Nonnative-English-Speaking Teachers in the English
Teaching Profession. ERIC Digest.
by Maum, Rosie
In the field of English language teaching (ELT), a growing number of
teachers are not native speakers of English. Some learned English as children;
others learned it as adults. Some learned it prior to coming to the United
States; others learned it after their arrival. Some studied English in
formal academic settings; others learned it through informal immersion
after arriving in this country. Some speak British, Australian, Indian,
or other varieties of English; others speak Standard American English.
For some, English is their third or fourth language; for others, it is
the only language other than their mother tongue that they have learned.
The strengths of these individuals as ESL teachers are still somewhat
unknown and are often underestimated by their colleagues and students.
This digest describes the contributions that these educators make to the
ELT field, some of the challenges they face as teaching professionals,
and ways in which these challenges are being addressed.
STATUS OF THE NONNATIVE-ENGLISH-SPEAKING TEACHER
The term nonnative-English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) has created a
division among professionals in the ELT profession. Supporters of the term
believe that it is necessary to distinguish between native- and nonnative-English-speaking
teachers because their differences are, in fact, their strengths and should
be recognized. Those who oppose the dichotomy feel that differentiating
among teachers based on their status as native or nonnative speakers perpetuates
the dominance of the native speaker in the ELT profession and contributes
to discrimination in hiring practices.
Native English speakers without teaching qualifications are more likely
to be hired as ESL teachers than qualified and experienced NNESTs, especially
outside the United States (Amin, 2000; Braine, 1999; Canagarajah, 1999;
Rampton, 1996). But many in the profession argue that teaching credentials
should be required of all English teachers, regardless of their native
language (Nayar, 1994; Phillipson, 1996). This would shift the emphasis
in hiring from who the job candidates are (i.e., native or nonnative speakers
of English) to what they are (i.e., qualified English teachers) and allow
for more democratic employment practices.
Phillipson (1996) uses the phrase "the native speaker fallacy" to refer
to unfair treatment of qualified NNESTs. The term was coined as a reaction
to the tenet created at the 1961 Commonwealth Conference on the Teaching
of English as a Second Language in Makarere, Uganda, which stated that
the ideal teacher of English is a native speaker. There is no doubt that
native speakers of a language have a feel for its nuances, are comfortable
using its idiomatic expressions, and speak it fluently. However, the Makarere
tenet is flawed: People do not become qualified to teach English merely
because it is their mother tongue, and much of the knowledge that native
speakers bring intrinsically to the ESL classroom can be learned by NNESTs
through teacher training. Phillipson (1996), for example, points out that
nonnative speakers can learn to use idioms appropriately, to appreciate
the cultural connotations of the language, and to determine whether a given
language form is correct. In addition, there are many ways in which nonnative
teachers are at an advantage in teaching English.
STRENGTHS OF NNESTS
Phillipson (1996) considers NNESTs to be potentially the ideal ESL teachers
because they have gone through the process of acquiring English as an additional
language. They have first-hand experience in learning and using a second
language, and their personal experience has sensitized them to the linguistic
and cultural needs of their students. Many NNESTs, especially those who
have the same first language as their students, have developed a keen awareness
of the differences between English and their students' mother tongue. This
sensitivity gives them the ability to anticipate their students' linguistic
Medgyes (1996) conducted a survey of native-English-speaking teachers
and NNESTs working in 10 countries to determine their success in teaching
English. He concluded that the two groups had an equal chance of success
as English teachers and that the only area in which the NNESTs seemed to
be less qualified--English language proficiency--was also one that gave
them a certain advantage over native speakers. As compared to their native-English-speaking
colleagues who can be good language models for their students, Medgyes
(1996) concluded that NNESTs can be good learner models, having gone through
the experience of learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language.
They have had to adopt language-learning strategies during their own learning
process, most likely making them better qualified to teach those strategies
and more empathetic to their students' linguistic challenges and needs.
CHALLENGES FOR NNESTS
The native speaker fallacy has created a number of challenges with which
NNESTs must contend in the workplace and in their daily lives. Although
the majority of English teachers in the world are not native speakers of
English (Matsuda & Matsuda, 2001), NNESTs struggle for equal treatment
in the ELT profession. They face a number of challenges, including those
related to accent and credibility in the workplace.
The issue of accent has often been the cause of employment discrimination
practices in ESL programs in the United States and other countries. Lippi-Green
(1997) found that teachers with nonnative accents were perceived as less
qualified and less effective and were compared unfavorably with their native-English-speaking
colleagues. Other researchers (Canagarajah, 1999; Thomas, 1999) also found
that native speakers of various international varieties of English, such
as Indian or Singapore English, were considered less credible and less
competent teachers than those who come from what Kachru (1985) defines
as "countries of the Inner Circle" (i.e., Great Britain, the United States,
Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). Lippi-Green (1997) refers to this
questioning of teachers' ability and credibility based on their accent
as a form of linguistic discrimination.
Credibility in the Workplace
Issues of teacher credibility are encountered by many NNESTs in the
classroom, where even students are influenced by the inevitable trickle-down
effect of the native speaker fallacy. Some NNESTs have reported that many
of their students resented being taught by a nonnative speaker until they
were able to prove that they could be as effective as a native-English-speaking
teacher. In reality, speakers of more than one language have both a sophisticated
awareness of language and the ability to relate to students' needs (Canagarajah,
1996; Phillipson, 1992). Teachers who share the same language and cultural
background as their students have an even greater advantage: Auerbach,
Barahona, Midy, Vaquerano, Zambrano, and Arnaud (1996) found that they
displayed an acute sensitivity to their students' needs and were better
able to develop an effective curriculum and pedagogy.
In the English teaching profession, native English speakers grapple
primarily with establishing their professional identities as ESL teachers,
while NNESTs often have the added pressure of asserting themselves in the
profession as competent English speakers. Kamhi-Stein (2002) claims that
NNESTs' self-identification as teachers, immigrants, and language learners
profoundly affects how they construct their classrooms and their instruction.
She found that NNESTs draw on the commonalities among linguistic and ethnic
groups represented in the class as a means to collaborate and create a
community of learners; use instructional materials developed in countries
outside the inner circle to offer a variety of perspectives; and use teachers'
and students' experiences as immigrants and second language learners as
sources of knowledge.
Despite their many challenges, NNESTs are beginning to see themselves
and to be viewed by others as equal partners in the ELT profession, both
in the institutions where they teach and within the professional organizations
that represent them. In 1998, TESOL, an international professional association
that represents teachers of English to speakers of other languages, approved
the formation of the NNEST Caucus. (In this context, NNEST stands for nonnative
English speakers in TESOL.) This recognition has given nonnative teachers
more visibility in the profession and has helped create a professional
environment for all TESOL members, regardless of native language and place
of birth (NNEST Caucus Web site, n.d.).
In the last few years, universities in the United States have seen a
large influx of NNESTs into their masters-level TESOL programs (Matsuda,
1999). In order to meet the needs of these students, some programs have
begun to include issues of concern and interest to NNESTs in the curriculum.
A major advantage to this approach is that it gives NNESTs a voice in their
program and provides opportunities for native and nonnative English speakers
to learn from each other (Kamhi-Stein, Lee, & Lee, 1999).
At some universities, native- and nonnative-English-speaking teachers
collaborate with each other, focusing on and sharing their particular strengths.
Matsuda and Matsuda (2001) describe a study conducted with two native-
and two nonnative-English-speaking graduate teaching assistants who were
teaching a composition course for first-year ESL students while taking
a practicum course on teaching ESL writing. They shared online journal
entries to address various teaching issues--discussing problems in second
language writing, reflecting on their own development and teaching practices,
sharing teaching ideas and information, and providing moral support for
each other. By sharing their strengths and insights from their various
linguistic, cultural, and educational backgrounds, the graduate students
found that they benefited and grew professionally both as individuals and
as a group.
Qualified and trained NNESTs can contribute in meaningful ways to the
field of English language education by virtue of their own experiences
as English language learners and their training and experience as teachers.
Recent efforts, including research addressing the native speaker fallacy,
the formation of the NNEST Caucus in TESOL, the development of innovative
curricula in teacher training programs, and collaborative efforts between
native- and nonnative-English-speaking teachers are helping to give NNESTs
a voice in their profession and to recognize their position as equal partners
in the field of English language teaching.
Note: To learn more about NNEST issues, visit the NNEST Caucus Web site
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