‘Native-speakerism’ is something that ELT is trying desperately to move away from, although efforts are, in my opinion, still not enough. It still seems that we as a global ELT community hold a widely-espoused belief: ‘native speakerism’ is wrong! – yet, the industry, or should I say, certain members, continue to promulgate the idea of the ‘native speaker’ being the ideal teacher, even when anywhere near eighty percent of teachers fall into the ‘non-native’ category (Cangarajah, 2005). There has been much research and numerous studies on the changing face of ELT, looking at the interactions in English and why the ‘native speaker’ teacher need not be the perfect or, in fact, correct model. But the aim of this article is not to take you through the research; rather, it is to share with you two encounters I, as a teacher trainer, had in the previous academic year regarding the consequences of ‘native speakerism’ and how I reacted to these. These consequences relate to teacher identity, feelings of inferiority and perceived credibility, and I feel that they are underrepresented in the ‘native/non-native speaker’ story. I aim to provide a list of what I call ‘actions-on’, which hopefully will help others deal with similar situations.
Experience 1: An interview
With the end of the academic year fast approaching here in Spain, we were looking for teachers to replace those that would move on from our private language academy. One of the interviews my director of studies and I carried out was with a Vietnamese teacher, and it left me quite shocked but also very proud, if you will, of the strength that this teacher displayed. It also left me a little dismayed.
As the interview started, introductions were carried out, questions were asked, and she completed a speed teaching activity. Then came the time to speak about why she wanted to join our team, and she mentioned the usual: the academy is development-focused, in the right location, etc. But then she said, ‘My previous employer was very good. She was happy for me to teach even though I look how I look. So, I am happy to teach for you as long as you’re happy with me looking Asian’.
Now, what would you do in a similar situation? My director and I were gob smacked – she had just confronted an industry-wide bias in a way that she felt was going to help her. We said that her looks were not important and that her teaching experience, qualifications and drive to develop were what we were looking for. But I kept thinking, ‘wow – that takes some guts’. At the end of the interview, I congratulated her on the way she held herself, and I wished her the best of luck. We offered her a job, but, unfortunately, she turned it down due to time commitments.
After some time, I sat down to reflect on the situation. It seems clear to me that this teacher, although more than qualified, still felt her ‘non-native’ identity immediately put her in the second-class citizen boat. As Bernat (2008) writes, many Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs) create their own ‘inferior’ personal discourses and identity, and it seems as if in her mind her identity lacked the credibility of a ‘native speaker’, regardless of her qualifications. What’s interesting is that she is not alone; in a survey conducted amongst 450 NNESTs (Rajagopalan, 2005 cited in Bernat, 2008), some 52% felt disadvantaged regarding career opportunities. In another survey (Chase Aleixo, 2020) of a group of 500 teachers (both NEST and NNEST), 56% of NNESTs noted that when searching for jobs they had been rejected because of their nationality. This naturally has consequences, such as leading NNESTs to take on less desirable jobs, selling themselves for less (not only financially but morally), and helping create a dynamic in which a certain group of teachers is marginalized and made to feel inferior simply for their place of birth, regardless of their professional competence or language proficiency.
Perhaps the first step forward here is reflecting on our own identities as language teachers? So, how do you see yourself, and what impact do you feel this has had on your career? And how might you have dealt with this situation?
Experience 2: Name changing
Earlier in the year, I ran an external workshop that focused on teaching in diverse classrooms. The group of teachers I was working with were all career NNESTs, having been teaching English for fifteen to twenty years, and had high levels of English (all CEFR B2+). As with all my external workshops, I like to get to know who I am working with. We went around the online room and introduced ourselves while at the same time writing information about ourselves on a Padlet wall. I noticed that one of the teachers had two names: Isabella/Samantha (anonymised). Here in Spain, it is quite normal to meet people who go by their second name, so I simply thought that she had written both her names, but I asked anyway. She said that she had created Samantha so that her students would not react poorly and so that she could get more jobs as an English teacher. In essence, her Spanish identity was not appropriate enough, from her perspective, for the role that she had taken on. Again, I was confronted with a situation to which I was unprepared to respond.
At that moment I valued the integrity of the workshop and its aims so I chose not to go deeper into her motivations or try to help this teacher understand that she should not feel that way and that she and her identity were not the problems – and so all I said was, ‘ok, that’s interesting’. Did I do the right thing? Selvi (2019, p.188) writes that teacher education “programs have an important role to play in [teacher identity] and addressing equity in ELT contexts around the globe”, and as such I know there was more I should have done as a teacher educator. Some options could have been to create a space within the workshop for the discussion of teacher identity or contact the teacher after and redirect her to NNEST support networks (e.g. TEFL Equity Advocates). In short, I know that what I did was not enough.
What would you have done?
Looking back on these experiences, I now believe that there is a need to define ‘actions-on’, a term taken from my military background that means actions that are carried out when something occurs; in this case, encounters with the consequences of ‘native speakerism’. It is difficult, however, to create a set of ‘actions-on’ that are appropriate for all contexts, so please be aware that some may need to be modified depending on where these encounters happen.
Dealing with NNESTs identity issues in interviews
– Understand that most NNESTs are likely to have encountered discrimination previously. – Acknowledge that they have been discriminated against but emphasise that their nationality or language background is not a qualifying factor in the interview – their experience, professionalism and qualifications are!
– Encourage them to not see themselves as a ‘non-native’ teacher; rather, encourage them to see themselves positioned along two continua: competence in language teaching and language proficiency (Pasternak and Bailey, 2004 cited in Selvi, 2019).
– Lead them to places where they can be guided through the process of changing their ideas about their teaching identity. For example, Marek Kiczkowiak from TEFL Equity Advocates has a course that is specifically designed to help NNESTs gain employment in the industry, tackle ‘native speakerism’, and feel more confident in themselves.
Dealing with name changing
– Again, it is important to understand that the teacher has most likely encountered discrimination due to ‘native speakerism’.
– Acknowledge their choice to have their ‘second’ name, but ask them why. Explore their values, beliefs and attitudes behind this choice.
– If the context permits, ask them about the message this sends to learners of English. That is, it would seem that even if one becomes proficient in the language, they may still have to sacrifice part of their identity to fit into the ‘language’ community. This, however, is not the case – or should not be anyway!
– If the teacher is open to discussion, ask them about what it would take for them to feel comfortable in using their name.
– Be ready to acknowledge that at the end of the day it is the teacher’s choice and no one can dictate to them what they need to call themselves.
– Redirect them to NNEST support networks such as NNEST of the month blog and The Non-Native English Teacher Facebook group
As Widdowson (2003) writes, if NNESTs are continuously feeling this sense of distress and inadequacy, this has very negative effects on the teachers themselves, their teaching, their learners, and the industry as a whole. The issues here are very complex and multi-layered; however, it remains clear that even though ‘native speakerism’ is still rife within ELT, there are things that we as teachers, trainers, managers, directors, etc., regardless if we are ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ speakers, can do to help rid the industry of this ugly disease, promote multilingual competencies in our teachers and learners, and gain ground in the fight for equality within the industry. These two situations are but a minority of the majority, and there are many more that need their own set of ‘actions-on’. Perhaps you have had similar experiences, either as someone who has encountered such consequences or as someone who has been discriminated against – what ‘actions-on’ would you define? I would encourage all of us to reflect on our positions and ask ourselves how we should react in situations such as these, ensuring that we are always prepared to deal with such consequences and, hopefully, reconceptualise and deconstruct the disempowering rhetoric of the ‘native/non-native’ dichotomy. Please share your story in the comments below or contribute to the Emerging Voices Padlet here.
Next week, we’re releasing another blog revolving around ‘native-speakerism’ – stay tuned! There will be also an opportunity to contribute to @EAP4SJ Tweet Meet discussion on ‘native-speakerism’ on Tuesday 2 Nov 12-1pm UK time with the authors of these two blogs. We’ll try to determine to what extent this reality is also present in the EAP sector.
Jim Fuller is a teacher, trainer, manager and blogger who has taught extensively throughout Italy and Spain. His interests lie in teacher education, task-based language teaching and developing learner autonomy. When not enjoying the insights of a good book or eating tapas at a local bar, one can find him blogging at spongeelt.org, often sharing his insights into teacher training and teaching. He has completed various development courses including the Cambridge Delta and is currently completing his Master’s in Professional Development for Language Education. Follow Jim on Twitter @elt_sponge.
Bernat, E. (2008). Towards a pedagogy of empowerment: The case of ‘impostor syndrome’ among pre-service non-’native speaker’ teachers in TESOL. English Language Teacher Education and Development Journal, 11, 8.
Cangarajah, A. S. (2005). Reclaiming the Local in Language Policy and Practice. Lawrence Erlbaum.
Chase Aleixo, C. (2020, September 30). ‘native speaker’ism: Discriminatory Practice or Response to Market Demands? BridgeUniverse – TEFL Blog, News, Tips & Resources. https://bridge.edu/tefl/blog/native-speakerism-discriminatory-practice-or-response-to-mar ket-demands/
Selvi, A. F. (2019). The ‘non-native’ teacher. In The Routledge Handbook of English Language Teacher Education (pp. 184–1989). Routledge.
Widdowson, H. G. (2003). Defining Issues in English Language Teaching. Oxford University Press.