Native or Non-native speakers. Who are the better English teachers?

Term Paper, 2008

17 Pages, Grade: 1



1. Introduction

2. Native or Non-Native
2.1 Defining Native and Non-Native
2.2 Advantages and Problems of Native Speaker Teachers
2.2.1 Advantages of Native Speaker Teachers
2.2.2 Problems of Native Speaker Teachers
2.3 Advantages and Problems of Non-Native Speaker Teachers
2.3.1 Advantages of Non-Native Speaker Teachers
2.3.2 Problems of Non-Native Speaker Teachers

3. My Study
3.1 The Questionnaires
3.2 The Participants
3.3 The Study
3.4 Analysis

4. Conclusion

5. Future Perspective


In today’s globalised world language knowledge becomes more and more important for good and skilled communication. Especially the knowledge of one language - the world language English - is necessary to be competitive and able to communicate worldwide. The status of English as a world language is obviously due to its large amount of native speakers all over the world, but also its simplicity in grammar, structure and vocabulary makes it to one of the most important languages in the world.

There are approximately 380 million native speakers of English and more than 700 non-native speakers of English (English Language Guide, 2008) all over the world, which results in large parts of today’s communication taking place in English. Thus good English language knowledge is a precondition for many jobs and educations. This places great importance on today’s English language education. It has to be of high quality and learners have to acquire the language as good and as fast as possible. But who can perform the job of an English teacher best?

There has been lots of discussion in the past years about whether native or non-native speakers are better at language teaching. Due to globalisation also the amount of English teachers available is rising steadily. Today’s English teachers come from a broad range of different countries and thus have differing cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Those backgrounds have again influence on the teachers’ teaching styles and methods and their general understanding of the teaching context and their students. Moreover, today’s English teachers have different levels of knowledge of the target language and culture.

In this paper, I will thus have a look at the following question: Native speakers of English or non-native speakers of English - who are the better English teachers? Native speakers, on the one hand know their language perfectly, faultlessly and naturally (Gill and Rebrova, 2001). Non-natives on the other hand are more familiar with the students’ language learning process and have a better understanding of the learners’ needs (Liu, 1999). Thus, who is the ideal language teacher for the challenging task of teaching the world language English?

This paper will begin with a discussion of native and non-native speaker teachers, including a definition of the terms native and non-native and a summary of advantages and disadvantages or problems of both teacher types. In the then following chapter, I will present my own study on this topic, including questionnaires from students stating their teacher preferences and experiences with both teacher types. The last part of this paper includes my analysis of the results, a final conclusion and a forecast of a possible development in this area of language teaching.


2.1 Defining Native and Non-Native

I will begin this paper with a definition of what I understand under native and non-native speakers of English, as there are many different notions of these terms and I want to make clear what they are meant to express or represent in this paper. Thus, in the context of this paper, a native speaker or L1 user of English is someone who has learned English as first language in childhood. That means being a native speaker of a language is a biodevelopmental fact which cannot be changed afterwards in life through training or learning (Cook, 1999). This also implies that nobody can ever become a native speaker of another language than the first one learned. Nevertheless, people can be native speakers of two or more languages when they have acquired both languages early in childhood. Those people are called bilinguals, but I will not go any deeper into this concept within this paper. Non-native speakers of a language, on the other hand, are people who have learned this particular language as second or third language, but have a different language as native language. Even with lifelong practice an L2 can never become one’s native language.

Beyond the expressions native and non-native speakers or teachers, I will use other common expressions, such as L1 speaker or user (L1 meaning the first language learned or acquired) and NEST (native English speaking teacher) for native users and teachers of the language and L2 learner or user (L2 meaning any language learned after the first language, this can also be a third or fourth language, but for reasons of simplicity I will only call it L2) and non­NEST (non-native English speaking teacher) for non-native users and teachers of the language. The differentiation between L1 speaker and L2 learner also shows the fact that a native speaker does not have to learn his or her native language anymore, while an L2 user learns the language throughout his or her whole life. As Péter Medgyes states it, “native speakers have acquired English”, while “non-native speakers [...] are still acquiring” (Medgyes, 1999).

2.2 Advantages and Problems of Native Speaker Teachers

2.2.1 Advantages of Native Speaker Teachers

In many language teaching jobs it is a precondition to be a native speaker of the language to be considered a good teacher. But why are L1 users so often preferred to L2 users? According to George Braine (1999), native speakers speak more fluently and intuitively correct than their non-native colleagues. NESTs have sociolinguistic competence, which means they know how to speak appropriately in different contexts, due to their knowledge of the speech community’s cultural background and communication rules and strategies. Vivian Cook (1999) mentions especially the native speaker’s creativity in language use and knowledge of standard and non-standard forms of English as a big advantage over non-native English speakers. Furthermore, Cook says that it is important for learners of a language to experience native speaker language use to get an idea of how to use the target language correctly and appropriately. Gill and Rebrova found out in their study (2001) that the NEST’s language is much more authentic, living and perfect than the non-NEST’s language. That means that the native’s language is more correct and up to date than the non­native’s language as the non-NEST might use an outdated, too formal or “bookish” style of the language. Lastly, Péter Medgyes (1999) lists the native speaker’s pronunciation, vocabulary and intonation as an advantage for native speakers and calls them the “perfect language model” for learners.

2.2.2 Problems of Native Speaker Teachers

Despite the many advantages a native speaker teacher has, using NESTs as educators can also result in several problems. One major problem mentioned by Braine (1999) is that native speakers often are hired as teachers simply because they are native speakers and not because of their teaching competences. This can result in having a teacher with good language skills, but little or no teaching skills. But language knowledge is not enough to be a successful teacher, as a teacher also has to know teaching methods and strategies and has to understand his or her students, their problems and their cultural backgrounds. Native speakers might also have problems to understand their students’ mistakes and problems with the language or the learning process, as they often are not able to speak or understand their students’ L1 and thus can neither understand the problems occurring through negative transfer from the native language nor make use of the students’ L1 in the teaching context to explain certain concepts or problems (Gill and Rebrova, 2001). A further disadvantage is that the native speaker ideal is almost an unattainable goal for learners, and the perfect use of the language might overwhelm or even intimidate students, as they feel that they do not make enough progress and will never reach the goal of a perfect language user (Cook, 1999). Additionally, Gill and Rebrova (2001) have found out that many native speakers are not strict enough as teachers and do not correct their students’ mistakes as often as non-native speakers would. This might lead to the fossilisation of wrong structures by the students as they do not get enough or appropriate feedback. Moreover, native speakers might not always be conscious of the language rules and structures of the language they teach, as they use those innately and not as conscious as a teacher who himself has learned the language as a second language (Cook, 1999). Also, the learning process of the language is unknown to the native teacher, as he or she has acquired the language as first language and not learned it in a school or other learning setting as his or her students do (Braine, 1999). Furthermore, the native teacher might not always use the most correct forms of the language, but rather a certain dialect or informal style which the native teacher then teaches his or her students (Braine, 1999). But for the students it is more appropriate to learn the correct version than a dialect or informal style, as they might need the language for business purposes or in other formal contexts throughout their lives.

2.3 Advantages and Problems of Non-Native Speaker Teachers 2.3.1 Advantages of Non-Native Speaker Teachers

Although many language teaching institutions prefer native speakers as teachers, non-natives do have many advantages in language teaching, as well. Most importantly, non-NESTs have a better insight into the language learning process than native speakers have. That means, they have undergone the same learning process, the same problems and the same mistakes as their students experience and thus can also be the perfect language learner models for their students (Braine, 1999). They can motivate their students by showing that it is possible to achieve high proficiency in a second language through learning effort. Furthermore, non-native teachers - but native speakers of the students’ L1 - can make use of this particular L1 for understanding and explaining the students’ problems and conflicts between the target language and the learners’ L1 (Braine, 1999). This non-native teacher can also make use of the students’ native language to explain complex structures, vocabularies or any other problems in class. The non-NEST’s knowledge of the students’ cultural background also helps the teacher to understand their learning styles and the language teaching institution’s methods and techniques (Braine, 1999; Gill and Rebrova, 2001). Although being non-natives, L2 users can still have high communicative competence which can even exceed that of a native teacher. Through their outside view of the language, non-native teachers might also find it easier than native teachers to analyse and explain the target language (Braine, 1999). Finally, non-native teachers are also said to supply the students with more information about the target language than native speakers would do (Medgyes, 1999).

2.3.2. Problems of Non-Native Speaker Teachers

As well as native speaker teachers, also non-native speaker teachers have their weaknesses in and problems with English language teaching. First and foremost, non-NESTs do not have the fluency, general language proficiency and cultural knowledge as NESTs have (Braine, 1999). This means that they are not as secure and flexible in language use as their native colleagues are. Non-natives might also lack communicative competence as they often use English only in classroom contexts and with their fellow non-native colleagues and lack the contact to native English speakers (Braine, 1999). Thus their “version” of English might be outdated, incorrect or too formal (Medgyes, 1999). Of course, many non-native speakers are aware of this difference between their knowledge of the English language and the knowledge of a native speaker and this might lead to a feeling of inferiority towards native speakers (Medgyes, 1999). This might again cause a certain insecurity in their use of the English language and a feeling to defend themselves as teachers. Some non-native English teachers even say that they “have to establish [their] credibility as teachers of ESOL before [they] can proceed to be taken seriously as professionals” (Thomas in Braine, 1999). This insecurity can also be reflected in their teaching style and might thus have a negative impact on the students learning process as those perceive the teacher’s uncertainty as a lack of knowledge and competence. This teaching behaviour might have a demotivating effect on the students as they perceive their teacher as unable and ignorant. Moreover, many non-native teachers cannot use the English language as creatively as their native colleagues do. They have problems understanding jokes and analysing or interpreting texts (Braine, 1999), thus how can they be able to teach their students those aspects of language which can be useful or even necessary in daily communication?


To be able to analyse whether native or non-native English teaching speakers are the better teachers, I have decided to make my own study and ask language students about the experiences they had with the native and non­native teachers they were taught by during their language learning processes.

In my study I will only analyse the influence of teachers on their students. I will not analyse other sources influencing the language learning process, such as length, time and place of study or the cultural and linguistic background of the students. Of course, teachers are only a little part of the general influence, students experience in the language learning process.


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Native or Non-native speakers. Who are the better English teachers?
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Svenja Christen (Author), 2008, Native or Non-native speakers. Who are the better English teachers?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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