Teacher Training


On my mind: the non-native conundrum

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NS only advert Page 1 710x366 On my mind: the non native conundrumApproximately once a month, I give an input session on finding work in the TEFL industry to our full-time CELTA trainees here at IH Budapest. As anyone who has attended one of these sessions will know, we talk about resources available to those looking for jobs, discuss some of the dos and don’ts of designing a CV/resume suited to the TEFL industry, and we often talk through some of the considerations (economic, institutional and geographical) that our trainees might have to ponder before applying for that first teaching job. Another feature of the session is that we often role play job interviews into which I insert some ’tricky questions’ which I know interviewers might ask.

Discussions at the end of such role plays almost invariably lead to a discussion of what the right response would be to being asked a question about grammar that the trainee/teacher simply doesn’t know the answer to. A number of trainees will even wonder whether an interviewer really would ask such a question, while others will consider the merits and demerits of admitting the truth. And whilst I have become adept at offering suggestions and solutions to trainees as to how they might cope, it is often at this moment that I become aware of a group of trainees who have been keeping quiet the past minute or so that this discussion has been going on for. A group who may still be struggling to come to terms with the fact that half of their fellow trainees can’t explain what an adverb of frequency is (I was once one of them too). And so once the issue of grammar questions has been dealt with, it is not uncommon for one of them to stick their hand in the air and ask a question more pertinent to their own concerns: ’What advice do you have for Non Natives looking for work abroad? All the job ads I have come across ask for native speakers’.

My answer, delivered as something of a rallying call, is first and foremost for them to be positive about their prospects . I invite them to consider that as a CELTA qualified teacher of English, they stand before their students as a shining example of the proficiency one can attain in a language through hard work. I say that not only can they be an inspiration to their future learners, the fact is that they are likely to have a far better understanding of the frustrations and difficulties their students face in learning English than any native speaker. On some days, in order to get the trainees to reflect further on this, I ask them to think back to the lessons they have been watching over the past 3 weeks and consider whether it was the mother tongue of any of the teachers that necessarily made him/her more effective- or whether it was something else.

But at the end of the day it’s not only my trainees that I have to convince of these facts- nor the law makers (it’s actually illegal under European law to include the term ’native speaker’ as a necessary qualification in a job ad). No, it’s a TEFL industry that hides behind the excuse of ’market demand’. An industry which would rather maintain the status quo than try to educate its customers learners that it is a teacher with good training and the abilty to teach that will really help them learn. That native speakers of English are not born with an innate ability to teach their own language (does anyone really, actually believe that?) and that a motivated, conscientious and engaging teacher of any mother tongue can be just as effective. Isn’t it slightly ironic that an industry whose business is education, cannot educate its own consumers (OK, I admit it) as to what makes an effective educator?

Rather more surprisingly to me however, is that it is not only school directors and marketing specialists that need to be persuaded, in some cases it’s the non-natives themselves. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the insecurities, attitudes and beliefs held by some are common to all, but it is not untypical for me to hear a non native trainee (or teacher) express concern about being an ’inferior teacher’ on the strength of their non-nativeness alone. Often it’s a question of emphasis and what that trainee chooses to focus on: what they believe to be their poor pronunciation and lack of vocabulary as opposed their superior knowledge of the way the language works- but the belief is genuine and therefore damaging. Ask a Hungarian (for example) what he thinks about a Brit teaching Hungarian by the way, and the response you’ll get provides further evidence that the belief that native speakers make the best teachers is fully ingrained.

If you add to all of this the thought that any group that is defined in terms of what it is not is going to have image problems, then it is clear that non-natives are up against it. There are reasons as to why some learners may wish to be taught by a native of a particular country: the supposed prestige (snobbery) of having a native tutor being one, the wish to identify with the culture (through the teacher) another, but it is important to recognise that if it is language learning that is the aim, then any potential learner would be well-advised to look beyond his teacher’s mother tongue.

- Chris Holmes

Note to readers: Chris recently started the Facebook group ‘Budapest nNEST‘, a support network for non-native teachers of English who would like to teach abroad. In a short time, the group has acquired over 200 members, and the group’s page provides lots of support, information and contacts for non-native English speaking teachers of English (from ANYWHERE!) looking for work outside of their countries.



One Comment on “On my mind: the non-native conundrum”

  • Tarveen Walia November 13th, 2013 5:32 AM

    Hi Chris

    Your Facebook page nNest is just what I was looking for, I have been applying all over and basically getting the same reply ” non-Native teachers not considered’, it was getting just so frustrating:(
    I have over 11 years of teaching experience, a CELTA and IELTS band 8, and I wanted to add an international exposure to my teaching experience, don’t want to rant, am still hopeful and will keep trying:)

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