Must good teachers of English be native speakers?

August 10, 2016

By Dr Melinda Kong

In this globalised age, there is a growing recognition of different varieties of English. In fact, English is often used among bilingual and/or multilingual speakers of English from non-English-speaking countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. This evolution has led to a re-consideration of the aims of teaching English, the questioning of the centrality of native speaker norms from English-speaking countries such as the UK, the US, English-speaking Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and an acknowledgment of diverse contexts of English language teaching and learning. Moreover, the expression “native speakers” has become more controversial because there are native speakers of different varieties of English who have heterogenerous connections with English. This fact has raised questions about the suitability of various models of English, which varieties of English to teach students and the required characteristics of a teacher of English.

As suggested, currently, there is an increased awareness of divergent models and norms of English language teaching and learning. However, early understandings of Communicative Language Teaching included the view that native speakers from English-speaking contexts were exemplary models for language learning. In this method, target proficiency levels for learners were the usages and norms of native speakers from English-speaking countries. The onset of the communicative phase since the 1970s generally involved a focus on using English to communicate, rather than emphasising the language as form. This beginning stage also centered on teaching and learning that were related to standard forms and practices of varieties of English from English-speaking settings. As a result of the target norms being stipulated according to standards from these English-speaking countries, native speakers from such countries were taken for granted as ideal models for students to learn from.

Robert Phillipson, Professor Emeritus at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark, labelled the belief that ideal teachers of English were native speakers as “the native speaker fallacy”. It was assumed that native speakers from English-speaking countries were best models in expressing fluent language, using idioms and enjoying the cultural connotations of English. Suresh Canagarajah, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor at Pennsylvania State University, asserted that among those who promoted the native speaker fallacy in non-English-speaking contexts were some members of the non-English-speaking communities themselves. Supporters of this myth seemed to have internalised the concept that the norms should be varieties of English from English-speaking countries and that suitable models of English language learning should be speakers of English from these settings.

In response to the arguments made by Phillipson, Canagarajah and other academics such as Professor Jun Liu at University of Arizona and Professor Péter Medgyes at the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest, highlighted the advantages, rather than the disadvantages, of non-native teachers of English. Canagarajah pointed out that these teachers have pedagogical benefits, as knowledge of another language/other languages can assist in one’s language teaching. Many of these teachers have insight concerning the structure and usage of English. Liu emphasised that non-native teachers’ learning experiences can be valuable to language learners. They are cognisant of the language learning process because they have gone through the whole process of learning the second/additional language themselves.

In particular, Medgyes explored the characteristics of non-native teachers of English when compared to native English-speaking teachers of the language. He claimed that non-native teachers of English vary from native English-speaking teachers with regard to their teaching, especially due to their different English capabilities. He asserted that this is because some non-native teachers of English have frustrations in using English, especially in aspects related to language use. Nevertheless, he argued that there may be hidden advantages to these teachers’ struggles. They can anticipate their students’ language-related problems, be empathetic to their students’ difficulties and needs, give more advice concerning the language, teach language learning strategies, and gain from sharing the students’ mother tongue. Consequently, being an ideal teacher of English does not rely on whether an individual is a non-native English speaker or a native English speaker.

In shifting away from having native-speaking norms as goals for learning and teaching English, many researchers and academics think that both non-native teachers of English and native English-speaking teachers have their respective features. A complicated combination of who they are has to be considered. Among others, these characteristics include non-language-specific variables such as age, gender, attributes, experience, personalities, personal charisma, skills and training. As stressed by Phillipson and Canagarajah, good teachers are made, not born. Therefore, teachers of English should develop skills that involve complicated pedagogical preparation, training and practice.

To conclude, not all native speakers of English can be good teachers of the language, and there can be very successful non-native teachers of English. Teaching English is a skill that can be learnt and developed through suitable training and hard work, rather than because a teacher is born as a native speaker of English.

Dr Melinda Kong is Associate Dean (Academic Practice) of the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at mkong@swinburne.edu.my


David Teng
(Assistant Manager, Industry and Alumni Engagement)
Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus