Linguicism to ‘native-speakerism’: reflections on my M.ED TESOL dissertation findings


I first came across Robert Philipson’s book Linguistic Imperialism during term one of my M.Ed TESOL course at the University of the West of Scotland when I undertook a course titled, English as a Global Language. Being an L1 speaker of English, I have always been aware of the seemingly omnipresent nature of English in the world. However, Phillipson’s analytical meandering through time and events laid bare the framework upon which English as a global language and the ELT profession rests. Phillipson discusses linguicism and describes it as ‘ideologies, structures, and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and immaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language’ (Phillipson, 1992:47). From Phillipson’s definition, one can identify the symbiotic relationship between proprietorship and commodification of a language. Defining a language within strict parameters that can only be mirrored by those who share specific characteristics with the definer, results in monopolisation. This monopolisation, or structured proprietorship by any other name, fuels the commodification of English and thus the conferral of monetary benefits offered by capitalism to its proprietor.

The role of inequality within a neoliberal structure

Neoliberalism, as the result of unfettered capitalism, is an ism of an ism. Not a sub-ism, rather a concentration of what came before. Neoliberalism is the consequence of minimal regulation and markets defining people by their monetary value as consumers (Monbiot, 2016). Within a neoliberalist market, ‘inequality is recast as virtuous’ (Monbiot, 2016). The proprietorship and subsequent neoliberal commodification of English requires a dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Block et al (2012) examines the links between neoliberalism and applied linguistics. Their assessment of the position of the world of applied linguistics through the lens of neoliberal influence reveals an array of dichotomies and inequalities, specifically within the ELT and language teacher education industries.

When unjust constructs are allowed to thrive

This leads us, rather unsurprisingly, to another ism, native-speakerism. As with linguicism, the concept of native-speakerism was introduced to me during my English as a global language module. ‘Native-speakerism’, a term coined by Holliday (2006), is used to describe the preferential treatment which ‘native’ English-speaking teachers tend to receive over ‘non-native’ English-speaking teachers. Such privileges include, but are not limited to, greater access to employment opportunities, whilst ‘non-native’ speakers are often held to higher standards (Kubota 2002, Mahboob 2004, Clark and Paran 2007). Holliday used the term ‘othering’ to describe the creation of this ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ construct. The psychological effects of ‘othering’ on ‘non-native’ teachers have since been widely studied. Bernat (2008), identified the feeling of impostor syndrome held by ‘non-native’ speaking teachers. Suarez (2000) discussed the significance of the prefix ‘non’, and its impact on ‘non’-native teachers. He labelled the resulting feelings of inadequacy experienced by ‘non-native’ teachers as, ‘I-am-not-a-native-speaker syndrome’. There is currently growing resistance to the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ and consequently they are being increasingly rejected as acceptable terminology. Jenkins (2017) expresses the frustration that a universal alternative term has not yet been established and utilises inverted commas when using the terms ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ to draw attention to their unsuitability.

‘Native-speakerism’ in action

Prior to undertaking the English as a global language module at UWS, I had not been aware of the term ‘native-speakerism’ or its effects. I share an English class with a ‘non-native’ English teacher, and I have never considered her less of an English teacher because of her ‘non-native’ status. In fact, I never considered the ‘nativeness’ of her status at all. However, on learning about ‘native-speakerism’ I was able to reflect with new light on previous interactions with her during which she had displayed clear signs of the impostor syndrome. I also reflected on my own experiences as a teacher with ‘native’ status in the ELT industry. One such experience was with a teacher recruiter for a summer school in Italy. I had applied for a short-term position and was automatically rejected by the recruiter as she had made the assumption, based on my name, that my L1 is Italian and my L2 is English, when in fact the opposite is true. On correcting this misconception, I was then asked to produce my British passport by way of indisputable evidence. At the time, I hadn’t given the interaction much thought. However, when I reflected on this event after learning about ‘native-speakerism’, I realised that I had momentarily been in the shoes of a ‘non-native’ teacher. I had been immediately discounted based on an accident of birth, with no importance put on my qualifications or ability to teach. My British passport that I had used on many previous occasions to gain entry into a different country could also apparently grant me access to an entire industry with teacher recruiters acting as border guards. Isms breed isms. As capitalism harvests the monetary gains available from linguicism, neo-liberalism and its dependency on inequality requires the ’othering’ of ‘non-native’ English teachers, all the while allowing ‘native’ teachers to enjoy the benefits of nepotism.

My context and study findings

Given this background and my experience, I wanted to look at issues in ‘native-speakerism’ within my own context. For my master’s dissertation, I carried out an ethnographic study titled: Native and non-native speaker teacher roles and identities from the perspective of adult Russian English Students. Teacher recruiters often cite student preference as the reason for native-speakerist ELT adverts. Due to this, many studies have sought to uncover student perceptions of their ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers. However, Russian populations were comparatively under-researched with most studies covering China, South-East Asia, Turkey, and Poland most recently. I carried out a focus group and one-to-one interviews. Although the focus of my questions was to generate the data I needed to answer my research question, the qualitative nature of my research allowed for the exploration of other salient data.
The findings of my study showed that students perceive their ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers as equally valuable, but with distinguishable roles in the classroom. Participants expressed the belief that ‘non-native’ teachers have more of a role at the beginning of the language learning process, with ‘native’ teachers being introduced at a later stage. This ‘nonnative’-to-‘native’, beginner-to-more advanced continuum was expressed by most participants. However, none could determine the ‘native’-to-‘nonnative’ crossover of responsibilities. The study uncovered that this perception is rooted in students’ opinions about the effectiveness of teachers’ pedagogical approaches, with their ‘non-native’ teachers being associated with the grammar-translation method and ‘native’ teachers being associated with the direct method. The participants firmly held the belief that pedagogy was linked to native status as opposed to being two independent factors.

Beyond native status

‘Native-speakerism’ was a recurring theme throughout the findings, with a participant commenting on the preference of teacher recruiters for ‘native’ speakers, specifically from the UK or US, a finding which is well established within the current body of literature (Selvi, 2010). This participant, a ‘native’ teacher from Nigeria, recounted several occasions where her colour was cited as the reason she was either not given a position or rejected from a pre-arranged interview on arrival. Her experiences were limited to interactions with private English schools based in Russia. However, she accepted this as the norm stating, “it’s something that I’ve received quite often. So, I just expect it and let it go”. This same participant went on to describe her self-imposed behaviour of reducing her accent to sound more American or British, a habit which she felt would avoid any confusion on the part of her students. This participant was arguably displaying signs of impostor syndrome, which was linked to ‘non-native’ teachers by Bernat (2008). Issues of race and accent in the ELT industry are being increasingly studied and explored. Vijay Ramjattan (2017) builds on the previous work of Bernat (2008), Llurda (2015), and Medgyes (1983) by identifying the negative impacts that working in a racialised environment has on English teachers of colour.

My study identified and discussed the issues of native status and colour, both collectively and independently. One participant ranked teacher recruiter preference from most to least desirable as: white ‘native’ speaker, white ‘non-native’ speaker, and black ‘native’ speaker. She couldn’t comment further as her experience was limited to these definitions. Employer preference for white appearance has also been established in the literature, particularly by studies with a focus on English-language schools in East Asia (Ruecker and Ives 2014; Appleby 2013; Appleby 2016). However, the preference for white ELT teachers over ELT teachers of colour, regardless of native status, draws into question the use of the term ‘native-speakerism’. It could be argued that, in some instances, the preference for teachers with ‘native-speaker’ status is in some instances acting as a disguise for a preference for white teachers.
Within the ELT industry the term ‘native-speakerism’ and its place as a racist ideology, is increasingly known and understood (although outwith the context of the industry, it remains a peculiar and unfamiliar phrase). Social media has provided a public platform where English language schools are frequently openly challenged if they display native-speakerist recruitment practices. It could be argued that removing industry-specific jargon like ‘native-speakerism’ and replacing it with a layman term such as racism, could help other stakeholders like students and parents better understand its significance. If native-speakerist teacher recruitment adverts were challenged for being racist instead of native-speakerist, would English language schools be keener to disengage from its practice?

Have you ever been witness to or been the victim of native-speakerist recruitment practices? Please share your reflections on your own experiences either under this post or on our ‘Emerging Voices win ELT’ Padlet as well as feel free to share this post on Twitter. Don’t forget to tune in during our EAP4SJ Tweet Meet on ‘Native-sepeakerism’ on Twitter on Tue 2 November 12pm-2pm UK time.


Tanina Baronello has recently completed her M.Ed TESOL at the University of the West of Scotland.  She is a private ESOL teacher with a student body comprising predominantly of Russian post-secondary students.  Her interests include; issues surrounding native-speakerism, racism with the ELT industry, corpus linguistics, and ELF. Having graduated in 2004 from Glasgow Caledonian University with a BA in Accountancy with Corporate Finance, she enjoyed a career as a business development manager in the UK private sector until 2018, when she retrained to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher. With a continued focus on CPD, she is currently a student of Strathclyde University’s part-time CCEd Italian course and is looking for PhD opportunities.


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What is the EAP for Social Justice SIG? Welcome to the website for BALEAP's EAP for Social Justice Special Interest Group! This SIG is intended to provide a forum for EAP practitioners to discuss, deepen their understanding of, and address concerns related to, social justice within and around EAP, whilst also broadening and strengthening the evidence-base of the impact that social justice initiatives can make in this field. Through bringing this often-sidelined area into the spotlight and examining the knowledge, skills and values that a social justice lens can contribute to EAP, this SIG aims to encourage more EAP students, practitioners and managers to take action and play their part in fulfilling the vision of the university as the “critic and conscience of society”.

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