Can Non-Natives Teach English?

When it comes to English teachers, most of us know that being a native speaker is usually a requirement. Shouldn’t we make the exception for non-native speakers that are qualified and better teachers?

Back in the year 2000, when I got my first job in Dongguan at the Municipal Translation Service Center, my former boss approached me with a deceitful request, which I should have known better not to entertain. “Would you mind saying you are from America?” he asked. Upon seeing the bewildered look on my face, he frantically elaborated, “It would really help you to be more easily accepted by customers; it’s for your own good! Besides, your English is so good, I doubt anyone can tell.”

I mulled over the potential financial repercussions of refusing to comply; I had depleted my safety net having believed the recruitment agent who had initially brought me to China, so in the end, I sold out. I lied about my nationality. I lied to my students and to myself thinking, well, America is a continent and Colombia is part of it, therefore, I am indeed from America. Spare me the judgment, I know how stupid that is. Hunger knows no shame. Yet again, I probably wouldn’t be here today writing this column for you, as an Honorary Citizen of our beloved Dongguan for having participated as a language consultant in numerous international and domestic projects in service of the city, had I not done it.

Presently, customers in Dongguan are enjoying assurances regarding the quality of foreign English teachers thanks to stricter rules and regulations regarding the issuance of work permits.

To this day, I feel ashamed of my decision to lie. Not only did I have the necessary qualifications to teach, which none of the other teachers in the team had, but I also had the most experience (back then I had seven years’ teaching experience at university level, as well as at some Fortune 500 corporations operating in my home country). So, compared to my workmates—most of whom were either undergraduate students taking a gap year between school, or over-the-hill natives playing the white-face card in China for all its worth—I did feel that I had more to offer to my employer and the customer than anyone else, yet, none of this mattered because I’m a non-native teacher. And it still feels like it doesn’t matter every time potential costumers ask me where I’m from and react with a contemptuous twitch when I answer truthfully.

My conundrum begs the question, what makes us English teachers, then?

Let me share a story that I am sure most foreigners can relate to; your Chinese friend offers to teach you Mandarin in exchange for English lessons. You agree and when you sit at the table with a pen and plenty of paper, your friend asks, “Okay, what do you want to learn?” It’s at that moment when you realize the barter wasn’t even because you know where to begin, while your Chinese friend, a native speaker of Mandarin, does not.

Substitute languages and countries and now you have a winning case against the idea that a native English speaker can teach the language just on that merit alone. Teaching is, for the most part, not an innate ability; most of us are born with the ability to learn a language, not necessarily with the ability to teach it. To teach English, we must prepare and learn the necessary techniques and strategies to efficiently transfer knowledge and skills to our students, while allowing adequate practice and correction. And that’s not an innate skill.

A concern with non-native teachers is that, although we may have good pronunciation, our accent is not considered standard. Yet the same lack of global standard applies to the Scottish accent, the Boston accent, or the Australian accent. In my opinion, regardless of a teacher’s place of origin, the concern for accents in teaching has to do with our ability to minimize our own, in the interest of being intelligible worldwide. If anyone can effortlessly understand you, your students will replicate this form of speaking and in turn, they will be easy to understand.

Presently, customers in Dongguan are enjoying assurances regarding the quality of foreign English teachers thanks to stricter rules and regulations regarding the issuance of work permits. Gone are the days when a Westerner could live large in Dongguan on accounts of his/her passport, even if they couldn’t spell properly. Believe me, I’ve met a few. Nowadays, SAFEA (State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs) requires both native and non-native English teachers to have a series of specific qualifications, to ensure they can deliver a professional service. A teacher’s work permit is proof of this vetting process that customers should demand to see when choosing a learning establishment. And that should be celebrated by those foreigners, native or non-native, who meet the requirements to teach.