“Our teachers are native English speakers.”
If you saw that on an advertisement for a language centre, what kind of impression would it make on you? Firstly, perhaps you would value a Native English Speaker Teacher (NEST) because they would be a model of an accurate accent for you. Secondly, you might believe you were getting the best example of natural language from a NEST. However, you might also be surprised by what you get.
Just take a look at these quotes from real websites on the internet:
“Teaching English abroad offers an absolutely fantastic chance for backpackers to earn some money, have a good standard of living for a few months, and recuperate from months on the road.”
“English Teaching Abroad jobs are perhaps one of the best ways to see the world and to earn an income at the same time!”
“In this blog, I will explain why Native English teacher jobs are the best way to travel and work.”
As you can see, there is a bit of promotion for native English Speakers to teach English abroad as a means to travel. If you are lucky, your backpacking English teacher might have done a brief TEFL or CELTA course. Otherwise, being a native speaker is their only qualification to teach the language. By that same logic, anybody who can speak Spanish, use a computer, drive a car or do mental calculations can teach someone else how to do it. Anybody who has tried knows that it’s not as easy as it seems.
Also, the value placed on a NEST’s pronunciation may be helpful for your listening comprehension but try not to believe that it will necessarily rub off on you. Unless you are a small child or young teenager learning a language, you will most likely not acquire native-like pronunciation. This may be due to several factors: the time you can invest in studying, interference from your own language and changes in your brain due to aging.
However, this does not mean that it is impossible to improve your pronunciation. There is something in linguistics called accommodation. This is when one speaker will adjust their accent and other features of language to match the style of who they are speaking with. This doesn’t just happen to language learners; it could subtly happen when you travel from one part of your country to another. Some people are just predisposed to copy accents.
Unfortunately, it can go the other way around. Native speaker teachers may accommodate their language to match the level of the students they are teaching. As a result, teachers may avoid phrasal verbs, speak more slowly, pronounce words and phrases more distinctly. Your natural language model might be accommodated.
The point of this article is not to put down all NESTs. There are plenty of good NESTs out there who have never had formal training but do have a great deal of experience. Some who might have started as backpacking teachers, found their calling in teaching. The point is that all we want as learners is a good teacher. Non-Native English Speaker Teachers (NNESTs) can be just as good and even better than NESTs. Most have had formal studies and training in addition to experience with learning and teaching languages. NNESTs are more likely to know what kind of grammar and vocabulary will be easy or difficult for students and what kind of learning methods students are accustomed to.
In conclusion, take the claim “Our teachers are native speakers,” with a pinch of salt. A better claim would be “Our teachers are excellent educators.”
Nancy Lee, Head of the School of Modern Languages