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Taking Private Lessons? Who Should Your Teacher Be?

Taking Private Lessons? Who Should Your Teacher Be?

Taking Private Lessons? Who Should Your Teacher Be?…

After noticing a survey that declared that Swedes are the best learners of English as a Foreign Language (EFL), Catherine asked me for my perspective on why Swedes are so successful. Though there are many points to consider, one aspect of EFL in Sweden and other countries known for good English is that teachers there are generally non-native speakers of English and that all speak the local language. In the English teaching industry here in Thailand and in other developing countries, non-native speakers are considered unsuitable teachers of English. However, if the proficiency of English is high, it can be argued that a non-native speaker would generally make a better teacher since he/she shares the learning experiences and culture of the students and is the best possible model of a successful learner.

That Swedes are such successful learners of EFL may of course also depend on several factors unrelated to the use of non-native speaker teachers:

  • Swedish is closely related to English.
  • Much of the Swedish TV programming is in English with near perfect subtitles.
  • Swedes listen to a lot of English language music.
  • Swedes are frequent travellers, and few non-Swedes speak Swedish.

In these respects, people in Sweden learning English are quite different from Thais learning English or native speakers of English learning foreign languages in their home countries. Successful learners in other Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands have the same advantages.

Though linguistic closeness high exposure to English, and strong motivation to learn may seem sufficient explanation of why Swedes are so good at English, the use of non-native speakers to teach EFL puts Sweden and other successful EFL countries (including India) in direct conflict with the idea that native speakers are by default the best teachers of a language.

Unsurprisingly, in an industry dominated by native speakers the reliance on native speakers to teach English is strongly advocated and many international schools request teachers with experience of the UK or US educational systems. However, teaching of foreign languages in the UK is notorious for producing very poor results indeed. The same might be said about the US. If, teaching in the countries which are best at English as a Foreign Language is done by non-native speaker teachers of English, shouldn’t that suggest that they are better at teaching foreign languages than Americans and Brits? Indeed, it seems inescapable to conclude that being a language teacher from the UK or other native speaker countries is not a suitable criterion for selecting a good language teacher.

In the global English teaching industry, native speakers are held in high regard, with teaching positions often reserved exclusively for them. However, the faith in native speaker teaching abilities is based on theories on language learning that have been largely debunked; people do not learn a foreign language as they learn a native language and native speakers of a language are not necessarily the best teachers of it. Indeed, many native speakers have poor grammar and accents which are ineffective for international communication, which makes them unsuitable models to emulate. Non-native speakers with high levels of English proficiency (especially if they have same native language as their students) generally have deeper insight into the learning process and are more relevant models to emulate than even skilled native speaker counterparts.

So, if non-native speakers make better learning models, why aren’t they universally sought after as the best teachers? Well, the sad truth is that even though non-native speakers CAN be wonderful models of successful language learners with insight of what it takes to learn a foreign language, many non-native speaker teachers of English are poor models to emulate since their grasp of the English language is sadly limited. Even though specifying that teachers ought to be from certain countries does guarantee a certain minimum level of language proficiency (fluency of speech in particular), some non-native speakers may have outstanding proficiency and accents very suitable for successful international communication. Therefore, the exclusion of them from teaching jobs constitutes indefensible discrimination. Sadly, this discrimination is based not only on nationality, but also on race. The native speaker stereotype is Caucasian, and native speakers ‘of color’ are discriminated against because of factors unrelated to their competency as teachers just as surely as non-native speakers are.

For the readers of Women Learn Thai, this has bearing on whether hiring a native speaker of Thai is a must. Simply put, it isn’t. However, high proficiency in the target language is fairly rare amongst non-native speakers, which means that going to a Thai national for help is understandable, especially if one is only out to reach conversational fluency. For me personally, the implications for the highly discriminatory policies of English teaching institutions in Thailand are paramount.

In short, this is some of what we must consider when hiring someone to teach a language: Language proficiency and teaching skill are better predictors of suitability than any passport. When selecting a teacher, assess his/her ability to lead you to the level of proficiency you desire and do not dismiss anyone based on nationality or ethnicity.

If anyone wishes for further documentation supporting what I have written above (that the theories of Krashen were never supported by empirical evidence and have in fact been contradicted by such, that there is institutionalized national and racial discrimination in the English teaching industry, and that non-native speaker teachers may in fact be generally better suited to teach EFL), I will gladly forward my dissertation and other academic papers from my studies in Edinburgh.

Be well and keep on learning,

Nils Bastedo
M.Sc. TESOL, Edinburgh University
Author of Tenses for Thais
Founder and Chief Instructor of Lunds Songahm Taekwondo Klubb

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13 Comments

  1. Whilst I agree with the general point of the article (at least to the extent that native-speakers ought not to be over privileged), two wild errors stand out:

    “If, teaching in the countries which are best at English as a
    Foreign Language is done by non-native speaker teachers of English, shouldn’t that suggest that they are better at teaching foreign languages than Americans and Brits? Indeed, it seems inescapable to conclude that being a language teacher from the UK or other native speaker countries is not a suitable criterion for selecting a good language teacher.”

    This is bizarre reasoning, to say the least. The fact that the British and American school systems are – when it comes to learning foreign languages – not the best in the world is totally distinct from whether or not foreign-language teachers ought (or ought not) to be native-speakers. For one, you’re comparing learning, not teaching and these are two different things; using learning as a proxy for teaching is fair enough but it’s important to keep in mind that it is only a proxy and there are a multitude of other factors which influence learning too.

    More importantly though, as was said in the introduction, there are a host of reasons why Swedes speak English well (and by extension why the English speak French badly) so why suddenly and without the faintest hint of a justification descend on some (wholly unexplained) national inability to teach languages as the only explanation? Do you think that the only feature which distinguishes language learning in Britain, on the one hand, and Sweden, on the other, is that, well, one country is full of Brits and the other is full of Swedes? That’s absurd. And since, at least in Britain, most foreign-language teaching is done by non-native-speakers, doesn’t this failure rather undermine the general point about not needing native-speakers? Or is it the case that 65 million Britons and 300 million Americans are just genetically incapable of teaching languages? It’s hardly a well thought out argument. The relative weakness of language skills in the English-speaking world probably has rather more to do with (real or perceived and in any case now declining) cultural, political and economic hegemony (and the resulting complex of attitudes and affect learners have with regard to foreign languages) than it does with the colour of the language-teacher’s passport.

    “many native speakers have poor grammar and accents”

    This is way off the mark, too. Native-speakers of non-standard varieties of English DON’T have poor grammar and pronunciation. They have non-standard grammars and pronunciation. If you’re going to complain about racial discrimination (a complaint which I think is quite justified), then class or regional discriminations ought not to be smuggled in in its place.

    More generally, I agree that when it comes to TEFLing, native-speakers (in Thailand at least) do enjoy a prestige which is almost always wholly unconnected to their value and if I were hiring for a school, I’d much rather have two Indian or Filipino teachers than one marginally-qualified male, BANA TEFLer (who is almost certainly guaranteed to moan more and work less than any alternative) but since this is a blog for people learning Thai, what’s the point of all this? I’ve lived in Thailand for twelve years and as far as I can remember, I have never come across a non-Thai who was both willing and able to teach me Thai.

  2. Good article, I agree with most of what was written … That said, this point though seems a bit off it’s talking about the average speaker’s facilities and not a trained teacher’s. Seems that a better comparison would be between native and non-native trained teachers.

  3. Dan, concerning the points you make, I maintain my disagreement with you.

    First: If the people who learn English as a foreign language best are not taught by native speakers, this does support challenging the notion that native speakers are the best teachers of English. Then again, the Scandinavian countries and Holland also have languages that are reated to English… though that can not be said of India.

    As for zeroing in on a single factor, I want to challenge a notion which is widespread and leads to discriminatory hiring practices even though the notion that native speakers are by default better teachers is unproven (and, many would argue, amongst them myself, erroneous).

    Second: When it comes to native speakers having poor grammar and pronunciation, I maintain that this is at times the case when considering English as a means for international communication. Several (not all, of course) native speaker accents are unsuitable for the purposes of international communication since few people understand them. As most non-native speakers will use English to communicate with other non-native speakers, speaking with native speaker accents which impede international understanding is less useful than speaking with an accent that may not sound like a native speaker but is easily understandible to non-native speakers. Likewise, there are non-native speakers who have a better grip on grammar than many native speakers. Being a native speaker does not mean that one has bad grammar and pronunciation, but it is also not a guarantee that one does.

    As for the point of the blog, it is merely that one should not dismiss non-native speakers when looking for teachers. That said, non-native speakers of Thai who speak the language very well are few, just as Thais who speak English as well as certified native speaker teachers of English are few. I must admit, if selecting a teacher, the citizenship of the teacher would not be a primary concern. I believe that you are assuming I have a different agenda than merely advising those who are looking for someone to teach them Thai, and you are correct in this.

  4. Luke. I agree. This is a valid point. Still, even with trained teachers I do not feel one should assume that native speakers are better by default.

  5. Very good points, and I think you nailed it. I’ve thought about this a fair amount after meeting countless young native English speakers in Thailand “teaching” English. Not a single one said they were producing many good results. Half of that has to do with the massive language barrier, the other half is the fact that these native English speakers come here with a different idea in mind – they come to Thailand because they’ve heard it is fun, it is a chance to see more of the world. I’d argue that most hardly care about whether or not they “teach” English – these are people who have no teaching background at all. To solve this problem, they need to get help from Thai English teachers who can speak both languages and are trained to teach, they need the gov’t to provide more funding to this cause, and they need to press more heavily the importance of learning English. It is a shame the gov’t could care less.

  6. Dear Patrick

    Thank you very much. I like your idea about sharing knowledge. A potential snag is that it is quite hard to find Thai teachers of English with high English proficiency. I expect the Thais who reach the highest levels of proficiency typically find jobs that are more rewarding (either they are ‘high-so’ international school students with good connections or they are soaked up by the many companies looking for Thais with good English skills, notably in the travel/tourism sectors). Your observation about why some teachers are here may be (I can’t speak for him of course) in line with Luke’s observation that ‘trained teachers’ might be better than the teachers you describe. That said, it is possible and even likely that most trained teachers in Thailand do not speak the local language, which would mean that even they face the barriers you speak of in the classroom – especially if the students are at the lowest levels of proficiency.

  7. Nils – As I said, I agree with the general point about non-native teachers. My post was specifically about those two points, namely that if you had restricted your argument to Swedish success in learning English from non-native speakers you would have been on stable ground but highlighting my crappy French (learnt exclusively from non-native speakers) does not help you on your way. In fact, my crappy French rather emphasizes the point that language learning is hugely complex and reducing it to any kind of simplistic explanation is doomed to failure. And then poor grammar. What you said was “many native speakers have poor grammar and accents which are ineffective for international communication”. Perhaps you think that the ‘poor’ is contingent on or modified by the ‘international communication’ but it’s not. What you have said can be paraphrased as “Many native speakers have poor grammar and accents and this (i.e the poor grammar and accents which they have) makes them unsuitable for international communication.” Perhaps what you meant to say was simply “many native speakers have grammar and accents which makes them unsuitable for international communication”. I’m not sure I agree with this (exchanging a preference for my white male middle class southern British face with a preference for my impeccably RP accent hardly seems like a step forward and I’m sure there are many successful British businesspeople with non-RP accents who would quite reasonably take offence at your claim) but in any case, it’s not what you said.

    “Being a native speaker does not mean that one has bad grammar and pronunciation, but it is also not a guarantee that one does.”

    I presume that should have an extra ‘not’ on the end (it doesn’t make sense otherwise) but if it is missing a not, the statement is just wrong and you are making exactly the same error I pointed out above. Grammars are the rules which native speakers use to structure language. There can’t be good and bad ones because the grammars native speakers use just are that language; what scale exists beyond them against which they can be measured in order to make a global claim like this? There isn’t one. For various historical and sociological reasons, some rules or sets of rules enjoy a higher prestige than others (and through technologies such as printing they have become extensively codified and standardized) but describing some as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others is to make a fundamental error (possibly a kind of category error). Of course, some may be better or worse when used for certain ends; in some circumstances my RP accent will be a hindrance, in others a speaker of Estuary English will be at a disadvantage but that doesn’t make one better than the other. When it comes to teaching, students will almost always prefer someone who is a native-speaker of a high status version of the language and in that way, a non-native speaker may reasonably claim to have good grammar in the sense that her explicit, propositional knowledge of grammar makes her better suited to employment as an English teacher than are many native speakers but that’s not a reason to describe her grammar as better in toto.

    Anyway, there seems to be a good chance that all this is insignificant hair-splitting and even if it’s not, I suspect it’s not of much interest to people learning Thai so I’ll leave it there.

  8. Dan, truly I did leave out a ‘not’. I guess that’s what can happen when one is on the go. As for English being used for international communication, of course it does matter since what works in national contexts may not work as well internationally. Heck, it is even hard for some native speakers to understand native speakers from other parts of their country and certainly from other native speaker countries. That said, of course language learning is complex. That is probably the reason there are so many theories about it floating around. My personal opinion is that it is so complex that a variety of methods should be used and different methods may be suitable for different people and different situations. In the article and in my subsequent comments, I tried to make an effort to stay open, restricting myself to saying that notions ought to be challenged. Given your response, perhaps I failed. Native speakers have strengths, but so do non-native speakers, and the exclusion of members of the latter group from many teaching jobs based on what passport they possess or what colour their skin is strikes me as unsuitable. I am not saying that native speakers are necessarily poor teachers, but that they should not be assumed to be better by default, which they are today.

  9. There are a number of teachers of Thai (non Thais) who are quite popular with expats. Stu Jay Raj is one. I took his course and the insights he gave have stayed with me. Native Thai teachers are not capable of teaching in the same way because they were raised with the Thai language and culture.

    There are experiences that are specific to second language learners – compared to those who learned as a children (first language). Native speakers don’t have that special insight and understanding. They never had to find out the ‘whys’ of Thai. For them, it just is.

  10. Thank you Catherine. Another response to this article was left via Tenses for Thais, where a reader stressed the importance of having undubbed TV with subtitles. Indeed I feel this would be helpful too, but it doesn’t change the reasoning regarding Native / Non-Native Speaker Teachers. Wondering now if the title should be changed to reflect that it really is about that issue. Perhaps ‘Should my teacher be a native speaker of the target language?’ would ba more appropriate. Too late?

  11. Nils, it’s not too late … but that’s a really long title. How about …

    Language Teachers: Native Speakers, or Not?

  12. Good article, I agree with most of it. But in my country (I´m from the Czech Republic), for example, I think the native English teachers are more efficient and better for the students as the Czech ones often have poor accent and some of them have never even been to an English speaking country.

  13. This is a really inspirational piece of writing. We also deal in languages and tutor our students to reach new heights using languages as a tool. Recently, there was a wave of Foreign Language jobs. Please keep us updated on language specific news and any recent developments that you come across.

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