Do non-native English speakers make better TEFL teachers?
- Author: Admin William Bradridge
- Date: Tuesday 8th March 2011
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In this 2 part article, William Bradridge looks at some of the key issues which affect non-native English speakers when training to teach English. In part 1, he looks at why non-native English speakers can make great EFL teachers while in part 2, he will look at the demand for TEFL teaching and how non-native English teachers can find work in the EFL industry.
‘How can you claim to teach English when it’s not even your own language?’ was the exclamation I heard in my staff room in Exmouth, England in the early nineties. The irony was that it was said by a British English teacher to her colleague from Germany, who spoke perfect English, albeit slightly accented. My (English) colleague threw her hands up in the air and went off to the pub across the road to complain about other people taking her job.
Non-native English speaking TEFL teachers sometimes suffer from ‘second class citizen’ syndrome from employers, colleagues and (dare I say it) English students as well. After all, there is something prized about learning English from a native English language speaker, especially when you are in a country where native English speakers are not indigenous. So in my first job teaching English in Mexico, although I was poor as a teacher – I was in demand, because my first language was what they wanted to learn.
Why non-native English teachers can make effective TEFL teachers
As an employer of EFL teachers, I and my fellow TEFL managers should think again. What stops us from hiring TEFL teachers who have gone to the trouble of learning our language so that they can teach it? They may be in a better place to teach than many of the native English speaking language teachers we currently employ. Most likely they have studied English in far more depth and detail than native English teachers. This will have started at an early age in school and often continued on through university. Some will have gone to an English speaking country to perfect their skills, or had English language training to seek to improve their accent or understand the nuances of our rich and varied language. We asked some of our Global English trainees what they thought they brought to the EFL teaching table.
Eva-Marie Whames, a non-native speaker teaching English in Germany, put it succinctly;
‘...having learned English as a second language helped me to understand the learner’s position better.’
Global English trainee Elizabeth Minceli, teaching English in Italy added that;
‘…it’s good to learn as much as you can about local culture, so that you are able to teach (the language) better.’
‘I can definitely understand how my students feel right now. Because I’ve been there before - that's why I’m trying to help them, give little tips, trying to make things easier.’
So can non-native English teachers empathise more closely with their EFL students? Because they have been through the process of learning the language, and been trained to teach it, we can argue that they are in a better place to help students with particular language difficulties; especially if they are teaching students who share their mother tongue.
But what level of English do you need to be able to teach it effectively?
Well, very high, was the unanimous answer to that from all the non-native teachers we spoke to! In part, this is because if you don’t have a good level of English, your students will soon realise this and begin to pick you apart and lose respect for you. To become a good teacher, you need to first be a good learner and understand what makes a good learner. To do this for yourself means practising and perfecting your own English well.
Ana-Sofia Guerreiro, who is teaching English in Japan and has just completed the Global English Level 1 TESOL course with Young Learners, decided to come to the UK to study and perfect her English at the same time;
‘When I decided that I wanted to teach English, I really didn’t know if I was ready and whether I would be competent enough to teach levels higher than Elementary. I did my Master’s degree in Scotland and through my essays I was able to identify my strengths and weaknesses. I suppose the easier way to assess English skills, for those who do not plan to study in an English speaking country, would be to take and English test, such as the TOEFL ( or the TOEIC. I suggest a test not as much for the final score as for the feeling you get in the end. For instance, someone who struggles throughout the test might not be able to cope with more advanced classes when teaching.’
There is a feeling that you need a lot of determination to get to the right level of English before you start your TEFL training While you can teach English without a high level, it is obviously hard to do this effectively without the requisite level of English. At Global English we have recognised this and have put into place a system of rewarding trainees for good English in their essays and responses on all our courses, as well as providing a tutor supported English grammar course to help trainees perfect their English.
Is it easier for non-native English teachers to train for TEFL?
In terms of training to teach English, our Global English trainees had mixed views on whether having learned English as a second (or third!) language makes it easier to understand the TEFL learning process. There may be some advantage for non-native EFL teachers who study TEFL, as Ana-Sofia Guerreiro points out:
‘I think that learning English as a second language definitely brings many benefits when it comes to understanding the TEFL learning process. To begin with, you start with a bigger awareness of language categories and structures. Also, a great part of the learning process takes part in your late teenage years, which means that you are usually capable of understanding the rationale behind what is being taught. In my case, I am now learning Japanese so, as I go through the process of learning a language again, I experience that same type of awareness. On the other hand, English does not come “naturally” so mistakes with prepositions, for example, are much more common.’
The key theme here is that non-native speakers do have to try harder than native English speakers, but that the rewards are there at the end of the process. As Sabine Rosenthal in Germany suggests,
‘…it´s harder as a non-native speaker, but it might be more effective for teaching later, because we (non-native speakers) are or become more aware of the difficulties students might encounter. Also as a non-native speaker I try harder to make up for this, I guess.’
In the next article on this subject, we’ll look at finding TEFL work if you are a non-native English speaker and talk about gaining confidence in the classroom.
Global English welcomes applications for TESOL certification from people whose first language is not English providing they have a high standard of both written and spoken English. As a general guide, if you have English to one of the following international exam levels then you should be successful on a GE course:
- IELTS 6.5 or above
- TOEFL iBT 110 or above
- TOEIC 880 or above
- CEF C1
- pass at Cambridge CAE (Certificate in Advanced English).
While we do not test applicants on their level of English, course marks can be deducted for poor use of English in responses. To find out more about Global English courses, click here.
Comments always welcome below.
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Interesting that you rise in defence of the poor foreign English teacher! Motives are however questionable ( from a native's point of view)!
In my experience, schools have no problem taking money from foreign teachers- to - be and by giving them the 'certificate', at a cost of £1000 and more, they endorse your competency and legitimacy! And I suppose it is just 'business'; no morality attached! The realisation hits you when you try to find a teaching post! And you are right, if you do manage to find a dilapidated school to give a few odd hours, you are still treated like second class citizen! However, things are worse! 'You can not be a host family unless you are native' was what I was told by one school! She even claimed that it is the British Council's rule! I was shocked, speechless and dismayed of-course! But I have long suspected British Council as the most prejudice- infested British institution ever! You give Germans, who have a natural aptitute for language and mostly with hardly noticeable differentiating accent, as the case study example. A non-European has no chance, despite the MAs, Mscs, BAs, BScs and Celtas! Seen as a task that can not be trusted to the sub-cultured, a bit like when blacks were deemed sub-human and of low intellect, as a legitimisation of enslavery!
But thanks for giving light to the subject, whatever the motive!
I´ve just come back from the Annual TESOL conference in Madrid, and as a non-native English teacher myself I was very pleased to witness a global change in attitudes towards non-native teachers.
We no longer have to hide our nationalities and can be used as leading examples of mastering the English language to our students.
I believe that if you are a non-native speaker, your level of English should be at least CAE. In my opinion, living in an English speaking country is also an advantage and it's the best way to learn and improve your English. I think that if students feel that the teacher is not too sure of what he or she is teaching, they will pick up on it.
I have to say that I still feel a little bit insecure when it comes to teaching English. I lived in the UK for over 5 years, and I have lived in New Zealand for 4 years. I am told that my accent has certainly improved and I sound English with a slight Kiwi accent (worrying :-)).
Hi all.I am a Greek citizen that wants to take his tefl courses in mexico and why not teach there.What are my possibilities of getting a job given the fact that i have no previous teaching experience,no college degree and of course being a non-native english speaker?Also if anyone had any better place to suggest would be really something for me cause i need all the help i can get.Thank you
I wonder if this applies to non-white, non-native speakers who are qualified for the job...
Atiqah: you raise a good point - although I happen to know that some of our respondents are non-white EFL teachers.
Anecdotally I have heard some racist stories but I hope this is improving and that race is less of an issue now.
I have to say something, not all native English speakers haven't passed the process of learning another language, so they know perfectly well the difficulties, and are capable to put themselves on the student's position... don't you think?
I have been an English language teacher all my life. It's been almost 17 years now. I obtained my degrees all locally in Malaysia and in fact I am now pursuing my phD here in Malaysia at an International university. I am proud to say that even when i travel abroad to attend conferences for example, people come up to me and ask where I was trained. Many are surprised when told that I have never been abroad to pursue my studies in English language teaching. I seriously think that going abroad can be a plus point to study English but it is not a must to be just as proficient as the natives.
Both native and non-native English speakers can effectively teach grammar, vocabulary, register, and pragmatic concepts, as long as they're both well trained.
Non-native teachers can serve as credible models of successful EFL/ESL learners; native speakers can't.
A non-native speaker may be at a disadvantage in teaching listening and pronunciation if s/he speaks at a speed slower than a native speaker; or doesn't link words as a native speaker does.
Just wonder how you come up with the figures. It seems the general guide at the end is too random and without any scientific ground. Honestly speaking, I took GRE, IELTS and TOEFL.
My best IELTS score is 8.5 (average is 7.5-8), but my best TOEFL IBT is only 104 (av is 98-100).
There are only 1% of candidate who can get higher than 110 in TOEFL ibt, while there are more than 30% of candidates who can get higher than 6.5 in Hong Kong. For an equivalent standard, an IELTS score of 6.5 out of 9 corresponds to TOEFL IBT of 90 out of 120.
The following correlation is based on the entry requirement of universities.
IELTS （8.5）= TOEFL (110)
IELTS (7) = TOEFL (93)
IELTS (6) = TOEFL (79)
Hello Ka Yu
Thanks for the point you raise. We have taken our levels from the Exam English website, available via this link: http://www.examenglish.com/examscomparison.php
As you will see, there is a discrepancy between scores, which you have highlighted. We take our baseline as the CEF level of C1, which equates to 110-120 in the TOEFL ibt or 880 in the TOEIC. However, we do accept applications from an IELTS score of 6.5 as well. So this means that a Global English trainee could have a score on IELTS which sits between B2 and C1 on the CEF levels.
If in doubt, we are happy to speak to candidates ahead of enrolment to find out what their level is and we can do an independent assessment.
Your IELTS score is really good, so congratulations on that. I can't comment on why you didn't score so highly on the TOEFL, although it is used more for academic American English, specifically for entry into colleges and universities, whereas IELTS looks at English for work and study from a more communicative point of view.
However, we would welcome you onto one of our courses with the IELTS score should you decide TEFL training is of interest.
Thank you for this article, it is nice to know that there is hope for us non-native speakers who want to teach English. I have been using both my mother language and English interchangeably since I was 3years. But just because i am an African, it has being hard to get any placements as an English teacher.
Teng Fang Yih
I am ethnically Chinese, a citizen of Malaysia, and a permanent resident of Singapore. I grew up thinking, speaking and writing in English as if it were my first language. All the way through school in Singapore, I learnt English, which was (and is) the medium of instruction for all subjects (except the requisite second language/s).
I graduated from Western Michigan University with a bachelor's degree (Major—English; Minor—Political Science) in 1994.
I now have 18 years of work experience, just about all of it in communications and editorial work—in English. And I routinely clean up the copy of native speakers of English in my job today.
I don't have a strong Asian accent (whatever that means). If I do have one, it's a little American.
Imagine my surprise (and chagrin soon after) when I was told a couple months ago by an HR person from a school in Hunan, China, who was looking for an English teacher, that he was only looking to hire native speakers of English OR someone European.
Good sir, thank you for writing here. But is there more I can do? I am desperately trying to switch careers and move to Hunan, China.
Teng Fang - unfortunately we have heard of a preference for western-looking teachers above qualifications and experience in some parts of Asia. The thing to do is keep trying, stress your English editorial experience and education in America. If there is any way you can get in front of employers, do so. It makes a huge difference if an employer can see and speak to you plus there are more opportunities on the ground than get advertised on the internet. See more here:
Hi everyone! Maybe one of you guys could take a look at my situation and answer some questions.
I'm Latina, I came to the US when I was 14 and lived in an area where there weren't too many spanish speakers so I could learn English better. In high school I've always been a great student, my English was so good by my second year here that my teachers put me in Honors and did not feel like I should be placed in the ESOL program anymore.
I'm worried that since I'm not white and I'm not a native speaker (even though my English already lacks an accent unless I'm nervous or you're listening very very carefully) I won't be able to teach English abroad.
Right now I'm majoring in Biology, but could easily change to English if there is a chance I can teach abroad...I'll be applying for US citizenship by the time I'm done with college/university. Will this help in any way? I now know that Spanish and German (my second language), could be helpful in finding a job abroad (thanks for that!).
Can someone define who is a "native english speaker" ?
We were taught in English from our nursery and kindergarten days
English is all we spoke in school, and at University, and was the language in which we had to appear for all our examinations.
TOEFL was a cakewalk when we applied for US Universities. So Easy.
Though I am fluent in 3 of the 14 Indian languages, I find that my English competency is far higher than in any of the Indian languages.
Am I "native" or "non-native" ?
I hold a very senior executive position with a multinational, and want to leave my job, take a course, and teach English in Japan, Vietnam, or China.
However, after hearing horror stories of Asians being passed over for "native" English speakers in Asia, I have decided not to follow this course. Their loss, not mine!
Instead, I am well on the way to becoming a leadership trainer where I am much in demand.
I want to correct the information about IELTS and TOEFL (iBT) equivalence, by Ka Yu.
IELTS（6.5）= TOEFL (110) = CEF C1
IELTS (7) = TOEFL (120) = CEF C1
IELTS (7.5+) = TOEFL doesn't rate at a higher level than 120 (which means it doesn't have a CEF C2 grade (Mastery of the language). IELTS 7.5+ is CEF C2.
This post is very interesting.
I am teaching English in France. I am French, lived a few years in the USA and graduated from Cambridge University : CELTA. By the way, we were only 3 French out of 12 native students.
What is funny is that companies in France look for native teachers because they think that oral is the most important aspect. So, native teachers have a better chance to find a job here. But on the other hand, when you have a job as a non-native, and when you are working in a team with different native teachers, some problems start to occur. For example, I am teaching a group of 15 senior executives, who are not all French. We are 5 teachers, I am the only CELTA qualified and the only French as well. We all have workshops to do, once a week, 3 months long (it's a very long course), but we also have grammar to teach. The major objective of this course is the TOEIC. So here we are : TOEIC is mostly linked to grammar, expressions and listening. When it comes to grammar, there is a big problem in France with native teachers, and I think it's the same everywhere. Native teachers have a good accent, have a lot of vocabulary (non-native too) but most of them don't know how to explain grammar efficiently. This is why the TOEIC score with a native teacher won't be as good as with a non-native one (most of the time). Every time the result is the same, and every time trainees come to me and ask me to explain about grammar points they don't understand with a native teacher. A native teacher doesn't have the proper tricks, doesn't exactly know how to help French students with difficult points.
I would like to add that speaking is important but there is no use speaking for 6 hours with trainees (we have each day a 6 hour lesson) if you don't exactly know how to explain why they always make the same mistakes. Native teachers can correct but they don't take the time or don't know how to explain. Non-native teachers know that much better (I first noticed this when I studied). So I deeply believe that we, natives and non-natives are complementary. Also, I think it's more important to speak well with an English accent that is not perfect than the opposite.
I did my TEFL/TESOL course Cape Town, South Africa, in October 2013. The main problem is that I have studied Business Administration but I did not complete my degree :-( due to financial situation. My English is very good, and I have only a slightly bit of an African accent. I am from Namibia. I have been looking for a teaching job in Southern America and Europe only since mostly in Asia, they only need people with with degrees. Could any one please help me out?? I will really appreciate it :-)
I don't know if my response is still time-relevant but I would like to share my own dilemma with you. It is tightly connected to this topic.
I have a master's degree in English teaching. I graduated from a Czech university and yes I am a non-native English teacher so I believe I am the right person to join this discussion.
There is a common stereotype for a lot of people that a person who embarks on a carrier path of a teacher must be an unambitious freak. Simply because the amount of effort you have to make to be a good teacher doesn't match your potential income. Doing a lot of careful planning and adopting an empathetic and motivating approach can drain a lot of energy out of you. This is a bit over simplistic, though, because there might more different reasons for wanting to do this job.
My driving force is that I love learning the language. I am obsessed with it. I am willing to share it with others, to teach and I know I can do it well in an enthusiastic way and achieve great results. I have proven it to myself on various occasions.
I do, however, admit that there is certain selfishness in me. I cannot teach English at my best unless I am motivated to do it myself. I have reached a point in my career when I am certain there is time to move forward. There is a challenge ahead of me. I would like to teach English abroad, ideally in an English speaking country so that I could get exposed to more English myself.
I am of course well aware of the obstacles that arise. I have taught English to a lot of foreigners successfully, but it was in my country. Going abroad presents a challenge for me.
I am still slightly indecisive. I would love to take CELTA, which is a lot of money for me, but obviously not just to add a good-looking tally to my CV, but to actually make use of it teaching English as a second language abroad. But where? A have a lot of friends, therefore good background, in England especially in London. This is a place where I would like to go obviously as it would massively help my own English. It is at advanced level right now and it has been there for more than 6 years I presume. It is time to level up. There is no way I can improve my English significantly living in the Czech Republic. Going to an English speaking country, having the model of native speakers, being exposed to English even more than I already am, is the only answer to this. That I am certain of.
The question is: Do I stand any chance at all? Do I? An alien who comes to the very heart of the planet to teach the earthlings the Earth tongue? Honestly, first year I would care how much I would earn as long as I would be able to get by and get settled. I would be prepared to put in a lifetime performance since such opportunity is something I have always dreamt of. But is this enough? Is my enthusiasm enough? Could I actually get a job like that in London? Isn’t this just a crazy idea of someone with high ambitions? Or can you do anything in life if you actually believe in yourself and work hard enough to achieve it?
I don’t know and it leaves me pondering about this. Contemplating my options. I have been to England already. I worked on a construction site as a labourer for 17 months, but it was 10 years ago, when I was 21. I know about the intricacies of life in England. But this is different. I really want to succeed. I really wish to teach English. I am willing to fight but is it worth trying at all? Am I in for a glass ceiling or will I be given a chance by anyone? Please tell me what you think. Anyone. I will be glad for any sort of response.
Just to put in the picture, I have my own podcast for English learners. I know my English is not perfect…it cannot be. Remember, I am a non-native teacher but it can give you an idea of what kind of person I am. I am not afraid. I know I may come up against a fierce counterwind but I am willing to go for it supposing I know I stand a chance. What do you think?
Here is my podcast: https://audioboo.fm/channel/zdeneks-english-podcast
Hello and thanks for your post Zdenek. Well, in the UK it can be difficult for even English people to gain year round TEFL work. The difficulty is that in the peak summer months which are busy, language schools are full of foreign learners who have generally come to the UK for the accent and to learn from a L1 so language schools will be difficult. You will have to be creative in the UK. So, find work teaching English online/via Skype which you can do from anywhere in the world and then look to build up your own freelance teaching business - possibly by teaching those from Eastern Europe who don't have great English. You may need to do some other jobs while you are here until you build up enough contacts. However, you sound persistent. One of our Global English TESOL graduates has done this and advertised in community centres for Polish nationals and she did well as a result. See our teaching English in the UK page (destinations tab) and our news article ' I teach English via Skype' (news page.) It won't be easy but it can be done if you are persistent and prepared to start slowly and build up. In that case, the course I would recommend for you is our online TESOL level 2 with 1-1. It is a 100 hour course where you will learn the essentials. But it will also go into depth on teaching 1-1 and it comes with a free Skype e-book. See our courses tab. Hope this helps and I will also email you in case I can help further.