Would You Like a Native Speaker?

I confess that for a long time, I had been reluctant to write a post about language teaching and native speaking teachers, aka NSs, as they are often referred to in English-teaching circles, as opposed to NNSs – non-native speaking teachers. There is a great deal of controversy, the debate is way too polarised for my taste and such posts should not need to be written in the first place. This matter should have become a non-issue a long ago. Further, I am not a big voice in language teaching. I am just a common teacher, minding my own business, hoping the positive effects of my work have some influence on my students as well as on the teaching community overall.

Unfortunately, there are still too many job ads from language schools wanting to hire native-speaking teachers, a great deal of questions in Facebook groups posed to “native speakers” and many people looking for native speakers to improve their “accent”. Instead of writing a potentially explosive opinionated piece, instead of banning certain people on social media, instead of having lengthy conversations with friends and colleagues, why don’t I simply ask some questions to get my audience (that is you all, people!) to think more about the issues involved?

First Question – Who is a native speaker?

Is it someone who was born in the country where the language is spoken? Is it someone who was not born there but one of their parents is? Is it perhaps someone who was not born in the country, nor were their parents, but the whole family moved to the country later on? Is it someone who was born in the country, but left at a certain point? Is it perhaps someone who lives with someone born in the country and speaks the language so well no one would tell? Should I go on?

Second Question – Who should teach a language?

Should it be a really, really, really great teacher? Someone who speaks the language really well? Someone who is a native speaker but has little teaching experience? Someone who is not a native speaker and only knows the basics in the language they are teaching, so that they can only teach the basics, and the reason for this is a shortage of teachers or the educational system in the country? Are qualifications important? Are qualifications more important than teaching experience? Would the best teacher ideally be a “native speaker” with the best teaching qualifications? Are Czech teaching qualifications worse than international teaching diplomas? Should language teachers be able to speak their students’ first language?

Third Question – is English different to other languages?

If you think it is, then why? Is it because it has become an international language that everyone must have on their CV? Is it because there are so many “Englishes”, accents, varieties around the world? If you go back to the first questions, who would qualify as a native English speaker?

If you think it is not, then why would there be such a demand for “native-English speaking teachers”? Haven’t we all studied other languages – French, German, Spanish, Russian, from the local teachers? Are local teachers boring? Are teachers from other countries more interesting, so our motivation to learn the language is higher? Are we perhaps not looking for a teacher, but for a conversation partner?

Fourth Question – is “Native Speaking Teacher” a dirty word?

Should we perhaps not use it at all when speaking about language education? What if you are learning German, for example, and you want to see if you’d be able to communicate in German with a person from Germany – is that not right? What if you are a materials writer or a course designer and you are basing the language in your materials on what the people in your country would actually say? (Check out this presentation on TBLT by Michael Long, from 18:00 onwards). If you are asking a language-related question in a forum/Facebook group: Native speakers, please, how would you say xxx?  – Do you expect only native speakers to reply? What if someone has extensive knowledge of the language but they are not NS? Please note that this frequently happens in our Facebook group Czechlist and then all the people who reply need to write: I may not be a native speaker, but I am an expert in xxx – should authors accept such replies at face value?

Fifth Question is on the recruiting staff of language schools – if you are posting an ad in the Czech Republic for an English NS teacher (very common situation, so let’s be specific), what do you expect and how does it make you feel?

Are you secretly hoping to hire The British Gentleman? Are you maybe prepared to pay them more than the Czech teacher? Should your NS teach conversation, while the Czech teacher will “cover the” grammar? What about levels – perhaps the Czech teacher can teach the beginners and the NS the higher levels? What if anyone complains about the job ad – will you explain that “this is what the client wants” (typical story)? Will you actually be able to live comfortably with this opinion?

(I am getting angry here so I shall stop. You may have guessed by now that my own actual opinion is a bit blurry, because the whole problem is so very multifaceted. But if anything gets me, it’s the job ads for native speakers. Business is not an excuse not to live in kindness, peace and harmony with the world and yourselves, folks!).

Question Six to yourself, Kamila: You are a NNS Teacher of English and a NS Teacher of Czech – what about you?

I can see right into your stomachs – you are wanting some answers too, right? Honestly, I have had only one bitter story when I was kicked out of an English-teaching job because the student was higher than A1, so the work was given to a Native Speaker (why do I keep capitalising the phrase? You tell me).  It was agency work; it wasn’t important and I’ve moved past it. I have many more stories of students telling me: We don’t want a NS, they don’t know what they’re doing and we only do “conversation” – plus they are not prepared for class (being prepared for the class is an important concept in this country, FWIW). To be honest, I am not very happy to hear these, either. Such things may be good for your ego, but overall do not lead anywhere.

I have very fond memories of team-teaching (please read this older post I wrote) with native speaking teachers for English Link in the 90s. The system worked like this: each client would have two lessons weekly, one with a NS, one with a NNS teacher. Each of them did everything, meaning the Czech teacher did grammar and “conversation” and so did the NS. It was great and we had so much fun, we had weekly staff meetings, the boss would give us gifts for our birthdays at the staff meetings and we would all sing “Happy Birthday to you” to each other. When you had a question about English, we would ask everyone in the staff room, including our NSs. When they had a question about Czech, they would ask us. We lived in peace and harmony for several years and even though English Link has been torn apart, we are still seeing each other. (If you were going like, is she very fond of the 90s in Prague, yes, I am😊)

What about teaching Czech for foreigners, you ask? As far as I am concerned, I only know Czech teachers who are actually from the Czech Republic (and 95% of them are women – is that another stereotype?). I know there are teachers from Ukraine and Russia who teach Czech, because my students from those countries have told me. Do I feel bitter about it? Not the least. The more people who learn this b** of a language and are able to teach it, the better.

For items 7-9, I have imagined some questions and answers about the opposing argument.

Question Seven – What terminology do you prefer to see instead of NS?

For the purpose of hiring teachers, I would be happy if we entirely moved away from using the concept of a native speaker and instead focused on recruiting the right teacher for the job we have, whether that be Business English, General English, young learners, or a high-level group. No sensible teacher, whether they are a native speaker or not, is going to apply for the job of teaching a C2 level group requesting a deeper insight into idiomatic language, phraseology and phrasal verbs, unless they are already at that level, have experience teaching such levels and are into teaching such advanced linguistic aspects.

Another thing that comes to mind is that you never see Czech-for-foreigners job ads requiring a native speaker. Some of them ask for a degree in Czech Studies, which, you’ll be surprised, automatically rules me out, because I don’t have one. So, I can’t apply for certain jobs in teaching Czech for foreigners even though I am a native speaker of Czech, because my qualifications don’t stand, and that’s fine. It makes sense. I would not dare apply for some Czech teaching jobs abroad, which involve the cultural aspects of the language, because I haven’t read enough Czech books or seen enough Czech films, and that’s fine, again! This “native-speaker” problem seems to revolve only around English, largely, but why, I wonder.

Question Eight: Some have argued on Czechlist that NSs are more likely to have in-depth street knowledge and awareness of local culture and realia. How do you respond to this?

They probably do, which does not mean nobody else doesn’t, and if you haven’t understood it by now, it might be a good idea to go back to Q1. The world of Anglophonia is diverse, widespread and it involves so many people. Let’s face it.

Question Nine: C2-level NNSs sometimes argue that special promotion or treatment only undermines their individual market edge, and that they can sell themselves just fine as NS-equivalent individuals in open market conditions. How do you respond to them?

Another question is, if a teacher can sell themselves just fine even as a NNS, is it their responsibility to educate the world and stand up for the less lucky ones? I have once replied to a NS job ad using the strategies outlined on the TEFL Equity Advocates blog and I was successful. The school got back to me, apologised, removed the ad and offered me a job, which I refused, because I’d had far better jobs at that time.

To me, it seems clear that just as you should not judge people based on their sex, gender and skin colour, you should not judge them by their nationality. This is not putting artificial constraints on the free market. This is good business practise in a diverse environment in which everyone – the school staff, teachers and students thrive.


8 thoughts on “Would You Like a Native Speaker?

  1. Hana Tichá

    Interesting post, Kamila. The other day I saw an advertisement looking for a shop assistant. One of the requirements was to be decent-looking. Would you believe it? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sam Shepherd

    I really liked this post – I think there’s something inherently unfair in specifying native speaker in a job advert or description – I was a terrible teacher in 1999, for example. so would it have been fair for me to get a job over someone whose first language was not English, but was an experienced teacher? Of course not.

    I would like to add that this sort of discrimination exists in other ways too. I teach ESOL in the UK to students who are living here. I met student referred to our provision and very quickly picked up that she did not have a problem with languge, at all. She spoke English as a native speaker, in fact. After a few minutes we established that she had lived in the UK until she was 8, moved to Pakistan for 7 years (where she still used English at school) and then returned to the UK aged 15. She has since lived her for more than a decade. Her needs were, in fact, literacy, rather than language, and I have since referred her to our English department for her courses, but the government agency who referred her to us simply saw her ethnicity, her name, and her writing, and decided she needed ESOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sam, for the comment and for adding your perspective and the example. To me it’s such a complex issue that the simply dichotomy of native x non-native just won’t do in teacher recruitment. And it’s even more complicated in other, non-educational, contexts. Let’s see if more readers contribute other examples here, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi K,
    Referring to your comment above, here’s another example. Just the other day I saw a call for “transcript readers” for the state matura exam (https://www.croatiaeducation.info/tests/croatian-state-matura-exams.html) in a range of MFL (here’s the link to the call in Croatian https://www.ncvvo.hr/javni-poziv-citacima-transkripata-za-snimanje-oglednih-ispita-slusanja-i-ispita-slusanja-iz-stranih-jezika-engleski-francuski-njemacki-spanjolski-i-talijanski-jezik-za-drzavnu-maturu-u-sk-god-2/). The first requirement on the list is that the readers must be NS but they must also have completed 4 consecutive years of formal education in a place/country where the language is spoken (presumably officially). To prove that they are NS, the applicants must submit a statement self-identifying as NS.
    I thought this last bit was pretty interesting in that the applicants are not required to be of any particular nationality. I also thought the 4 consecutive years of formal education was kind of unusual. What would that really say about you? Presumably that you could read, but it isn’t likely you’d apply anyway if you couldn’t, is it?
    Anyway, a really good post! I don’t know if you ever read mine on NS/NNS (from back in 2014). Here’s the link just in case https://afteroctopus.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/the-fear-of-being-unemployable/.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I see we have this mindset in common. I’m also a NNS and even though I’ve got experience and all the certificates needed, I’m also seen as a better fit for YL. This honestly blows my mind when I see native speakers with 0 experience preparing students for C1 or C2 exams, meanwhile I’m stuck teaching colours!

    Well, all I can say is that in Spain, where I teach, it became almost illegal to put “native speaker” in job ads. Instead companies normally ask for a “native-level speaker”. It also reminds me of the time when I did CELTA and my tutor told me to avoid places that ask for native speakers only as I’ll immediately get discriminated and most likely since they only want NSs, their academy may have a bad reputation as they probably choose native speakers over experience and qualifications.

    However, there’s been a turn due to Brexit. Academies can’t afford visas for British citizens and so they prefer hiring NNSs from other EU countries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Joanna, and thank you for the comment and for describing the situation in Spain. As for Brexit, I thought it would have an influence, but actually expected even a greater demand for teachers from UK – what you describe makes sense. Yes, I know it is often frustrating, but in my experience, there is always demand for good teachers, no matter where they are from. Although the truth is, in the Czech Republic, many teachers have stopped working for language schools and work freelance completely, and are able to make a living this way. I think with a language school, it can always be more complicated as you say.


      1. It’s very similar in Spain. I know so many great teachers who just stopped working for language academies and started freelancing. Maybe one day it will be a reality for me but at the moment I feel like I’m not ready yet 🙍

        Liked by 1 person

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