The Open English advert debacle: In praise of non-native speaker teachers Part One

Over the last couple of weeks, some of you may have encountered an advert by a relatively new online school based in Brazil called Open English. The advert became semi-viral among many in the ELT community thanks to facebook and Twitter and this sweeping sense of outrage seems to have its intended effect as it’s now been removed from YouTube and I couldn’t find a copy anywhere on the web. For those of you that didn’t manage to see the advert in its true horror, the dialogue runs like this:

These two want to speak English. One of them goes to a traditional school, the other one studies at OpenEnglish. One of them studies with the same textbook his mother studied with, the other one studies online with multimedia lessons. One has classes with Joana (a Brazilian teacher who’s shown to be dumpy and fairly unattractive – and is also, more fatally,  miming a chicken and generally epitomizing a total lack of cool whilst singing “the book is on the table”), the other one has classes with Jenny (who just happens to be a stereotypically ‘hot’ Californian blonde!), who ends the ad by turning seductively to the camera and asking “How about you? What is your choice?”

Quite rightly this ad caused a real stink in Brazil, with even the president of BrazTESOL penning a few critical words on the matter. All of this is well and good and shows the power of the Web at its best. What’s depressingly predictable, though, is the fact that this kind of trash not only still gets made and aired, but still (presumably) sells courses by tapping into age-old prejudices and myths. Whilst to any sane reader, this whole artificial dichotomy seems nonsensical, and we all know that a good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of where they happened to grow up or learn their English, it nevertheless remains a fact of life that there are unscrupulous folk out there making money out of these myths, and that there are also – sadly – both natives and non-natives that buy into such rubbish.

Whilst it’s easy to insist that good teaching is good teaching, I think that the reality is actually slightly more complex that this – and there that are, in fact, several important things that non-natives can do which native-speaker teachers find either impossible or else nigh-on! If we are to finally kill off these kinds of perpetuations of prejudices, then perhaps we need to be rather more appreciative of what it is that the non-native can offer students, and especially monolingual students they share the same L1 with (lest we forget, of course, this is the way the vast majority of EFL classes around the globe are delivered). What I intend to do over the next few posts here is to sing the praises of the non-native speaker teacher and to explore in slightly more depth exactly what these abilities might be.

Before I begin, though, I should make it clear that simply because non-natives CAN do these things, it obviously doesn’t mean that every non-native IS doing them. As such, my aims here are threefold: to highlight excellent practice that non-natives do – or else could – take advantage of; to heighten native speaker teachers’ awareness of these advantages and then to hopefully do my little bit towards ensuring no more NNSTs ever have to be as insulted again as I know they have been by the OpenEnglish advert!

As you all know, there remains in the ELT world a lot of prejudice against NNSTs. All too often, parental expectations lead to a demand for native speakers; this has a knock-on effect on school employment policies, which in turn affects the relative earning power of native and non-natives speaker teachers. Then there is the thorny issue of what qualifications are necessary before one can start teaching. I myself benefited from this mad disparity by flying off to Asia at the tender age of 23, armed only with a CTEFLA certificate following a 4-week course, but officially ready and able to earn many times more than my local counterparts, despite the fact most of them possessed both degrees and Master’s in English and English-language Teaching. In many countries I have visited, a system of semi-apartheid operates, whereby native speakers get the plum fluency and conversation classes, whilst NNSTs are relegated to bilingual grammar lessons. Fairly understandably, as a result of all this obvious bias, many NNSTs end up with an inferiority complex – and, sadly, many native-speakers end up with the opposite! This series of posts will hopefully start to redress this imbalance.

So here goes . . . the first great advantage that I believe non-natives have over their native colleagues is the fact that NNSTS are actually far better – and more realistic – aspirational models of English than natives could ever be! EFL students can possibly aspire to becoming their non-native teacher – a very fluent, articulate speaker of English as a foreign language, able to talk to a wide range of friends and colleagues – by no means just native-speakers, but also Greeks, Germans and so on. However, short of reincarnation, they can NEVER become me – or any other native speaker teacher! Even if I have learned the students’ L1, which does obviously help to set a good role model for them as language learners, it’s still not quite the same as vice versa. Non-native speaker status inevitably means that teachers have actually LEARNED English – as opposed to having just picked it up through fluke of birth. NNSTs also speak their own L1 and are thus far more aware than I could ever be of the kinds of problems – both lexical and grammatical – that students who share their own L1 will have while learning English. These pitfalls and problems are felt in the blood, in the bones.

Of course, a native who has lived in a particular country and who has learned the local language to a good level will also have a considerable degree of similar knowledge. Indeed, any teacher, native or non-native, who teaches students from particular language groups over a long enough period of time, and regardless of whether they speak any of these languages or not, starts to develop an understanding of what impact the various first languages have on users when they attempt to speak English. Only non-natives, though, feel it quite so deeply and can say they have been through the exact same experiences their students are going through in front of them. At their best, these teachers can intuitively feel why a false friend is sounding strange in English, or where the root of a particular repeated / fossilized grammar error may lie – and may well be able to frame this understanding (whether in English or in L1!) in such a way that helps learners grasp their errors most immediately.

Much of the advertising nonsense that exploits the supposed advantage of having a native-speaker teacher plays on the fear that somehow a non-native’s English is bound to be deficient in some way.There are so many flaws in this way of thinking that I don’t know where to begin: with the assumption that knowing loads of language and being able to use it has anything much to do with being able to explain and exemplify clearly? With the way this line of thought deliberately obscures the advantages discussed above? With the notion that what the native may know and that the non-native may not is actually of any use to any EFL student?

I speak English with most of my friends. I read a lot – and all of it in English. I probably know a whole raft of slang and idioms and obscure lexical items that most non-natives don’t. Well, all I can say about that is so what? If you sit and watch a desert with a camel walking across the horizon, from second to second, it’ll be the camel that attracts your attention, despite the fact that it is only maybe 5% of your actual field of vision. We naturally – and, possibly, for good evolutionary reasons – notice difference rather than similarity. As such, many non-native speaker teachers fixate on that which divides us – the 5% – rather than that which UNITES us – the 95%! Much of the 5% that’s specific in my own speech may well be very low frequency among NATIVE-speakers themselves and thus of little – if any – use to EFL students. Possibly, in fact, some of it may even be totally idiosyncratic to me! It takes many natives a while to realise that, and many of us – present company very much included – spent much of our early career thinking that any random idiomatic titbit that springs to mind must automatically be of utility and relevance because . . . well, because it’s somehow ‘real’! One crucial step for any native speaker to really becoming a fully-fledged teacher is to recognise this urge and modify and curtail it!

Finally, I think another fear connected to this whole area is a fairly deep-rooted concern that many NNSTs have: the fear of getting caught out! ‘What if the coursebook I’m using has phrases I’ve never seen before?’, ‘What if students ask me questions about an idiom that I’ve got no idea about?’, ‘What if I try to reformulate what my students are saying on the board and it’s wrong – by native-speaker standards?’

Well, hello?! Welcome to being a teacher! ALL native-speaker teachers find themselves on the spot with alarming regularity. We are all too often asked questions by students that we simply don’t know the answers to, and there is only sane response to this – confess and be done with it! Committing the following fixed phrases to memory has helped me through countless potentially embarrassing moments in the classroom. I recommend you try the same!

“I’m not sure, but I THINK this is how it’s used”

“I’ve never heard that in my life – so it can’t be very useful!”

Oh, and if you REALLY want good adverts for language schools, I would personally suggest that very few could top this banned Dutch one . . .

11 responses

  1. Good topic Hugh. I find myself getting hired time and time again to solve the weaknesses made by local teachers ie poor speaking and writing ability. In a few places local teachers only teach lower levels and grammar and we natives are received for production activities. I hate to say it but every single local teacher I’ve ever observed, walked past teaching or just heard teaching has always used the L1, some almost 99% of the time. I’ve also seen them use books in the L1 for teaching the L2.

    The trend in many countries due to the recession/crisis is definitely ‘more hours for local teacher’s which means less for us foreigners. I’ve even seen candidates who I or my colleagues have tested end up as examiners.This combined with ELF means no more backpacking EFL jobs.

    Now that you mention online schools that is another movement where anyone anywhere can have a 121 with a, quite frequently, very low paid foreigner (not always very qualified). I’ve tried it out myself and been offered from 8 to 14 Euros an hour before tax. Unpaid training, prep time and sometimes tech costs is not a good sign.

  2. Hi Phil –
    Thanks for reading. I must admit, I have a sneaking fear that now I’ve moved on from the Dogme posts, no-one will actually bother visiting any longer, so cheers!

    I have to say, I don’t share your horror at the prospect of L! use in the classroom, though it does obviously depend on what it’s being used for and the level of the class, etc. Also, anything over 50% is plain daft, clearly! That said, one of the many many interesting things I gleaned from Guy Cook’s excellent recent book on translation was the amount of research there is that shows that loads of students – especially younger ones and those at lower levels, though perhaps not only them – look much more favourably upon bilingual instruction than has previously been admitted.

    I’m not saying this to defend non-natives with poor levels of English, and obviously if you’re a teacher of ANY subject, you do want to be able to demonstrate at least a degree of competence with the subject matter! I’ve also met students who come in at Pre-Int and who, on being asked what they do back home, shyly admit to being English teachers. Having said that, it does obviously depend on the context. A Pre-Int local teacher working with A1 / Elementary students may well be perfectly competent in many many ways. They may also be the best those students are going to get whatever.

    I personally feel the balance is shifting in a positive direction and that it’s probably mostly a good thing is natives are no longer as revered as they once were. Let’s face it, a CELTA doesn’t exactly equip most young natives with much to really offer students either, apart from a few games / recipes – and a degree of self-confidence that can frequently border on arrogance.

    Finally, yes . . . the online work is a coming wave. A Dutch friend of mine has been doing this the last year or so, for wages similar to those you describe. She was at least a trained teacher and translator, but the guy who introduced her to it certainly wasn’t. He was simply a chancer / blagger / loser who sniffed what he saw as an easy buck. Really nothing to advertise about, in other words!

  3. Hi Hugh,

    I’m still reading, and secretly relieved that you’ve finally got off THAT topic! ;o)

    In response to Phil’s comment, I think we need to separate methodological culture from the NST/NNST debate. Like Phil, a lot of the evidence I’ve picked up here in Andalucia, Spain is that teaching quality is generally poor across the board – the results speak for themselves! The problem is endemic in the educational system. These teachers are nearly always NNSTs, but I’ve seen some shoddy teaching by NST colleagues, too.

    I believe, broadly speaking in a communicative approach, and the benefits of an English-speaking environment for learners to learn in. I’m aware of the importance of the L1 in the learning process, but I want my students to struggle to communicate with me in the foreign tongue – that worked for me! This is an approach encouraged by the initial Certificate courses for the industry and by most native English-speaking educational philosophies these days. They conflict with the extremely outdated views of education that exist in Spain and, no doubt, in other countries.

    The flipside of the argument, though, is that a lot of communicative teaching is so bloody wishy-washy (see Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener’s blog).

    Like you say, Hugh, the advantages of being a NNST are significant, so when NNSTs break the mould and teach communicatively (a loose term, I know), they can become powerful Jedis indeed!

    It isn’t about your English-speaking status, it’s about quality teaching.


    1. Hi Daniel –
      Thanks for reading.

      Pleased to also let folks see there are actually plenty of other things I’m interested in writing about! I just felt it needed saying, that was all.

      I hear you loud and clear about the main issues being methodological – and also know all too well the kind of low target / low expectation / low achievement contexts you’re talking about. You could substitute Andalucia for any number of other areas and contexts and see similar patterns repeated.

      I’m not convinced that this has to do with exclusive monolingualism and the book I mentioned before, Guy Cook’s TRANSLATION, details the many benefits to be gained from a principled use of translation. This is, however, very different from simply choosing to conduct the vast bulk of your class in L1 out of laziness or without any principled decision making informing that choice.

      I also agree that much of the problem with CLT is its vagueness and lack of clarity – a point I felt very strongly in the Scrivener / Underhill talk / blog yes. I was nodding furiously with everything they said . . . until they started talking about teaching! I think, as you’ll have noticed, that Dogme contributes to this as well. Andrew Walkley sand myself are in the middle of doing a methodology book that aims to set out a principled way that any teacher can do simple everyday things well. Whether it’ll have any impact at all is another question of course! We can but try.

      I agree though that there does need to be a certain implicit approach to teaching in place before non-natives can really maximise their advantages to the full. Once NNSTs are teaching predominantly (but not necessarily exclusively) in L1, are working the language and are tuned in to maximising opportunities for learning, then they have real strengths that would take me ages to acquire if I were to move to a monolingual context tomorrow.

      Thanks again for your thoughts, anyway.
      Appreciate it.

  4. Yep. We shouldn’t mix up using the L1 vs Not using it with native teachers and non-natives. I’ve seen quite a few foreigners use the L1 in class and some jobs even require L1 fluency and use in the classroom. In fact, just being fluent in the language will probably be enough to get you a full time job, even in higher ed.

    Of course, it’s easier to learn with both languages but I’d say after int they should only be using English.

    I know quite a few local English teachers and some have great English, I even worked with a Spanish guy teaching English in France, he also taught Spanish and now teaches English and French and Spanish in the UK at Uni. I think this is the modern reality. We natives have been beaten at our own game. Just look at the amount of coursebook writers and uni teachers/professors who aren’t English.

    Nowadays, I seem to do a lot of testing of students who are taught by locals or learn online as it’s the only job the non-native teachers can’t do as well as a native. Maybe that’s our final role and if we don’t push people to do CAE/CPE then most non-native teachers will probably be able to handle what’s left.

    1. I know that when I had been in Indonesia for a couple of years and my L1 got good enough, it made life much easier when teaching Elementary classes, that’s for sure. As a native speaker, it also allows you to a degree of empathy between you and the learners. They come to see their own struggles being mirrored in you!

      I still disagree about imposing a level limit on L1 use, though. I think even at really advanced levels, some translation can help. I’ll blog about this later. The fact that translation studies is such a major area of study at degree and post-grad level suggests it’s a pretty complex business and something worth at least allowing the possibility of in classrooms. Also, if a high-level students simply doesn’t know how to say something – and has a teacher with the same L1 – it’s much more precise and time-effective to say it in l1 and get it back in L2. I’m sure you’ve done something similar when learning foreign languages with friends who share the same L1 as you, but speak the local language better. I sure have.

      In terms of language level on non-natives, I’d say both that it’s getting better all the time but also that it does vary wildly from country to country, and that some European countries such as Spain and Italy are lagging way behind, especially when compared, say, to Poland or Turkey.

  5. A NNS teacher has spent an hour arguing with me over the ‘waste of time’ which he views all this teaching methodology and language acquisition research to be. He says you can either teach or you can’t and that teacher training is a waste of time, as too are conferences and journals about being a teacher. Instead, they should be assessed on their knowledge of their subject and if it’s good enough then be allowed to teach it.

    Bonkers it may sound to us but only as much as us being obsessed about all our ways of teaching and using books is to him. He has his own materials ie copies and lots of retyped stuff.

    Interesting to say the least.

    1. Ha ha. Despite the fact I do have a grain or two of sympathy for the idea that English teachers should be tested on their knowledge of the subject – i,e; English – it’s clearly not ALL we need to know. The disdain for development, conferences, journals, etc. is just anti-academic and anti-intellectual and will only lead to being stuck in the same old rut.

      Must say, though, these attitudes are common among natives too. I think the fact Cambridge sets the entry bar so low means many meany people regard TEFL as a bit of a joke, a doss job. I recently emailed a native who’d applied for a summer job with us at University of Westminster explaining that we usually only take on folks with DELTAs. I received an angry response pointing out he didn’t want to do teacher training, just to bloody teach! If it wasn’t so funny it’d be tragic!

  6. Being married to a NNST, I can tell you that a NNST with an excellent command of English (not all of which he has learnt from me ;-)) can produce really excellent results. My dear husband (hereinafter known as “DH”) has been teaching the equivalent of sixth-form students here in Germany at a grammar school for over ten years now and the quality of this year’s written exam papers was STUNNING! His best candidates wrote a standard of English that many an “A” level teacher in the UK would be pleased to see from their native-speaker students. The examination board in Baden-Württemberg also expects a hell of a lot from these students: they are expected to write analytical literary-criticism-type essays IN English about English short stories, as well as produce essays about current affairs, globalisation, the state of America, that kind of thing. I didn’t even have to do that when I was an undergraduate at an English uni!!! The standard of his English has obviously had an extremely favourable influence on his students and he is always proud when he sees phrases he has used in the classroom reappearing in his students’ work. As far as I know, he uses virtually only English in the classroom, but he does offer translations for specific idioms and expressions, often for the sake of brevity.
    However, that said, the high standard that my DH’s students were able to produce was not mirrored in other papers he was sent to mark this year. In fact, as “second marker” and “third marker” for anonymous exam papers, we have often been very shocked by either the standard of the students’ work from other schools and, what’s more, astounded by the sloppy marking. The number of basic errors which some other teachers overlook is rather worrying. Equally, the number of things which are marked as errors, but are, in fact, totally acceptable English is also somewhat shocking. Clearly, the standard my DH has reached is not a widespread phenomenon.
    Nonetheless, as a NST here in Germany, I often find myself singing the praises of NNSTs when people employ me and start saying how wonderful it is that their kid is going to get a “native speaker” (spoken in breathy tones of slight awe). I am always at pains to point out to them that being a good teacher – in my humble opinion – is what, first and foremost, makes someone learn well and happily and that the NNST has a lot of advantages – such as sharing the L1 – that NSTs don’t.
    I also know of a German lady here in my village who is lucky enough to have a personal English trainer who has fired at least two native-speaker trainers because they were no good. One of them was a New Yorker who she (I would peg her at lower intermediate) COULD NOT UNDERSTAND FOR THE LIFE OF HER and the other was a very young Irishman (she is in her late 40s, early 50s), who marched in and started doing basic grammar with her and taking absolutely no notice of what she actually wanted to do. He apparently had no clue and thought he could just wheel out any old lesson and she’d be happy. Another problem she had with them was that they had practically no knowledge of German. As she has very specific needs for her job, she wants to be able to say to her trainer, “OK, I’m chairing an international meeting and I want to say (insert German phrase) when someone is misbehaving, for example. How do I say that in English?” A NST without German is going to take a long time to find out exactly what it is that she wants to say if they don’t have an excellent knowledge of German and she obviously found that so frustrating that she got rid of these people.
    My strategy when teaching is to use the L2 as often as is feasible and possible, but to sometimes to allow my students to have a break, especially the weaker ones. It can be very tiring having to use the L2 constantly, and they sometimes seem very relieved to have a chance to use their own language. I also like to get them to translate fixed expressions into the L1 because there are sometimes such huge differences in structures or phrases that simply glossing over them is counter-productive.
    One classic example is the German word, “bitte”. The standard translation for this is, of course, “please”. However, unbeknownst to many Germans, they use it to mean a whole host of things, such as “Here you are!” and “Pardon?”. Using the word “please” in all the situations the word “bitte” is used in in German can sound quite ridiculous in English and this difference can only explained by helping the students to identify those problems and asking them to translate into their own
    language. I think using this kind of example sensitises the learner to the idiosyncrasies of their own language. This is especially helpful with lower-level learners and young people, who tend to initially work on the assumption that one word in L1 has one single equivalent in L2 and vice versa. Equally, many unsophisticated language learners tend to assume that their L1 is somehow the only “logical” version of language and that all other languages are odd and illogical. Translation work can be very helpful in showing that ALL languages contain illogical elements and that they are not “better” or “more logical” than each other, just different. I hope in a small way that I can bring about a little more cultural understanding and tolerance by bringing this knowledge into my language classroom.
    And I am sure that many NNST do the same. (Gosh, I better stop now!!!)

  7. I must say that non-native speakers seem to wrap their head around certain grammatical concepts a lot better than native speakers, who seem to take some concepts for granted. Of course, this isn’t a rule. It is just something I have noticed over the years as a native teacher. I have had non-native teachers come over and ask me questions or make comments about grammatical ideas that I had to try hard to understand because I simply just used it and never learned it as an adult.

    However, recently I worked at CCAA in Brazil. I was surprised to see the amount of emphasis the director put on my being native. She went out and paid the radio to do a commercial saying a “native” teacher is now at CCAA. She asked me to give workshops for her school and to give speeches. The owners of the school went crazy with excitement over the whole ordeal. Out of all the schools in the city (6 of them) I was the only native teacher. They used it to their advantage. Of course, after a while, I got tired of always being introduced as the “American teacher”. I felt like every time it was said I was supposed to do a flip.

    However, although I agree that grammatically speaking there really is no advantage of one over the other, non-native over native, I do believe the non-native teachers have the rules fresher in their minds. However, I have been witness to non-natives teacher that the word “used” is pronounced “yoozed”, with two syllables.

    All in all, Open English is trying to get attention with their ad, like anyone who pays big money for an ad on TV. It worked! Can’t blame them for that.

    1. Hi David –
      Thanks for bringing me back to this slightly older post.
      I’d almost forgotten all about it.

      I think you’re obviously right about the fact that most non-natives have acquired through conscious study a grasp of grammar that most natives take a fair old while to get close to.
      The advantage of actually having learned the subject you’re claiming to teach as opposed to being accidentally born into an environment where you acquire it without any real conscious effort!

      I’m not in any way wishing to cast aspersions on your own competence or skill, but your comments about the way in which your nativeness was marketed proves my point, I think.
      All too often, and I’ve been the beneficiary of this myself in the past, natives get prioritized over non-natives simply because we’re a useful sales lever and marketing tool.
      It’s profoundly disrespectful to the many excellent non-natives out there and utterly fails to recognise the many talents they may well have than natives rarely are able to match.

      I don’t blame Open English for wishing to drum up business.
      I blame for lazy stereotyping, perpetuating the two-tier system and essentially selling a lie!

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