Panel Discussion: The ’native/non-native teacher debate’: opening up the discussion
TESOL France Annual Colloquium 2017
Led by Susan Holden & Andreas Grundtvig
“Do you think I should stop calling myself a native speaker? I don’t want to because it is my USP and something different. I think I’m the only female Brit in town with any experience. Economically, it is crazy not to mention this. I also hope I am a good teacher, or at least I try to be. So for pragmatic reasons, I want to keep calling myself a NS.” (Anon)
“Since we removed all reference to native speakers at Oxford House, we have had our busiest year. No-one has complained, the students don’t actually care that much!” (Daniel Baines & Karen Krummenacher, Oxford House, Prague)
One of the three panel discussions at the last Colloquium was opened with the above quotes, by Andreas Grundtvig who has recently joined a discussion spanning 24 years since the first publication of The Non-native Teacher by Péter Medgyes (1994. Macmillan Publishers Limited) and many countries where Native English Speaker Teachers (NEST) join forces with Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNEST) in various sectors of ELT (English Language Teaching). The historic context of the first edition of this influential book was Hungary after the transition in the 1990s, when the Russian language stopped being an obligatory foreign language in schools and an urgent need for English teachers gave way to a massive arrival of English native speakers who started to teach their mother tongue, often without any teaching qualifications. The issue which stemmed from this cohabitation has developed into an even more complex matter in today’s globalised world. The fundamental question is ’Who is a better teacher?’ but in everyday reality, it becomes a legal issue that is translated into how employable are you when you are an English teacher in France, Spain, Slovakia or any other country? Sadly, evidence proves that professionalism is often overlooked when compared with national identity and the passport you hold. Examples can also be seen whereby the preference for one, or the other does not come from the student but usually the language institution or parents.
Susan Holden (Swan Communication), who had edited the original edition, recognised the relevance of this native/non-native teacher debate and re-published the book in 2017 in a new format, which creates a dialogue between the author and the reader, and she has initiated further discussions with teachers, both native and non-native, across European countries. A similar discussion took place at the Slovak Chamber of English Teachers Conference in Nitra (September 2017) and a Forum is planned at the TESOL Spain Convention in Madrid in March 2018. During this absolutely fascinating and lively session at TESOL France, many questions came up with numerous answers opening up further questions to discuss in the future.
Why and how do people buying English lessons need to be convinced about the quality of the teacher they hire?
Why do institutions have certain jobs, or part of the course reserved for native speaker teachers? They are ’allowed’ to have conversation classes but the grammar part is assigned to a non-native speaker teacher.
Can a difference in salary be justified by belonging to either categories?
Why do we talk about and what is the basis for this divide?
How do we define a native speaker? Is it based on the geographical place of birth, the mother tongue or the country of education?
Who is a better cultural and linguistic model for the student, which question leads to the ever complex linguistic question as to which English (British, American, Canadian, Australian etc) should be used as a model?
These questions stirred up a lot of strong emotions and brought up personal stories from teachers in the room who might have been refused a job on the basis of their non-English sounding name, origin, passport instead of being evaluated according to their English language skills, education and degree in teaching English.
The diversity of the questions demonstrates well how complex this issue is. We tap into legal questions when we talk about hiring policies, consider business aspects of our profession and our lives when we talk about salaries, address political issues when we look at certain government directives. The native/non-native divide also has a strong cultural component when we consider the teacher as the vehicle of a certain culture. Linguistic and global issues are at stake when we prioritise one variety of English over another. And most importantly, being labelled with either of these categories, affects us in our most profound feelings of belonging while questioning our professional and personal identities.
Péter Medgyes in his book comes to the conclusion that in a staff room we need both native and non-native English speaker teachers who complement each other depending on teaching contexts. This is very much in line with the way we summed up the discussion in Paris by concluding that we cannot define the right teacher in general terms, but only say who is ’the right teacher for one particular context’. The Panel Discussion ended with Susan’s proposed idea that ’the situation is not black and white’, it needs to be further discussed in various platforms and in wide circles. The next live discussion will take place at the TESOL Spain Convention in Madrid (9-11 March 2018) with members of our sister association. TESOL Spain and TESOL France share a Position Statement Against Discrimination (TESOL Forward Plan, revised 1999) which includes equal employment opportunities for native and non-native teachers. According to this statement, we do not include job announcements in our weekly job list which are restricted to native speaker teachers. This is one way for a Teachers Association to support professional criteria of selection to find ’the right teacher for one particular context’. The other way is by following the discussion!
TESOL France would like to thank Susan Holden for her generous gift to Colloquium 2017 delegates. They all received one copy of the book ’The Non-native Teacher’.
Medgyes, P. (2017) The Non-native Teacher. Callander: Swan Communication
Richardson, S. (2016) ’The ‘native factor’, the haves and the have-nots’. Plenary talk at IATEFL Conference 2016 Birmingham.
TEFL Equity Advocates and Academy.
TESOL France Position Statement
Past President of TESOL France
Csilla Jaray-Benn, holds a MA in English language and literature with teaching certificate and has taught general and business English at the University Grenoble Alpes in France and at corporations for over 15 years. She founded and owns Business English Services, a professional language training organization. Csilla is a regular conference speaker and immediate Past President of TESOL France.