The Myth Surrounding the Nonnative-English-Speaker Teacher:
(Why) Is this (still) an issue in language assessment?
Adjunct Professor, Federal University of Goiás, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures
When I moved to the United States with an assistantship that paid for my tuition in my master’s degree in TESOL and also gave me a monthly salary to cover my living expenses while in school, it did not cross my mind that my “nonnativeness” could be/would be a subject of concern. As part of my Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) duties, I had to teach two English as a second language (ESL) classes in the university’s Intensive English Program (IEP). Prior to arriving in the US, I had already taught English as a foreign language (EFL) in my home country (Brazil) for 3,5 years, also in the university’s languages center, to where I have returned and have worked until today. I cannot recall an instance in which my proficiency in English or ability to teach and assess my students had been questioned by either my students or superiors. At least, not to my face. Amongst my colleagues, I was and still am well aware the myth surrounding the nonnative-English-speaker teacher haunts teachers, who constantly need to provide proof of their proficiency. It also mesmerizes students, who idealize a prototype of standard teacher.
Rajagopalan (2006) states that nonnative-English-speaker teachers represent 80% of the English Language Teaching (ELT) total workforce worldwide. Pereira da Silva (2009) alerts that this massive number of professionals in the workforce has triggered an interest amongst researchers to investigate the characteristics of each group, both native-English-speaker teachers and nonnative-English-speaker teachers. Pereira da Silva (2009) also points out that a positive learning environment must be created in order for learning to occur, as students who feel frustrated simply because their teacher is a nonnative-English-speaker will very likely not develop the language skills they should or could and teachers who know their students feel this way might feel unmotivated and frustrated themselves (Pereira da Silva, 2009, p. 1). According to Pereira da Silva (2009), the Hungarian teacher Peter Medgyes was a pioneer in the studies of the area with his seminal work The non-native teacher (first published in 1994), which discussed the strengths and weaknesses of both native and nonnative-English-speaker teachers and their acceptance or lack of it in the ELT world.
The debate over this dichotomy or this controversy between native versus nonnative has been heated and stimulated an extensive amount of research in the field. So, why are we still hammering on this? Why does this topic still concern nonnative-speaker-teachers? Based on Kachru’s (1985) division lines into English-speaking and non-English-speaking countries in the much-known concentric circles (The Inner, The Outer and The Expanding Circles), Medgyes (2001) raised some important and provocative points that serve as guide to start a reflection on the topic. First, who is the native speaker? What are the criteria for native proficiency? What is the cut-off point between native proficiency and various levels of non-native proficiency? Who owns English? (For more on this subject, see Finardi, 2014).
According to Braine (2006), 80% of English speakers are nonnative (a term that is being questioned today) and the largest group is located in Kachru’s Expanding Circle, which means they use English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), to put it simply, language used for communication between speakers of different first languages. The countries at the center of Kachru’s circles (e.g. the United States and the United Kingdom) will no longer be able to set trends.
Echoing what Medgyes (2001, 2003) has been publishing about his study carried out in 1990’s, other authors, like the ones aforementioned, have concluded that, as in many things concerning human lives and their capabilities, there are advantages and disadvantages for both native-English-teachers and nonnative-English-teachers. Pereira da Silva (2009), for example, calls attention to two other factors that should be taken into consideration when looking at this matter, nonnative-English-teachers’ self-perceptions and students’ attitudes towards nonnative-English-teachers.
Hulstijn (2011) and Zhang and Elder (2011) carried out two very interesting studies to
show the implications of nonnativeness for language assessment. These researchers have
made valuable contributions to the field of language assessment and, most importantly, to
demystify the skepticism of the ELT industry regarding nonnative-English-teachers and for the teachers themselves to gain confidence in their own shoes.
Hulstijn (2011), for instance, draws attention to the fact that 1) language tests are by
no means supposed to test if a student has a native or near-native command of a language, 2) “the” native-speaker level of language proficiency does not exist and 3) native speakers themselves differ enormously in their language skills due to their age, intellectual skills, education, occupation and leisure time activities. Another important aspect that Hulstijn (2011) points out is that assessment practices based on the Common European Framework or a similar document involving linguistic competences and skills of applying these competences in quasi real-world tasks is all we need (p. 246). All we really need to know is what a student can do in terms of real-world tasks.
In a study carried out in a Chinese setting, Zhang and Elder (2011) concluded that the dichotomy native versus nonnative-speaker-teacher was not meaningful when it comes to rating oral proficiency interviews. However, there was one discrepancy noted between natives and nonnatives. This divergence was only noted in the justifications of the scores attributed to the candidates. Native speaker raters tended to focus more on features of interaction while nonnative-speaker raters emphasized more accuracy. The authors alert that the conclusions from this study need to be seen as tentative given some limitations like the selection criterion of the participants (convenience sampling), the place of residence of the raters, the place of testing (China), to name some but a few. Another relevant piece of information from this study is the fact that raters used an unguided holistic scale to assess the candidates, which may have contributed to the divergence in the justifications provided by the raters since they had no document to refer to.
What can we take from this? What have we learned? How can we move forward in this subject? As Pereira da Silva (2009) pointed out, self-perception is one of the key elements when it comes to this hullabaloo about native-English-teacher versus nonnative-English teacher.
And self-perception has to do with identity. If we are living in a world where 80% of the English teachers are people who do not have this language as their first, then this mass of professionals, supported by the ELT industry, need to start owning this space, being comfortable in their skin. If 80% of English speakers use this language as lingua franca, which means that they are communicating with someone else who does not have English as their first language either, the focus of these interactions should lie on the negotiations of meaning between the interlocutors.
As per the native-speaker-teachers (and we need to problematize this term, too), understanding this scenario is also an exercise of self-perception. You are not losing your identity because you are “outnumbered” by those who may not speak this language as their first. You are expanding it. Thinking of questions like the following might shift the focus of this controversy and put us on the same page as speakers of this language (English): How can my (vast) repertoire of vocabulary help a second/foreign language learner present/describe ideas in great detail? How can my command of the language help a second/foreign language learner get his/her messages across effectively and negotiate meaning? How can my command of the language help a second/foreign language learner strategize his/her discourse? How can my sociocultural knowledge of the language help a second/foreign language learner comprehend and relate to the implicit meanings of words/expressions?
Changing our (natives and nonnatives) attitude towards how contented we feel as users of the English language will reflect on our students’ attitudes towards native and nonnative-English-teachers. Besides, with good training, sound documents like the Common European Framework (CEF) and well-calibrated assessment rubrics, teachers are well equipped to assess their students.
In conclusion, let us hope that the myth of the nonnative-English-speaker really becomes a thing of the past and we can move forward as a community of English speakers/teachers who is aware of the expansion of this language and changes that the globalized world of the XXI century has brought about in terms of communication and that will continue to do so.
Braine, G. (2006). A history of research on non-native speaker English teachers. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-native language teachers: Perceptions, challenges and contributions to the
profession (pp. 13-23). New York: Springer.
Finardi, K. R. (2014). The slaughter of Kachru’s five sacred cows in Brazil: affordances of the use of English as an international language. Studies in English language teaching, 2(4), 401-
Hulstijn, J. H. (2011). Language proficiency in native and nonnative speakers: an agenda for research and suggestions for second-language assessment. Language Assessment
Quarterly, 8(3), 229-249. https://doi.org/10.1080/15434303.2011.565844
Kachru, B. B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: The English Language in the Outer Circle. In English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and
literature, edited by R. Quirk and H. G. Widdowson. Cambridge/London: Cambridge University Press/The British Council.
Medgyes, P. (2001). When the teacher is a non-native speaker. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (pp. 429-442). Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.
Medgyes, P. (2003). The non-native teacher. Germany: Hueber.
Pereira da Silva, L. (2009). Students’ Expectations and Attitudes towards Nonnative-English-Speaking Teacher in ESL and EFL Settings: Teachers’ and Students Own Perspectives. (Master’s Degree Thesis, West Virginia University Libraries).
Rajagopalan, K. (2006). Non-native speaker teachers of English and their anxieties: Ingredients for an experiment in action research. In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-native language teachers: Perceptions, challenges and contributions to the profession (pp. 283-303). New York: Springer.
Zhang, Y., & Elder, C. (2011). Judgments of oral proficiency by non-native and native English speaking teacher raters: Competing or complementary constructs? Language Testing, 28(1), 31-50. DOI: 10.1177/0265532209360671