ELT Conference

Alternative facts

At IATEFL 2016 Silvana Richardson gave an impassioned presentation which generated a great deal of discussion and support, both at the conference and on social media. She repeated her plenary at the ELT conference organised by IH Barcelona earlier this year and once again she had the audience on its feet.

Her argument, in summary, is that it is time to stop treating English teachers who are non-native speakers of the language as second class citizens. English language teaching institutions shouldn’t discriminate between native and non-native speakers of English when they hire teachers; rather they should simply hire people on their ability to teach the language effectively.

Silvana uses a number of arguments to support her case. One of these is that bilingual or multilingual non-native speakers of English are often more effective classroom teachers than monolingual native English speakers as, having gone through the process of learning English themselves, they are often better able to anticipate the many pitfalls that students are likely to find themselves stuck in. No-one in the profession would take issue with that.

Silvana also claims that a familiar argument, that it is the market that demands native English speakers, is false. She attempts to explode this myth (as she sees it) by providing data from a number of studies conducted in different parts of the world. Two of these studies were taken from SE Asia where, according to the data referenced, a majority of students actively prefer non-native speakers (understood to be speakers of the students’ own language) as teachers. Anyone familiar with this part of the world won’t be entirely surprised by this finding. Grammar translation is still a common teaching method in many classrooms in the region and that requires a thorough knowledge of the students’ mother tongue – something most native English speakers lack. The fear of losing face is also a cultural constant in this part of the world and this fear is often compounded in the presence of foreigners.

But does the argument hold elsewhere? The only data Silvana uses from Spain to reinforce her thesis (that the market doesn’t care) is taken from a study conducted at a university in the Basque region where around 50% of the 70 students surveyed stated they didn’t especially value native English speakers. But university students don’t get to choose their teachers in any case. Could this lack of choice have influenced the result?

The ‘alternative fact’ (to coin a current phrase) is that a large proportion of students studying at private language schools in Spain (i.e. those people who do have a choice where to study) indicate a very clear preference for having native English speakers as teachers. A recent survey conducted with past and present students at IH Barcelona bears this out.

The survey asked students to evaluate 10 qualities an English language teacher might have on a scale of 0 to 10. Some of the qualities students were asked to evaluate were:

  • Experience
  • Qualifications
  • A friendly and caring nature
  • Knowledge of the students’ language
  • Etc.

The survey was completed online by 408 students.

The teacher quality that scored the highest percentage of responses (57,7%) with the maximum score of 10 was ‘Gives interesting classes’. ‘Native speaker’ was the quality that scored the third highest number of maximums, with 52,25% of respondents awarding this quality a top score of 10. But if we add the number of respondents scoring ‘Native speaker’ with an 8, 9, or 10 on the scale, it comes to a massive 83,4% (see graph). This out-performs nearly all the other qualities listed in the survey including even ‘Experience’ (76,1%).

So, whether we like it or not, ‘native speaker’ is evidently a quality that students in this particular market value highly. I think we can safely say that it is therefore very likely to be one of the factors that influences these students when they are evaluating their options and deciding where to study.

Having provided data that suggests the market doesn’t really care, Silvana seems prepared to admit that some people might care after all, as she then goes on to an ask a very pertinent question: Is the customer always right? In other words, should we as school owners and directors, go along with our students’ preferences for native speakers or “challenge them, rather than pander to them”?

Let’s state the obvious: in a highly competitive market, the providers of any service would be crazy to ignore the strongly felt preferences of their potential clients. Such an approach would be tantamount to commercial suicide.

This is precisely the situation that the owners and directors of private language schools in Spain find themselves in. Whether we agree with our clients’ perceptions or not, a large majority of those people prepared to pay to improve their English language skills (or their children’s language skills) evidently value teachers who are native English speakers very highly. Does this mean that we can’t or won’t employ non-native speakers as teachers? No, we can, we do and we will. But it does mean that there is a clear and obvious risk in doing so; a risk that is ignored by Silvana’s claims that

a) the market is essentially agnostic and

b) those students that do prefer native speakers should have their views challenged.

‘Discrimination’ is an ugly term that no-one wants to be associated with. A majority of the private language schools in Spain (including all the schools that I’m involved with personally) pride themselves on being companies that will not discriminate on gender, race, sexual preferences, age, weight, height, or anything else. But we are working in the world as is, not as we’d like it, and it will take time to wean our students away from the idea that ‘native speaker’ somehow equals ‘better value teacher’. The risks inherent in challenging this widely held view too quickly or too openly – especially in the current market conditions – are simply too great.

One final thought: this debate, which is a very lively one, seems to centre almost exclusively on native or non-native teachers of English. Presumably this reflects the global demand for English and the huge numbers of English teachers, both native and non-native speakers, needed to address it. The debate feels rather different if we think about teachers of other languages. Imagine a student coming to Spain to take an intensive Spanish course, for example. Would such a student be surprised and possibly even disappointed if her teacher turned out not to be a native speaker of Spanish? I think perhaps she would.

A video recording of Silvana’s plenary at IATEFL can be found here: http://bit.ly/1XxfxDH


NS survey