You hear the phrase “I want a native teacher!” a lot from students when they are deciding on a language school or private class. It’s very understandable – it seems obvious that a native teacher will know his/her language better than someone who’s had to learn it at school. They’ll also have an authentic accent and know a lot about the culture of their country. And of course, given that in the world of private education we’re all just consumers, we have every right to insist on our own criteria. At the end of the day, the customer is always right!

But are we making a mistake with this “nativist” attitude? Here at the SLB cooperative we believe there are quite a few errors in this way of thinking. In private education, anything is possible – from great teachers down to some who leave a lot to be desired. For us, the question of whether or not a teacher is a native speaker of the language s/he is teaching doesn’t have too much influence on this distinction. Why?

“A native teacher will know his/her language better …”

Here we have to distinguish between knowing how to speak a language and knowing how it works in order to teach it. The truth is that non-native teachers often enjoy many advantages in the second type of knowledge. They’ve had to study the language, its grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, and this practical knowledge is of great use when they need to explain something or give tips on successful learning strategies. On the other hand, especially in the case of English, there are many native teachers who have never made the effort to study their own language – or a foreign one – in depth. They can tell you if something is correct or not, but they find it harder to say why. This is also down to the minimal teacher-training many have undergone, as well as the lack of focus on grammar and foreign languages in schools in the USA and UK.

Apart from this, we should mention knowledge about teaching and learning. Once more, non-natives normally come better qualified. Not being native speakers, language schools ask them for a university or postgraduate degree in the philology or applied linguistics of that language. In other words, we’re talking about people who have dedicated a lot of time to the study of teaching as well as language. A native teacher, on the other hand, can get a job in a language academy (in the case of English) with only a month’s training! The famous certificates from Cambridge (CELTA) or Trinity (CertTESOL) are considered sufficient to start working in the profession – forget about degrees! In our experience, however, the result is that there are too many new teachers who don’t know too well what they are doing. Of course, many are going to improve with experience and more training, but as often happens, there are others who view teaching as a temporary gig, an excuse to travel and earn a little money at the same time. Would you go to a doctor or mechanic who only had a month’s training? Probably not. Maybe there’s not much chance of a fatal accident in a language class, but we believe we need to be much more demanding when it comes to qualifications.

“… they’ll have an authentic accent …”

Authentic from where? Let’s take British English as an example. There is no one “British accent” – there are many accents which vary according to region, social class, ethnicity and other factors. And not every accent is considered equal. The standard Scottish accent, for example, is thought by some to be a good accent – clear and friendly. For that reason many companies have their call centres in Scotland. But the stronger accent of Glasgow, the biggest city, is almost incomprehensible for many English people.

In England, it may be that the Queen and her family have the ideal accent, but there aren’t many people who speak like that. There are many more who speak with a Birmingham accent (Birmingham is the second biggest city in England). But the rest of the country looks down on the Brummie accent, seeing it as a sign of stupidity or bad education. Of course, this evaluation is neither fair nor correct – but it serves as an example of the complexity of identifying an ideal accent for teaching.

The truth is that a good teacher needs to expose his students to all the accents they are going to encounter in their interactions. There are many audio and video resources for that purpose – the teacher doesn’t need to be able to imitate all the accents of a language.

We also need to remember that there are many students who need English to interact with people who also use English as a foreign language. In this sense, a native teacher holds no advantage over his non-native colleague.

“… They’ll know a lot about the culture of their country …”

There’s no doubt that part of the attraction of learning a language is finding out more about the culture of the countries where it’s spoken. But no one native teacher can know everything about that, and there are always foreigners who know more about your country than you do! It’s obvious that you don’t need to be from a place to know it well. Many non-native teachers have lived for a time in other countries, and for that reason may enjoy a more open perspective than those who have lived mainly in their own country.

Legality: another factor

Although many language schools do it, it is against basic European Union rights to exclude workers because of their mother tongue. A non-native teacher could sue any school that prohibits him or her from working for this reason. This has nothing to do with the student, but ask yourself: if the first thing a school puts on their advertising is “Native teachers!”, what do they have to hide? We would prefer to see “Qualified teachers!” or “Experienced teachers!” We’d also prefer to study or work in a place where there is no type of discrimination, but maybe that makes us weird!

To sum up ….

There’s a phrase in English which says “don’t judge a book by its cover”. We beg you to apply the same logic when it comes to choosing a teacher. Don’t judge a teacher by his/her mother tongue! Please also think about the following aspects:

years of experience
commitment and attitude
knowledge of the work or social environment in which you need to use the language
qualifications/training (for example a degree, Diploma or Master’s)

The SLB cooperative is made up of a group of language teachers with a lot of experience, commitment and training. We’re always updating our skills by doing workshops and training courses. We have non-native and native teachers in the group, but the main thing for us is the quality of the teacher – not the place they were born.


Please get in touch with us for more information about private or in-company classes.


Image: “Un extraño entre nosotros” by JaulaDeArdilla, CC BY-ND-NC 2.0

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