Fighting “Discrimination against Non-native English speakers in the TEFL Industry”

Fairly recently a blog post over at jimmyesl.com started doing the rounds on twitter. Responses have ranged from defence of the site owner’s decision to host the article (and, confusingly, whether the site owner is personally responsible for the article) to suggestions not to share it and personal attacks on the site owner (noting other posts that the site owner has written – but not really – and stating what a good living he must be making as a NEST).

Initially, I was considering writing an article rebutting the blogger’s argument, but I think it would also be interesting to consider the responses it has been garnering. I’m not, by any means, saying I agree with the blogger’s position (or, if Devil’s Advocate is being played, his argument), but I’m also not convinced it’s fair to attack the blogger directly.

Let’s have a look at the article,

“Discrimination against non-native English speakers in the TEFL world is currently quite an emotive and hotly debated topic in TEFL forums. This article examines whether or not such discrimination is justified and provides advice on how non-native English speakers can get jobs as EFL teachers.”

I’m already wary, at this point: asking whether discrimination is justified risks two pitfalls.

i.) Trying to justify what actually is discrimination. If there is discrimination, as the term is understood in its vernacular use, there is no justification, because if we could justify it, it wouldn’t be discriminatory.

ii.) Generalisation of a principle to every applicable situation. This is especially significant in TEFL, where contexts range from norm-providing (where English is the dominant and official language) to norm dependent (where English is a foreign language), with various communities existing within and around those contexts (there are certainly pockets in the UK that cannot truly be said to be norm-providing).

So, off the bat, the article is posing a poorly-framed question, which can only be answered no, of course not, or, it depends: What do you mean by ‘discrimination’? What do you mean by ‘justified’? And, what context are we talking about?’

“Does this discrimination really exist though?

The following criteria, taken from an actual job advertisement on TEFL.com suggests that it does.

10 native speakers wanted for full time teaching jobs in Beijing, Shenyang, Kunming and Nanjing. No degree necessary but we want native speakers who are very active and good at singing children’s songs or games.

Another job ad had the following criteria:

Nationality of UK, IRE, USA, CAN, AUS, NZ or SA. Bachelor’s degree (any field). Commitment to a 1-year contract.

These are by no means isolated cases. If you do not meet these criteria, you will find it almost impossible to be hired as an EFL teacher in a foreign country.”

This is certainly true. In 5 years, I don’t know if I’ve seen a job on tefl.net or tefl.com that didn’t ask for a native speaker. I’ll happily concede there may be some, but if you gathered them all up and lay them end to end, I suspect you’d struggle to cover a hobbit’s welcome mat. The fact of discriminatory employment postings is no secret in EFL.

“So what exactly is a “native English speaker”? The dictionary definition of a native speaker is simply “someone who speaks a language as his or her first language or mother tongue”. Neither one’s nationality nor race should determine whether or not they are native English speakers and yet many foreign EFL schools believe that one cannot possibly be a native English speaker unless they had been born in, and hold a passport from, an English-speaking country. Some even believe that only people from certain races are entitled to be regarded as native English speakers. Many qualified, experienced and highly capable teachers may therefore find themselves discriminated against in the foreign EFL job market as a result.”

The notions of ‘first language’ and ‘mother tongue’ are contentious in themselves. Take the case of someone who moves to a norm-providing context at the age of 3. Settling into their new environment, and fortunate enough to receive a good education as an EAL learner, this person’s social English quickly becomes indistinguishable from the other pupils in the class, and children in their neighbourhood. Meanwhile, their academic English is considerably above average, leading to high school grades, a good university degree and a position tutoring English literature in various schools as a supply teacher (don’t read anything into them working supply!). By this point, they have completely lost their first language, having had no continued exposure to it either at home or at school. This person’s first language is not English, nor is their mother tongue, but you’d be hard-pressed to make a cogent case that they cannot speak English, or that their level of linguistic or communicative competence is lower than your average ‘native’ speaker.

So, evidently, one’s status as a ‘native speaker’, or what-have-you, should not be determined by nationality or race, but the situation is certainly more complex than our blogger is thus far proposing. It is, as demonstrated above, notoriously difficult to define exactly what a ‘native speaker’ is or whether or not any given person certainly would not be a ‘native speaker’ (or even if the term itself has any consequence in and of itself).

Anyways, let’s read on,

Is this sort of discrimination justified?

Unfortunately, discrimination against non-native speakers in the EFL industry is sometimes justified. Some non-native speakers have been known to ask some questions about English grammar where the answer is very obvious. Not only that, but the grammar that they use to ask those questions is sometimes also incorrect. Some examples include:

What is difference between “I stopped to talk to John.” and “I stopped talking to John”?

“Me and my mother” or ” I and my mother” or ” My mother and I” which is correct?

If we were to examine the essays or comments that have been written by non-native speakers, it would not take us long to find some errors in their grammar, punctuation, capitalization etc. Here are just a few of the examples that I have come across:

“The non-native speakers may have some excuse, when they go wrong with the language somewhere but not all times.”

“I find it strange that a society that has a diverse range of ethnic minorities, language differences along with other issues, it concerns it self with colour.”

“I once had an telephone interview and the person (a female) asked if I was black?, I replied to her, “what does it matter, what colour is the cat so long it catches the mouse”, there was a long silence from the other end, I did not wait for her reply and put the phone down.””

This extract alone merits a series of lengthy replies, but who has the time, these days? In this instance, I’ll go down the ‘communicative competence’ route. It is not the case, for every English language learner, that the aim of learning is to acquire linguistic proficiency (and there’ll be more on that later), nor is it the case, in every English class, that the aim of the curriculum is to teach English as a goal of learning: ESOL classes, for instance, generally work from the principle of English as a communicative resource, and the growth of plurilingualism and translanguaging (now gaining traction in the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK) is rendering the notion of grammatically perfect English less meaningful – and we haven’t even begun to consider creoles, or dialects, or other varieties of English.

Granted, EFL classes generally operate by the principle that English is an academic subject (with functional or pragmatic aims…somehow!), but this principle is old-fashioned and outdated. Whether or not any organisations adhere to this principle is immaterial. Whether or not they should is situation-specific, and contentious even then.

Alright, now let’s go down the linguistic competence route. Here are some choice quotes from native speaker teachers I’ve worked with

“‘lie’ and ‘lay’ are exactly equivalent. Some people just prefer one over the other”

“What’s an ‘irregular conditional’? Ah, nevermind, I’l just teach them 2nd and 3rd. They need to know those at C1, anyway, don’t they?”

“Is it ‘yours faithfully’ or ‘yours sincerely’ if you start with ‘Dear Sir’?”

Also,

ANY ARTICLE FROM THE GUARDIAN NEWSPAPER

So, whilst it may make sense to point out the linguistic deficiencies of non-native speakers within a particular framework of the English language, it does not make sense to, from there, argue justification for excluding them from employment in ELT. And no, I’m not committing any tu quoque fallacy by pointing out equivalent linguistic deficiencies of native speakers because that issue of linguistic competence is a crucial premise of the blogger’s argument, as well as a determining factor of employment in many EFL organisations. If the native speaker can get away with it, why can’t the non-native speaker, and if the non-native speaker shouldn’t get away with it, why should the native?

“This problem is made worse by the influence of regional creoles, for example Bislish and Taglish in the Philippines, Manglish in Malaysia and Singlish in Singapore. A Singlish speaker may be prone to using words such as “chop-chop” which means hurry up or go faster. A “chop” in Manglish is both a noun and a verb, it can mean a rubber stamp or the act of using a rubber stamp, so a Manglish speaker would see nothing wrong with using phrases like “When I went to Australia, the immigration officer chopped my passport.” Manglish speakers also tend to mix local expressions with their English e.g. “Aiyo (a Chinese exclamation), today is so hot-ah (“ah” being a Chinese suffix), I already pengsan-lah” (pengsan being the Malay word for “faint” and “lah” being a Malay suffix).

With such glaringly obvious flaws in their English, is it any wonder that non-native speakers are having such an incredibly hard time finding jobs as EFL teachers in foreign schools? Would you want such people teaching English at your school? If you were a parent, how would you feel if you knew that your child was getting their “quality foreign English education” from teachers with such a poor command of the English language? If I were the owner of a language school, I would be extremely reluctant to hire non-native English speakers as teachers because I am well aware of the brand of English that they use.”

This is, at best, simplistic. Since I like using metaphor and analogy (aside – good joke: I spent the afternoon with a girl called Simile, but I can’t remember what I met ‘er for), let’s address this with an analogy. Li is learning English in a norm-developing context (choose whichever one you want). Li is taking a general English course, turning up to the optional extra conversation classes at weekends. Li wants to be able to join in conversations between other locals and ex pats who have lived in the country for a number of years. The ex pats have largely adopted many aspects of the local creole, and the locals have made a few compromises of their own to bridge the gap between their language and the native language of the aspects. You might call their mode of conversation a bridge between interlanguages. In this case, a course that aims to develop native or near-native mimicry would be a waste of time (being arguably unachievable for the learner, and contrary to the wants and needs of the learner).

Meanwhile, Li’s social media contact Salima is planning to travel to Spain to live and work for a year, possibly longer. When she gets there, her own language will be alien to many people in her new community, but a fair few people will have some level of English, though nobody above low C1 level. Does Salima need to speak a norm-providing form of English? I don’t believe she does, though I welcome anyone who believes otherwise to put me straight.

Li and Salima are merely two examples of countless millions of cases across the globe. To recognise various types of English as being, at least, derivatives or ‘varieties’ of ‘English’, then immediately dismiss them as spacious, wrong or flawed is a sheer exercise in ignorance.

And on the subject of ‘correct’ or ‘native’ English, I’m a UK northerner: I’m barely a native in my own country! But seriously, the blogger is revealing more about the shoddy practices and backward beliefs of authorities and powers in the ELT industry than he revealing anything about non-natives.

The blog then harps on about some ideal student called Chen. There’s little of substance there, except Chen seems in many ways to be similar to our friend who lost their first language to become an English lit tutor. Chen, however, is the personification of the ridiculously high standard non-natives are expected to hold themselves to when so many…too many organisations posit ‘native’ status as being of prime importance, even above qualifications, skills, and experience, as part of their employment criteria. Chen is the model rolled out by the elite erroneously as the norm: you can all be like Chen if you work hard enough! It’s insulting to non-natives and embarrassing to natives.

“How can non-native English speakers get an EFL teaching position abroad?

The short answer is that non-native English speakers should not be teaching EFL at all. If you learnt English in a non-English speaking country, the chances are that you will have picked up many bad linguistic habits which should not be passed on to learners. However, if you are able, through determination, hard work and years of study, to achieve a native- or near-native level of fluency in English and believe that you can do a good job of teaching, you should take the following courses of action:

  1. Become a citizen of an English-speaking country.
  2. Lie about where you were born.
  3. Live in the English-speaking country for several years and work hard at learning the local culture, accent, slang, idioms etc.
  4. Get a reputable TEFL qualification and gain some experience. Language schools in English speaking countries hire staff based on competence, not on whether you happen to be a native English speaker or not.
  5. Grow a thick skin and never give up.
  6. Develop a network of contacts on LinkedIn.com.
  7. Put your resume on sites like seriousteachers.com, Dave’s ESL Café etc.
  8. Approach schools and recruiters in person. By speaking with them directly, you can immediately demonstrate your competence and mastery of the English language.
  9. Make sure that your command of English is excellent and on a par with that of any Caucasian person.”

Notice, after attacking the linguistic competence of non-native speakers, and heaping praise on Chen for being such a linguistically good little Chinese boy (patronising tone used here to echo the sentiment of the blog, not my own), that command of English is bottom of the list. I’ll also point out number 4: ‘in English speaking (sic) countries’. It’s not clear what the blogger means by ‘English speaking countries’, but I’d hazard a guess that he’s referring to the ones stated in the job adverts he quoted at the outset of his post. In any case, ‘English speaking countries’, as a statement, doesn’t carry much pragmatic weight: any country that fits the norm-providing, norm-dependent or norm-developing frameworks can be called English-speaking.

“Chen for example, is not viewed as a Chinese person by his students. His fluency in English and his ability to speak with a British accent puts him on a par with any other British or American teacher that they have had. One of his students even told him to his face, “You are not Chinese!”. This then, is the level of fluency required to teach English abroad.”

Imagine if that had said “As long as they’re only working with blind people and nobody knows they’re black, they’re fine to get jobs here”.

“A word of warning: It is therefore one thing to lie about where you were born but if your command of English is not up to scratch, please do us all a favour and do not even think about teaching EFL. Foreign students may not speak English well but they have spent years learning the rules of English grammar in school so if your grammar is weak, you will get found out!”

Not sure who ‘us all’ is, having seen so many utterly crap, incompetent native speakers wonder into a classroom and piss about. Have a look on Youtube; it is full of terrible videos of people ‘teaching’ lessons. These people could have done ‘us all a favour’ and not even thought ‘about teaching EFL’.

“What can schools do to help end discrimination against non-native English speakers?

The key issue here is (or should be) competence. It should not really matter whether someone has spoken English since birth or not. What is important is that the teachers who get hired have a sound grasp of English grammar, spelling and punctuation and have clear pronunciation with a neutral accent. If more non-native English speakers are able to prove their competence in these areas then in time the industry should become more accepting of such candidates.”

I’d agree that competence should be a determining factor, but beyond that: different contexts call for different types of competence; competence is not determined by status as native or otherwise; competence has a massive scope, such that an FCE or IELTS level 6.5 language user can be called ‘competent’; the level and type of linguistic competence aimed for and adhered to in many organisations would not prepare learners to handle the basilect of many communities, even in norm-providing contexts; the language one must know to be ‘linguistically competent’ is always changing, even if one rigidly sticks to a single context. If you stay in, say, Manchester or New Orleans your whole life, the language around you, the mesolect around you, will change. Thus, to demand of the non-native that they be ‘compentent’, i.e. have ‘a sound grasp of English’, is to demand the impossible and portray the industry as a maelstrom of rank hypocrisy.

“However, in order to prove their competence, people need to be given a chance. Schools can help to end this practice of discrimination by being more open-minded and mindful of the fact that stereotypes are not always accurate. Instead of blindly assuming that only Caucasian candidates can be native English speakers, foreign schools can interview the candidates who have applied for a job with them. The problem with that though, is that the local staff at foreign schools often can barely speak English that well themselves. They would hardly be in a position to assess a candidate’s fluency in the English language so they resort to assuming that any Caucasian person (even those from continental Europe) is automatically a better candidate than someone who is Asian or black. But these schools already employ native English speakers as teachers, so surely it would not be a huge problem to ask one of them to interview prospective candidates?”

This, taken prima facie, is OK, but the blogger has made it clear that his notion of competence is at odds with any fair and reasonable notion of competence (and we’ll just gloss over the hasty generalisation about local staff in foreign schools…and the goalpost-shifting reference to black and Asian people when we’ve been talking about natives vs non-natives up to this point).

“In summary, if you wish to teach EFL, you must have native level fluency in English. Students (or their parents) pay good money to learn correct English and deserve to have competent teachers who know their subject well. As a teacher friend of mine once said, “You cannot teach what you yourself do not know”. If you are fluent in English but are not a Caucasian, it will take a lot of hard work to get your foot in the door but please do not be disheartened – you will get there eventually. Good luck!”

This blog ends with a patronising closing statement, but I’m more interested in “native level fluency in English”. It is a clear and evident fact that level of English does not follow a linear path, nor is a ‘native level’ hold a place above any ‘non native’ level. Many native speaking teachers would not pass a CEFR C2 exam, some would fail at C1, and many non-teaching native speakers would struggle with B2 (but easily get a job in any number of organisations teaching English). That is not, by any means, to say that non-natives are better at English (to do so would be to disregard my entire post), rather than comparing native and non-native levels of competence, fluency (no, I don’t know where he snuck that one in from, either) or accuracy is akin to comparing boxing to fencing and trying to decide which one is ‘the correct one’.


Several people on twitter have attacked someone apparently called ‘Jimmy’ or ‘James’, who didn’t actually write the article, but did host it. Are these twitter attacks doing anything to discredit the native speaker fallacy? No. Are they doing anything to raise awareness of the discrimination that exists against non-natives? No. The blogger in question has presented their case, and, flawed as their argument may be, they have presented an argument. Attacking the man isn’t going to resolve anything. Equally, ignoring the message and hoping it goes away isn’t going to resolve anything. The message needs to be addressed and rebutted.

 

Hence this post.

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3 thoughts on “Fighting “Discrimination against Non-native English speakers in the TEFL Industry”

  1. Fantastic response! I knew a rebuttal to this would pop up soon and I am glad you did it. Far more articulate than something I could muster. As a fellow northerner I automatically agree with you but as a fellow blogger I find your approach exactly what this discussion needs.

    Liked by 1 person

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