Nativespeakerism in English Teaching – is it really a problem?

April 4, 2024

Is nativespeakerism a problem in the English-teaching world?

I recently asked that question on a Facebook group for English teachers here in Spain, and the response was an overwhelming “YES!”

I have my doubts about the whole thing, which we’ll get to. But first, let’s talk definitions.

Nativespeakerism, as it’s commonly understood, proposes that:

  1. “Native speakers” of English possess a perfect knowledge of the language, and therefore…
  2. Those “native speakers” make better teachers.

Neither of these ideas stand up to much real scrutiny. We’ve all met “native speakers” whose English is less than perfect. Many people with excellent command of grammar are nonetheless terrible teachers. And not everyone is comfortable with the idea that “perfect English” exists at all.

native english speakers on a rooftop
On top of Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid.

With hundreds of regional accents and dialects, whose English is perfect?

(I met a few people back in the day who loudly claimed to speak the Queen’s English… and they were universally douchebags. Are they supposed to be the linguistic model for everyone else? I hope not.)

Finally, who’s native, anyway?

It’s a bit of a tricky question – we can’t draw the line between native and non-native without making someone out there unhappy. So… why is nativespeakerism still around?

Nativespeakerism in Spain

Believe it or not, I was once a fresh-faced youngster who had just stepped off a plane, gotten a CELTA, and was new to English teaching.

My first teaching job was in an academy in Madrid.

Most places didn’t object to paying Americans under the table in those days – we’re talking early years of the century here. They risked some fines, but saved a ton of money on Social Security, and the students were happy to know that the place was employing “natives”.

I worked with people from all over in those years, and as far as I could tell we were all making the same terrible salaries, give or take 50 cents an hour.

Meanwhile, when I had some free time, I’d put out classified ads saying “profesor nativo con experiencia” and usually get a few calls. (My six months in the language school counted as “experiencia”, I’d decided.)

In any case, I never pretended that my English was “perfect” – mostly, I was trying to get rid of the Wild West twang in my accent so that people from the UK would stop being dicks to me. Obviously, there are plenty of ways to speak English. Insisting that your regional dialect is the “only” acceptable way to speak would be moronic.

But some people love to insist that their English is somehow “better”. And I guess my barely-educated cowboy ass ain’t gonna convince ’em otherwise.

Did I have a certain employment advantage as a “native speaker” from the US?

Sure. And also a whole lot of glaring disadvantages that came from not having an EU passport and a fancy degree to wave around.

My home town.

Of course, I might have gotten a fancy degree if I’d grown up in some country where college costs 600 bucks a year. Or, you know, maybe in Sweden, where they pay you to go to university. Instead, I grew up in the Arizona desert, and had seriously limited (and expensive) options.

Life, in other words, is unfair.

But I’d always gotten the impression that “native” mostly meant “speaks C2 level English” – and that could include almost anybody with a passable accent and a (possibly fictional) backstory about a British parent or primary school.

Anyway, why get all bothered about the definition?

We were all working under the table for peanuts.

But maybe “nativespeakerism” is something else entirely…

When I think about it, I’ve been hearing about “nativespeakerism” since my CELTA course back in ’04.

Some corpulent British guy scolded the whole group of us, in fact, about the dangers of falling into nativespeakerism – this at a now-defunct academy in the north of Madrid, run by old-timey TEFL lifers.

I guess I just assumed I knew what “nativespeakerism” meant. Surely, it was what I said at the beginning of the article: the sorta dumb assumption that “natives” who speak “perfect” English are therefore better teachers.

But looking at the scholarly articles about it now, I’m finding something completely different – something far more sinister. A guy named Adrian Holliday has apparently written about it, as have others, as a sort of exercise in cultural imperialism.

From Holliday we learn that…

“Native-speakerism is a pervasive ideology within ELT, characterized by the belief that ‘native-speaker’ teachers represent a ‘Western culture’…”

And that…

“This cultural reduction, or culturism, falls within the broader chauvinistic narrative of Orientalism…”

And finally, that…

“The colonialist myth […] is implicit in the native-speakerist ‘moral mission’ to bring a ‘superior’ culture of teaching and learning to students and colleagues who are perceived not to be able to succeed on their own terms.”

Sheeit… and there I was, just trying to make some money to pay my rent and buy enough cheap beer and horse meat to get me through the Great Recession.

Nobody even told me I was supposed to be on a “moral mission” to bring a “superior culture” to the locals.

So what is nativespeakerism, really?

Maybe these are two aspects of the same thing: the employment discrimination and the (alleged) cultural imperialism – all based on the (rather flimsy) separation of “native” vs “other”… and mixed up with the fact that academics like Holliday have to write about something to justify their existence.

Why not “nativespeakerism” and its perils?

In any case, this “cultural imperialism” stuff was mostly written in the 90s and the early 2000s. I remember those days well: anti-globalization was the cause du jour and Naomi Klein was having her first fifteen minutes of relevance with the book No Logo.

A lot’s happened since 2005.

Puerto de Santa María, Spain.

Now people all over have got Instagram, and TikTok, and Netflix, and I think the battle against globalization has mostly been lost.

Although one thing I’ve learned since moving abroad is that globalization isn’t a one-way thing: it goes in every direction. That’s why, for example, the UK now has an ethnically Indian Prime Minister, and why Pho is an international phenomenon, and why I’m able to do Brazilian jiu jitsu (a martial art from Japan via Brazil via the US) here in Barcelona. Etc.

The “Queen’s English” d-bags I’d meet back in the day based their argument on the idea that they were the rightful “owners” of English, because they were born closer to Buckingham Palace than I was. But one thing that’s very clear is that nobody owns English, and that the people you probably think of as “natives” are going to be a minority of English speakers moving forward.

Also, my wife Morena (who’s from India) says that learning English is one of the most important and life-changing things she’s ever done. She learned it out in the tropics, from other Indians, without a “native” teacher in sight… and she used it to get out of her town as soon as she was able.

So maybe the world proposed by Holliday et al was a real thing at some point – the British Council creating job posts “on the periphery” for people who couldn’t cut it back home, where they could spend time out in the jungle, indoctrinating the locals about “sophisticated British culture” – tea and crumpets, Monty Python, and the Sex Pistols spring to mind.

I’m not sure, though, how relevant any of that is to the world we live in now, in 2024.

Academia and the land of luxury beliefs

Rob Henderson explains, in his book Troubled, that once he got out of a series of foster homes (and the military) and into Yale, he discovered grievances among wealthy elites that would be unimaginable where he grew up, in one of the poorest parts of California.

Yes, those Ivy League students – who were in every way a part of the 1% – felt marginalized!

In a way, the upper classes’ grievances are a new kind of status symbol: they show everyone that while people like me were working as dishwashers just to make ends meet, they (the Ivy-leaguers) were sitting in libraries writing long-winded essays about intersectionality and cultural appropriation vis-a-vis the cis-hetero-capitalist patriarchy.

Let’s not forget: language is also a class marker, and the elites love whining about complex, abstract ideas that don’t matter at all if you’re just trying to pay your rent and buy Mac and Cheese.

It’s part of their sense of superiority, in fact, to be informed about all the manifold injustices in the world, to identify with oppressed groups – and to be able to talk about the whole thing using many unnecessary syllables.

They call it “being on the right side of history”, and it requires little more than a bit of reading and the memorization of this week’s fashionable slogans and buzzwords.

Certainly no actual work, or getting your hands dirty with the hoi polloi.

Revenge of the “backpackers”…

So here’s the thing: I accept most of the standard arguments against nativespeakerism – at least the first definition of “nativespeakerism” I proposed at the beginning of this article.

Yes, the word “native” is basically meaningless, and yes, the whole system can be unfair.

On the other hand, from what I see online, the whole “native speaker” debate seems like a bunch of people with 10 years of college who are either hoping to make an academic career out of arguing over minutiae, or (on the lower end of the spectrum) frustrated “intellectuals” who are outraged that folks like me – former dishwashers, after all! – are employed in their industry.

It’s a bit sad that grown-ass adults are fighting over 11-euro-an hour jobs. But it’s understandable, I guess. If you’ve just spent the better part of a decade getting a linguistics degree and now you’re competing with a bunch of backpackers and gap-year students, you might be a bit angry about it.

Lucky for you, though, you were smart enough to get that fancy degree – which is totally not just a meaningless piece of paper. The whole world is your oyster!

And unlike some of us – unlike younger me – you may not be stuck scraping by at the bottom end of unregulated private tutoring for half your life due to a conspicuous lack of options.

Go forth, then. And good luck.

I hope you land on your feet somewhere.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. I wrote another article a couple years ago about whether or not it’s illegal to use the word “native” in job ads here in Spain. My conclusion: maybe. In any case, I’ve recently seen ads asking for teachers who are “women in their mid thirties”, “sporty”, “funky, “interesting” and more. I can’t imagine any of that being legal – employment discrimination against the boring, unfashionable and sedentary? Really? Anyway, it’s a shit-show of an industry, and we chose to be in it… so enjoy! And keep your sense of humor. Thanks.

P.P.S. I’m writing a longer piece these days about my “immigrant journey” from broke and undocumented to fully legal and profitably self-employed. That’ll be out soon. Sign up for my newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything. (I don’t send a ton of messages, but I will let you know when I’ve got something new.)

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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