English language teachers and the native speaker fallacy

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on 14 November 2017.

What are the most important criteria to hiring managers recruiting English language teachers? Researchers answering this question find a persistent belief that the ideal English teacher is a native speaking one, and it can still limit the employability of non-native speakers.

What do students want?

The ‘native speaker fallacy’ is challenged for many reasons, including that non-native English-speaking teachers actually add valuable experience as language learning models. In fact, students both benefit from and want to be taught by a mix of both native and non-native English-speaking teachers.

Of course, research on student perceptions of teachers also confirms that teaching is more about being a competent practitioner than having a particular linguistic background.

An international view on hiring practices

In the three most desired destinations for English language education – the United States, United Kingdom and Australia – native speakerism still impacts hiring practices, as shown in the following research:

To provide that data for the Australian context, I recently surveyed a range of English language education institutions and then conducted 10 semi-structured interviews.

Australia appears to be further ahead. My survey data revealed that the ‘Native-English speaking’ or NES criterion was rated as moderately or very important by 25.4% of respondents, which is significantly lower than in the US or UK. Criteria around teaching qualifications, interview performance, educational background and visa status were far more universally regarded. Overall, the NES criterion ranked 10 out of 11 in hiring criteria for surveyed Australian institutions.

However, during semi-structured qualitative interviews with Australian staff who hire and interview potential teachers, subtler factors emerged. For example, some hiring interviewers appeared to conflate linguistic ability with teaching ability when they are interviewing candidates. So it seems that a teacher’s linguistic and cultural background continues to play something of a role in hiring decisions.

The power of lived experience

On a promising note, the lived experiences of hiring managers positively affect their assumptions and beliefs around employability. For example, one hiring manager described a non-native English-speaking teacher as ‘the most talented teacher I’ve ever met’ and another felt that hiring non-native English-speaking teachers meant ‘the English language is becoming more accessible’. The more diverse their teaching and learning context becomes, the more assumptions are interrogated, and the more equitable the profession becomes for all.

The power of lived experience may apply to the assumptions of teachers and students too. Hiring managers described student expectations of teachers as ‘white’ and ‘Anglo-American’ but also felt that once a teacher was in front of students it was excellence in teaching which appeased any negative prejudices.

Promoting further progress

The results suggest that the efforts of diversity advocacy (specifically, advocacy, empowerment and research) have positively impacted the Australian English Language Teaching community. Members of this community certainly subscribe to fairness in recruitment practices, and therefore bold steps to champion egalitarianism could be taken.

Questions to ask about institutional policies and practices to promote more equitable practices include:

  • How are our Equal Opportunity policies implemented?
  • Do our Professional Development Frameworks and training courses combat discrimination in the English Language Teaching field, and if not, why not?
  • Could Australian English Language Teaching institutions and associations commit to employment equity as others have done?
  • Have we considered the risks if we continue to use discriminatory language-based employment practices?
  • Have we examined the opportunities that diverse employment practices afford an organisation in a globalised and multilingual world?

If you’re interesting in finding out more about Victoria Phillips’s research, you can read her publication in the English Australia Journal (vol 33.1) or email her directly.