When choosing a daycare, preschool or school for our multilingual children, many of us parents tend to prefer schools with native-speaking teachers. The main reason for this is that we want our children to get the "best" exposure possible to the target language, as we might not use that language at home, which then justifies their expectation that the teacher "should not have any bad accent". This means that the teacher should model a way to use and pronounce the target language the closest possible to a native speaker. I completely understand this and, to be honest, I thought the same when my children started attending the British School and when I noticed the difference in speech among the 3 teachers that were teaching their year group. It is a very understandable worry of parents who are not that fluent in the language, to hope or wish for the best possible input.
I found my reaction very interesting because on one side I was this parent who wants her children the best possible language model, because that would be the only (!) or one of the few people providing input in the target language for my children! This is a need for us multilingual families, and not everyone understands this. But I also quickly understood that my children would be interacting, communicating with a great number of other staff members, teachers, children in that target language and this on a daily basis! The other children were a great mix of English speakers, i.e. who would only speak English at home, and others, like my children, who would speak another or a set of other languages at home. This meant that they were immersed in a variety of different ways to speak the school language, which I knew was exactly what they needed!
I know that many parents fear that a non-native speaking teacher "might pass on mistakes" to their children, and I know how much one can struggle when a child says something in the school language that "sounds wrong" and we immediately fear that they picked it up wrong. This is usually not the case. When our children say funny sentences, inverse the word order or use words in a funny way, it might be that they are experimenting with the language which is a very important step for every language learner: to try out and learn by "trial and error"!
Let's also address the "native speaker" and the myth that comes with it. What would a "true" (whatever this means) "native speaker" sound like? Like an Oxford Dictionary? I mean, an online one where one can click on the audio and get someone (who is it by the way?) articulating the word in a way that sounds "right"? – I invite you to listen to some words (that can be pronounced in the British or US way: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/)
Native speakerism is overrated
A part the fact that "native-speakerism" is highly debated*, what one should focus on is rather the ability of the teacher to teach in a way that the children can understand and learn.
Being a native-speaker, doesn't make a teacher implicitly a good or better teacher. I have seen many native speaking teachers who were not trained to teach children who use also other languages, and some others who were trained for it, but never (!) experienced learning another language themselves, and therefore proceeded "by the book" but were not able to actually comprehend what was going on with the multilingual children in their classroom, why this Dutch child would use "who" instead of "how" for example – the reason for this is simply that in Dutch "hoe" is pronounced like the English "who" and means "how"...
Floating Idiomas (FI) indicates 4 reasons why "native teachers" are not always better than "non-native teachers":
– are accomplished language learners,
– have actively studied the grammar and vocabulary,
– focus on personality not nationality.
"Research finds that non-native teachers usually prepare their classes more precisely".
–At this point I would like to thank Floating Idiomas for the interesting discussion we had on social media about this and for inspiring me to write this post.
Native teachers are not a guarantee for quality. Not even for a high standard (whatever this means!) or standardized pronunciation because everyone has some kind of an accent, depending on the region he or she is coming from.
Non-native teachers, i.e. teachers who have acquired or learned the language as LX (X= at any point of their life as additional language), have learned (at least) another language in addition to their L1 (first language), and therefore have developed learning strategies that they can use in the classroom and emphasize more with students who learn the language as additional language. They also have a metalinguistic awareness that one can only acquire when learning languages in formal settings. You would be surprised how many teachers I have met who would not know the difference between adverbs and adjectives, or direct and indirect objects – this is, just on a side note, one of the (many!) advantages of multilinguals!
The teaching environment plays a fundamental role for the teacher and the students
The level of proficiency seems to play an important role for the teachers' attitude, the intrinsic motivation and many other factors that Prof. Jean-Marc Dewaele and Pearl P. Y. Leung have analyzed in their study about the feelings and self-reported behaviors in non-native EFL (English ad Foreign Language) teachers with proficiency levels between B1/B2 and C1/C2. They analyzed the teacher's attitude toward the students and the institution, the classroom practice, the intrinsic motivation of the teacher, their introjected regulation, motivation and wellbeing.
The quintessence of their study is that the more confident teachers are in the subject they are teaching, the better the class environment for the student and the teacher, the better the outcome.
I invite you to watch this interview about "non-native English teachers" and the other one, with David Crystal, about "The Myth of the Native-Speaker". By the way, what is said in this video about English, applies to other languages too!...
(you can listen to the whole interview here: https://anchor.fm/canguro-english/episodes/The-myth-of-the-native-speaker-with-David-Crystal-eevs87)
Interesting fact about LX teachers
Most studies on this subject are about English teachers, and it is interesting to see that not everyone is aware of what it takes to become a teacher of English compared to other languages around the world.
So, for example, not every teacher who teaches English in a classroom, has studied English language and literature. This is a detail that gets often neglected...
To teach in a state school in England, you must have a degree, and gain Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) by following a program of Initial Teacher Training (ITT).
You must have achieved minimum requirements in GCSE English, maths, and science if you wish to teach at primary-level. You can teach in independent schools, academies, and free schools in England without QTS, but it’s a definite advantage to have it. (UCAS – Teaching in England)
The "degree" mentioned here above can be in any subject area, not necessarily English Literature and or Linguistics. One can also become an English Second Language Teacher by acquiring the TEFL (Teaching English as Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate.
Like mentioned in this post about the requirement of teachers, "you don't need to possess a degree in education, prior teaching experience, or even a college degree to get paid to teach English abroad. At minimum, you need a certification to teach English abroad. Private language schools abroad, online teaching companies and government programs that recruit native English speakers to teach abroad all seek to hire people who have received a certain degree of professional-level training."
The requirements for becoming a teacher in any language, as first or main language or additional language, differ considerably across countries, which leads to misconceptions and various expectations from parents when enrolling their children to a school where "English being taught by native speakers" is one of the assets.
Some of the most important take aways from Dewaele and Pearl (2022) study are that besides the fact that "teachers with B1-B2 levels scored significantly lower than colleagues at C1-C2 levels (...)", this has "important pedagogical implications (...) [as it] could be used as an argument for educational authorities to assure that teachers have sufficient proficiency and organise regular in-service training to maintain and boost that proficiency" (p.29).
Therefore, C1 as a "threshold for graduate students and for English LX users who wish to enroll in teacher training courses" is spot on. It seems to me very logical that "the more proficient we are in a language, the more confident we become". This applies not only to teachers but to everyone, in every domain, including students.
One very important aspect that parents, principals and policy makers tend to forget when it comes to non-native speaking teachers is that they most probably share another language with their students, which means that they have experienced first hand learning the language and can bridge between the languages when explaining concepts, words, complicated structures, semantics etc. using metalinguistic reasoning in a very spontaneous way. This, of course, also applies to those teachers who have learned additional languages to the one they are teaching – for example a British teacher teaching English but using other languages too.
What does the job market say about this?
One thing is for certain: both NESTs (Native English Speaking Teachers) and NNEST (Non-Native English Speaking Teachers) can make great teachers; it just depends on the individual [and his or her education and qualifications! (my addition)].
But NESTs have a head start in that the vast majority of jobs require native speakers. In fact, on tefl.com, a leading website for English teaching jobs, only 30% of jobs don’t require the applicant to be native. (see: Europe Language Jobs)
The fact that native speakers seem to easier "get the job" is changing. If you wish to get some insights into the language teacher market and also the differences, advantages and disadvantages of native and non-native speaking teachers, please watch the following interview. Although the target group of this interview are teachers, it is important also for parents or language students to learn about how to identify a suitable language teacher.
My tip for parents and for language learners is to get informed about the education, the qualification of the teacher, and if the teacher knows other languages too. A teacher that never has learned any language, didn't make the experience about what it means to learn a new language from scratch, and will most likely not be able to help the student to find strategies to learn the target language, and bridge between the languages. Bridging between languages is ultimately what multilinguals do. We try to find what our languages have in common and sets them apart.
Last interesting fact shared in this video: did you know that 80% of conversations in English are among non-native speakers?
I find this even more important because when learning from a great range of speakers of the target language, we learn a broader variety of ways to use the language – different intonations, accents, terms, meanings of words etc. – which, in international settings, allows us to communicate more effectively. Instead of being distracted by the accent, and focusing too much on the "right (whatever this means) pronunciation", we focus on what is said, the content!
Or, to quote Jean-Marc Dewaele: "(A) fresh, more positive perspective is needed, informed by Positive Psychology. In this new perspective, progress in the new language is celebrated and encouraged and FL [Foreign Language] learners and LX [Additional Language] users are presented with a realistic goal of becoming functional, legitimate LX users rather than being pressured by an unrealistic expectation of sounding like L1 [First Language] users of the target language. This positive turn will also be a relief for teachers because they will realize that they can guide students to achieve these attainable goals in a positive classroom environment. By throwing off the shackles of the NS [Native Speaker] model, they will no longer face a classroom of anxious, discouraged and silent students, but they will be able to create enjoyable, exciting classes where students will participate, learn and thrive."
Please read also this post about The importance of developing multilingual listening skills.
And if you prefer reading or listening to this topic in Italiano: posso raccomandare questo contributo (podcast) da parte di Prof. Santipolo: https://radionumberone.it/podcast/prof-santipolo-non-tutti-madrelingua-sanno-insegnare-proprio-idioma/
*Jean-Marc Dewaele, Thomas H Bak and Lourdes Ortega, Why the mythical 'native speaker' has mud on its face, in Nikolay Slavkov, Nadja Kerschhofer-Puhalo, Sílvia Maria Melo Pfeifer (Eds.), 2022, Changing Face of the "Native Speaker": Perspectives from Multilingualism and Globalization, Mouton De Gruyter.
- Dewaele, J.-M., & Leung, Pearl P. Y. (2022). The Effect of Proficiency on “Non-Native” EFL Teachers’ Feelings and Self-Reported Behaviours. IAFOR Journal of Education, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.22492/ije.10.1.01
- Dewaele, J.-M., & Kazuya S., (2022). Positive Psychology can help overcome the pernicious native speaker ideology. The European Educational Researcher, Volume 5, Issue 2, June 2022, pp. 225-234