia did, either becuase you feel that this will make your life easier or – worse – because your boss insists you do so. You might also be asked to pretend you’ve studied or lived abroad in an English-speaking country, as though the talents you bring to your classes aren’t valid unless this has happened. You might find yourself team-teaching with teachers born in countries where English is a first language and discover that they’re getting paid more than you are for doing basically the same job. And if you grew up in an English-speaking country, but don’t have a stereotypically Engish name or face, you might be asked to provide evidence of where you went to school to determine whether or not you fulfill the native speaker requirements for a teaching position – as though there were no other way to prove your linguistic proficiency. Given all of this, it’s a testament to the resilience of many teachers that they don’t end up internalising all of this bias and prejudice or lapsing into self-loathing.

To add one final insult to all this injury, so-called ‘non-natives’ often feel trapped: speak out and people may well then accuse you of having a chip on your shoulder, of using your nationality as a way of guilt-tripping people into listening to you. Stay silent and become complicit in perpetuating a system that’s far too slow to change.

So what can be done to right things? One person who’s spoken out about these issues more than most is Marek Kiczkowiak, who runs TEFL EQUITY ADVOCATES and who has laid out four levels of change here. Be sure to check out his work and his ideas. If you’re interested in being part of a change for the better, here are five other things well worth bearing in mind:

1 Remember good teachers are not born – they’re made. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, you’re still learning, and the accident of your birth gives you no special talents that equip you to teach the language you grow up speaking. These talents are learned over time and are never perfected.

2 All of us have different Englishes. The idea that there’s some mystical dividing line that separates the linguistic competencies of ‘natives’ and ‘non natives’ is nonsense. I’ve met plenty of folk born outside of the English-speaking world whose grasp of the language would put many who grew up with the language to shame, and countless ‘natives’ would struggle with an exam like the Cambridge Proficiency. While we all share much common ground and can speak in language we all understand, every single one of us has our own peculiarities and quirks.

3 If you’re a so-called ‘non-native speaker teacher’, recognise that you possess talents ‘natives’ would take years to acquire if they were teaching in your context. I’ve written about some of these before. Celebrate these achievements, and make the most of the opportunities they provide you with. Oh, and if you’re a ‘native-speaker teacher’, educate yourself about what the people the industry has trained you to feel superior to actually bring to the table – and be humbled.

4 Unless there’s a very specific reason for using terms like ‘native-speaker teacher’ or ‘non-native speaker teacher’ (such as, for instance, the fact that you’re writing a blog post problematising the concepts behind them!), stop using them. Reject the stark dichotomy they suggest, and instead just talk about . . . teachers! If you really need to divide teachers up into little groups, how about experienced and less experienced teachers? Or monolingual and bilingual teachers? Or teachers of adults and teachers of under-18s?

5 Call out native speakerism when you encounter it – especially if you are what the market would classify as a ‘native’. In the same way that racism can only really be tackled by white people learning more about the impact it has on black lives, native speakerism will only really die once more of us are aware of the way it blights the lives of many of our colleagues. When you see an advert for natives only, question why it’s deemed necessary; when students claim they want to ‘speak like a native’, point out that this is a highly problematic concept; oh, and don’t promote yourself simply on the basis of where you were born.

You may well have other ideas on how we can all move forwards. If so, we’d love to hear them in the comments section below.

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37 Responses

  1. Randy Sanders says:

    This might involve changing your name, as Kasia did, either becuase

    You may want to consult with your native Language spell checker. not sure what You are trying to say.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      If you have trouble understanding this sentence, Randy – “This might involve changing your name, as Kasia did, either becuase you feel that this will make your life easier or – worse – because your boss insists you do so.” – then maybe your native-speakerness isn’t the boon you seem to believe it might be.

  2. Thanks for the article, indeed it has been changing in South America, although Europe still seems to be delayed in terms of either NS or NNS. The CELTA, TEFL, DELTA, and other Certificates became above the Lingüistic career or teaching extended experience, which is not fair either.

    In particular, most of NS were found without any degree, barely with a bachelor’s school degree or none, some of them without recognition of countable neither uncountable nouns difference, saying water was countable as it is bottled, as an example of some basic failures.

    In my case, I’ve been in teaching for more than 20 years and my latest achievement as OUP ELT Consultant was delivering techniques of teaching practice based on different methods implemented by OUP in its textbooks to raise awareness of the best possible approach in the classroom.

    Although for the last 13 years simultaneously with OUP I have been in charge of ESP ICAO Aviation training, where the level of “nativeness” is the less important issue, as most of AIRCOM is made by nonnative speakers and the validity is proved by precise expressions using both standard and none standard com. additionally the grammar compliance changes as standard usage of com., basically eliminates particularities.

    In near future, most English speakers will be non-nantive ones, therefore, all these fancy requirements would become useless; so Professionals in each field of ESL, ESP & ESL would be required with the specialty of either young learner’s, adults or ESP and test prep.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for your comments Ekaterina – and for the grat work you’ve clearly been doing these last twenty years.

    • Katie Fielding says:

      Ekaterina- you say

      ‘The CELTA, TEFL, DELTA, and other Certificates became above the Lingüistic career or teaching extended experience, which is not fair either.
      In particular, most of NS were found without any degree, barely with a bachelor’s school degree or none, some of them without recognition of countable neither uncountable nouns difference, saying water was countable as it is bottled, as an example of some basic failures.’

      But the CELTA isn’t an easy qualification to get, to say the least. Neither is the DELTA. The CELTA (or equivalent) is the minimum qualification, along with a degree, for teachers in English language schools in the UK. People who have a masters in linguistics or similar, and/or teaching experience don’t always excel on a CELTA course, even though it is an initial training course. These qualifications are desirable because of the assessed teaching practice, which you don’t always have on a degree course. And anyone whose level of spoken and written English is good enough can be accepted on a CELTA course, so the requirement for teachers to have a CELTA is hardly bias towards native speakers.
      The claim that ‘most of NS were found without any degree’ doesn’t seem to be very accurate either. Most people who are accepted on CELTA courses do have a degree (although this isn’t an entry requirement), and the vast majority of schools in the UK won’t employ teachers who don’t have one. To get a work permit to teach in many countries a degree is a requirement too. As for native speakers only having a bachelor’s degree, this is the norm for graduates in the UK- most people just don’t do a higher qualification than that.
      As for countable/uncountable nouns- well, as you must know, this often depends on the context rather than upon ‘rules’. While water isn’t countable, obviously bottles of water are. As are glasses of water, and ‘water’, in the context of ordering drinks. ‘A water please’ is correct. So knowing all the ‘rules’ because you’ve studied them at university isn’t always going to help you when it comes to teaching English as it is actually spoken. Just as being able to speak it fluently because you’ve acquired it as a native speaker isn’t enough either.

      • Hugh Dellar says:

        CELTAs are actually pretty easy to get. The official pass rate is 67% and in all the years I ran them, pretty much every single candidate passed, so long as they stuck with the course and didn’t press the self-destruct button. They’re certainly a lot easier to pass than, say, a Russian or Polish pedagogical degree, that’s for sure. Regarding CELTAs as the gold standard clearly perpetuates the privileging of natives, for reasons I’ve gone into far more detail on here.

        As you say yourself, having a degree isn’t a requirement for a CELTA and so natiuves without a degree and often with no experience of speaking a foreign language either can do a one-month course – with SIX HOURS of teaching practice – and get offered better paid jobs abroad that bilingual foreign teachers who’ve done local three-year pedagogigcal degrees and oftne have years of actual classroom experience. If that’s not privilege, I don’t know what is.

  3. Leo K says:

    I’d say that Euro-centrism is a far bigger problem than native-speakerism. There are countless Ukrainians teaching around the world, but when it comes to Europe, the good ole European snobbishness strikes: “only EU passports allowed!”.

    Perhaps it’s time to actually fight for making the industry fair for all, not just Kasia.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      I’m certainly not interested in only fighting for Kasia, as I hope the article makes clear.
      I think the EU passports only issue is a slightly different one, to be honest, though I can obviously understand how frustrating it is for the many excellent Ukrainian teachers out there.
      Isn’t that more to do with the fact Ukraine is not a part of the EU and so working within the EU – in whatever line of work you’re in – is problematic.
      This may well soon also be an issue, as it happens, for British native speakers, who will find employment within the EU harder after whatever shitty Brexit deal our idiot overloads end up foisting upon us here.

  4. sabrena says:

    For the love of God please spell check your work (and comments) before publishing if you want to be taken seriously. I just can´t get past the mistakes. And also, try not to be so angry, it really does not come across well.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      If you’ve spotted any spelling mistakes, please do let us know. Always happy to correct – and unable to afford an editor.
      However, I have noticed that many people who cling on to the beleif of native superiority do also jump on every little typo as though it somehow proves their innate value.
      Finding a typo doesn’t invalidate the argument you find in it. You do know that, right?
      As for anger . . . well, if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.

    • Rachel says:

      Sabrena , is this all you have to say? The article discusses a very important issue and you’re commenting on Hugh’s typos? I wonder, when your students are speaking in class, do you try to understand their message, or tell them “for the love of god, please speak correctly, I just can’t get past the mistakes?”

    • If you’re familiar with any of Hugh Dellar’s works then you also know that he’s been and will always be taken seriously, even if he happens to overlook a couple of typos.

  5. Jill says:

    Contrary to what you seem to believe, it would be very difficult if not impossible to find a native speaker teaching English in a Spanish school.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Private language schools and academies in Spain are chock full of native speakers, Jill, a few of whom seem convinced of their own innate superiority.

    • Paul says:

      In Spanish state schools, it seems that the non-natives teaching English often don’t have a high-level of English themselves, which can result in students being taught incorrect things. (Obviously, I’m only talking from my experience here, please no one take offence, I’m not in a position to generalise for the whole country).

      Having said that, I think we can all agree that if a non-native speaker has achieved a high-level of English, they shouldn’t be restricted from job opportunities based on where they were born.

      • Hugh Dellar says:

        Hello there Jill –
        Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment. Appreciated.
        I think noting the fact that some local teachers may still not be at a truly fluent / C2 level only really makes sense if (a) you believe full competence in a language is more important that many other qualities that teachers bring to their classrooms – empathy, patience, trust, understanding, and a wide array of pedagogical tools that make language stick and stay, (b) that all students studying English are basically the same level as the teacher – and that, say B2 level teachers won’t be teaching A1 or A2 level students. In reality, of course, they generally will (c) that the students’ experience of English begins and ends with that teacher and that there’ll be no further input once they leave that particular class which will help them develop further, (d) that students of native-speaker teachers never leave classes with ‘some mistakes’ still present in their English (!!!!!) and (e) it actually matters that much. I mean, Arsene Wenger, who managed Arsenal for 20 years and earned more in a year than you or I will ever earn in our lifetimesm always used COULD instead of MANAGED to. So what? Obviously, better not to make that ‘mistake’, but it didn;t seem to hampoer him much in the real-world!

  6. Steve says:

    Dear Hugh,
    Very interesting to read this piece.

    The story about your Czech friend reminded me of the time when I applied for around 40 EAP/ESOL/TEFL jobs in the UK in 2011. I didn’t get one interview. I had a good set of references and qualifications under my belt, including an MA in ELT, and also had experience of working in ESOL/EAP in the UK.

    I began to connect the dots I suppose. Very Polish surname = a slight whiff of the “non-native speaker about him”. I’m proud of my Polish roots, but I’m as English as your typical Dave Smith from Oxford.

    That’s life I suppose. That nightmarish two months led me down the road of self-employment.

    Cheers
    Steve

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Hi Steve –
      Interesting to hear from you – and a depressing, albeit not surprising story.
      Yeah, it’s funny how resistant academies, universities, and as I said publishers are to treat folk with ‘foreign-sounding’ names as natives . . . even when they are.
      On a connected note, a mate of mine called Julian Marszalek – London born and bred – has been stopped coming back into the cuntry twice in the last year or so and grilled about “Where are you from? And where’s that NAME from?” – so the whole toxic Tory ‘hostile environment’ obviously both feeds into and feeds off all this as well. For shame.

  7. David says:

    Hugh – I´ve seen not one but several typo errors you´ve made on your replies. Might I suggest that you take time to read over what you are writing before hitting that submit button

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Ah, another one of those “I’ve spotted some typos, but I’m not going to tell you what you are, becuase I believe the existence of them disproves your argument” types.
      Thank you.
      Might I suggest that unless you have some actual constructive comments to make, you save your time and mine by not bothering next time?

  8. Peter Fenton says:

    You make a good point about language schools and their role in perpetuating the problem. However, whilst it’s easy to go after the low hanging fruit, I feel it would be even more helpful to focus further up the food chain. In Taiwan (where I work) a lot of the work that langauge schools do involves helping prepare students for exams, so it’s important to focus on how these exams reinforce these prejudices against non-native speakers.

    For example, on the listening section of the IELTS exam, candidates ‘listen to four recordings of native English speakers’ (https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/take-ielts/prepare/test-format), so it’s not really surprising that some students (and therefore schools) see non-native speaker models as inferior.

    If you are a non-native speaker teacher and want to become an IELTS examiner, then you’re also in for a tough time, as the requirements state that ‘all IELTS examiner applicants must: be native speakers of English or a non-native speaker with an IELTS band score of 9 in the Speaking and Writing components’ (https://www.ielts.org/online-tutorial/four-skills/speaking/speaking-test-examiner-knowledge-and-skill). Given that candidates with English as a first language only average around a band 7 on the IELTS test (https://www.ielts.org/research/test-taker-performance), this strikes me as somewhat unfair. How many native-speakers teachers would back themselves with any degree of confidence to get a 9 on both the speaking and writing sections of the IELTS test? Personally speaking, I certainly wouldn’t be at all confident.

    In fact, when I did some IELTS examiner speaking training, there was a native speaker doing the training who had sat the IELTS test and he didn’t get 9 on either the speaking or the writing section, but by virtue of being a native speaker, that instantly made him eligible to be qualified to be an examiner. There will have been non-native speakers who also did the IELTS exam and received a higher mark, yet were somehow deemed not good enough to be an IELTS examiner just because of what it states on their passport. That can’t be right.

    Of course, I understand that there needs to be some criteria for examiners but by setting bars unrealistically high for non-native speakers, you are indirectly discriminating against non-native speakers. In my view, sometimes the indirect discrimination is even more damaging than the native-only job adverts. The latter is easy to call out because they are so blatant, but we also need to call out those organisations that help feed this kind of prejudice. Franky, organisations such as the British Council, IDP and Cambridge Assessment should know better. I have focused on the IELTS exam as that is what I am familar with but I can’t imagine that this is the only exam that helps reinforce this view of non-native speakers being inferior. In my view, they bear more responsibility for the situation than individual language schools.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Hi Peter –
      Thanks for taking the time to read and for such thoughtful and perceptive comments.
      I think you’re right to point out that this is a truly systemic issue and that those on high do also continue to perpetuate the problem.
      Ironically, having worked in a university for 18 years, where thousands of IELTS 6.4 students ended up doing their degrees and Master’s, I can officially report that many – if not most – of the tutors these students end up working with come from all over the world, and understanding a wide range of accents – NOT just ‘native speakers’, whatever that means – is pretty crucial.
      You’ve now got me thinkig about whethere there’s some way Cambridge can be made more aware of these inbuilt biases and prejudices.
      Thanks again.

      • Katie Fielding says:

        Hi Hugh,
        Of course you’re right- students at UK universities will have to understand all sorts of ‘non native’ accents. But it’s the British ones which will probably be the hardest for them to understand, won’t they?! So perhaps it’s reasonable for these to be the ones that feature in the IELTS exam. But if this were the case, they should of course get out of Cambridge and record real native speakers, not actors putting on lame regional accents!

        • Hugh Dellar says:

          Hi Katie. Thanks for taking the time to respond.
          It’s hard to know which accents will be hard for who, surely.
          A lot of it depends on familiarity, and most students will have had more exposure to a (limited) range of native Brits thna to other accents.
          The broader point is that by highlighting this and flagging it, the IELTS exam writers are privileging and prefering certain accents over others, and implying indirectly that non-native accents, whatever that means, are somehow less capable of speaking high-level academic English, which is clearly nonsense.

  9. Peter Fenton says:

    Absolutely – higher education in the UK is probably one of the most internationalised environments you could find, so it seems weird just to restrict students to hearing ‘native speaker’ accents. Quite a few of my students are also preparing for IELTS in order to study in countries where English is not spoken as a first language (e.g. Netherlands, Germany, etc), so in these contexts, they’re likely to have even more exposure to ‘non-native’ accents.

  10. Dear Hugh,
    Thank you so much for writing this post. As a so-called ‘non native’ teacher, I can relate to everything you’ve written. I can count how many times my CV was just thrown away immediately by potential employers simply because the family name on it wasn’t an English one. I am who I am, and no one will make me give up on my identity because I know that success depends on one’s expertise, determination and grit, not on where they were born or where their parents were born.
    I’ve been thinking if your post should be translated into other languages so that more people could read it? I could do a Russian translation for you. Let me know what you think of this.

    Best regards

    • *I CAN’T count how many times
      Oops

      • Hugh Dellar says:

        God forbiud you slip up and make a typo.
        The native speaker supremacists would be on you like a pack of hungry wolves.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for this Lina.
      The most shocking for me about this whole debate is how many super-articulate ‘non-natives’ such as yourself give voice to your experiences and yet stiull they get talked over and told they’re lesser teachers regardless. I find the callousness required to keep insisting on one’s own innate superiority in the face of such testimony almost painful to witness.
      As for translations, I’m temepted to say that’s be brilliant, but am unsure about what I’d then do with a Russian version.
      Any ideas?

  11. Natalia says:

    Every time when I read articles about this issue I realise how, hmm, lucky I’ve been to secure several jobs which you might think a non-native language teacher (like myself) would struggle to get or even apply for.
    I’ve worked for a Russell Group university for several years, I’ve worked on a summer camp in England, and quite recently have had an interview for a job in China. I have a very non-native sounding surname (few can ever pronounce it ;)) and yet I feel this has not prevented me from being given a chance to prove my skills and qualifications.
    I must say, getting the university job was hard, but not because I’m a non-native speaker, but because I had to prove I was well-prepared for the demands of the position (through several stages of the recruitment process).
    In my experience, I’d say, surprisingly, the UK seems to be the most welcoming place to apply for jobs if you’re non-native teacher. It’s in the UK that I’ve found that your experience and skills are your assets, not the place you’re from.
    I hope this adds a glimmer of hope to the discussion about the future of the industry and will encourage others to try their ‘luck’ like I’ve done it.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience Natalia.
      Good to hear.
      ESL jobs in partcular here in the UK do attract a very broad cohort of teachers, and there are obviously variations from market to market.
      I’d still say your experiences are the exception rather than the norm, myself, but good to hear more postive tales as well.


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