Do You Need a NATIVE Teacher? Nope.

My grandparents were not native English speakers. They were both immigrants from different countries that came together and used English as a second language. None of my aunts or uncles grew up speaking with a foreign accent.

Although, it would have been amusing to hear a Polish-Italian-American one… And nope, no making a ton of grammar mistakes either. They make the same amount as the average native speaker (which is more often than most people realize!). So, why the debate?

Native Teachers vs. Non-Native Ones in Language Instruction

I’m gonna set off very directly. The best English teachers that I know are not native speakers. The majority of the English teachers that I do know... who are native speakers, don’t have any formal training. In fact, if I think about it, the only teachers that I know with degrees in languages are in fact non-native English speakers.

That’s not to say that there’s no native English speakers with degrees in teaching languages. I have my bachelors degree in ESL. But it’s definitely more common for travelers to be hired for their native-speaking abilities then for:

  • Degrees

  • Teaching experience

  • Licenses or certifications

  • Teaching Ability

  • Effectiveness

Cultural Differences Fuel the Demand for Natives

We are lucky in the Americas, because the native versus non-native speaking language teacher problem is not nearly as controversial as it is in other parts of the world. For years, I was on the lucky side of this argument. I benefited directly from higher pay and more hours. I still remember when one of the school secretaries gossiped about my salary. It was 50% higher than my non-native counterparts. Even though we worked the same hours, and had the exact same jobs and responsibilities. They hated me after that. But, could you blame them?

Despite this ¨advantage¨, for the past six years, I have taught the majority of my classes in Spanish. I still have a couple very advanced ESL students who have been with me for 3 to 4 years. But nine out of 10 of my classes have been for Spanish students. Even though my degree is in teaching English, I don´t like the online ESL/EFL teaching world. It pits teachers against one another in an ugly way.

Language Learners Make the Best Teachers

There will always be students who prefer a native speaker, thinking that it’s better in some way. However, I know for a fact that a lot of my students, especially adults, seek out language learners. Several have confided in me that they chose me because I learnt Spanish as a second language.

The general consensus was that I would know what they were going through. That I would be able to explain it in a way that was familiar to them. Which of course, is true. Many times, I can guess the mistakes that students are going to make before they happen. Not because I know everything. Instead, because I’ve made all of them myself already. Usually in incredibly embarrassing ways.

And really the best language instructor that I know is named Elsie. She teachers English, but she’s from Mexico. You wouldn't know it though if you spoke with her. She always says I am more Mexican than she is. In an instant, I would hire her over a native-speaking English teacher. Because I know how hard that she works, and how much effort she put into her classes. More so than any other teacher I have seen.

Too Many Employers Value Non-Native Teachers Less

I still remember when one of the ESL teacher Facebook group started to reply to ads for only native speakers. They wrote a standard message saying something to the effect of, being a native speaker was not a job qualification. And that they were going to keep responding like this until people stopped posting job ads for only native speakers.

Unfortunately, that was probably six years ago, and this is still a huge problem today. When I started teaching online I started with an Asian company. It was/is one of the biggest ones. But they have a poor reputation for their treatment of teachers, especially for differences in pay. I haven’t worked for them in about five years but I’m still in some of their teacher groups on Facebook.

The other day, I began to notice a lot of posts from teachers. They were saying that they had been fired without warning. They all had great class ratings (one had a 9.84, (much than mine when I worked for them!) and perfect attendance. The only thing that they all had in common is that they are non-native speaking teachers. Many comments echoed the sentiment that they were getting rid of the teachers who did not hold a certain country's passport. Of course, there’s no way to prove this theory. The company cited technical issues, or something to that effect.

But, What About Foreign Accents?

Really, what about them? They are adorable! In fact, I have one myself... at least that is what they tell me. Many parents think that if their children are taught by non-native speaking teachers, they are going to pick up a foreign accent.

Being only influenced by an American English speaker, every day of her life, Sofia is the perfect example. My daughter has literally spent every day of her life with me. Yet, she still has a Mexican accent when she speaks English.

The most English instruction she’s ever had has been three times a week for 30 minutes a day when she was two. And English class is pushing it a little bit on the definition. It doesn’t even come close to the amount of time that I spend with her. Nor the amount of native English exposure she has with my family, friends, and work. Literally, she was an infant in my lap while I gave classes in English. She had more language exposure than the normal child, I am sure. But, it doesn’t matter. You get an accent from where you grow up.

You talk like the people around you talk. It doesn’t matter what language you’re speaking. Being from Philadelphia, I say things like wooder (water) and would of (would have). I didn't know this was weird until I started to travel abroad and meet people from other parts of the world.

When Can You Benefit From a Native Teacher?

The only time a student would actually benefit from a native speaker (as a teaching qualification) is if they are very seriously studying accent reduction, pronunciation, or perhaps very advanced idioms and phrasal verbs.

With that being said, there aren’t a lot of native-speaking language teachers who know how to do accent production. Personally, I don't know any, and I don't teach it myself. It is a complicated topic. In addition, the strategies change depending on your native language and current language level. Again, your best bet is probably going with the non-native teacher who went through the process themself. That person is going to have a lot more experience and advice on how to reduce your accent than a native speaker who has never had to do it.

How Do I Pick the Best Teacher?

Look for the instructor that makes it fun for you or your child. You should want to interact in the target language. Seek out a teacher who produces results. And who has a great chemistry with yourself, or your child, as a student.

Because I honestly believe that teaching and learning is a little bit like dating. It takes awhile for students to feel comfortable. And, not every match is going to work out. Therefore, if you find a teacher that your child loves...If a student feels comfortable with the instructor, that's the goal. That’s the teacher that you should book with.

Remember to Practice Listening to ALL Accents

My advice is not to limit yourself to only listening to native speakers. Because if you plan to really use your second language, you have to be prepared for all accents. I spend a good amount of time speaking Spanish with other speakers who are not natives (apart from students). It's no different than getting used to the accents in other regions in Latin America. Personally, though, I love hearing my students speak Spanish in their English (from England) accents.

Over the years, I’ve met many people from France, England, Turkey, Russia, Canada, Vietnam, Iran, and of course all the different countries in Latin America that have regional accents and dialects. The great thing is that I’ve never had a situation where we could not understand each other due to this.

(While we are on the topic, I also cannot roll my Rs. I used to feel really insecure about that. I’ve always struggled with listening activities, never picked up instruments and really cannot dance. I joke that I’m basically tone deaf (and that’s probably why I haven’t been able to pick up Mandarin).

Then, one day my step-daughter, in El Salvador, said ¨Who cares? Neither can X, X and X in my classes.¨. I was shocked. I didn't know that native Spanish speakers struggled with the Rs also. In fact, some never pick it up. Most importantly, thought, is that it has never been a communication barrier.)

Communication is the Sole Language Objective

Naturally, our brains are wired to listen to an entire sentence at once. Not just one word at a time. That’s how we understand the difference between to, two, and too, or there, they’re, and their. The brain listens to it in context. And that lends a ton of help to the people who are trying to practice, Not to mention those who are trying to understand them.

It makes complete sense. Because when children are very young, they all learn how to say ice cream in a weird way. They have their own little language. Despite this, their parents understand it. Most of them won´t correct their children. Its because they understand when they say a word like ¨lala¨ and take the ice cream out of the freezer, that they’re asking for ice cream. Children communicate, they get what they want, and that is really the point of languages anyway.

It doesn’t matter if the pronunciation is a bit off, or there’s a grammar mistake in the sentence. No one is going to refuse you entry into the baño when you forget to say the n-y sound (My brother can tell you that for a fact). If you spoke in a foreign language and somebody understood you, and you understood that person when they responded... then you have used language for what it was intended for. Communication. In addition, if you did it in a foreign language, you are brave.

Congratulations. Just in case no one has said it before. It's not easy, and most people don't make it far enough to reach that point.

What do you think about the native vs. non-native debate? Leave your comments below and I will respond to them.


Sara Tyler has 2 M.A. degrees, in Educational Technology and Curriculum and Instruction. Her B.A. degree is in ESL. She has worked online since 2014, and has taught languages since 2010.

Her company, Viva Online, L.L.C. provides Spanish language courses, immersion classes, and professional development for teachers. She lives in Veracruz, Mexico with her husband and 2 daughters.

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