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Poking at the NEST – an anecdote about native speakerism

July 19, 2019

A few weeks ago I received an email from a Mr Ma, owner and director of the Mountain Ray English Training School in Yunnan, southern China. Mr Ma had learnt that we offer an MEd programme in TESOL, and was interested in knowing if any of our graduates might like to work for him. Like all educational institutions in the UK (and probably everywhere else), it’s becoming increasingly important for us to consider the employability of our graduates and to monitor how many of them progress to “positive post-course destinations”, so I’m always open to the possibility of making links with potential employers in this way.

However, the job ad that Mr Ma wanted me to publicise among our students contained the following list of requirements:

Requirements

  • Bachelor’s Degree 
  • TESOL/TEFL certificate
  • Clear criminal record
  • Native speaker with clear accent
  • Loving personality and good behavior

Given that the majority of our current MEd TESOL cohort consists of people whose first language is not English, and given how much time we’d spent exploring the injustices inherent in native speakerist employment practices in our ‘English as a Global Language’ module the previous term, there was no way I was going to pass this on to my students as a legitimate job ad. So I decided to email Mr Ma explaining the UWS position regarding native speakerism:

Dear Mr Ma,

Thanks for your email, and for providing information about your school. We are               happy – in principle – to include your school in a list of potential employers for         graduates from our programme. However, I see that in your list of requirements you insist on applicants being native speakers of English. Here at UWS we value teaching ability over linguistic background, and we recognise that many non-1st language speakers of English can be highly effective teachers, while being a native speaker does not in any way guarantee a high level of language teaching proficiency. In the English Language Teaching (ELT) profession, using language background as a job requirement is becoming increasingly recognised as a form of discrimination called Native Speakerism. For this reason, we are unable to promote your school to our students.

If you would like to know more about Native Speakerism, here is a link to an article      by Adrian Holliday that explains the concept:  https://academic.oup.com/eltj/article/60/4/385/499514

The link below summarises some research into Native Speakerism and other forms of discrimination in English language teacher recruitment:

https://teflequityadvocates.com/2016/09/07/sexism-racism-ageism-and-native-speakerism-job-ads-in-elt/

Of course, if you wish to modify your recruitment practices we would be happy to explore ways to work in partnership in the future.

Best regards,

Steve

I wasn’t sure how Mr Ma would react. I half-expected him to just ignore me and move on to a more compliant teacher education provider, but I was also slightly worried that he might think I was a complete maniac; the practice of actively recruiting employees who are “native English-speaking teachers” (NESTs) is so deeply embedded within the ELT profession that to most people it appears innocuous, that it is an entirely natural desire amongst employers to prefer NESTS over NNESTs (“Non-native” English-speaking teachers). The myth that native speakers automatically make better English language teachers is widely believed by most stakeholders in ELT – students, parents of students, employers etc. So, when you apply capitalist principles to our profession and conceptualise an English course as a “product”, the need to meet client expectations becomes paramount, however unrealistic, discriminatory or damaging those expectations might be.

However, Mr. Ma surprised me by sending back an email with this subject:

please forgive my ignorance and accept my modified employment practice

It appeared that Mr. Ma had taken on board the points I had made in my email, and was perhaps more than a little embarrassed to learn that his job ad was in fact discriminatory (I’ve removed some parts of this email to preserve anonymity):

Dear Dr Steve Brown,

Thank you for your kind response. I should say I feel very sorry as my job description sounds native-speakerism to you. Although I have been working [in multicultural contexts] for many years, I still encounter embarrassment quite often as the result of the culture shock when I try to communicate with people from different culture.

I have many friends from…other countries, and I believe people are people no matter which countries they come from and of which color their skins are. By saying all these I just want to say that I did not mean to be offensive and discriminative in my previous job description. So I hope you may forgive my ignorance related to native-speakerism as this terminology is completely new to me.

It was clear to me that Mr. Ma had good intentions, and had no desire whatsoever to be part of an industry that seeks to impose the cultural and linguistic dominance of one group over another. It simply hadn’t occurred to him that the practice of actively recruiting NESTs automatically discriminates against NNESTs. As soon as I made him aware of the issue of native speakerism, he immediately realised the problematic nature of the ad and wanted to change it. However, he wanted to change it to this:

Requirements

  • Bachelor’s Degree 
  • TESOL/TEFL certificate
  • Clear criminal record
  • British Citizen with clear accent
  • Loving personality and good behavior

So yes, this change means the job requirements aren’t directly native speakerist inasmuch as they allow NNEST British citizens to apply, but it is still discriminatory – this time on grounds of nationality, so I still couldn’t put it up on our MEd noticeboard. I could see that Mr Ma was keen to change his approach though, and I found this very encouraging. I decided to expand on the issues, explaining my perspective a bit more clearly:

Dear Mr Ma,

Thank you for your response, and I am also sorry for causing you to be embarrassed. Please don’t think I am being critical of you or your organisation. You are right that people from different cultures often have very different perspectives about certain issues, and I know that it is common in China for employers to request native speakers when they are employing English teachers. From our perspective, however, it is not something we can entertain. Many of our MEd students come from outside the UK, including China, and it’s important that their potential to become good language teachers is valued as highly as the potential for UK nationals or other native speakers. In fact, there are strong arguments to suggest that non-native speakers are in a better position to become effective teachers because they have actually studied English before, they know how the language works and how it can be learned in a classroom environment, and they are also more likely to be sympathetic to their learners’ problems. It is widely accepted that proficiency in English, understanding of how the English language works and ability to teach effectively are important qualities for English language teachers, but 1st language and nationality are not.

I know that it may seem strange for me, a native speaking English teacher from a UK institution, to be so supportive of non-native speaking English teachers, but lots of British (and other) academics are concerned about the imperialistic nature of the English Language Teaching profession. Because English is now a global lingua franca and no longer under the “ownership” of countries like the UK and the USA, there is no need for teachers to be a certain nationality or to be “native speakers”. In fact, it may make more sense for your teachers to be Chinese speakers, so that they can better understand the issues that your students are having while learning English.

If you are prepared to modify your ad further so that it does not discriminate according to nationality, I will be happy to share it among my students. Once again, I am sorry if you find my position on this issue unusual, and I certainly do not want to cause offence. But I do think it’s important to make you aware that discrimination in job advertisements is a sensitive issue in the global ELT jobs market, and I think it is in your interest to know about this so you can avoid any unpleasant allegations/accusations from job applicants.

Best regards,

Steve

I was a bit worried that, by rejecting his proposed modification, I might be pushing things too far. However, I was really pleased to get this response back (again, some parts of this email have been removed):

Dear Dr Steve Brown,

Thank you for your kind response.

I should say I cannot agree with you more when you mentioned the teaching capacities of non-native teachers. I have three non-native English teachers now…I am very happy with them and I think they are as good as my American teacher, and to some extent, even better. So, I fully AGREE that non-native speakers can also do a good job in teaching English. 

As a result, I would happily modify my terms in employing English teachers, instead of native speaker or British Citizen, I would like to put English teacher with good command of English and accent.  Will this be ok for you?

Looking forward to your positive response.

Thank you and have a nice day.

Ma

Mr Ma showed in this email that he recognises and understands the discriminatory nature of job ads that specifically require native speakers, and also how this discriminatory practice is profoundly unjust, given the high quality of professionalism that he is witnessing in his own NNEST teachers. I decided to push for one further amendment:

Dear Mr Ma,

Thanks very much for your reply. I am very pleased that we are in agreement about this issue. Professional competence is, of course, something that all employers should value above other factors, and it is pleasing to learn that you are happy with the non-native speaking staff that you have.

If it’s OK with you, I will remove the point about nationality/1st language and replace it with “Good command of English and clear pronunciation” – I think “pronunciation” is a more appropriate word than “accent” because it refers to the technical production of sound, whereas “accent” is usually associated with where a person comes from. Please let me know if you are happy with this change. If so, I will publicise your job ad among our students, who will be finishing their course very soon.

Best wishes,

Steve

Once again, Mr Ma immediately understood my point about accent vs. pronunciation and was very happy to make the change.

 

The reason I’ve decided to share this email exchange here (with Mr Ma’s permission, of course) is that many of us working in ELT tend to take a rather adversarial approach to the divisive, dichotomous issues that are so pervasive in our profession. NESTs vs. NNESTs, EFL vs. ELF, employers vs. employees, private sector vs. state-funded sector, structural syllabus vs. content-based syllabus, grammatical vs. lexical, global vs. local… when you come up against someone who appears to hold an opposing view, the tendency is to assume that they have considered both sides in the same way you have and then arrived at the opposite conclusion. This may often be the case, but not always. Mr Ma was requesting NEST teachers from a position of (to use his word) “ignorance”. It simply hadn’t crossed his mind that he was being discriminatory. But as soon as it was pointed out to him he immediately relented and asked for guidance in how to use more ethical and inclusive language in his job ads.

I’m not suggesting there is nothing sinister about native speakerism in ELT – that it’s nothing more than a misunderstanding; there’s plenty evidence to suggest that the inner circle of English-speaking nations have promoted the global use of English as a means of gaining “soft power” over other nations. See for example this quote from the British Council that Geoff Jordan posted in the comments section of a previous post I wrote:

“English . . . is spoken by a quarter of the world’s population, enabling a true single market in knowledge and ideas . . . For the UK today, it provides a strong competitive advantage in culture, diplomacy, commerce, media, academia and IT, and in the use and practice of soft power. . . The global power of English has helped the UK to grow and maintain its position as a cultural superpower . . . And just as culture can create the space where individuals can express, explore and re-imagine difficult issues, so English as the common language aids dialogue, understanding, trust and the brokering of business deals.” (British Council (2013) The English effect, p. 4).

For English to continue to be a source of soft power, countries like the UK need to retain some sort of control over it, and the myth of native-speaker superiority within the ELT profession allows this to happen. But as soon as you problematise the concept of NS superiority, its inherently unjust and discriminatory nature is immediately apparent. Rather than assuming that employers who post native-speakerist job ads are deliberately colluding with a UK/US-driven imperialistic agenda, perhaps we should first assume that, much like their potential customers, they have been misled by the long-running native-speakerist discourse that has dominated ELT for so long. As educators, maybe the first thing we should try to do when we encounter these attitudes is to educate, rather than criticise.

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24 Comments
  1. Bravo to both you and Mr Ma. Please keep us posted as to how the connection blossoms 🙂

    • Thank you! I hope that some of our graduates do find work with Mr Ma in the future, as he does seem like a genuine, well-intentioned employer who looks after his staff.

  2. Tyson Seburn permalink

    Very well approached, imho Steve. There’s a time for adversarial disruption and yet often many can be reached through awareness raising and education. I’ve found much more change–albeit one by one and very slow–when being a bit nicer about it… (something about flies with honey, etc).

    Having said that, it’s exhausting because it’s over and over and over, isn’t it? Then again, we are educators and do teach the same content repeatedly year after year, too. It’s the emotionally-charged content here that makes the difference in reaction, I suppose.

    • Thanks, Tyson. I know what you mean, It is very time-consuming, but if it works out well it can be very rewarding. That’s why I wanted to share this experience, to show that progress can be made and it isn’t always like banging your head against a brick wall.
      As you say, if we approach these situations as educators and consider them as learning opportunities, that might make the failures less soul-destroying and the successes more rewarding. And yes, it is nice to be nice.
      Take care,

      Steve

  3. Great persistence and respect,Steve. Hope Mr Ma gets the teachers he deserves.

    • I’m sure he will, Anne. He comes across as a thoroughly decent person, keen to succeed but also keen to learn and take on board new ideas. That’s so important for anyone working in education, as you know.
      Best wishes,
      Steve

    • Thanks Marek – same to you for your constant efforts in exposing and tackling the issue of native speakerism. Thanks to your website I was able to send Mr Ma a link to some useful and informative information, which I’m sure he found very enlightening.
      Best wishes,
      Steve

  4. Maria permalink

    From my experience quite a few schools in China are willing to hire non-native speakers, but the government has passed new laws by which English teachers must come from an English speaking country. A lot of schools don’t have much say in this.

    • Hi Maria,
      I’ve also heard about visa restrictions that require English teachers to be nationals of traditionally English-speaking countries. However, Mr Ma already employs NNEST teachers from traditionally non-English speaking countries, so there must surely be a way round these restrictions. Perhaps I should ask him how he has done this…
      Thanks for pointing out this wider issue though. I suppose it supports the point I made that it may not always be the employer who is deliberately promoting a native speakerist agenda – sometimes it’s the country’s government. I do find it strange though that a country would choose to approach ELT in a way that hands soft power to other nations, rather than promoting and nurturing the English teaching capacities of their own citizens. Maybe that just shows how effectively the native speakerist myth has been promoted.
      thanks again,
      Steve

    • A sadly not just China, whilst researching for my masters I found that the policies of quite a few governments in Asia, specifically Southeast Asia are utilising native speaker models. In my experience in Thailand this means that non-native speakers face stricter immigration controls and thus find it harder to even enter the country let alone gain employment there.

      • Hi Nick,

        Yes, it seems a lot of governments choose to implement an English language teaching policy that actually supports native speakerism, rather than developing the language and teaching skills of their own English teachers. This seems strange to me. Perhaps it simply reflects the extent to which the myth of native speaker superiority has successfully spread across the world. I suppose there is a certain logic in assuming that people whose first language is English will naturally be more competent users of the language than people who learned it later in life, but of course this doesn’t in any way mean they’ll be any good at teaching it.
        The idea of English as a Lingua Franca, which diminishes the superiority of the native speaker, is a relatively new concept though. Maybe it just needs time to filter into popular discourse. We’ll see.
        Thanks again for your comment,
        Steve

    • Tyson Seburn permalink

      I just had a similar interaction with a Chinese recruiter on Linkedin, which reminded me of this post and I even shared it with her. She was polite and agreed, but basically suggested her hands were tied given the government laws, and that because of this, she was simply trying to do her job and provide a safe opportunity for their teachers to teach legally in China, as opposed to underground contracts etc.

      What it highlighted to me also was that in some contexts, the stakes in pressuring law change may be higher than in others. And also, boycotting might ultimately cause some people, likely who have families, to lose their jobs, even if we vehemently disagree with this particular approach to recruiting. I also don’t want that, especially when the school/recruiter/etc also wishes they could hire whom they want. There’s also some hypocrisy in me fighting for one justice when my own university or government might (is likely) doing something itself and yet I still work for it. It’s very difficult to weigh everything.

      Ultimately awareness-raising seems to be the best mode and beyond that, in this situation at least, maybe we have to give those on the inside a chance to work it out themselves. I don’t know.

      • Hi Tyson,

        Yes, taking a tough line can lead to financial or other kinds of hardship, and most people simply aren’t in a position to put themselves at risk in this way. I would never suggest that people have to make sacrifices like this in the name of anti-native speakerism. But if, as you say, we raise awareness to the issue and its inherent injustice, at least people are more likely to understand the impact and implications of their actions.
        As a white native speaker who works for an institution that takes a rather commodified view of education, I’m aware of my privileged position and also of the fact that much of my job requires me to do things that are ideologically questionable. I’m not in a position to give up my job and go and live in a barrel somewhere like Diogenes (few if any of us are) but I can use my privileged position to point out injustices or questionable practices when I see them. Perhaps this makes me a hypocrite, but I can’t remove myself from the system completely. I can only criticise it and encourage others to do so as well.
        I agree it’s a tough one though.
        Steve

  5. Edy Alvarado permalink

    Dear Steve, I enjoyed reading this particular blog. I’m a NNEST and I relate to this issue 100%. I think that my not being a native speaker I have to work harder to get a job and sometimes I think I have to prove that I know or that I can speak English fluently. This issue has forced me to stay on top of my game so to speak because it has forced me to learn about accent reduction, pronunciation, and learn better teaching practices. I always aspire to be a better teacher.

    • I found this on a website about teaching in Vietnam today:

      “The essential qualification for teaching in Vietnam is a degree. It doesn’t matter what subject it’s in, it could be in Witchcraft and Wizardry for all your employers care, as long as you’ve got it.

      The second most important factor, which actually is not a qualification at all, is being a native English speaker.”

      A little over the top but entirely accurate in my experience, and after checking a few more advertisements for positions in Vietnam it would appear that ‘native speaker’ means from BANA countires as usual. Once again selecting for inner circle applicants over qualified applicants.

      • Hi again, Nick,
        Yes, this is a good example of a government facilitating a native speakerist recruitment policy that actually discriminates against its own people. Thanks for sharing this.
        Steve

    • Hi Edy,
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately your story is not unique – so many NNESTs have to work a lot harder than NESTs to prove their competence. Many employers will take on a NEST without even bothering to ask about qualifications, experience or references, but they’d be likely to scrutinise a NNEST application a lot more closely.
      I’m interested in your comment about “accent reduction”. This of course implies that it’s possible to have no accent, that there’s some kind of continuum that goes from having a strong accent accent to having no accent. This isn’t actually the case – EVERYONE has an accent. Also, depending on where in the world you are, it may be the case that your accent is closer to the kind of accent that your students might be exposed to when they use English than an accent like mine, for example. I mean, how likely is it that your students will need to understand a Scottish person? Maybe it’s more useful for them to listen to you than to me.
      Best wishes,
      Steve

  6. Gerhard Erasmus permalink

    Hi Steve,

    The native speaker policy in Asia doesn’t discriminate against their own citizens as own citizens wouldn’t require a visa to teach. The idea is it protects their own citizens as visa opportunities are ‘limited.’
    Also, those laws (and they sadly do exist) are all decades old and not something implemented recently. Teachers (especially in China) are often hired through loopholes, for example, you’re hired as a tech consultant but your actually teaching.
    I’ve written a blogpost for Marek about my struggles and hopefully eventual success in changing that law in Taiwan. Government officials are often completely unaware of the discriminatory nature of laws they’ve inherited and hopefully if we get it changed here, others can follow suit.
    We are proposing laws similar to Canada and Australia where proof of language proficiency and a recognized qualification gets you a visa despite where you were born. So far, the legislators we’ve spoken too are quite keen and if all goes well, our new law will be proposed at the February 2020 sitting of the legislature. When in a position to do so, we need to fight the laws. Sadly.

    Gerhard

  7. Tanina Baronello permalink

    Expertly handled! Educating someone about their prejudices is a difficult and uncomfortable thing to do, but it’s essential in the quest for change. Although, I must confess that I had a little chuckle at “I decided to push for one further amendment.” The third time’s a charm!

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