Discrimination against Non-native English speakers in the TEFL Industry

non-native speakers teaching english

Discrimination against non-native English speakers in the TEFL world is currently quite an emotive and hotly debated topic in TEFL forums. This article examines whether or not such discrimination is justified and provides advice on how non-native English speakers can get jobs as EFL teachers. Does this discrimination really exist though?

The following criteria, taken from an actual job advertisement on TEFL.com suggests that it does.

10 native speakers wanted for full time teaching jobs in Beijing, Shenyang, Kunming and Nanjing. No degree necessary but we want native speakers who are very active and good at singing children’s songs or games.

Another job ad had the following criteria:

Nationality of UK, IRE, USA, CAN, AUS, NZ or SA. Bachelor’s degree (any field). Commitment to a 1-year contract.

These are by no means isolated cases. If you do not meet these criteria, you will find it almost impossible to be hired as an EFL teacher in a foreign country.

So what exactly is a “native English speaker”? The dictionary definition of a native speaker is simply “someone who speaks a language as his or her first language or mother tongue”. Neither one’s nationality nor race should determine whether or not they are native English speakers and yet many foreign EFL schools believe that one cannot possibly be a native English speaker unless they had been born in, and hold a passport from, an English-speaking country. Some even believe that only people from certain races are entitled to be regarded as native English speakers. Many qualified, experienced and highly capable teachers may therefore find themselves discriminated against in the foreign EFL job market as a result.

Is this sort of discrimination justified?

Unfortunately, discrimination against non-native speakers in the EFL industry is sometimes justified. Some non-native speakers have been known to ask some questions about English grammar where the answer is very obvious. Not only that, but the grammar that they use to ask those questions is sometimes also incorrect. Some examples include:

What is difference between “I stopped to talk to John.” and “I stopped talking to John”?

“Me and my mother” or ” I and my mother” or ” My mother and I” which is correct?

If we were to examine the essays or comments that have been written by non-native speakers, it would not take us long to find some errors in their grammar, punctuation, capitalization etc. Here are just a few of the examples that I have come across:

“The non-native speakers may have some excuse, when they go wrong with the language somewhere but not all times.”

“I find it strange that a society that has a diverse range of ethnic minorities, language differences along with other issues, it concerns it self with colour.”

“I once had an telephone interview and the person (a female) asked if I was black?, I replied to her, “what does it matter, what colour is the cat so long it catches the mouse”, there was a long silence from the other end, I did not wait for her reply and put the phone down.”

This problem is made worse by the influence of regional creoles, for example Bislish and Taglish in the Philippines, Manglish in Malaysia and Singlish in Singapore. A Singlish speaker may be prone to using words such as “chop-chop” which means hurry up or go faster. A “chop” in Manglish is both a noun and a verb, it can mean a rubber stamp or the act of using a rubber stamp, so a Manglish speaker would see nothing wrong with using phrases like “When I went to Australia, the immigration officer chopped my passport.” Manglish speakers also tend to mix local expressions with their English e.g. “Aiyo (a Chinese exclamation), today is so hot-ah (“ah” being a Chinese suffix), I already pengsan-lah” (pengsan being the Malay word for “faint” and “lah” being a Malay suffix).

With such glaringly obvious flaws in their English, is it any wonder that non-native speakers are having such an incredibly hard time finding jobs as EFL teachers in foreign schools? Would you want such people teaching English at your school? If you were a parent, how would you feel if you knew that your child was getting their “quality foreign English education” from teachers with such a poor command of the English language? If I were the owner of a language school, I would be extremely reluctant to hire non-native English speakers as teachers because I am well aware of the brand of English that they use.

On the other hand, even in Asian countries there are many professional families where the parents have been educated abroad. The parents speak English at home with their children to such an extent that they grow up having little to no knowledge of the native language spoken by those of the same ethnicity as them. These children do extremely well in English at school and many are later sent to international English-medium schools in preparation for a university education in countries like the UK, Ireland, Australia and the USA. They grow up speaking impeccable English. If a “native English speaker” is someone who speaks English as their first language, such people are absolutely entitled to be regarded as one. Case in point:

Chen* (not his real name) was born in the early Seventies in a South East Asian country. His parents were both Chinese. Chen’s father came from an affluent family and was sent to a British boarding school at the age of 13. He was a brilliant student who was always top of his class. He subsequently went to a top British university to study Medicine. When he graduated, he went back to his home country where he worked as a General Practitioner. Several years later, he got married and Chen was born a year after that.

Chen had always spoken English at home with his family and went to an English nursery school and kindergarten. At school, Chen excelled at English and had never achieved anything less than an A grade for any of his English language exams. After Chen finished high school, his father decided to immigrate to the UK. Chen went to Sixth Form there and after his A Levels he went to a British university, graduating in the mid-Nineties.

Chen then started work in the UK. He had quite a varied career there, working in retail for a year and then spending a few years respectively in a number of other industries before being made redundant in 2009 due to the global financial crisis.

Finding work during a recession was extremely tough and Chen was out of work for a few years. Occasionally he would get some short-term temporary work doing anything and everything. It was one of Chen’s former school teachers who, realizing his aptitude for English and his interest in teaching, suggested that he might wish to look into TEFL as a possible career. So Chen enrolled on a TEFL course and sailed through it, achieving an A grade for every single assignment. On completion of his TEFL course, Chen enrolled on a practical teaching course and then began to apply for EFL teaching positions both in the UK and abroad.

Chen’s first teaching position was at the training school where he did his practical training module and in the summer months for the next couple of years he was also able to get jobs teaching English at summer schools for European teenagers in the UK. His performance had been satisfactory but he could not possibly survive financially on just four weeks’ work a year so for him, finding an overseas teaching contract was vital. Unfortunately, due to the prejudice of foreign schools against those perceived not to be native English speakers, finding an overseas teaching job was incredibly difficult for him.

Chen is one of the lucky ones – he got his big break a few years ago when a foreign middle tier public university decided to take a chance and offered him a job. He is now a successful EFL teacher in a foreign country where his dedication to teaching and his professionalism have earned him some glowing references. With a few years’ experience under his belt, a valid visa, work permit and glowing references, Chen is now in great demand and is able to find a new job easily at the end of each teaching contract.

How can non-native English speakers get an EFL teaching position abroad?

The short answer is that non-native English speakers should not be teaching EFL at all. If you learnt English in a non-English speaking country, the chances are that you will have picked up many bad linguistic habits which should not be passed on to learners. However, if you are able, through determination, hard work and years of study, to achieve a native- or near-native level of fluency in English and believe that you can do a good job of teaching, you should take the following courses of action:

  1. Become a citizen of an English-speaking country.
  2. Lie about where you were born.
  3. Live in the English-speaking country for several years and work hard at learning the local culture, accent, slang, idioms etc.
  4. Get a reputable TEFL qualification and gain some experience. Language schools in English speaking countries hire staff based on competence, not on whether you happen to be a native English speaker or not.
  5. Grow a thick skin and never give up.
  6. Develop a network of contacts on LinkedIn.com.
  7. Put your resume on sites like seriousteachers.com, Dave’s ESL Café etc.
  8. Approach schools and recruiters in person. By speaking with them directly, you can immediately demonstrate your competence and mastery of the English language.
  9. Make sure that your command of English is excellent and on a par with that of any native speaker.

Chen for example, is not viewed as a Chinese person by his students. His fluency in English and his ability to speak with a British accent puts him on a par with any other British or American teacher that they have had. One of his students even told him to his face, “You are not Chinese!”. This then, is the level of fluency required to teach English abroad.

A word of warning: It is therefore one thing to lie about where you were born but if your command of English is not up to scratch, please do us all a favour and do not even think about teaching EFL. Foreign students may not speak English well but they have spent years learning the rules of English grammar in school so if your grammar is weak, you will get found out!

What can schools do to help end discrimination against non-native English speakers?

The key issue here is (or should be) competence. It should not really matter whether someone has spoken English since birth or not. What is important is that the teachers who get hired have a sound grasp of English grammar, spelling and punctuation and have clear pronunciation with a neutral accent. If more non-native English speakers are able to prove their competence in these areas then in time the industry should become more accepting of such candidates.

However, in order to prove their competence, people need to be given a chance. Schools can help to end this practice of discrimination by being more open-minded and mindful of the fact that stereotypes are not always accurate. Instead of blindly assuming that only Caucasian candidates can be native English speakers, foreign schools can interview the candidates who have applied for a job with them. The problem with that though, is that the local staff at foreign schools often can barely speak English that well themselves. They would hardly be in a position to assess a candidate’s fluency in the English language so they resort to assuming that any Caucasian person (even those from continental Europe) is automatically a better candidate than someone who is Asian or black. But these schools already employ native English speakers as teachers, so surely it would not be a huge problem to ask one of them to interview prospective candidates?

In summary, if you wish to teach EFL, you must have native level fluency in English. Students (or their parents) pay good money to learn correct English and deserve to have competent teachers who know their subject well. As a teacher friend of mine once said, “You cannot teach what you yourself do not know”. If you are fluent in English but are not a Caucasian, it will take a lot of hard work to get your foot in the door but please do not be disheartened – you will get there eventually. Good luck!