NATIVE vs NON NATIVE TEACHERS– what are ESL students REALLY looking for?

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This is SUCH a touchy subject, particularly in Malaysia which considers itself to be close to a native English speaking country (well in Kuala Lumpur anyway). But still all lot of foreign students specifically request a ‘native English speaker’ teacher, rather than a Malaysian and are willing to pay through the nose for it.

So let’s look at what some of the ESL specialists say:

Who are the native speakers?

Native speakers technically are those people born in countries where English is the first language in the house as a child. E.g. USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and South Africa.

Who are the non-native speakers?

Non native speakers are those who have acquired English at some point in their life and can speak it anything from a smattering of vocabulary to a full blown almost native fluency.

Then there are those in between. Certainly here in Malaysia there are many Malaysians (particularly Indians) who speak English perfectly and even better than the Queen herself! So where do they fit? Are they considered native speakers?  Good question! Some language centres say yes, and some say no…it really is up to the student to make the call for them.

So what is it that students are really looking for in native English teachers?

Actually a lot of students don’t care, but some will be very particular about it. It seems rather picky when the US, UK and Australian accents are all quite different too. But it turns out that students look for more than an accent in their teacher when they request a native speaker.

Research has shown that it is not only linguistic confidence that they look for. When a student wants to learn English they want the whole package, not only the accent but all the other things that come with English, the cultural connection, and the teaching style. They want to have the ‘whole native English experience’, as if they were in London or Sydney or New York right there and then inside that classroom. They understand that a language is more than a word on a page.

So what do they mean by ‘cultural connection?

They want a true understanding of the native English culture that comes with a native speaker, and though some people may disagree, the cultural differences between NZ, Australia, US, UK, and Canada are quite similar compared to the Asian or Middle Eastern culture. The South Africans too are interesting because if they are white South Africans they are probably very similar to the native English cultures, but if they are black South Africans I don’t know if they are or not…..I need to get someone to let me know.

…and what do they mean by ‘teaching style’?

Though not always true, but non native teachers tend to focus more the writing and grammar aspect of teaching English and discourage speaking and listening, because in their own culture that was how they were taught as children, to sit and remember what the teacher said and never question anything. The western teachers however tended to grow up in a very open ‘play-centred’ approach which encourages talking, and a playful approach to the language.

Some students also ask that not only their teacher be a native English speaker, but also young and good looking!  Yes….

I asked one Saudi student why it was so important to him to have a native English teacher. He said that because to him even though he knows that English is English, and there are plenty of people who can speak it well enough to teach it, he wants to be certain that when he travels to the native countries, like the UK or Australia that the language and customs he uses are immediately recognized as being native, that he hasn’t acquired some unusual turn of phrase that immediately identifies him as having been taught by another ESL person.  To him it is confidence in the language he has learned.

In some ways I had to agree with him. If I wanted to learn Japanese I know for myself I would prefer to learn it from a Japanese person rather than a white guy who has lived there for 30 years and speaks fluently. There is something about what that Japanese teacher will bring to the classroom that he wouldn’t. The same goes for a native English teacher compared to a person who was born and bred in a non-native country.

But to me, I think as an employer you need to listen to the teacher speak in the interview and ask yourself, would I consider this person to be a native speaker and bring to the classroom all things that a native speaker from the western world would bring? If I say yes, then they are, if I say no, then they aren’t. It’s really up to the school to decide.

So there you have it….shoot me down if you want. This subject is one of the most controversial ones out there. I have friends who speak English perfectly but purely because of the colour of their skin they find it difficult to get the top salaries….they had never experienced racism like it before, but unfortunately it is true.

Maybe in another 30 years when English is totally international and all races and colours are equal, things may change.

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