Tackling Native Speakerism: What Can You Do to Address Discriminatory Ideologies?

Imagine a school located somewhere in the world where English is the medium of instruction, but is not widely spoken in the society. Two teachers—let’s call them Kate and Kamala—have applied for the position of English teacher in this school. They highlight the following reasons for why they should be hired:

Kate Kamala
Native speaker of English

Bachelor’s degree in biology

Certificate in English language teaching

Loves to travel

Languages: English

Bachelor’s degree in English language and literature

Postgraduate diploma in education

Master’s degree in applied linguistics

10 years’ experience as an ESL teacher

Languages: Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, English, Tamil, German

Based purely on these factors, which of the teachers would you choose?

Most people would agree that Kamala is the clear choice here. She is more qualified, and she is a trained and experienced teacher. Being a multilingual, she would also be aware of the challenges for language learners, and be better able to relate to the process of learning a language.

However, some people would believe that Kate—despite her lack of relevant experience and limited training as an English teacher—has the trump card. She is a “native speaker” of English. In contexts where English is not the dominant language, this is often seen to be especially attractive. Having grown up in and lived most of my life in such a context, I know of far too many instances where Kates were chosen over Kamalas simply because they had the right skin colour, passport, and accent, despite being lesser qualified for the job.

Although most people would agree that the concepts of “native speaker” and “nonnative speaker” are no longer valid, the harmful and discriminatory ideologies continue to persist. The underlying presumption is that being taught by a “native speaker” of English will enable students to acquire the language to a similar level of competence and help them sound like a “native speaker.” A related belief is that such speakers make better teachers.

In first coining the term native speakerism, Adrian Holliday describes it as “the chauvinistic belief that ‘native speakers’ represent a ‘Western culture’ from which spring the ideals both of the language and of language teaching methodology” (p. 49). These beliefs affect the professional lives of English teachers in multiple ways, and those who do not have the status of “native speaker” are perceived to be the inferior Other who will not to be able to succeed on their own terms.

A former student of mine who recently got a job in a university in an East-Asian country told me how her salary was several times lower than her counterparts in the same position simply because she was Chinese and spoke English as a second language and her colleagues were all white British and American nationals. A friend who grew up in Sri Lanka, speaking primarily English and educated in English medium schools all her life, with a teaching qualification and specialization in TESOL from a British university, is a high school English teacher in a South Asian country. She was told by her employer that because she was not a “native speaker,” her English lessons would need to be supplemented by a British high school graduate who would teach students how speak in English.

These two examples illustrate how the false dichotomy between “native” and “nonnative” speakers is problematic and fuelled by racist ideologies that promote monolingualism rather than valuing multilingualism. The idea of native speakerism regards language as static, ignoring how time, people, and places impact our language constantly, allowing our linguistic repertoires to develop and evolve.

Learners and teachers who speak English as an additional language should not be marginalized because of their linguistic background, but rather, their multilingualism should be valued and celebrated. Their multilingualism needs to be recognized for the advantages it offers: potentially greater cognitive flexibility, morphosyntactic knowledge, metalinguistic awareness, creativity, problem-solving skills, and memory. Teachers who are multilinguals are typically better able to understand and verbalise the target language’s structure and help their students see how the language is put together. As multilinguals, they benefit from both received knowledge, gained through training and education, and experiential knowledge, obtained via the process of language learning.

So, what can we do to tackle this?

  • Make space for language varieties in your classroom. Expose your students to a range of different varieties of English so that they hear the rich variations in how English is used around the world.
  • Raise awareness about the issue. Talk to your students, colleagues, friends, and family. Find out their experiences.
  • Encourage colleagues to shift away from standardized varieties to focus on achieving a high level of intelligibility instead.
  • Shift the focus among language teachers from “nativeness” to language proficiency and language teaching competence. These aspects are more helpful in thinking about one’s identity as a language teacher.
  • Review the policies at your institution. Does the recruitment process favour individuals from certain language varieties? Is there a difference in the pay scale between “native speakers” and “nonnative speakers”? Does the enrolment policy marginalise students for whom English is not the dominant language? Advocate for change.

About Naashia Mohamed

Naashia Mohamed
Naashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.
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2 Responses to
Tackling Native Speakerism: What Can You Do to Address Discriminatory Ideologies?

  1. Allow me to respond as a language acquisition “specialist” (ENG is my 6th language in acquisitional processes). I started teaching in Spanish (my 5th language), from 1978- 1988. Then I added teaching IN English via EF, TLA, EMBASSY-CES, UCR, FIU, PBC, ELS, LEI, … .
    I have been certifying teachers (TESL/TESOL) since the year 2000.
    As a definitive student of Language, I have never been to a language school to learn a language; only to teach.
    The teachers are the native speakers and non-native-equally-fluent speakers. These are the real teachers and they are everywhere. Now, should U want to work with a TEACHER formally, make sure ‘they’ know the language fluently (U might need some help identifying fluency), and be sure that they are actual teachers. Yes, this is also discrimination, but then, I wouldn’t go to a football field to learn how to play basketball.

  2. Chanchal Rachel Singh says:

    Great blog! My best suggestion to know more about the true effect of the teachers’ teaching style is to observe both native and non-native teachers when they are teaching their students in class. There’s one catch, of course, that both the teachers should not be aware when their class is being observed. Observation could be done through the cameras, if they exist in the classroom, if not, then a surprise visit would have to do. The second way of knowing which teacher is more effective is to interview students over a casual talk or to fill an anonymous questionnaire to receive feedback about the teachers’ teaching techniques. In this way, one not only gets to know which teacher is more effective, but one also finds the best teaching outputs from the educators in their bid to impress the visiting observers. It’s a win-win situation for the learners and the institution.

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