“I’m a non-native ESL teacher, and I’m afraid I’m at a disadvantage when compared to native English speakers. Do you think native English speakers are better teachers than those of us who learned English as a second language?” *
This is the subject of debate in every ESL teacher forum I have ever visited. Logic would state that, yes, when it comes to teaching something, those who are experts are better qualified, and who could be better qualified to teach English than those who’ve learned it as their native tongue? But the answer is not that simple.
Before I state my humble opinion on the subject, let’s consider the advantages of each:
Let's Look At The Advantages That Native Speakers Have Over Non-native Speakers
They Have Native Pronunciation
This is the most obvious advantage. Native speakers have the target pronunciation and while they may have their own local accent (British, Australian, American), they don’t have any other foreign accents. For this reason, they are good pronunciation models for ESL students.
They Grasp Subtleties
Native speakers understand how different words have different meanings in different contexts. They understand sarcasm, irony and subtle jokes.
They Use Colloquialisms Naturally
Have you ever tried to use slang in a foreign language only to have the locals laugh in amusement? It takes a great deal of practice to use colloquial expressions, slang and informal language correctly and with confidence. Native speakers are better equipped to correct students and redirect their efforts when using informal language.
Now Let's See What Advantages Non-native Speakers Have Over Native Speakers
They Understand Students Better
At some point, non-native speakers had to learn English and went through everything their students are going through now. This makes them better equipped to anticipate problems before they happen.
They Understand the Differences between English and L1
This is, naturally, if teacher and students share the same L1. The non-native speaker is bilingual, and understands and is able to foresee the problems students may encounter specifically due to the characteristics of L1.
They Understand the Students’ Cultural Background
Again, this is so if teacher and students have the same cultural background. The non-native speaker might understand which aspects of the students’ culture may not be compatible with English-speaking cultures, things like, for example, greetings and customs.
Each side presents advantages and disadvantages, that much is clear. As far as native English speakers are concerned, the main advantage is that they are able to speak English clearly, confidently and with excellent pronunciation. But that does not mean they are able to teach. Speaking English well and teaching English well are entirely different things. By the same token, the fact that you speak English with a foreign accent does not mean you can’t be a great teacher. ESL teachers have to teach. It helps if they speak English perfectly. But you can still be a great teacher even if you don’t.
The only problem I see pertains to pronunciation. ESL students should have good models. Native speakers have the advantage in this regard. But there are non-native speakers who have excellent pronunciation, as well – this is something that can be improved. Also, we must consider the fact that in today’s globalized world we must interact with people from different countries, with different accents, all the time. It is indeed better for student to be exposed to different accents, including foreign ones. But I must insist. If you focus on being a great ESL teacher, you can’t go wrong.
How to Be a GREAT ESL Teacher, No Matter What Your Background Is
- Work on improving your main weakness. So your pronunciation is not so good... improve it. Not good at teaching? Never taught a class in your life? Take a course. Get your TEFL certification.
- Obtain qualifications. Once you are TEFL, TESOL or CELTA certified, there’s no stopping you. You will have earned the tools you need to start working as an ESL teacher.
- Gain experience. It’s not that some teachers are good, and some teachers are bad. I see it differently. Some teachers are experienced and some are inexperienced. You have to be patient when you start out. But as you gather more experience under your belt, you’ll feel more confident in your skills and ability to teach, no matter if you are native or non-native.
- Continue learning, especially if you only speak English. Native English speakers can learn valuable insights from learning a second language, as they go through a process that is similar to what their students are going through.
Are you good at teaching ESL? Do you really enjoy teaching? If you've answered yes to both of these questions, there’s no stopping you. Be the best teacher you can be. No matter what your accent is.
What do you think?
Do native English speakers make better ESL teachers? Now’s your chance to weigh in on the debate. Share your thoughts below!
* This question was sent in from a real ESL teacher, just like you! If you need any advice on a particular topic, share your question in the comments below. Or tweet your question to @busyteacher_org with the hashtag #ESLTeachersAsk. Your question might get picked and featured in an article!