Native or Non-Native, that is the QUESTION  

Posted on December 11th, 2014

Which is best: a native language teacher or a non native language teacher? This is a question that’s been debated for decades among professionals and scholars and that’s unlikely to ever find a definitive answer. However, non-professionals often have this preconception that native is necessarily better than non-native and I think this has quite a negative impact on the international schools’ market. More and more schools are more likely to hire an inexperienced native with a degree in plumbing than an experienced, qualified, non-native language teacher, and this is kind of the only market where you see this happening at such a large scale! I mean seriously?! Would you hire an English teacher to fix your plumbing? I sure wouldn’t!

The obsession with pronunciation

This is the root of all evil: the belief that non-native teachers’ pronunciation is inadequate! In fact it goes even further than that nowadays: in China, some schools go as far as to hire only American English teachers because parents believe that only an American accent will lead their kids to a successful international career. They won’t trust a British or Australian teacher to do the job, it has to be an American! Just try to see the picture: Mr. Wong is a successful, competent and qualified computer engineer from Shanghai, he’s proficiency in English is remarkable, only he speaks like a Londoner, so Google won’t give him a gig in the Silicon Valley! Yeah, right! So if such nonsense can even bring prejudice upon non-American native English teachers, you can imagine the suspicion when it comes to non-natives! Truly enough, a non-native is likely to have a slight accent. Slight is the key word here. Language is about communication, making oneself understood. I mean c’mon, if you’ve ever met a native English speaker from the depths of Texas or Ireland, you know you’re more likely to understand any English speaker but them, native or not. A correct pronunciation is, of course, important. But how do you define “correct”? Languages, by definition, evolve. Vocabulary and pronunciation are usually on the forefront of such evolutions. Continental French speakers hardly understand some French speakers from Quebec; however the consensus is now that Quebecois French is just as legitimate as its European counterparts. When it comes to English, it’s a language that’s spoken in so many parts of the world and has morphed into so many different local accents that the debate is near ridiculous. Accent matters only if it stands in the way of proper, efficient communication. It’s hardly ever the case with qualified non-native language teachers.

The culture

An educated native language speaker will always have a deeper, intuitive understanding of their own country’s cultural identity, its history, its political system, etc. However, once again, that may be more or less true depending on the person’s personal education. Certainly, it may be better to have a native speaker for a literature class aimed at advanced students. Now when it comes to teaching the language to beginners and intermediate students, I’m not so sure it makes so much of a difference. For one thing, if you’re passionate about a language you’ll also be passionate about the culture that goes with it, so you’ll be able to teach lots of stuff about it. Besides, at least when it comes to European languages being taught to non-European students, my take is that it’s more the Western culture as a whole that needs to be taught than the specifics of any individual Western country. I mean sure, viewed from Europe the American culture is quite different, but viewed from China it’s just more of the same! Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand share a common –diverse but common– cultural heritage. Students who are able to identify those shared cultural patterns are likely to make their way into any Western country, and you never know where life’ll take you, do you?

The skills

This is, in the end, what matters: qualifications! Teaching is a job that requires specific skills and while anyone is able to teach their mother tongue to some extent, nothing will ever match the work of a professionally trained, dedicated teacher. Language didactics is a field that’s been mutating almost every decade for the last 60 years, from the centuries-old, so-called “classic” method to today’s communicative approach and everything in-between. Studies tend to show that, in fact, qualified teachers do not stick to one particular method. Instead, they tend to pick the best of each world, using bits and pieces of every possible method in order to adjust to their students’ specific needs and help them develop their potential. It’s like an educational toolbox that you keep with you at all times, so you can pick the most appropriate tool. Without this theoretical background, a teacher may take much more time to achieve similar results, hence the need for the toolbox. Common sense dictates that, in every field, training and experience make a difference. Obviously, this applies to teaching languages, too.

The learning process

This is one strong argument in favour of non-native language teachers: they have been there. One’s mother tongue has been learned intuitively when one was a child, only later in school came the grammar that was to explain the rules behind what the kids already knew. However, non-native teachers have had to go through everything their students have to go through: every damn thing, from learning a grammar rule at the same time one learns how to use it to say something, to the insecurities of the student who has to express an idea verbally and can’t find the right words. There are many to think that this shared experience between a teacher and their students is a hell of an asset, because even though different students will have different learning processes, this’ll help a teacher to anticipate both his students’ difficulties and how to solve them. A native English speaker can’t remember how he’s learned present perfect because he was 2 years old when he did. A non-native can, and this is one more useful tool in the toolbox! Another thing is that non-native teachers are lifetime learners: no matter their proficiency they’ll always discover new words, new subtleties about the language they teach, try to memorize them and put them in good use. This constant learning process keeps them close to their students’ own learning process!

The passion

If there’s a field where passion matters, alongside arts and science, it’s teaching! Of course one needs love for the activity of teaching, but one also for the subject itself. One doesn’t become a professional, qualified foreign language teacher by accident: it’s a whole process that led you there from learning a language in the first place, to falling in love with it, to finally deciding that you want to spend a lifetime teaching it. Of course, the same can be true for a teacher’s mother tongue: a native German teacher is likely to have some passion for the German language (hopefully!), but the enthusiasm that leads you to embrace another language so passionately that you’ll want to teach it is an enthusiasm that you can share with your students, because it’s now their turn to embrace it. And no matter the subject, there’s no better teacher than a teacher who’s enthusiastic about what they teach and able to communicate their enthusiasm!

Who they are and what they do is more important than where they’re from!

When you read debates about this on language teachers’ forums, most end like this: it’s first and foremost a matter of people. Every honest teacher, native or non-native, will tell you that a dedicated, non-native teacher with both experience and training will always do better than a bored, unqualified and inexperienced native.

So yes, it’s true: you will find non-native language teachers who don’t give a damn and suck at the job. You’ll also find others who are passionate and excellent at what they’re doing. And obviously, the same can be told about native language teachers: among them you’ll find the good, the bad and the ugly. Hiring a language teacher should always be about who they are and what they do, not where they come from. There are good and bad language teachers everywhere, so before you trust a school to teach a new language to your kids, you should first and foremost wonder whether its language teachers are qualified, experienced and dedicated, not what their nationality is.