Posted by: Alastair Grant | September 19, 2011

In trouble again…

I was speaking at a conference on Saturday morning (WHAT?! Saturday morning is for sleeping, surely!) and I got asked a question which, incredibly (if you know how much I usually talk…), left me lost for words.

A bit of background… (and excuse the hubris) usually at conferences, people come up to me and say that they liked the talk and ask me what I think about [X] matter and I’m very happy to talk away about it, happy that my session has been well received.

Saturday’s had a twist to it though!

One of the delegates asked my why I’d used some phrases in Spanish in my talk (I do it to foster rapport – my Spanish is, frankly, hilarious) and, didn’t I think I should be using English all the time, as I should be helping local non-native speaker (NNS) teachers (of which the conference was mostly made up) improve their English?

The question evolved into: didn’t I think that local NNS teachers should have a level of English that was at least as good as NS teachers such as myself?

After a little thought, my answer was “no”, which was received with shock.

I said that, while any responsible English teacher should always be learning English (I’ll never stop learning, I’m sure!), a NNS did not have to have an NS level to be able to teach the language.

All the NNS teachers I’ve encountered here tend to be at least (if not more) dedicated and keen to improve their skills as the NS teachers are.

I don’t think NNS teachers should have the same level to NS teachers. All this also depends on WHAT we think an NS is… are they British? North American? Would Indian English not be just as qualifiable as NS English, given that it’s the lingua franca of India (they have so many languages, that the national news tends to be in English)?

My point was (is) that NNS teachers don’t have to be “as good” as NS speakers to teach – if they have the level to teach even basic English, the ability, the enthusiasm, and they strive to improve (as NS teachers should!) isn’t this enough?

Or was my speaking in the L1, at a conference primarily for NNS teachers, irresponsible?


  1. First of all, like you said, there’s a need to define what a native English speaker is and I think the definition would be someone who was born in an English-speaking country and who learned English growing up. Thus, I think Indian English speakers would qualify as NES in my book but French Canadians would not.

    Now, I think anybody who wants to teach something, not just languages, needs to be fairly competent at it. Enthusiasm and ability and a desire to improve are good, but not enough – or I’d be a driving instructor by now. The question is, does being a NES guarantee you have the knowledge required to teach the language? Many times I’ve encountered schools that point-blank refuse to hire people whom I consider to be good teachers on the sole argument that they are not native speakers. I’ve also had the misfortune to work with people who think that because they’re NES they don’t need to study, or even prepare a lesson and who think that because they don’t know the meaning of a word then the learner doesn’t need to know it either. An ideal teacher, for me, would be someone with a solid knowledge of the English language, a good command of methodology and a desire to keep learning. Where that teacher was born, or when or how s/he learned the language shouldn’t even be an issue.

    Having said that, educational authorities mandate that English teachers in Mexico have at least a B2 level, whilst the reality of it is that more than half the teachers in employment right now are at a B1 or even below. And then we wonder why the ELT profession in this country is so underrated, right?

    • “An ideal teacher, for me, would be someone with a solid knowledge of the English language, a good command of methodology and a desire to keep learning.”

      I wholeheartedly agree, LMG! And thank you for the comment!

      And… I’ve come across similar NS with that attitude too – “planning” a class on inversion five minutes before the class, when they have no idea of how it really works themselves, but think their status as an NS can carry them through – what a disservice to their students.

      I think my point about Indian English was that, whilst not the mother tongue, its lingua franca status means that these NNS are proficient enough without needing the “accolade” being an NS.

      But… what is a “solid” level on English? FCE so you can teach at a kindergarten, or must it be higher?

      • I would say FCE at the very least, so that at least the students are getting reasonable input and the teacher has enough language that he or she can continue to learn on their own. Now, I know that some schools (and teachers!) think that you don’t have to know a lot of English to teach at the kindergarten level, but I disagree.

        I forgot to comment on your last question, about speaking Spanish at a conference. To be honest, I do that too; sometimes there’s an expression, or a joke or something that doesn’t quite translate … I’d have to say that it’s okay as long as you’re not overdoing it. There’s a speaker that I admire a lot, but it does get in my nerves a bit that in her lectures she always uses the Spanish word for pupils and I know that some people consider it patronizing.

  2. Interesting… I should have know you’d get a blog out of this! My opinion is the same that it was on Saturday: that this woman had many flaws in her argument. (Both what you mentioned here and some of the other things she came up with.)
    I wholeheartedly respect NNS. I know how difficult it is to teach a foreign language (and I’ve only really taught at beginner levels). If anything I’ve noticed that NNS have a better grasp of the grammar than we NS do, as they have dedicated a life-time to understanding and using it.
    Should we expect them to have the same level as a NS? No. I’ve met NNs teachers who’ve taught me things about my own language that have left me open-mouthed. Likewise I’ve met others who might not get a level 9 in IELTS but are more than capable of teaching. A lot depends on what level they are teaching too. I’ve my doubts on the requirement of FCE to teach KG here in Argentina, but then I’ve my doubts on the FCE in general.

    And as for using Spanish in your talk… you heard the laughs, they loved it!

    • I too have frequently been left open-mouthed at my NNS colleagues knowledge and consummate understanding of the language.

      I’m pretty sure if I were teaching Spanish in London (hehe), I’d be more than distressed to hear that I needed to be “as good” as an NS. What chance would I have?!

      And yes, they loved it… always good to show that the “expert” has (considerable) flaws…

  3. Hi Al
    I agree with you entirely. In my view NNS “make up” for any lower level of English in many ways, notably heightened sensibility to the problems a learner faces and 9 times out of 10 greater insight into the structure of English than NESTs. Of course, this is a generalisation and exceptions abound, but generally true, I feel.

    • Me too Tim.

      But should people with a “lower level” of English be teaching it? I think my answer’s still a yes.

      What then would the “right” level be?

      • Tough one. Let’s tweak it to another subject. I’d expect my son’s primary school maths teacher to have basic competence (say, GCSE) – let’s call that B2. At secondary school I’d expect a maths teacher to have a maths degree – in terms of English that’s at least a C1 competence I’d say. To teach primary schools kids I’d say enthusiasm, passion and a “good methodology” (whatever that is) are more important than knowing ten thousand idiomatic expressions with “get”.

  4. Hi, Al! What a topic!

    All the comments above shed some light….especially Gloria`s description of an ideal teacher and Emma`s statement about NNS having a better grasp of the grammar than NS.

    I have myself suffered the prejudice of not being a NS in order to get a job at a bilingual school. NS in Argentina are given benefits that we NNS are not.

    So again, it think it comes down to good command of the language, good knowledge of methodology and pedagogy and a lifelong learning attitude, as Gloria said, whatever level you are teaching, even kindergarten!

    So maybe NNS are not as good as NS in terms of language (fluency, vocabulary, etc) but probably much better at teaching the language.


  5. You go girl! I agree that there’s a commitment there with NNS teachers that many NS teachers just don’t have. I have seen a very “casual” attitude to teaching from NSs sometimes – I even remember one of them saying, “I know English, therefore I can teach it”…um, really?

    If you don’t study your field, work for it and have commitment, how can you claim to be a teacher, let alone a good one?

    I think that NNSs have to work harder to overcome the prejudice that you mention and that’s what can make them better teachers.

    I’ve said this before on the blog but the conference I went to was full of about 250 teachers, 99% NNSs and they ALL had to pay to be there and did so with no complaints whatsover – rarely have I seen this level of commitment from the NS teachers I’ve met!

    But do we agree that Cambridge can set this standard for NNS English teaching with the FCE exam?

    Is this good enough?

  6. I’m going to a workshop this saturday too… ah, what was that quote…

    “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

    I’ve enjoyed the comments above. Love when I get an interesting post and then see my PLN throw out their unique opinions. I think you’re speaking “Spanish” to establish rapport sounds good, and I’ve done that often as well. In the end, it’s not a yes/no issues, but depends if we really use it to establish rapport, or to show off, or practice our L2…

    Per “how well should a NNEST speak English” I’m going to line up with both Gloria and Vicky. Thanks for the post, Alastair !

  7. Thanks Brad – and yes, trust me it’s a rapport thing! Anyone who knows me will tell you that the last thing that I could ever show off about would be my Spanish!

  8. A very conforting and enlightening debate!
    Being a NNS, I always try very hard to avoid language pitfalls, possibly, too hard. I sometimes wonder if this is not bordering on the excessive, standing in the way of personal confidence and futher professional development. So, to see NS teachers, think this way is a nice, encouraging pat on the shoulder! 🙂

  9. Hi Diana! Great to see you here and thanks for your comment.

    I’ve thought a lot about this since my original post and your comment makes me think a little more!

    It’s one thing being seen as an “ambassador” for the language, but setting oneself up on that kind of level with no reference to any local context seems short-sighted to me.

    As languages evolve and incorporate other words (the mysteriously-named “loanwords”… when do we have to return them?!), I feel that it’s rather like trying to transplant someone from another culture and saying, “this is the right way to be and you can only aspire to it”.

    There is no deific Native Speaker language – no superior culture. That idea merely creates boundaries.

    A friend of mine recently told me that her university would not accept her US English accent (she’s from Argentina) and told her she had to change it.

    But the “pure forms” never existed and this seems wrong to me.

    In any case, demonstrating that languages behave the same way across cultures (English and Spanish BOTH use fillers!) shows connections, not borders between the languages and cultures.

    I see this as nothing other than positive.

    Thanks Diana!

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