IATEFL 2017: Thoughts and Reflections part 1 – The NEST/NNEST Debate

This year, for the first time, I had the opportunity to attend the most highly revered and established ELT conferences in the world. All I had to do was work as a Steward each morning, till about 1 or 2 o’clock, then the conference was mine to explore in all its glorious entirety. The downside of this (aside from the odd irate conference-goer) was that, while I was working, I wasn’t allowed in to see the presentations I had been tasked to guard. Some presenters, however, were kind enough to let me hide in the back corner, and even give me their handouts and contact details. I would like to contact some of them, to question or challenge what they brought to the IATEFL table, though my current workload (1 MA dissertation, 1 research project, 1 journal article, 1 collaborative project) makes that sadly unlikely.

Thankfully, afternoons, and Monday, afforded me more chance to attend as a conference-goer. The first talks I saw were the SIG talks, namely the LAM and IPSEN, occuring simultaneously in contiguous rooms. I wanted to see both of these: I’ve worked with people with SEN in several contexts, as, for example, a teacher and a judo coach, and it’s always nice to see people at least attempting to take things beyond the ‘SEN or not-SEN’ bifurcation. On the other hand, LAM included talks on the NEST vs NNEST debate. This debate – somehow! – is still at the forefront of EFL, with countless people the world over arguing the virtues of hiring NNESTs, or why they’d never hire NNESTs, or why they sort of see what NNESTs have to offer, but here’s 5 lines of text from a NNS that isn’t grammatically perfect, so that proves that language can’t be learnt explicitly and NNESTs can’t teach communicative competence and that…you get the idea. (I imagine this sort of person to begin classes by stating “Hey, gang! I’m Traci with an ‘I’, let’s open the coursebook on page 1. We won’t do the grammar cos I left my Teacher’s Book in my room!”)

At some point during this day the TEFL Equity Advocates founder (Marek Kiczkowiak) approached me and asked me where to find the toilet. “Out the door and to the right,” I said to him. He shot me what was, superficially, just a nod, but in truth it was a mark of significant achievement: here was I, a privileged NEST, in a servile position, directing people to talks and toilets, welcoming each one with a smile as they brushed or barged past, and there, in front of me, a NNEST. We both knew that our exchange, at that moment, marked the end of oppression for NNESTs everywhere, and would serve forthwith as microcosm for the NNEST empire. Wiping a tear from his eye, Marek turned and left, mumbling “We made it!” as he did so. Little wonder then, that for the next couple of days he couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with anyone else. By Friday, he had recovered.

Of course, the NNEST issue is far greater than that, and no, readers (both of you), I do not believe the TEFL Equity Advocate’s mission is close to meeting its aims. I think the problem is twofold: firstly, that the TEA has allowed itself to be taken into the NEST/NNEST framework: every position in a debate or argument starts from a framework, and it is the mark of the more skilled or cunning debater to establish that framework as parameter for the debate (a method Jim Scrivener employed to his advantage in a symposium on Western vs Chinese teaching, but more on that later). In the case of TEA, the framework is that there are NESTs, and there are NNESTs. This, obviously, is simplistic, ungrounded and, perhaps, false. There’s a whole discussion around Kachru’s 3 circles: inner, outer, expanding; or norm-providing, norm-developing, norm-dependent, and  I’m well aware that TEA is aware of this, but still they approach the issue from this standpoint. This brings us to problem part 2: in allowing their opponents the dichotomous framework, TEA winds up pouring much of its time and effort into producing negative arguments for their position. In all its many forms and with all its premises and supporting evidence, TEA’s position boils down to this,


“Non-native English speaking teachers are not necessarily worse than native speaking English teachers”

Which is fine, I absolutely agree with it. From there, premises abound,

“Many students prefer NNESTs,”

Again, I agree, but it’s simplistic. Many students also prefer NESTs. Granted, studies showing preference for NNESTs are more significant when the negative argument is in favour of NNESTs (TEA are looking, after all, to refute the notion that NESTs are hired because students prefer them. On a universal scale, one case of students not preferring NESTs is sufficient, whereas the proponents of NESTs must show in every single case that students don’t want NNESTs, or that necessarily, students don’t want NNESTs), but when we get beyond abstract logic, it is sufficient for a course-provider or employer to say, “Yes, but in my case, students want NESTs”. A thousand studies showing that students prefer NNESTs pales into insignificance when one can simply retort “But in MY context…”

“NNESTs have learned a second language,”

This premise breaks up into several others, such as, “NNESTs can empathise with their students”, “NNESTs have explicit knowledge of grammatical patterns”, ” NNESTs understand how difficult it is to learn collocations (and colligations if you advocate the Lexical Approach)” and so on. The problems, here, are that:

i.) the premise “NNESTs have learned a second language”, and all that it entails, is not unique to NNESTs. Many NESTs have learned foreign, other, or additional languages. Here, TEA may respond that NNESTs necessarily have learned a second language. Well, maybe, but we don’t know with certainty that the second language has been learned formally, or under what style of teaching/learning it has been learned if learned formally. There are plenty of people who would denounce the idea of a NNEST needing IELTS level 7, or CEFR C1, or TOEFL 65. Ignoring that, at least some people with CEFR C1 or equivalent have managed to pass the exam without formal instruction. Through immersion or self-study, they’ve managed to meet the requirements of the exam. This means, of course, that there are C1/7.0/65 level users who wouldn’t be able to tell you how best to prepare for the CAE’s discreet point Use of English, or the TOEFL’s integrated skills tests, or the IELTS write-an-academic-essay-but-not-really writing assessment. And yes, I am being entirely simplistic by limiting language learning to exam preparation, but the very problems I’m talking about are only exacerbated by going beyond exams: each student is different (no, I don’t mean I disagree with the route of acquisition principle) with different needs, different cognitive or affective filters, and different educational and socio-cultural backgrounds. Neither a 2nd language, nor a 2nd language-learning background, is necessary or sufficient to empathise with a language learner. Such a background CAN give a teacher a better idea of what the learner is going through, but it is a huge logical leap to conclude that all, or that only NNESTs can empathise with the language learner.

ii.) “NNESTs have explicit knowledge of grammatical patterns”. For the reasons stated above, this is not necessarily true. It is also not necessarily unique to NNESTs. Plenty of NESTs have bothered to learn the grammar of English, because they’ve encountered students asking questions about grammar. You learn very quickly that declarative knowledge is not a product of procedural or conditional knowledge. IOW, I know (saith myself 5 years ago) to say “He’s gone out”, I know to use it in an informal context as response to an enquiry as to a male person’s current whereabouts, I’ve no idea why we say it that way. Besides, given that many organisations and educators vehemently, almost blindly, accept, endorse, and advocate CLT (ranging from Lexical or nothing, dogmetised, strong CLT to grammar-supported, TBLTised, weak CLT) explicit knowledge of grammatical patterns is irrelevant to many classrooms (here I will note that I have many issues with CLT as it is currently understood and practised by many, and my calling grammar knowledge irrelevant is simply to note that many course providers might see it as an irrelevance, rather than support of the principle that is is actually irrelevant).

Going the other way, it is an unfortunate fact that many educators are not educated to understand proficiency scales. In a recent conversation with a BC inspector, I learned that many teachers in the Middle East, for example, take “Can make basic requests” at A2 level to mean “Abdul has made one basic request, Abdul is A2”. Students are mistakenly classed as C1 level, but they can’t pass a C1 class test. The inferred problem? They need exam training. The solution? Massive, overt backwash, even at the cost of language retention or development (there’s a fallacy that overt backwash is the greater of the overt/covert backwashes, but that’s neither here nor there), until they can pass the exam. The consequence of this – also egocentric teachers and money-driven school directors artificially inflating grades – is that lots of C1-level graduates are not C1 level. A NNEST with a C1 certificate may never have learned much of the grammar taught at C1 level – nor will they necessarily have learned some of the grammar at B2 level.

Evidently, the NEST does not necessarily know the grammar at B2+ level, but that’s not the point. The point is that TEA are endorsing NNESTs on the grounds that they have learned the grammar, or the language, or what have you, and so are better equipped to teach it. This premise of their argument, therefore, fails, because, as stated, we know that it is not true only of NNESTs, and we don’t know for which NNESTs it is true.

iii.) “NNESTs understand how difficult it is to learn collocations”

Again, not unique to NNESTs, not true of all NNESTs, and knowing how difficult something is doesn’t make you better equipped to teach it. It can help maintain a lower affective filter if you’re not tearing your hair out wondering why your 6 year old Italian Starters students aren’t discussing Wittgenstein over port and a game of Backgammon, but affective filter is lowered by several factors, such as understanding that a task may be difficult for students, social cohesion amongst students, education and socio-cultural backgrounds unique to each student (as aforementioned), and confidence in the teacher’s ability to to teach a point. Yes, Miss, we know you struggled with collocations, but we want someone who understands them inside-out! There is too much emphasis on creating a positive learning environment, these days, including phobia of appropriate disciplinary measures, explicit error correction and umpteen bastardisations of the Growth Mindset (GM does NOT mean that any student can do anything if they really believe / click their heels together 3 times / get given a gold star every time they do anything). Hiring a teacher on the grounds that they understand how difficult learning can be is not a solution to any problem, except, perhaps, the problem of the teacher-as-bully who has no clue that learning can be difficult. That’s not a NNEST issue; that’s a shit teacher issue.

Going further

I said before, TEA has a negative argument for NNESTs, and for all its flaws and limitations, it is, at its heart and on the whole, a good one. What they now need to do is find a positive argument, to get off their defensive back foot and drive their opponents back over the halfway line. Rather than stopping at what NNESTs are generally good at, or good for, they need to consider the Why? Why are so many NNESTs skilled at teaching EFL/ESOL/EAL/ELL when so many NESTs are not? Are these skills inherent to NNESTs? Of course not. I’d posit (admittedly without evidence to hand) that it is the current climate of discrimination that has led to it. NESTs get jobs because of their accent, or skin-colour. Often, a 4-week CELTA course is all they need (which is a joke, but more on that later), so they’ve no need to develop linguistic awareness, pedagogical insight, professionalism, a strong work ethic, etc.

To me, the solution seems obvious: apply equal standards to NESTs and NNESTs. Don’t, please, TEA fight for NNESTs to be given the same easy ride as NESTs. The TEFL industry is shoddy and damaged enough as it is without further lowering standards. Instead, fight to show your naysayers and adversaries what TEFL could, and by all means should be about. Teachers properly qualified and trained to teach English, design and implement syllabi, critically analyse and engage with current SLA and pedagocal research. Why settle for a NNEST with a CELTA when organisations could be choosing between properly qualified, trained teachers (nativeness not coming into the equation) or nothing?

I appreciate this will be very difficult, but I also think the TEA position is much stronger if it starts from the position of ‘NNESTs are generally better at teaching because they’re better trained and better qualified’. This approach takes us away from the NNEST vs NEST dichotomy, which I think is going to go on as long as the coursebook debate, and towards a workable, principled overhaul of the TEFL industry to one that places quality of teacher over linguistic background of teacher.


4 thoughts on “IATEFL 2017: Thoughts and Reflections part 1 – The NEST/NNEST Debate

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for the post. I didn’t realise you were at IATEFL! Pity you didn’t say hello. Always nice to meet f2f people who you know online 🙂
    It’s interesting to read this post, because I’ve been having similar conversations with people recently. I’ve also been wondering where TEFL Equity Advocates should head and how we can move forward and tackle native speakerism. I agree that the debate might have created two camps and many of the arguments in favour of non-native speaker teachers are generalisations. The same of course holds true for all the arguments people use to defend native speaker privilege.
    I’m not sure I’d agree with your final suggestion – if I said anything similar anywhere on the blog, there would be a pack of hungry wolves on me within seconds delighted to point out I’m making a gross generalisation. However, perhaps a possible way forward now would be to focus on being an effective teacher, on qualifications, etc. What we need is a means of monitoring schools and their recruitment policies, perhaps an association similar to EAQUALS, which would guarantee equal employment opportunities and a focus on teaching quality. TEFL Equity Advocates could become an association like this, however, it lacks a) funds b) resources c) leverage and power. One way I thought it could develop now, though, is an equal opportunities jobs board, and possibly in the future a paid association which could have the means to inspect the affiliated schools. Any thoughts on this?


    1. Hi, again,

      Apologies if my thoughts seem incoherent. I am juggling several assignments whilst sorting my thoughts from IATEFL.

      I take your point regarding my final suggestion. That idea is still in development. However, there is a point to be made that, so long as a native speaker can get and keep a job based on having being born in a norm-providing context with English as an L1 (a statement which, itself, is a mire of complication!), there is generally less pressure on native speakers to develop as teachers. Obviously not true in every case, but for every one committed NS, there’s myriad more who quite simply should not be teachers. Conversely, for every NNS who managed to get a decent teacher, there’s myriad more who didn’t get that affordance of opportunity.

      For me, as for many others, the industry is broken, maybe always has been broken, and it’s not clear what the root cause is. Yes, there are symptoms, and yes different factions bring up different problems, such as NESTs vs NNESTs, in your case, ignorance of SLA research in Jordan’s case, slavish adherence to coursebooks, in TAWSIG’s case, etc, etc. In my view, having an initial teacher training system that aims, rather than properly training teachers and weeding out weaklings, to push as many people as possible into the grinder, is responsible for much of the crap in EFL.

      I can see the principle of your ideas, but I don’t see how workable it is if you want to apply it to all the schools in the world. In that case, it’s a question of whether you want every organisation to be held to account, or leave the NESTs who only got a job because of their skin tone or L1 or gender to their substandard, cash-in-hand-if-they’re-lucky positions while proper teachers go to work in proper schools.

      I firmly believe that overhauling ITT courses would have a huge positive impact on EFL. Include placements, teach critical thinking, be strict about what teachers must do to pass the course. Make an EFL ITT as difficult to pass as a PGCE, or any equivalent, but give trainees the support they need to get through it (if good enough) and become teachers. What this may do (I stress the MAY) is split the industry into two parts: the shoddy, scummy, dodgy, small school with no security, ethics, etc, and the equal opportunities part, where properly trained, properly qualified teachers work and the NEST NNEST dichotomy is confined to the cobwebs of the ivory tower.

      A pipe dream, maybe, but worth considering.

      Liked by 1 person

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