The Native Speaker Myth: Death, Wake & Funeral of a Fallacy

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The Native Speaker Fallacy is unwilling to be laid to rest. This fallacy, or myth, wants to live forever. It seduces language learners, it entices school owners, it promises global travel. There is something for everyone in this myth. Its useful to all of us, in one way or another. So we tolerate it, occasionally get indignant about it, but never do we take active steps to kill it, have its wake, dig a grave, have a funeral for the myth, and then, actually bury it.

I wonder if I have become anesthetised to its existence. After all, I’ve been an EFL teacher in Chile for the past 10 years. At some point this issue catches my attention, holds me as I grapple with it intellectually and emotionally, and in the end, I make my own “peace treaty” with it.

In most cases, we ELT teachers simply decide that there is nothing we can do about it. This leads teachers to seek employment whereever the myth and the system it creates allows us to gain employment. After all, the myth serves us all, neatly dividing its fruits to one and all, benevolently. The myth is a great benefactor for everyone.

What system am I referring to? The system that places value on your worth as a teacher. This is done in a number of ways. One is by addressing the regulatory framework regarding who can work as a teacher of English. Legal requirements are put in place that stipulate the education and training that is necessary to be authorised to teach. To the best of my knowledge, most countries worldwide stipulate that completion of a university education is a minimum requirement for a native speaker. Other countries include completion of a TEFL/TESOL training course as well. Obviously the intent here is to affect the teaching quality the students will receive.

A second factor is regulated by the market. Whenever there is a high demand for a scarce supply, those who can supply that scarce commodity will reap the economic reward. What is in scarce supply is the native English speaking teacher, the NEST. Parents want a NEST for their children. Students want a NEST for their language learning aspirations.

Now here’s the dilemma: Worldwide nonnative English speaking teachers, the NNEST, outnumber the NEST. What’s the ratio? 8 to 2, or 80% is a conservative estimate. It has been estimated by some as high as 9 to 1, or 90%. Consequently, the demand for native speakers can never be satisfied.

So where does this leave us? Are students having to accept, “an inferior teacher”? Of course not! Yet the myth exists that the native speaker is the superior teacher. Like all myths, it relies on ignorance and a notorious lack of empirical evidence, no, in this case, a total absence of evidence that suggests that the NEST is a better teacher. Yet the myth persists, and threatens to become immortal.

What is the perception of this fallacy among ELT professionals? In 2007, in Chile, I replicated a British Council Survey that had found that 44% agreement with the statement, “Native speakers make the best teachers.” I was not surprised to find that only 28% of the ELT professionals in Chile agreed with the statement, “Native speakers make the best teachers”.

What did leave me puzzled however, was that there appears to be a native-speaker complex among ELT professionals in Chile. Somehow, teachers seem to be aware of their limitations, for example in pronunciation, vocabulary and idiomatic language. This gets rationalised as being due to them to not being a native speaker. I shall return to this phenomenon later.

So, based on the above information, what is the systematic manifestation of what has been called, “The Native Speaker Fallacy”, in terms of employment, in Chile? According to regulatory framework, known as the General Education Law, (or LGE, for its Chilean initials – Ley General de Educación), anyone who has completed a university education can teach, if the current demand can not be adequately met by the supply of qualified teachers. This is the case for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language in Chile.

In light of this information you can ask, where are the NNEST teachers teaching and where are the NEST teachers teaching? How does the myth provide employment for everyone? With rare exceptions, the NNEST teachers teach in the formal education system and the NEST teachers teach in the language institutes. This has been my personal observation over the past ten years. Again, we see the myth is benevolent. It provides employment and profits for everyone.

Well, how does this employment system work? What factors are at work in determining where a NEST will work and where a NNEST will work? Logistically, most NEST teachers are not aware that the school year runs from March to December, and thus arrive in the country after the school year has begun. This is detrimental to any hope of being hired in the formal Chilean education system. Secondly, few NEST teachers are prepared to accept the low salaries offered by most schools. Thirdly, few NESTs have the training and even fewer are emotionally prepared to cope with the classroom mangement demanded by classes of 40 to 45 students. Fourthly, most NESTs arrive in country with no knowledge of Spanish whatsoever. Basic, rudimentary Spanish language skills are necessary to deal with the social requirements of administrative duties, parents, students needs, and coworkers.

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These four reasons are significant impediments, individually and collectively, but not an insurmountable obstacle if one does prior planning and preparation. However, for those who send their children to language institutes, or study at language institutes themselves, the desire to learn to actually speak English is universal, primordial, the “non plus ultra” motivating factor in their enrollment decision. In addition, these paying customers are usually demanding one thing: the native English speaking teacher.

This fact induces language institutes to hire as many NESTs as they possibly can, even if a qualified NNEST is available. If a NNEST and a NEST compete for the same job at a language institute, forget about it. If hired, the NNEST will be given a lower salary. It has come to my attention that there are many institutes that advertise and market their services by highlighting the large number of NEST teachers they have. Some go so far as to hire only NEST. Not a single NNEST, which is obviously discrimination, and blatant at that. Yet, the system tolerates it, implicitly, due to the long entrenched belief that the NNEST is good at teaching grammar, but not speaking.

To conclude, the above is to be understood as a general overview, with exceptions. I feel that it is the exception, or rather the exceptions, that justify what I identify as the rule. Generally speaking, the rule can be spoken thusly: “NNEST, teach in the formal education system. You are prepared for this task, by virtue of education and socio-cultural preparation. NEST, teach in a language institute because there is a huge demand there, largely unmet.”

To close, I will cite the teachers in my 2007 paper: “We can all be good teachers, NEST and NNEST alike, if we love to teach and try every day to be the best teacher for our students”.

Personally, I love to teach, and I try to be the best teacher I can be for my students. If you are like me, and truly love teaching English, join me in spreading the word to the rest of the stakeholders in the world – parents, students, colleagues, administrators, politicians, school owners, anyone who will read or listen to you.

Join me in actively spreading this message: WE are all GOOD teachers, WE all LOVE teaching, and WE all try to be the BEST WE can be for our students.

If WE do this, together, WE can bury the myth. Forever. That would be a good thing, don’t you agree?

WE all have strengths and weaknesses as teachers of English. It is healthy to acknowledge that, but certainly unhealthy to dogmatise it, unhealthy to legitimise it (as a system-wide economic practice), and unhealthy to accept it as an ELT ideological principle.

The Native Speaker Myth is dead! The Wake begins today! The Funeral and Burial must be soon! The rotting corpse of the Native Speaker Myth has already begun to stink…

Thomas Baker
Teacher of English
NEST
Santiago, Chile

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About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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2 Responses to The Native Speaker Myth: Death, Wake & Funeral of a Fallacy

  1. Cayde says:

    I wish Native Speaker Fallacy is as dead as a door nail here in Thailand. But it never really died out and I still continue to suffer low pay jobs with little prospect of promotion. I somehow have an impression of language schools’ directors treating us as expendable. I am stuff some what between I am a native speaker, but I am not white enough to warrant to same pay grade as my fairer counter parts. I was told by an perspective employer that my Thai nationality is actually a liability. I have moved on now, but I still miss teaching. I guess the only way I can be treated seriously as a teacher is to move back west where racist discrimination is actually illegal.

    Like

  2. Martin says:

    Profesorbaker,
    I love your article and would love to invite you as a guest on my podcast. I run a web site called Laugh.pl and in addition to that I host a live internet radio show (in Polish) and an English-language interview podcast. I would love to discuss the Native Speaker falacy with you. If you are interested please contact me.
    -Martin

    Like

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