Can Non-Native Speakers Teach English Abroad?

Most language schools prefer teachers from the so-called native English speaking countries. If you don’t have the right passport, you will have a hard time finding a teaching job abroad. Is this kind of discrimination in the ESL industry justified and how and where can you find ESL teaching jobs for non-native speakers (NNES)?

Should An ESL Teacher Be A Native English Speaker? If you teach ESL, you may have thought about this question. Discrimination against non-native English speakers in the TEFL world is currently (and already for a long time) quite an emotive and hotly debated topic in TEFL forums.

Non-native ESL teachers feel like their capacity is being underestimated by schools that are solely interested in hiring natives. Native English speakers, on the other hand, feel like they are at a huge advantage over foreigners, mainly because they have smaller chances to make pronunciation and spelling mistakes. That’s only the surface of the argumentation, but there are many layers underneath.

Before we go any further, you should know one thing: both native and non-native speakers can succeed or fail as ESL teachers. There are many other qualities that build the character and professionalism of a teacher.

However, this is an important issue that needs to be tackled. We won’t tell you which teacher is better, but we’ll analyze the arguments on both sides from different aspects. Then, you can draw your own conclusions. On top of that, this post provides advice on how non-native English speakers can improve their chances to get jobs as ESL teachers.

Does Discrimination in the ESL Industry Really Exist?

The following criteria, taken from actual job advertisements suggests that it does:

10 native speakers wanted for full-time teaching jobs in Beijing, Shenyang, Kunming, and Nanjing. We want native speakers who are very active and good at singing children’s songs or games.

The 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. Do a quick research on some TEFL job boards and you will find out. If you do not meet these criteria, you will find it almost impossible to be hired as an ESL teacher in a foreign country.

What Does “Native English Speaker” mean?

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 TEFL job market as a result.

Natives or Non-Natives: Who Are the Better ESL Teachers?

The Argument of Language and Pronunciation

This is the main argument you’ll get from proponents for native ESL teachers: they know the language better because they have been speaking it since forever. That is a valid point. When a child is born surrounded with a particular language, the grammar and pronunciation come naturally. Non-native English speakers, on the other hand, have to learn all rules from scratch, and they are not that experienced in speaking the language. Thus, they are almost expected to make mistakes in pronunciation.

To be honest, when you browse Facebook groups for ESL teachers, a lot of non-natives calling themselves “English teachers” have poor English language skills and cannot write a single sentence without errors in their grammar, punctuation, capitalization.

This problem is made worse by the influence of regional dialects and 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.”

On the other hand, we have to consider the fact that native English speakers don’t exactly grow up listening to perfect grammar and vocabulary. They are also prone to using specific dialects, which can affect their speech and manner of expression. Non-natives learn the English language from scratch, and they are not confused by slang or dialect. They have a textbook knowledge of the language and often a better understanding of syntax and grammar.

The Argument of Experience

There is no doubt in the fact that native speakers are better when it comes to practical usage of the English language. They have been using it since they were born. They are familiar with conversational and colloquial expressions and common idioms, for example.  Non-natives, on the other hand, don’t have as much experience speaking a foreign language and cannot be compared with natives in this aspect.

Get Certified To Teach English Abroad

Book the 120-hour accredited Let's TEFL online course with guaranteed job placement, now available for an unrivaled price.

Enroll Now with 60% off

However, we should pay attention to the fact that native speakers are not usually educated in the framework of language teachers. That’s why so many of them have troubles preparing lesson plans and organizing classes for their students. Non-native ESL teachers are usually aware of specific methods for teaching a foreign language to students. They have learned English as a non-native language, so they know how to make it attractive to ESL learners. When it comes to personal experience in relation to the students, non-native speakers win this debate.

The Argument of Communication and Culture

Native English speakers are aware of the culture of English-speaking countries, so they can easily present it to their students from a first-hand experience. They can go on and on with the stories about huge cities and unusual habits of British and American people. That’s why many schools from countries all over the world are trying to get native ESL teachers for their students. They have an ability to bring the culture to life.

Local teachers, on the other hand, have an understanding of their students’ culture. They can adapt their teaching style in a way that’s suitable for the group of learners, and they can communicate in a language they understand. Due to the fact that they can always explain English terms and grammar rules in the native language of the students, they can prevent misunderstandings and communication gaps. Although non-native ESL teachers lack cultural immersion in English-speaking countries, they sometimes are more adaptable to the learning style of their students.

Non-native teachers can also have great knowledge of the culture of English-speaking and other Western countries. Many of these teachers have traveled a lot, and they’ve probably seen more places than a native.

The Customers’ Perspective: Would You Hire Non-Native English Teachers?

Especially as for the higher levels, the strongest argument that goes to the advantage of native speakers is: students – or parents – prefer them. Yes, no doubt, he who pays the piper, calls the tune.

Schools, employers, students, and parents from non-English-speaking countries often can hardly assess the skills of an English teacher, whether he has a neutral accent or a large vocabulary. They would need to test the fluency of each non-native speaker before hiring them as an English teacher. Although hiring a native speaker is no guarantee to hiring a great teacher, it seems to be the easiest and safest option.

Besides many parents or students do not only take English classes because they want to learn the language. They hope to prepare themselves or their children for an international career in Western countries and hope to move to and get a job in the US or Canada, for example. That’s why they want an English teacher originally from these countries, to learn the culture and the lifestyle.

I understand that non-native teachers often feel discriminated against when they are excluded from the majority of ESL teaching jobs. But put yourself in the shoes of a Chinese couple paying considerable fees for English classes for their kid. Isn’t it reasonable they request the language school to hire native speaking English teachers, instead of Indians, Kenyans or Filippinos?

Of course, you can argue they have a limited view, but that won’t help you much. It is just like that! If you wanted to learn the Chinese language you would probably hire an original Chinese, and not a Vietnamese living in China for a couple of years.

The earlier you accept that the ESL industry is driven by supply and demand like any other business, too, the better you can develop strategies to market yourself as a non-native ESL teacher and look for teaching opportunities suitable for you.

How can Non-Native English Speakers Teach Abroad and Find ESL Teaching Jobs?

First, you should really have native-level English language skills and a neutral accent or an accent from one of the designated native English speaking countries (UK, IRE, USA, CAN, AUS, NZ or SA). To achieve that, you should have lived in one of these countries for at least a couple of years and have fully immersed in the culture.

In my eyes, this is the only way to meet the requirements to become a demanded ESL teacher. From my experience, being a local English teacher in your home country or have a degree in the English language alone does not qualify you to be an ESL teacher. You need to speak English day by day with native speakers over a long time to reach a comparable level.

A word of warning: If your command of English is not up to scratch, please do us all a favor and do not even think about teaching ESL. Don’t damage the reputation of other hardworking teachers and, even more, don’t act irresponsibly towards the wellbeing of ESL students!

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:

  • Make sure that your command of English is excellent and on a par with that of any native speaker. Never stop learning, learning, learning!
  • Become a citizen of an English-speaking country (if possible).
  • Live in an English-speaking country for several years and work hard at learning the local culture, accent, slang, idioms etc.
  • Get a reputable TEFL certification.
  • Gain some experience, through a regular teaching job, internships or giving private lessons. Language schools in English speaking countries hire staff based on competence, not on whether you happen to be a native English speaker or not.
  • Train other skills which are required from English teachers.
  • Develop a network of contacts in the country you want to teach.
  • Put your resume on TEFL websites like seriousteachers.com, Dave’s ESL Café, etc.
  • Create a short introduction video to showcase your English fluency and teaching skills. Post the video to Facebook groups and attach it to applications.
  • Approach schools and recruiters in person. By speaking with them directly, you can immediately demonstrate your competence and mastery of the English language.
  • Grow a thick skin and never give up.

I found a helpful interview with an Indian teaching abroad in Vietnam, who provides helpful advice about finding non-native ESL teaching jobs.

If you want to earn your TEFL certification to increase your chances of getting hired, please look into the accredited Let’s TEFL 120-hour online course which gets great reviews from students.

What Can Schools Do to Help End Discrimination Against Non-Native English Speakers or People of Color?

The key issue on hiring an ESL teacher is 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?

Luckily, things are changing slowly in many countries with a high demand for ESL teachers, but, to be realistic, discrimination will remain an issue for many years.

Take Home for Non-Native ESL Teachers

In summary, if you wish to teach ESL, 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”.

The main characteristics that distinguish great teachers are the ability to adapt to the environment, understand the psychology of their students and adjust the teaching style in a way that would suit them, inspire students to learn, and make the lessons as comprehensive as possible. Both native and non-native speakers have the potential to be perfect ESL teachers as long as they meet all those requirements.

If you are fluent in English but are not from the designated native English speaking countries or “at least” 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!

Contributors to this post: Rachel Bartee, Mister Jimmy

2 thoughts on “Can Non-Native Speakers Teach English Abroad?

  1. As an ESLteacher, I really enjoyed reading this article. The thing is, I would call myself a native English speaker because it’s my mother-tongue. However, here in Hong Kong, being a “native” English speaker means you have to “LOOK” the part, too.

    Speaking from experience, I have a friend who used to be an English Teacher in a kindergaten school here in Hong Kong. She’s Brazilian and she, herself, had just started learning English. She definitely looked “non-asian” but any one who spoke to her would know that she wasn’t anywhere near fluent in English. Did that matter? No. Why? Because she looked the part.

    It’s sad because there are so many good, qualified “near-native” English teachers out there. Hiring English Teachers should be based on qualifications, capabilities and other characteristics; not personal appearances.

    Another thing is that even if they do hire “near-native” or “non-native” English teachers, they would still be paid a fraction of what they pay native English speakers even if all the qualis and exp. Are the same.

    Frankly speaking, I’ve observed many native English teachers and a lot of them don’t know how to even begin teaching ESL kids. I’m bot saying they’re all bad teachers.

    I’m going to end this with something I always say to my friends who want to be teachers…

    “Anyone can be a teacher, but not everyone can be a GREAT teacher!”

  2. Very good article! I am a Spanish-born ESL teacher for a project called cooltourspain and find all those answers appealing. I worked as an auxiliar even though not being native and all the school teachers said that it was a pleasure working with me because of the fact that I am a qualified teacher and know the American and British culture very well…

Leave a Comment

Join the 15k Monthly Readers

Join the 15k Monthly Readers

Subscribe our Newsletter for ESL teachers: Receive weekly expert advice about teaching English abroad or online.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Join the 15k Monthly Readers

Join the 15k Monthly Readers

Subscribe our Newsletter for ESL teachers: Receive weekly expert advice about teaching English abroad or online.

You have Successfully Subscribed!