The weekly column
Article 52, March 2001
Native and non-native: together we're worth more
By Simon Gill and Alena Rebrova
The title of this article deliberately echoes that of one published in the English Language Teaching Journal some years ago, "Native or non-native: who's worth more?" by Peter Medgyes. The relationship between native speaker and non-native speaker teachers was then and still is now the subject of much debate. We originally wrote this article some six years ago and have not, for time reasons, had the opportunity to edit it as much as we might have liked to for publication here. Its age shows in one or two places. The references have lost some of the cutting edge freshness they may have possessed then, we have not, regrettably, been able to add new ones, and the situation in the countries in Central and Eastern Europe has continued to change at the frenzied pace mentioned in the article, with the result that some of the specific points made may have lost some of their validity. Far fewer teachers in the region, for instance, now have regular contact with English only through reading, and it is hard to imagine a writer now producing the sweeping generalisations Karen von Kunes used to describe the Czechs in 1992. However, there is no lack of evidence to suggest that the broad issues considered in our original article are as alive and well, and as controversial, as they were then. Recent correspondence from colleagues in teaching situations as diverse as Japan, Korea, Latin America, the USA and Germany bears eloquent testimony to the strong feelings the issue still arouses. Here, then, is our contribution to the debate, warmed up but, we sincerely hope, still food for thought.
Strenuous attempts have been made in recent years to deny the existence of differences between native speaker and non-native speaker teachers. We believe that in much of the ELT world such a claim is patently untrue. We also believe that much recent thought on the subject which does admit to the existence of differences tends to see them negatively. We wish to suggest that there are indeed a number of differences and that they are significant; however, we would like to emphasise a positive view of these differences. In this article we attempt to identify them and argue in favour of a relationship between native speaker and non-native speaker teachers that capitalises on the strengths of both to their mutual benefit.
There have been numerous attempts in recent years to nail the native speaker/non-native speaker debate down into its coffin by suggesting that the dichotomy is no longer valid. Medgyes (1992: 341) cites various authorities to this effect, and Swales is unequivocal on the matter: "It no longer makes any sense to differentiate between the native speaker and the non-native speaker." (Swales, 1993: 284).
However, the issue displays a vigour and will to live of which any vampire would be proud. Kershaw (1994: 90) prefers an alternative comparison: "Like it or not, the metaphor has the pervasiveness and indestructibility of a cockroach." Our goal in this article is neither to drive a stake through the heart of the question nor to solve it once and for all with chemical warfare. Instead, we wish to suggest that there are certain qualities that tend to distinguish the practice of native speaker and non-native speaker teachers, to focus on the positive aspects of these, and briefly to refer to some concrete examples in which co-operation between the two has brought real benefits to both. While drawing heavily on our experience in the former Soviet bloc countries of Central Europe in doing so, we believe the insights gained are of applicability in other situations.
Native and non-native attitudes
The exact meaning of the terms "native speaker" and "non-native speaker" is a hotly-debated issue. While fascinating, it is not a matter whose detailed consideration falls within the scope of the present article. At the end of an entire book devoted to the topic, Davies concludes that "to be a native speaker means not being a non-native speaker. Even if I cannot define a native speaker I can define a non-native speaker negatively as someone who is not regarded by him/herself or by native speakers as a native speaker" (Davies, 1991: 167). In the subjective reality inhabited by most people in our region (and in many other places too?) there is not very often any real danger of confusing the two.
Negative attitudes to differences
It is therefore, perhaps, unsurprising that attention has tended to focus on differences between native and non-native speaker teachers (henceforth referred to as "NESTs" and "non-NESTs", terms taken from Medgyes, 1992) rather than any similarities which may exist. Regrettably, there has been a somewhat divisive tone to much of this. It may take the form of over-fulsome praise:
"The whole gamut of expressions was used by a group of questionnaire respondents] to describe the language of NS teachers: "natural, authentic, living, perfect, expert, best quality, most correct, model, proper, fresh, current, best, faultless"." (Nizegorodcew, 1994: 31)
of linguistic and/or cultural arrogance:
"The Czechs are a generation raised on fear, dogmatism and misinformation. Most haven't yet acquired the vision, free thought and analytical and organizational skills you take for granted. Don't expect them to accept your criticism or improve in ways you suggest." (von Kunes, 1992, quoted by Krizkova, 1992)
or of oversimplification. For example, there is a tendency, exemplified by Widdowson (1993, 1994), to see NESTs as a monolithic bloc whose subconscious grasp of the English language is not matched by any conscious intellectual knowledge and who claim bogus pedagogic credentials on the strength of their assumed linguistic superiority. While the myth of native speaker superiority is long overdue for demolition, this kind of demonisation is perhaps better seen as a provocation to further debate than as a constructive proposal for a way forward.
Positive attitudes to differences
A more positive approach is suggested implicitly by Bennett (1994) and explicitly by Medgyes (1992: 349): "the ideal NEST and the ideal non-NEST arrive from different directions but eventually stand quite close to one another....in an ideal school, there should be a good balance of NESTs and non-NESTs, who complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses."
What these strengths and weaknesses are is considered below. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the ideals referred to are exactly that, ideals, and that few real teachers match up to these. The qualities such ideals should embody are actually very similar for both NESTs and non-NESTS: the "ideal teacher" who is to be found at the top of our imaginary pyramid is qualified, experienced, bilingual (at least to some extent) and bicultural (again at least to some extent). Their antitheses at the bottom of the slope, on the other hand, are not so similar. On one side we have the "poor NEST", unqualified, inexperienced, unversed in the local L1, and unfamiliar with the local culture, while on the other the "poor non-NEST", likewise unqualified and inexperienced, is also likely to lack cultural awareness associated with the language being studied and may well have a poor grasp of this language, the so-called "one-page-ahead-of-the-class" syndrome. The lower down the pyramid they are, the greater the need for mutual support.
Of course, it is important to remember that we are talking here about abstractions; any given individual is unlikely to possess all these demerits in equal quantities, if at all. We have deliberately not dealt with the tremendous range of personal qualities that are also relevant (some of which at least are themselves culturally influenced) and the plethora of subjective factors (eg course length, age of learners, accommodation, material resources etc) that characterise any real-life situation are likewise not included, but are seen as affecting both groups equally.
The inclusion of cultural familiarity as a desideratum for the non-NEST is a reflection of the Central European norm of a heavy emphasis on cultural background knowledge. This may be of less or even no significance elsewhere.
Native and non-native qualities
In the previous section we contended that there are certain attributes inherent in both NESTs and non-NESTs and that these have the potential to complement one another. At this point we wish to emphasise that this is true not only of ideal situations but of all situations in which English is being taught in "non-English-as-L1" countries. In fact, we suggest that it can actually be more strongly true in cases of perceived weakness. In other words, the nearer to the bottom of our pyramid a NEST is, the greater the divergence of their array of qualities from a non-NEST at a similar level, implying in each both a greater need and a greater potential to meet the need of others. It is the purpose of this section to examine the nature of these attributes. Let us begin with one where the non-NEST is clearly at an advantage.
Familiarity with learning
Medgyes points out the following advantages enjoyed by non-NESTs, who, as learners themselves:
"a) can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English;
b) can teach learning strategies more effectively;
c) can provide learners with more information about the English language;
d) are more able to anticipate language difficulties;
e) can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners, and
f) can benefit from sharing the learners' mother tongue."
(Medgyes, 1992: 346-7)
The last point is a major one; use of the MT can be of value not only for the effective explanation of abstract notions but also class management, especially with elementary students for whom instructions may be a hurdle (cf Spratt, 1985), for anticipating and explaining interference, and in the realm of translation.
Although translation became something of a dirty word at the height of the "communicative revolution", it has started to reappear in published textbooks (cf Soars and Soars, 1986) and be accepted again (cf Atkinson, 1993) as a powerful teaching/learning tool in a monolingual classroom if used sensibly. The fact that translation may represent one of students' needs is one that has often been overlooked.
There is considerable evidence which demonstrates that it is of advantage to be intimate with learners' cultural background and expectations. In Slovakia, for example, it may take considerable time and explanation on the part of teachers to persuade learners accustomed to more traditional, teacher-centred ways to accept pair work, group work or role play activities. At first they resent them; a student at a private language school told us "I did not pay for my lessons in order to talk to people who speak as little English as me, or even less."
Slovak learners sometimes comment that NESTs are not strict enough and do not correct often enough.
They expect to be taught grammar. They are not happy about ideas such as self-correction or self-assessment. It is doubtful they would appreciate the views of writers such as Krashen (1982) on error treatment. They know little about learner autonomy. Preconceptions such as these are perilous for the teacher to ignore; the non-NEST is much less likely to do so.
Bennett (1994: 11) also argues that learners often struggle with expressing untranslatable elements of the mother culture which are important for them. While non-NESTs recognise these and focus on them, NESTs are more likely to dismiss them as "not English" and therefore not worth attention. We will return to this question of cultural focus later.
In the field of language use, few if any non-NESTs can compete with NESTs even if their language competence is very high or near-native. The knowledge of English of non-NESTs, certainly in Central Europe, very often comes from books rather than direct contact with authentic sources. Until recently, most teachers had few opportunities to speak English. This may be the source of the insecurity many of them feel and may explain why non-NESTs sometimes tend to be their textbooks' servants rather than their masters. Interestingly, however, Hutchinson and Torres (1994: 317) offer another explanation for the use of textbooks in this world of change: "Textbooks... survive and prosper because they are the most convenient means of providing the structure that the teaching-learning system - particularly the system in change - requires."
In a survey carried out among 65 teachers of English in Bratislava, almost all the local teachers appreciated the presence of NESTs as a valuable linguistic resource for colleagues. However, a caveat is in order here. "Average native speakers...do not consciously know any grammar and could not produce any rules of grammar without study and thought, but they do have a language competence which is subconscious and allows them to generate gramatically correct sentences" (Harmer, 1991: 13). Central Europe has witnessed several glowing examples of this phenomenon; two examples we can offer from personal experience are of native speakers whose subconscious language competence was unquestionable; however, one was unable to explain how plurals of nouns were formed and the other needed to have the word "colloquial" explained to him at a language contest by the learner whose English he was supposed to be sitting in judgement upon!
These examples (we hope) represent extremes. One would certainly not expect the same to be true in the case of trained NESTs, who, by virtue of the training and experience they have gained, have ceased to be "average native speakers". They have added to their language competence a conscious knowledge of English; while the depth of that conscious knowledge, which depends on the nature of the training they have received, may be no greater than that of the non-NEST, its breadth is generally greater because of the extent to which they are familiar with the language.
Knowledge of Institutions
Another area where non-NESTs have the upper hand is in their knowledge of institutional culture and goals. They are familiar with the administrative framework. They know what to expect from and how to deal with management, colleagues, and students. They understand (though they do not necessarily approve of) the system of examinations, which may well be radically different from the prevailing system in NESTs' countries of origin. This awareness of norms not only enables them to analyse students' needs better but also insulates them from the kind of institutional culture shock, brought on by having to cope with a whole spectrum of issues, ranging from very different management practices to attitudes to cheating in examinations. which may well handicap NESTs' effectiveness.
This ignorance of local institutions may stimulate healthy and logical questions on the part of NESTs which their local counterparts may not dare to ask, the so-called "battering-ram" effect. On the other hand, some local respondents to our questionnaire complained that NESTs' ignorance placed a heavy burden on already-busy colleagues who have to spend a lot of time and energy "babysitting" NESTs and helping them with a wide range of practicalities.
While this is less of a problem the longer a NEST remains in situ, most do not stay long enough for this to cease to cause difficulties. The situation in many former Soviet bloc countries is further exacerbated both by the lack of circulation of information that characterises societies still emerging from totalitarianism and by constant shifting of the goalposts occasioned by the frenzied pace of change.
As previously stated, there is, in many Central European countries, a tradition of placing foreign languages firmly within a context of their cultural backgrounds. While this has at times led to what many would regard as excesses, such as students who are almost incapable of genuine communication learning by heart their Biography of Charles Dickens or Geography of Scotland and passing the school-leaving examinations, the bias remains strong and cannot be ignored. It is no coincidence that the fast-developing discipline of British Studies has a high profile in the region.
Clearly, NESTs are steeped in cultural background knowledge and have an advantage over non-NESTs in this regard. On the other hand, the knowledge can be limited to one culture or one English-speaking country only, while curricula demand information on several major English-speaking countries. Nevertheless, the presence of the native speaker broadens the horizons not only of local students but also colleagues. It can play a particularly important role in destroying cliched images which still survive, such as a Britain inhabited by gentlemen in pinstriped suits with umbrellas rather than the rather more pluralistic multiracial reality.
In this sense Bennett (1994: 11) questions the depth of cultural background knowledge, saying: "Instead of being confronted with Beefeaters and men in bowler hats...my Portuguese students would prefer to learn how to speak about their world in the foreign tongue." This view is supported by Strevens' observation that "90 per cent of foreign learners of English will never leave their own countries or come into direct contact with the sociocultural environment of the country whose language they are learning" (Strevens, 1982, quoted by Brearley, 1993: 48).
Nevertheless, it is hard to foretell which student will or will not come into direct contact and with the world developing the probability of some contact grows. It is almost inevitable, for example, that the student will encounter the problem in a film where some features specific to one culture will stand out. Non-NESTs, if confronted with questions that they cannot answer, may well feel embarrassed. The situation may be made worse as in Central Europe non-NESTs may well have had less contact with the culture of the countries whose language they teach than their students, who now have far more chances than they ever did to spend holidays or periods of study abroad.
With the opening up of borders the issue of cross-cultural learning is bound to grow in significance. In a world where change is, increasingly, the only constant, it will no longer be sufficient to pass on bodies of facts; instead, a contrastive approach is likely to emerge as the norm. The implications for the need for NESTs and non-NESTs to work together are clear.
Both in their general attitude to teaching and at the chalkface there are several areas (for example management of classrooms and of learning, attitudes to accuracy, fluency, and errors, and use of resources) where NESTs and non-NESTs tend to differ in emphasis. As a comprehensive list of these, based on research conducted in a number of countries, can be found in Medgyes (1994: 58-9), we do not intend to enumerate them here in detail. We would merely like to suggest that these differences should be seen not as negative and contradictory but as positive and complementary. They do not merely cater to learner preconceptions but also challenge them (and vice versa) and also make it more likely that individual learning styles will be accommodated.
In this paper we have endeavoured to describe a number of features which distinguish NESTs and non-NESTs in the three areas of culture, language, and teaching. In Central and Eastern Europe, where until recently there were few chances for NESTs and non-NESTs to work together, the positive nature of these differences is something which is increasingly both recognised and valued. This is not something which has happened overnight; it has taken both time and effort on both sides. However, the progress that has been made throughout the region bears ample testimony to the mutual openness, honesty, sensitivity, tolerance and respect displayed by NEST and non-NEST colleagues.
One need only look at the programme of any conference in the region or the contents page of regional ELT journals and see the numbers of joint NEST/non-NEST presentations and articles to see the fruits of the resulting atmosphere of collegiality. Team-teaching is often spoken of as the most common form of systematised co-operation, but others also exist, for example in the areas of course design and implementation, materials production, assessment, and teacher training. There is an increasing weight of documentation describing specific initiatives in particular countries in which NEST/non-NEST co-operation is crucial; see, for example, Dawson and Berezai, 1993 and Chalupova and Vilemova, 1994 (Czech Republic), Jacobson and Fletcher, 1994 (Romania), Gill et al, 1994 (Slovakia), and Wiseman, 1994 (Bulgaria).
Bearing in mind the old adage about the odiousness of comparisons, it has been our goal to show that it is misleading and belittling to try to demonstrate that one type of teacher is worth more than another. We prefer to think that all teachers, whether NESTs or non-NESTs, are worth a lot and that we are worth even more when we work together.
Atkinson, D. 1993. Teaching Monolingual Classes. Harlow;
About the authors
Simon ("the NEST") teaches at various places but chiefly the Pedagogic Faculty of Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. He's been in ELT for twenty years and in what used to be Czechoslovakia for nearly twelve. Alena ("the non-NEST") was, at the time of writing, manager of the Resource Centre for Teachers at the British Council in Bratislava, Slovakia, after spending much of her career at the State Language School in Bratislava.
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