If you teach ESL, you may have thought about this question. Should an ESL teacher always be a native English speaker? As an ESL teacher myself, I decided to set forward my opinion on this intriguing question that raises a hot debate for both teachers and students.
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.
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.
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 all 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. 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.
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 understanding for 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 are more adaptable to the learning style of their students.
First language lessons vs. higher levels
There may be a nice way to balance things out: some people involved in this debate argue that local teachers are better for beginning levels, but the students should get native teachers for higher levels.
This is a disputable suggestion. Yes, local teachers can handle beginners more easily because they know their native language and they can fill in communication gaps by translating challenging terms. However, native English speakers can achieve the same thing by explaining complex terms with simple ones. Even local teachers are trying to avoid using the native language of the students as much as possible, with the intention to get them used to speak English.
As for the higher levels, the strongest argument that goes to the advantage of native speakers is: “students prefer them”. Yes, these teachers stem from a foreign culture and they intrigue students with their attitude, but this argument is a pure myth. A non-native teacher also has great knowledge of the culture of English-speaking countries. Most of these teachers have traveled a lot, and they’ve probably seen more places than a native. They use the English language fluently and proficiently, so the difference is not that great.
Both native and non-native English teachers have space for improvement
There is only one way to answer the question: native speakers are not necessarily better teachers for ESL learners. They have great advantages over non-native speakers, but they also have disadvantages, mainly because of the disconnection with the students’ culture.
Speaking English well is one thing, and teaching it well is another. You can be a great teacher even if you have a slight accent when speaking English.
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 potential to be perfect ESL teachers as long as they meet all those requirements.
Being a native English speaker helps in presenting perfect vocabulary, but it’s not a necessary requirement. When a non-native speaker spends some time traveling through English-speaking countries, experiencing the culture and analyzing dialects, they can be a better teacher than a native.